Charlie Daniels' Friends and Family Remember the Country Legend Ahead of This Year's Volunteer Jam

"The Jam meant a lot to Dad because it was his annual homecoming concert every year," Daniels' son Charlie Daniels, Jr. tells PEOPLE

Charlie Daniels. Photo: Erika Goldring/WireImage

When Charlie Daniels' manager David Corlew started planning the 2020 Volunteer Jam, no one had heard of COVID-19 and Daniels, a Country Music Hall of Famer, was still alive. Daniels planned to headline the show set for Sept. 15, 2020, in Nashville — a job he enjoyed for decades.

Corlew's plans went unrealized. Four months after the Volunteer Jam was announced, COVID-19 - related shutdowns collapsed the professional touring industry and halted in-person concerts. Even if it hadn't — Daniels couldn't have played the show. He died July 6, 2020, after suffering a hemorrhagic stroke. He was 83.

"We were shocked," Corlew said of Daniels' sudden passing. "Some of us are still in shock. None of us really believe that we're going to live forever. But because of Charlie's energy level and his attitude towards work, we didn't see his passing coming. We were just waiting out the COVID. If Charlie was still with us, we'd have 300 dates on the books. Of all the parts of his career, entertaining people is what he loved the most."

Now Daniels' Volunteer Jam is a tribute concert to the man who fiddled his way into people's hearts with his seminal hit "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." The Volunteer Jam: A Musical Salute to Charlie Daniels will take place at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee.

"The Jam meant a lot to Dad because it was his annual homecoming concert every year," Daniels' son Charlie Daniels, Jr., explained.

Charlie Daniels
Charlie Daniels. Jason Kempin/Getty

This year, a cross-section of country music, southern rock and gospel/Christian singers are on tap to entertain the audience. Artists including Alabama, Chris Young, Randy Travis, CeCe Winans, The Marshall Tucker Band, Michael W. Smith, Exile, Big & Rich, Gretchen Wilson, Keb' Mo,' The Gatlin Brothers, Travis Denning, the SteelDrivers, Ricky Skaggs, The Marshall Tucker Band, Allman Betts Band and Daniels' longtime backing band will perform. Some will sing one of Daniels' songs, others will deliver a few hits of their own — and the audience may even hear a couple of Daniels' tunes twice. Regardless of the setlist, the night belongs to the southern rock icon who people continue to admire for his fiery performances, Christian faith, love of country and dedication to its military veterans.

"Charlie Daniels' legacy transcends time, genre, faith, gender, race, beliefs, or anything else that would divide or define," Travis said. "Charlie simply loved humankind, and he spoke his heart, unapologetically, for decades."

Charlie Daniels, Randy Travis and Fred Foster. Terry Wyatt/WireImage

Daniels' unwavering convictions inspired generations of country music singers. His family and friends shared a few of their favorite memories of him with PEOPLE.

"He put so much of his heart into his music, and he cared so much about others," said Young, who recently celebrated his 12th No. 1 country hit "Famous Friends." "I was excited every time I got to be a part of any event with Charlie. Every time was truly a memory I will always treasure, and I'm sure everyone who collaborated with him felt the same."

Skaggs agreed: "I believe Charlie loved the challenge of playing someone else's music, not just his own. I think as a musician I love the same thing; it keeps our prayer life alive," he joked.

Daniels, whose Duets album was released in July, called the Nashville area home since 1967. He loaded his wife Hazel and their 2-year-old son Charlie, Jr., in the car and left the honkytonks of Newport, Kentucky, for bigger dreams in Music City. Daniels' self-titled debut album came out in 1971, but it wasn't until his "Fire on the Mountain" album in 1974 that includes hits "The South's Gonna Do It" and "Long Haired Country Boy" that music fans took notice. When his rowdy, Grammy-winning anthem "Devil Went Down to Georgia" came out in 1979, the singer's life changed. In 2016, he told The Tennessean that he still loved playing the song's notorious fiddle solo every night.

"I haven't played it perfect yet," he said. "I am in love with walking on stage and entertaining people with songs I have written. It's one of the few times in my life that I feel like I know what I'm doing."

Charlie Daniels. Bobby Bank/Getty

Country star Dierks Bentley was so intimidated by Daniels that Bentley refused to go on stage after him. Larry Gatlin feels the same way.

"I would follow Charlie Daniels into battle, but I would not follow him on a show because nobody could," Gatlin said. "He was a man's man. It took a man of Charlie's size to carry that big old heart around."

Charlie Daniels, Jr., remembers that his dad's fans followed him until the very end. The day his father died, Charlie, Jr., left the hospital to drive to the funeral home, and people lined the streets with American flags and signs that read, "We love you, Charlie."

"There's a huge hole that he left because not only did I lose my dad, but I lost my friend, my boss and the focal point of our whole organization," he said. Charlie, Jr., recently launched a podcast, The Charlie Daniels Podcast: From Long Haired Country Boy, to Simple Man, The Best There's Ever Been, to share the singer's history. "It's been a long time coming to try and figure out a way to honor his legacy."

Country newcomer Alexis Wilkins explained Daniels' legacy is driven by "generational goodwill and nobility."

"He informed the way I look at the country music platform and how to use it to help others in a way that really sticks," she said, referring to Daniels' veterans' charity The Charlie Daniels Journey Home Project. Daniels co-founded the organization to help military veterans transition from service to civilian life.

"We have to carry the torch of his work," she said. "It's our obligation to be good custodians of this gift Mr. Daniels left us."

Charlie Daniels
Charlie Daniels. J. Kempin/Getty

Travis and Darryl Worley's relationship with Daniels is as much about his faith as his music.

A couple of years after Travis' debilitating stroke, the "Forever and Ever, Amen," singer sat side stage at CMA Music Festival to watch his friend's set. After Daniels left the stage, Travis remembers Daniels walked over to his wheelchair and put his large, powerful hand on Travis' frail fingers.

"He knelt down and told me he knew I wanted to sing again," Travis recalls. "He took off his big hat and asked me if he could pray. There we were with our heads bowed, Charlie eloquently praying, and I wept. I wish the thousands out in the crowd that day could have known the man that I knew. They heard a great musician playing, and I knew a great man praying for my life and health and for the safety and welfare of each fan in the crowd."

Worley shared a moment when Daniels looked in his eyes backstage one night and knew something was wrong.

"He said, 'Son, what are you doing for the Lord?" Worley said. "It caught me totally off guard, and my brain was spinning out of control for the right answer. He patted me on the back and told me that I had a gift that was more than just music. He told me that he could see it in me, and that God had big plans for me."

Daniels predicted Worley's career would grow and that more people would pay attention. He told Worley, whose "Have You Forgotten" was a battle cry following 9-11, that he had to be bold in his faith.

"It was like, 'Wow, where did all that come from," Worley said. "After a few minutes, he was gone. Charlie was very direct and methodical. He had a purpose in his journey. From that day forward, I took my faith and my direction more seriously."

Charlie Daniels
Doug Gray of the Marshall Tucker Band and Charlie Daniels. Courtesy Charlie Daniels

Perhaps no one knew Daniels as well — or as long — as Marshall Tucker Band singer Doug Gray. The men launched their southern rock careers about the same time, toured together and spent years moving through the music industry in parallel.

"Charlie was a good learner," said Gray, 73, who played Daniels' first Volunteer Jam. "He taught me a million things about how to treat people — let everybody know that when you looked into their eyes, you looked into their heart. I think I'm still here to comfort the other side that didn't leave this earth. We become part of the family. We take everybody in, and that's not a burden; that's a wonderful feeling."

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