Charlie Daniels Revives Volunteer Jam

Country Legend Promises Big Names and Surprises at Wednesday's Concert

“People say I’m no good, crazy as a loon, ‘Cause I get stoned in the morning and get drunk in the afternoon.”

“Long Haired Country Boy,” track No. 2 on the Charlie Daniels Band’s Fire on the Mountain — perhaps his outfit’s most cohesive album — was cut more than 40 years ago. Over the decades, that one-time long-haired country boy has become, well, at least a tad and a half more conservative. But he remains as passionate as ever, as he’ll display Wednesday night (Aug. 12) when the Charlie Daniels Volunteer Jam celebrates its 40th anniversary at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena.

While his political torch may blow more to the right now that he’s 79-years-old, the Mount Juliet, Tennessee (a town at Nashville’s edge) resident and Fox Network favorite still has fire in his belly (or perhaps fire on the mountain?) when it comes time to put on a show for charity.

The CDB “has been around longer than anything other than my marriage,” says Daniels, during a tour stop in the mountains of North Carolina. (He and wife Hazel are working on year No. 51).

He and the CDB were there, not far from the Cherokee-run casino, for a Saturday show before clambering back on the bus for the long run home and perhaps a day’s rest before hosting the rebirth of his most-famous and legendary event — the Volunteer Jam.

Wednesday’s show pretty much picks up where Daniels — a one-time sideman and friend to rock icons Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Ringo Starr as well as just about any pop or country artist who wanted to employ a top session guitarist on Music Row — and his band parked it on Oct. 28, 1996, when the last Volunteer Jam, scaled down some from its arena-filling glory days, wrapped up in acoustic fashion at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in downtown Nashville.

He went on to stage Volunteer Jam tours after that, but they were far from the real thing — a loose-slung collaboration of stars from just about any genre of music.

“Except jazz,” Daniels says. “I don’t know why we haven’t had any jazz yet. I guess it’s because I ask people we play with (to the Jam) and the CDB and jazz artists (on a bill) probably wouldn’t be a big draw.”

He laughs, but he also is serious.

“The Volunteer Jam tours were just two or three acts, and they weren’t the Jam. That’s got to be here in Nashville, Tennessee. In the Volunteer State.”

Like it’s going to be Wednesday after its long hiatus.

The importance of “Long Haired Country Boy” (the song above) and especially the album it is on, a touchstone in country rock, is that it really is what gave birth to the first Volunteer Jam on October 4, 1974 in War Memorial Auditorium, just across the street from the Tennessee State Capitol in downtown Nashville.

“It started because we were doing our recording session for ‘Fire on the Mountain’ down in Macon, Georgia (then the epicenter of Southern rock),” says Daniels.

Anyway, back in 1974, the long-haired country boy and his pals may well have been getting stoned in the morning and drunk in the afternoon, but their popularity was beginning to spread, particularly across the South. (Not that folks up North didn’t also enjoy those daily pursuits as well.)

And Daniels attributes much of that success to old WKDA-AM which used to play full albums instead of individual cuts. It was just before the dawn of full-album FM stations, a relatively rare commodity in today’s digital-single age.

“So we wanted to do two cuts live, and the only place we wanted to do it was in Nashville,” says Daniels, noting his outfit’s popularity in that time of Outlaw country and redneck rock. Fact is, sometime back in those years, the long-haired country boy snuck this long-haired journalist boy into a Waylon-Willie-Cash-Jack Greene concert up in Clarksville, Tennessee. It’s a long story, but the promoters didn’t want a journalist there and they kept throwing me out.

Daniels, a mellow monster of a man, witnessed this horrible cruelty and took matters into his own hands, slapping the security guy silly. No. That’s not what happened. All he did was put his arm across my shoulders and walk me through the performers’ entrance.

“This is my friend. He’s with me,” said Daniels to one of the guys who’d been tossing me out. Daniels helped me get as close to the stage as possible before he went back and grabbed his fiddle for the opening set of the night.

Back to “Fire on the Mountain” and how it sparked the Jam. Charlie and the fellows wanted to do “No Place to Go,” a rambling Southern rock jam, and the classic “Orange Blossom Special” — a fixture of the stage show of Grand Ole Opry legend Roy Acuff — before the live audience in Nashville.

“A few of our friends showed up to help us out,” says Daniels, noting that members of the high-fraternity of Southern rockers — some of the Marshall Tucker and some of the Allman Brothers bands — dropped in to play.

“That first year, it took off on a life of its own,” says Daniels. “It turned into something of a happening.”

It also became the birth of an annual tradition.

“It was supposed to be a one-time event (for the live recording), but it became evident that everybody was on our side,” he says.

