Lynyrd Skynyrd, Alabama, Blackberry Smoke, the Oak Ridge Boys, Travis Tritt, Wynonna and Ted Nugent were among more than two dozen acts taking the stage last night at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena for the 40th anniversary of Charlie Daniels’ legendary Volunteer Jam. But it was a surprise appearance by Eric Church that put a distinct stamp on the evening.
As Daniels, who launched the Volunteer Jam concerts back in 1974, assembled his band for his 1980 hit “In America,” Church, in his requisite aviators and leather jacket, appeared from the wings. Lighting into the staunchly patriotic anthem — a kind of proto-“Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue” — Church was instant energy, shaking his fist and spitting out now somewhat anachronistic lyrics about the Russians, who “can all go straight to hell.” All the while, Daniels backed Church on electric guitar, letting the singer captivate the crowd with a song he used to perform back in his own North Carolina club days.
When they finished, Daniels quipped that the song was older than Church. The performer just smiled as he exited the stage, before the night’s host gave his band a chance to show their skills on the instrumental “Black Ice” and then delivered a stunning performance of “How Great Thou Art” that drew a standing ovation.
The Volunteer Jam raised money to benefit the Journey Home Project, founded by Daniels and his longtime manager David Corlew to connect donors to organizations that help meet the health, education and career needs of military personnel and their families. As such, the nearly five-hour show was steeped in patriotism, and took time to salute servicemen and women throughout the night. Daniels brought veterans onstage, and vet Derek Jones duetted with Billy Ray Cyrus on “Some Gave All.” Still, at their core, the Jams have always been about music. And Southern music at that. Skynyrd, Blackberry Smoke and the Kentucky HeadHunters supplied a healthy dose of Southern rock and country, and Lee Roy Parnell, Charles Esten, Billy Crain and Jimmy Hall formed a mini-supergroup to deliver Alabama band Wet Willie’s classic “Keep on Smiling.”
Elsewhere, Craig Morgan, a veteran himself who served in the Army for 10 years, sang his Number One hit “That’s What I Love About Sunday,” while Wynonna exuded a sassy stage presence. Dressed all in black, she belted out a powerful rendition of “No One Else on Earth.”
The evening also boasted memorable performances by Phil Vassar, Tracy Lawrence, Grand Ole Opry star Jeannie Seely and new Country Music Hall of Famers the Oak Ridge Boys, who supplied signature “oom-papa-mowmow” with “Elvira.” At one point, Daniels warned the crowd they’d regret it if they left early. When the lights came up at nearly midnight, it was clear they had listened — a testament to the still powerful draw of Daniels and the talent he had assembled.
Watching him on stage, it’s hard to believe the famous fiddler (he performed “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” with guest Natalie Stovall) will turn 79 in October. And the Jam is a great reminder that although Daniels is an accomplished singer, songwriter, author and humanitarian, he’s first and foremost a musician’s musician. There’s a reason he’s a vital part of the “Nashville Cats” exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
Before the Volunteer Jam’s conclusion, it was announced that there would be another installment again next year. In an interview with Rolling Stone Country before the event, Daniels marveled at how the Jam had become such an institution. “It was supposed to be a one-time thing, a live recording session,” he said. “It just took on a life of its own.”