By Deborah Evans Price
July 6th marked a year since the legendary Charlie Daniels passed away following a stroke, but his memory lives on with the re-release of Charlie Daniels & Friends—Duets, a 19-track collection that features Daniels with Vince Gill, Brenda Lee, Montgomery Gentry, Dolly Parton, John Berry, Darius Rucker, Travis Tritt, Gretchen Wilson and many others. His considerable legacy will also be celebrated Aug. 18 at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena with the 2021 Volunteer Jam: A Musical Salute to Charlie Daniels featuring more than two dozen performers, among them Tritt, 38 Special, Rhett Akins, Alabama, Big & Rich, The Marshall Tucker Band, Keb’ Mo,’ Ricky Skaggs, Michael W. Smith, CeCe Winans and Chris Young.
The impressive list of artists performing at the Jam and appearing on the Duets album spans multiple generations and genres of music and serves as a testament to how much Daniels is loved and respected. “His legacy is legendary,” Darius Rucker, Hootie & the Blowfish frontman and chart-topping country artist, tells News Break. “The day we first met, Hootie was playing Macon and Charlie was passing through and he stopped and just jammed. I will never forget that moment.”
Country newcomer Travis Denning has a fond memory of meeting Daniels the first night he ever performed on stage. He was 14 years old, and the Marshall Tucker Band was opening for Daniels in Utah when Tucker’s Chris Hicks, a longtime friend of Denning’s father, invited the teen to perform “Can’t You See” with them. “I met Charlie that night,” Denning recalls. “He got off stage and I ran up to him and said, ‘I’m 14 and I just played with the Marshall Tucker Band.’ And he was so sweet. Fast forward to when I made my Grand Ole Opry debut…I told him that story and he said, “It looks like we’ve got history together,’ and he gave me his bow he played that night.”
To Denning, it is Daniels’ authenticity that will be most remembered. “When I think about his legacy it is truly one of creating a brand, an image and an expectation the most natural way possible. It ain’t like he put all that on and was faking it. He had that beard, and he had that big ol’ hat and he was a big ol’ boy and that was his thing,” Denning smiles. “He became an icon purely off of his character and who he was as a person and then you dive in and you realize he made incredible records. He was a cornerstone of Southern rock without a doubt. To me, it’s the Allman Brothers, [Lynyrd] Skynyrd, Marshall Tucker and CDB…[There’s] a legacy of sticking to your guns and building something so when people see him, it’s like, ‘That’s Charlie Daniels and I know what I’m going to get when I listen to Charlie Daniels.’ Everybody aspires to have that level of brand and imaging and expectation—what people think of when they see you. He nailed it to the wall early on and he kept it that way through his whole career.”
The man who had a front row seat to Daniels’ career for nearly five decades is former manager David Corlew, who partnered with Daniels to launch Blue Hat Records and to establish The Journey Home Project, a foundation which helps military veterans. “I went to work for Charlie when I was 23 years old, in 1973, and April 13th would have been 48 years had he lived, so I worked with him for over 47 years. I spent my entire adult life with Charlie and miss him a lot,” says Corlew, who remains president of Blue Hat and continues to head The Journey Home Project.
Though revered for his award-winning body of work as a musician, people were equally captivated by Daniels’ outspoken patriotism and compassionate personality. “When we did our fundraisers and stuff, people really weren’t interested in Charlie’s latest album that we released, but they were always interested in what Charlie thought or felt,” Corlew shares. “Politically, faith wise, those kinds of things he always had something interesting to say.
“I think Charlie’s legacy is in his kindness and love for people and for his music,” Corlew continues. “Obviously ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia’ was a big song and his legacy, along with the music that he created, was his genuine love of the business, the love of playing live and his legacy of kindness. To be such a big figure, larger than life, he was such a gentle man. He was such a kind gentle soul. If you talk to people, everybody remembers a concert they went to. They remember meeting Charlie and if you’ve ever met Charlie, you felt like you were his friend from that point forward and that all came from his kindness.”
Though Daniels spent a lot of time over the years in the studio, Corlew says the stage was where he felt most at home. “He loved to play in front of a live audience. He loved to entertain,” Corlew says. “He used to say that that was the only time he really knew what he was doing was that hour and half to two hours that he was on stage. He said, ‘I always felt like my life was a little bit out of control the rest of the time.’”
Daniels’ famed musicians, The Charlie Daniels Band, will perform together again on the Volunteer Jam without their beloved leader. “The CDB is going to perform four or five songs,” Corlew says, and admits he’s ambivalent about the upcoming event. “This will be a sad time and could very well be the last time we’re all together as a team. I’m not really looking forward to it. I am but I’m not. It’s going to be a tough night.”