So the Jam returned the following September, but moved to the Murphy Center on the campus of Middle Tennessee State University in nearby Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

“We went from a 2,200-seat venue (War Memorial) to 13,000 seats at Murphy Center,” he recalls.

Documented in the film Volunteer Jam, this edition sold out well in advance. And the roster of guests continued to swell.

Sure the Marshall Tucker Band was there. And so were guitarist Dickey Betts and keyboardist Chuck Leavell of the Allmans, Alvin Lee of Ten Years After, Hee Haw’s Roni Stoneman, Jimmy Hall of Wet Willie and the great songsmith, honky-tonk hero and most legitimate of country’s outlaws, Billy Joe Shaver, also participated.

The next year it moved to Nashville’s Municipal Auditorium and kept on growing to the point where eventually anyone who enjoyed a bit of Southern rock (and any other genre) might drop in. Guests over the years included regular appearances by Ted Nugent, who will return this year.

Others who began to drop in at the annual even included Southern rock royalty CDB, of course, as well as Sea Level, Toy Caldwell of the Marshall Tucker Band, the Winters Brothers Band, Jim Dandy Mangrum of Black Oak Arkansas and Barefoot Jerry/Area Code 615’s Mac Gayden.

And it continued to flourish. Volunteer Jam VII in 1981 — still at Municipal — included Bobby Bare, the Jordanaires, Johnny Lee, Delbert McClinton, Crystal Gayle and even a thin and hairy Billy Joel.

Daniels remembers one guest in particular that year who made the night special in his heart.

“Roy Acuff showed up during the break between the Opry shows,” he recalls. “He came down and did a song with us. He did it because he knew I’d really like that.”

The tone in Daniels’ voice while recalling that indicates he truly did relish swapping fiddle licks with the King of Country Music.

Acuff, of course, was not a member of the Southern rock community.

But then again you didn’t have to be to qualify for the Jam. Succeeding years saw a growing Who’s Who: George Thorogood, the Oak Ridge Boys, Larry Gatlin, James Brown, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Emmylou Harris, Boxcar Willie, the Woody Herman Band, Tammy Wynette, Ronnie Milsap, Amy Grant, B.J. Thomas, Rodney Crowell, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Alabama, Kris Kristofferson, B.B. King, John Kay of Steppenwolf and, good golly, even Little Richard.

Heck, world-acclaimed classical violinist Eugene Fodor even performed one year. Eventually the Volunteer Jam moved out to Starwood Amphitheatre (the old shed that was literally in a hole in just outside Nashville) for a few years before closing out Oct. 28, 1996, when the all-acoustic jam was held in the more reserved confines of the Tennessee Performing Arts Center.

“Another favorite memory of mine is the first performance of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Band after the plane crash,” says Daniels.

Frontman Ronnie Van Zant was one of three band members to die in the October 20, 1977, plane crash that also killed their road manager, the pilot and the co-pilot and seriously injured several other band members and crew.

The group disbanded after that crash, but they did reunite for a single performance at the January 13, 1979, Jam.

“Someone took one of those gambler’s hats that Ronnie always wore and put it on a microphone, with the spotlight on it. They did an instrumental version of Free Bird.” (A new version of the iconic and fiery three-lead-guitar band, featuring Ronnie Van Zant’s brother Johnny was born in the late 1980s.)

“We always carried the spectrum of American music pretty well,” says Daniels, looking back.

For the last three years, Daniels and his band and friends held a concert at Lipscomb University to benefit the Yellow Ribbon Program, which enables post-9/11 veterans the chance to attend college.

And funds from this year’s concert will still go to that and to other veterans’ causes. It had become a hallmark of the year at Lipscomb.

Daniels moved it to Bridgestone Arena, home of the Nashville Predators hockey team, in part because it had outgrown Lipscomb’s Allen Arena basketball gym.

And he also was glad to have it become the official return of the Volunteer Jam.

“It was good to find out that Nashville wanted us. The Predators wanted us at Bridgestone Arena,” says Daniels, who laughs when asked if the Jam this year will rival those eight or 10-hour jams of years past.

“Nah. I’ve got to respect that people have to get up and go to work the next morning, so our plan is to be done by midnight at the latest. We hope earlier.”

(In other words, like the well-aged long-haired country boy himself, his audience nowadays doesn’t get stoned in the morning and drunk in the afternoon).

“This has the potential of being the best Volunteer Jam ever,” he says, noting that in addition to country stalwarts Alabama, the Kentucky Headhunters, the Oak Ridge Boys, Wynonna and others, there will be some surprise guests.

“If you leave before this is over, I promise you you’re going to regret it,” he says.

That’s just one more thing the revival has with the great jams of decades long past.

Tim Ghianni is a freelance writer and author based in Nashville. He also continues his role as “journalist-in-residence” at Lipscomb University, where he has worked seven years.