The Charlie Daniels Band are one of the founding members of what we know today as “Southern Rock”. Combining a myriad of influences including country, rock, bluegrass, and blues, CDB helped invent a sound and create a genre. However, without a doubt, the band most associated with Southern Rock is Lynyrd Skynyrd. From the hypnotic opening chords of “Sweet Home Alabama” to the blistering solos of “Free Bird”, Skynyrd is both the definition and standard. Charlie Daniels puts it like this: “Skynyrd plays the kind of music that transcends generations…Every time they go on stage, every time they cut a record, that’s what they’re doing. They can’t help it”.
The two bands supported and cheered for one another. They were very close, particularly CDB bandleader Charlie Daniels and Skynyrd front man Ronnie Van Zant. Sadly, that was a friendship that ended in tragedy. October will mark the 45th anniversary of a disastrous plane crash that killed six including three Skynyrd band members. Ronnie Van Zant was among the casualties. He was 29 years old. Others lost in the 1977 Gillsburg, Miss. crash were background vocalist Cassie Gaines and her guitarist brother Steve. Also, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot William Gray. The entire music community was deeply affected by the loss, but it cut extra deep with Charlie. He took it hard. Daniels himself was called home at the age of 83 in 2020.
If ever there was a Poet Laureate of Southern Rock, Ronnie Van Zant is it. “Ronnie was my old buddy. He was just a good ole’ down to earth red neck boy” Charlie once stated. Daniels and Van Zant were musical brothers and kindred spirits. Both were incredible tunesmiths and phenomenal lyricists. It all changed Oct. 20, 1977. Before he passed, Daniels reflected on one of the darkest days in music history, and the tragic loss of a friend. “We were backstage at Keil Theater in St. Louis getting ready to go on in front of a sold-out house. We got the word about the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash. The news was scant and general. The media was saying there had been a plane crash and there had been fatalities. But would not release the names of the ones who had been killed pending notification.”
“We went on stage that night knowing that we had lost some friends. But not knowing who they were or the extent of the injury of the survivors. It was a dark feeling. I had the whole band come into the dressing room and we had a silent prayer before we went down to do our show. I knew everybody was feeling strange. Told the guys before we went on, if that had been us in the plane crash, we wouldn’t have wanted Skynyrd to blow their show. That they wouldn’t want us to blow ours. We would go out and do our show, which we did. I don’t even know how long we played that night. But we leaned into the music taking solace in the only way we had available to us.”
Daniels continues, “The music community, especially the one we operated in, is very small. You know everybody and everybody knows you and even though you only see each other occasionally you develop friendships that go deep and last. When that number is reduced by even one it hits hard. We played our show and went back to the hotel still not knowing who the fatalities were. I was not to find out until about two o’clock in the morning that my worst fear had come true. Ronnie Van Zant had died in the plane crash. I was devastated. I was staying in St. Louis that night. Catching a plane the next morning, traveling around the country doing promotion for a new album we had just released.”
“We immediately started getting calls from radio stations wanting a comment about the tragedy, but I just didn’t know what to say. No matter where I went or what I did there was a dark cloud hanging over my head. It was hard to think about anything else for very long without returning to the fact that I’d lost a friend. Phoenix, Arizona was also on my promotion tour. When I arrived that afternoon, I walked into my room, took a pen and a piece of hotel stationery and sat down and wrote this:
A brief candle both ends burning
A weary mile a bus wheel turning
A friend to share the lonely times
A handshake and a sip of wine
So say it loud and let it ring
That we’re all part of everything
The present future and the past
Fly on proud bird you’re free at last
“I had my statement to the media, and I had my closure and peace,” Charlie professes. “I had done the only thing I knew to do, commemorate my friend in words. We would also use this as the dedication for the ‘Million Mile Reflections’ album. Ronnie, my buddy, I’ll never forget you and the gift of the music you left us. Rest in peace old friend.” The Volunteer Jam is a series of benefit concerts started by the Charlie Daniels Band in 1974. Over the years, the event has played host to such acts as Garth Brooks, Allman Brothers Band, Alabama, Billy Joel, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. In January of 1979, Volunteer Jam V saw Lynyrd Skynyrd perform. Before the playing started, Charlie introduced the widows of Ronnie Van Zant and Steve Gaines. It was the first time the band took the stage since the 1977 plane crash.
The “Million Mile Reflections” album by the Charlie Daniels Band went on to be certified three times platinum. It also hit #1 on the U.S. Billboard Country charts. Lynyrd Skynyrd was rebuilt and boasts career sales beyond 30 million worldwide. Charlie and Ronnie were the driving forces behind each of their bands. More importantly, they were fans of each other. Both continue to be fixtures in the annals of musical genius.