Volunteer Jam captures the Charlie Daniels Band at its artistic peak in 1975, during the period in which they released career-defining records like Fire on the Mountain and several years before their biggest hit, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”. The second annual Volunteer Jam featured the contributions of the Marshall Tucker Band and members of the Allman Brothers Band, Grinderswitch, Wet Willie, and more, who played for an audience of 13,000 in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
Daniels makes an important point in a mostly dull interview included as an extra. He posits that southern rock isn’t a musical genre as much as a product of a certain type of people, “who came up in the same kind of financial, social, religious type of environment.” He’s right, too, and there’s plenty of evidence in this film. You can tell these guys (and one dancing banjo lady during the finale) are friends and spiritual brothers (and sister). For better or worse, no one hogs the spotlight, except Daniels, who’s the nominal boss hog of this operation and easily the most charismatic performer of the whole bunch, which is really saying something when most everyone seems to be having a good time. And you can tell they’re all at home whether the music is country, rock, jazz, blues, or a strange brew of any or all of the above, no matter the predilections of their own bands.
Unfortunately, this level of comfort means a fair percentage of the numerous solos are rote excursions into generic motifs. Not that the crowd seems to mind, as the applause is considerable. They’re there to dance and party, anyway. But the longer songs definitely drag when you haven’t been swilling cheap beer for a couple hours, as most home viewers probably haven’t. The “jam” portion of the program doesn’t really rear its head until “No Place to Go”, which is the fourth song. But that performance certainly fits the label, and not in an especially flattering way. For 20 minutes, all the worst excesses of “jamming” are on full display, but for some reason - perhaps because it’s the first extended song of the show - it’s a lot less awful than some of the shorter long numbers that come later, especially “The Thrill Is Gone”. That one features pianist Chuck Leavell and guitarist Dickey Betts from the Allman Brothers Band, and while Leavell’s solo is pretty good, Betts’ performance is undistinguished. (He redeems himself later on the brief “Sweet Mama”.) The one decent jam of the show features, in Daniels’ words, “the whole damn Marshall Tucker Band,” on a ten-minute version of their “24 Hours at a Time”.
The shorter songs aren’t all winners, to be sure, but they are much, much better, and do a fine job of displaying the versatility of the players, as well as illustrating Daniels’ claim that southern rock isn’t one homogenous genre. The musicians do equally well with traditional bluegrass warhorses like “Orange Blossom Special” and “Mountain Dew” as with the jazzy “Birmingham Blues”, which is musically reminiscent of the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post”. And occasionally the sonic palette gets stretched just a bit, as on “Long Haired Country Boy”, which features a grand steel guitar cameo from the Marshall Tucker Band’s Toy Caldwell. (This song is intercut with amusingly stupid slow-motion footage of Daniels riding a horse. He’s dressed in a plaid shirt and jeans, just like he is for the concert, which I guess illustrates his down-home-ness, or something.)
The audio is hot if occasionally a bit cluttered, but hell, it’s an old recording and there are typically a dozen players onstage at any given time. The video quality leaves something to be desired, but it could be a whole lot worse, and any problems with either video or audio are often dulled by the enthusiasm of the players. Daniels, in particular, is all smiles even during the blues numbers, which should endear him to any skeptic a fair bit more than the ultra-seriousness of most of his cohorts, who don’t seem to have any trouble loosening up on the non-blues songs.
For the Charlie Daniels Band fan - as well as for the fan of southern rock, whatever that may be - Volunteer Jam is a rich document of a pivotal moment in the band’s history. It might not be the pinnacle of restrained instrumental interplay, but at their finest, the performances captured here are exciting and fun, and full of the sort of charm you might expect from a bunch of musicians who enjoy each other’s company. For the viewer unfamiliar with Charlie Daniels, the music here just might be a revelation. At its most focused, it’ll make you wonder why Daniels is rarely mentioned in the same breath as the Allman Brothers or Lynyrd Skynyrd or any number of other southern rockers.
(Extras are limited to the aforementioned interview with Daniels, during which he answers his cell phone. The ring tone is loud, but unidentifiable.)