“For all of you people who call me a redneck and a hillbilly, I got two words: ‘Thank you,'” Charlie Daniels told the crowd gathered at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena during his 80th Birthday Volunteer Jam.
It’s kind of a standard line for Daniels, who welcomed those of similar bent into his world Wednesday night (Nov. 30) for a mixed bag of mostly Southern rock (of course) to celebrate his recent 80th birthday as well as at least put in one more installment of the all-star concert series that began more than four decades ago.
Historically, the Volunteer Jam happened by accident, according to a conversation I had with Daniels last year when he revived the event that he pretty much parked in 1996.
It was back in 1974, the zenith of the Southern rock movement, when the Charlie Daniels Band decided to do live versions of “No Place to Go” and “Orange Blossom Special” for their Fire on the Mountain album. And they wanted to do it in Nashville.
“A few of our friends showed up to help us out,” Daniels told me last year as he planned the 2015 reboot of the event. He noted that the members of the high-fraternity of Southern rockers — including musicians from the Marshall Tucker and Allman Brothers bands — dropped in to play.
“That first year, it took off on a life of its own,” he said. “It turned into something of a happening.”
He has said recently that he is taking it one Jam at a time, so whether this will be the last time, I don’t know.
If so, it certainly was handled in style by the legendary musician and showman, his band and a few of his friends — Luke Bryan, Chris Stapleton, Kid Rock, Travis Tritt, Larry the Cable Guy and 3 Doors Down.
They all had abbreviated individual sets in the first hours of the Jam that began at about 7 p.m. and most of them returned to the stage for a Western-swing/Southern rock/ jazz and blues blending of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” the grand finale completed at 11:50 p.m.
Before “Circle,” Daniels’ had just finished with an extended, solo-filled rendition of “The South’s Gonna Do It Again,” which he said was something of an anthem back when the first Jam was held 42 years ago, when acts like Barefoot Jerry, the Allman Brothers, Hank Williams Jr., Lynyrd Skynyrd and, of course, the CDB reigned.
Right after he and his band finished the Southern rock anthem, Daniels bowed. And after the applause (well, the beer-fueled hoots and hollers and whistles, anyway) died down, a smaller man with a bright smile on his face was led from the wings and onto the stage, where he was warmly greeted by the night’s host.
The crowd reacted with unison “awes” and hand-clapping as Randy Travis, whose health woes have left him and his mighty voice basically silent for years, took part in the presenting of a humanitarian award to Daniels for his work with veterans. (Wednesday’s event raised money for Daniels’ Journey Home Project, which benefits veterans’ causes.)
Travis had something to say to Daniels, both as a friend and as a humanitarian and patriot.
“Thank you very much,” said the singer, who was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame this year.
“I don’t know if you understand how big a deal it is to have Randy Travis in the house,” said Daniels, his own smile nearly as bright as Travis’.
“I was so surprised when he came walking out here,” said Daniels, calling his friend one of the “strongest and toughest” men he’s had the pleasure of knowing.
“He’s gonna sing again, too,” said Daniels as Travis was aided from the stage and back into the wings.
The fact Travis was there and was able to speak, albeit haltingly, is something of a miracle. Travis — one of music’s nicest guys — is battling back from his own near-death storms of life caused by a 2013 stroke that quieted the rich voice of “Forever and Ever, Amen” as well as robbed him of motor skills.
Another highlight of performances simply had Daniels sitting on a stool at center stage and picking out a melodic and acoustic introduction into his take on the hymn “How Great Thou Art.” His solo voice sailed into the nosebleeds at Nashville’s hockey arena and the song sonically escalated, with a keyboard accompaniment swelling it into a full-on, Bible-thumping and heart-pumping, Southern gospel version of what many would consider their favorite hymn.
There was not the slightest bit of irony — given the swirling night of music that led up to and included Daniels’ jam-packed set — that just before that bit of Christian exaltation, Daniels had blessed the crowd with one of his most-recognized songs: “Long-Haired Country Boy.”
It is at that point that one of the night’s many guests and members of the FOC (Friends of Charlie) fraternity, Kid Rock, returned to the stage — he had done a two-song set seemingly hours before — to add some Motor City muscle to the lyrics, “I ain’t askin’ nobody for nothin’ if I can get it on my own, if you don’t like the way I’m livin’, then leave this long-haired country boy alone” declaration.
The song was released as a single in 1975 and has become a barroom jukebox staple even as Daniels’ long hair and excesses championed in the song have long disappeared from his life.
A song or so earlier, Daniels proclaimed, “I mean this with every fiber of my being,” and began “The Pledge of Allegiance,“ quickly joined in grade-school unison by many of the fans. Afterwards, Daniels displayed his political leanings, perhaps, when he led his band through 1980’s “In America,” with its “the eagle’s been flyin’ slow and the flag’s been flyin’ low” beginning and its “we’re walkin’ real proud and we’re talkin’ real loud again” climax.
While it is Daniels who is the heart of the show and even at 80 knows how to move — well, not “moves like Jagger” but at least as well as a man much his junior — the guest performers provide its texture.
As noted above, this time cluster of Charlie Daniels-inspired fans included Mississippi-bred, Nashville-based rockers 3 Doors Down, Larry the Cable Guy and his down and dirty humor, Travis Tritt, Kid Rock and current country superstars Chris Stapleton and Luke Bryan.
The lone glitch of the night involved Bryan allegedly taking a swipe at a front row fan who was giving him the finger while the singer staged his rendition of “Move.” The audience member was escorted from the arena. Since the world always is being recorded by someone, there are plenty of online videos of the incident, so you can take a look and decide for yourself just what may have happened.
The guests all did their own short sets in the first three hours of the show before turning it over to the CDB’s monumentally long jams (yeah, yeah … it is called the Volunteer Jam) but they reemerged to join Daniels on various CDB classics (and tossed in a few of their own.)
Bryan, for example, swapped lines with the host on “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” perhaps the one song that most stirred the folks who had made the pilgrimage to Nashville.
And Stapleton joined up for a take on the Marshall Tucker Band’s chestnut “Can’t You See.” Stapleton had previously dipped into Southern rock history by making a quick visit to Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” in his set.
Most of the guests took their turns re-migrating to the stage for songs with the CDB, and before long the mighty big band it comprised soared into “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” a fairly common occurrence at the end of concerts in Nashville and points South.
It is open, of course, to interpretation, but the old hymn has grown in meaning not only as a Christian hymn but also about keeping the music alive by passing it from generation to generation.
In this setting, with a fiery and charming leader now just past 80, it was kind of nice to look around the stage to see who was singing along — Bryan, Rock, Stapleton, Tritt — robustly showing there is unity in music. The evening closed with Daniels surrounded by a group of his acolytes who no doubt will keep the music and message of the long-haired country boy thriving through future generations.