The Ultimate Charlie Daniels Band (Epic/Legacy)

Do you know me? asks Charlie Daniels in the opening moments of this new two-CD collection. Then he answers himself: Of course you do.

The Ultimate Charlie Daniels Band is a vital reminder of what a reliable presence Charlie has been for the last three decades - of how well we do know his namesake band's churning, unmistakably Southern, country-rock sound, laced with his own blazing fiddle playing.

Picking up Charlie's story in 1973 after years of dues-paying as a session player, The Ultimate's first disc fires off one dynamic barn-burner after another. And not just the hits - on this expansive history, underappreciated gems sit proudly alongside acknowledged CDB classics like "The Devil Went Down To Georgia," "The South's Gonna Do It Again" and "The Legend Of Wooley Swamp."

The second disc can't quite follow that act, as '80s studio polish sucks some of the messy energy out of the band's sizzling grooves - but there's still plenty to enjoy throughout this 30-track compilation's 127 minutes.

The Ultimate winds up in 1996, missing out (due to record-label conflicts) on one of Charlie's most productive periods - in the last several months alone, this 65-year-old has released a live CD and a two-disc gospel album. But perhaps the most gratifying thing about hearing The Ultimate Charlie Daniels Band is knowing that it's not the last word on Charlie. This survivor's story is still being written.

- Chris Neal

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