The Volunteer Jam has a long and distinguished history. Daniels launched the first multi-artist concert in 1974 at War Memorial Auditorium in Nashville. Over the years, the Jam featured performances from the top names in every genre of music including The Allman Brothers Band,The Marshall Tucker Band, Billy Joel, Garth Brooks, Amy Grant, Ted Nugent, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Tammy Wynette, Roy Acuff, Carl Perkins, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Alabama and Don Henley. The last Jam was held March 7, 2018 and included Alison Krauss, Bobby Bare, Chris Janson, Justin Moore, The Oak Ridge Boys, Sara Evans, Lee Brice and Chris Young.
The upcoming Volunteer Jam has been postponed twice due to the pandemic. “We set it for the fall of 2020. Then with COVID, we moved it until February 2021 and then we realized nothing was opening up then, so this is the third date we moved it to,” Corlew says. “We didn’t know for sure whether we were going to do it or not until 4th of July and that’s when we were able to actually start advertising. Sales are good.”
In addition to the artists who will be saluting Daniels at the Jam, his music and legacy have been celebrated this summer with the July re-release of Charlie Daniels & Friends—Duets, available exclusively at all Walmart stores and Walmart.com. It had originally been released on Daniels’ Blue Hat Records. “We were really, really busy with so much touring. I don’t think the album really saw the light of day back then,” says Corlew, who is happy to see it get new life through the Walmart deal.
The artists who sing with Daniels on the collection are thrilled to have participated. “Charlie and I have been friends for years and to get to sing with him was a dream come true,” says Rucker, who duets with Daniels on Bob Dylan’s classic “Like a Rolling Stone.” “They asked me if I liked the song... and I loved it, so I was in.”
Gretchen Wilson namechecked Daniels in her 2004 breakthrough hit “Redneck Woman,” and the two became good friends. He even spoke at her graduation ceremony when she received her GED at the age of 34. Wilson teams with him on the old Johnny Cash/June Carter duet “Jackson.” “I remember going to his studio to record with him. It was like being at home with Charlie Daniels. It was exciting,” Wilson recalls. “Charlie made such an impact in my life. Getting to know and spend time with one of my heroes is a gift I will never forget. Sharing the stage with him on his last birthday was a highlight. When I think of Charlie, the one word that comes to mind is genuine. I’ve never met a man more true in every way.”
John Berry and the late Hal Ketchum join Daniels for a spirited rendition of his 1975 hit “Long Haired Country Boy.” “It was awesome to be invited to be a part of recording such an iconic song with such an iconic artist,” Berry tells News Break. “We recorded ‘Long Haired Country Boy’ at Charlie’s studio all together and shot the video that day as well. It was quite humbling to be singing with a legendary artist like Charlie Daniels as well as an established newer artist such as Hal Ketchum. Boy, was I nervous!”
Berry had struck up a friendship with Daniels years earlier at a NASCAR race at Charlotte Motor Speed. “Charlie had flown in for the event and due to the extreme heat, the event organizers came and asked if Charlie could join us in our air-conditioned custom van while he waited to go sing the National Anthem. He was so kind, unpretentious, and treated us like he had known us for years,” Berry recalls. “Charlie Daniels will be remembered as a man of God, who loved his family, friends, fans and CDB Team. His music, musicianship and work ethic has and will continue to inspire young musicians for years to come.”
Montgomery Gentry, a duo comprised of Eddie Montgomery and the late Troy Gentry, perform two songs on the album with Daniels—“Drinkin’ My Baby Goodbye” and “All Night Long.” “It was awesome because we grew up in the nightclubs doing Charlie Daniels songs,” Montgomery says. “It was totally awesome to meet our hero in the studio and do the songs. It was killer!”
Montgomery has many memories of Daniels, but says his favorite was when Daniels’ surprised them during a performance at the Grand Ole Opry on May 27, 2009 and invited them to become members of the famed institution. “There’s a lot of memories, but that’s the one that really gets me,” he says.
When asked about what he thinks will be Daniels’ legacy, Montgomery says, “First off, how much he loved the man upstairs. That’s the main thing right there. Second was how much he loved people. Third, he was probably the greatest American I’ve ever known. . . I’d like to see anybody live up to Charlie Daniels. I wish we had a hell of a lot more like him.”
Duets also includes Daniels and Vince Gill singing The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” He and Dolly Parton join forces on “Daddy’s Old Fiddle” and Daniels and Brenda Lee revive the Everly Brothers’ tender ballad “Let It Be Me.” Garth Brooks sings harmony on “Waco.” Keith Urban contributes tasty guitar licks to “The South’s Gonna Do It Again.” Travis Tritt joins Daniels on “What I’d Say” and “Southern Boy.” The Del McCoury Band, Ray Benson, Lee Roy Parnell, Marty Stuart, Bonnie Bramlett, and Earl, Gary and Randy Scruggs are also featured on the project.
“It’s an opportunity to be able to look back and it really was wonderful work that he did,” Corlew says of the album. “When you think about a guy that can do duets with Brenda Lee and Dolly Parton but also with Brad Paisley and Brooks & Dunn, Charlie was a very respected guy in music. This gives us a little something to look back on.”
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