When Stuart Swanlund joined MTB in 1985 his slide guitar work added a new dimension to the band – on newer material as well as standards like Searchin’ For a Rainbow and Fire on the Mountain. His trade-offs with Rusty also added a new touch to Can’t You See. Recently I had the opportunity to interview Stuart by phone from his home in the suburbs of Chicago. Like the rest of the band, he is a true southern gentleman.
How did you come to be in the band?
I’d known Doug for years, even before he was in Marshall Tucker. He used to rehearse with another band at his parent’s house, which was across the street from where my grandparents lived. I used to sit on their front porch steps and listen and say “Wow! There’s a band playing over there!” Anyway, in 1984 I was on the road with a lounge band when my buddy, Ace Allen, who’d joined MTB a few weeks before, called and said Doug might be giving me a call to ask if I wanted to join, too. Sure enough Doug called and I said “yeah, I’ll do it”!
Didn’t you play in a band with Ace and Tim before you joined MTB?
Yeah, White Wind. We almost had a record deal but the band’s manager at the time messed things up. It was a rock and roll band. We had a lot of vocal harmonies. That was a real tight band.
Did you do most of the vocals?
No, I did a few songs, but Terry Bratton from North Carolina did most of the vocals. We were also together in the Lightnin’ West Band, which was a southern rock band – we even covered a lot of Tucker stuff!
But you enjoy singing?
Oh yeah, I love it! It’s fun.
It sure looks like you have a good time singing Hillbilly Band.
That’s one of my favorite songs, not just because I sing it. I’ve just always liked that song.
Was it Doug’s idea to have you sing it?
Yeah. Tim was originally going to do it. I’d sang it with one of my side bands. I had a live tape and Doug wanted to listen to some of our songs. “Hillbilly” was on it so maybe that’s where the idea came from.
It had been a while since you’ve done much singing with MTB.
Yeah, we did “Why Can’t You Love” off the Southern Spirit CD in 1990 for about six months. We did a few songs off that record – County Road, Stay in the Country and Destruction.
Southern Spirit is a great song, too. You guys opened with it for several years.
Yeah, that’s a good one. We should open with it again. I think it’s a good song to get the crowd going.
How long did you live in Spartanburg?
From about ’70 to ’93. Now I live in Chicago. I moved here because this is where my wife is from.
So you graduated from high school in Spartanburg?
Yeah, from Spartanburg High School in ‘75. I was a rival of Rusty’s. He graduated from Dorman High.
So you were a teenager when Tucker first took off?
Yeah, I remember seeing them right before they released the first album. They opened for Edgar Winter when another band cancelled. I’d never even heard of them before! They were great!
What kind of music did you listen to in high school?
A big variety. I’ve always been partial to the blues, but I liked everything from Emerson, Lake and Palmer to different types of jazz music.
Did having a local group make it big have an influence on you at all?
Sure, I grew up on southern rock. I listened to Emerson, Lake and Palmer, but I loved to play southern rock. The Allman Brother’s Live at Fillmore East was the first southern rock record I bought. I also bought the first Tucker LP and that’s still my favorite MTB album.
When did you first pick up a guitar?
Well, my sister took some lessons but she never did learn anything. She took lessons for about a year and couldn’t even tune it. One time I took her guitar out and she had an old folk guitar songbook and I started learning the chords. I think I was about 10. Then my dad, who was in the Air Force at the time, went to Mexico on business and brought me back my own little guitar – and I still have it today!
You were pretty young when you joined Tucker.
Yeah, real young! About 26. I’ve learned a lot since then!
Was it a thrill touring the country?
Oh yeah! It was a real experience. I’d never been out of Spartanburg much. My dad was in the Air Force. I was born in Puerto Rico, but we moved when I was about one. He got transferred to Massachusetts for a few years. Then he went to Thailand and while he was stationed there my Mom and the kids lived in Spartanburg because that’s where she was from. But since I’ve joined the band we’ve played in every state but Hawaii, so I’ve got to see a lot of the country. Playing in Alaska was kind of unusual. It was in the summer and we did our second set after midnight – and it was still daylight outside! But it’s beautiful up there.
So you’ve enjoyed your time on the road?
Oh yeah, for the most part. Sometimes the traveling can be rough. I’m a big baseball fan so one cool thing about it is being able to go to different ballparks and see some ballgames away from home.
Sometimes the band goes out for some pretty long stretches… 20 to 30 days in a row.
I’d rather go out like that, two or three weeks at a time, rather than just go out for a weekend because you can get more into a groove by playing every night. It just feels better like that. There’s also a lot less flying that way.
Were your parents musically inclined?
Well, actually my grandpa was multi-talented. He played guitar, banjo, fiddle and harmonica. My Dad played guitar a little bit, too.
When did you take up the slide guitar?
It was the same year my son, Billy, was born, 1978.
What made you decide to learn to play slide?
Because the band Ace and I was in at the time, Lightnin’ West, was covering a lot of Allman Brothers material. We also wanted slide on the original material we were doing.
Is slide your favorite guitar to play?
Oh, yeah! I love it!
What do you do in your spare time when you’re not on the road?
Just about everything. I enjoy spending time with my wife and getting together with good friends. During the summer when I’m home I make a few trips to see the Cubs play at Wrigley field. I’ve got good seats. I know Ron Santo, Jr. real well so I get to use his seats right behind home plate. I love Wrigley, it’s like going back in time. It’s unbelievable.
I also write with a few friends. We’ve got a side band called the Tone Generators we’ve been working in for years. It’s a little recording project we’ve got going on here in Chicago. I don’t know if we’ll ever get it finished but we’ve got it started anyway. We’ve got one song called Burnin’ Daylight that would be a great song for Tucker. I also love to go to Buddy Guy’s place. It’s called Legends and I jam there from time to time. And there’s always something to do around the house.
Did you enjoy last summer’s Volunteer Jam tour?
Oh, yeah. It’s the best thing we’ve done since I’ve been in the band. The guys from the other bands would come out and jam with us. It was fun. We played a lot of the bigger venues.
And this past winter the band did the Easy Riders tour. How was that?
It was a lot of fun. We played in front of a lot of people. We did a few shows for them last year, too. We added some new songs to the set list. Searchin’s back in there and we added Running Like the Wind. We’re still doing Cattle Drive, that’s a fun one to do. I’d like to add some more new songs off Southern Spirit, and Face Down, Still Smokin’. Will the Circle Be Unbroken off the Gospel CD would be another good one to add.
Do you have a chance to write on the road?
Not lately, but I’ve been playing my dobros when I’m home. I’ve got two… well, actually, three, but one is at Gibson getting fixed right now. It was broke when I bought it.
Do you ever take them on the road?
Oh, no! One of them is a 1934, Model 37… and it doesn’t leave the house! But I’d love to take the one that Gibson is fixing out with me. I think In My Own Way would work well with that. Low Down Ways, too and even Blue Ridge Mountain Sky.
How many guitars do you own?
Six right now.
What guitars to do play on stage?
My main guitar is a Music Man Silhouette Special. My slide is a Fender American Standard Stratocaster with the action set up higher and flat across the fret board, kind of like a dobro. Both have the same Dimarzio pick up configuration with the tone controls wired wide open because I use the volume control for my rhythm and solo sounds. I just bought a Gibson Les Paul Double Cutaway – it’s a real nice guitar.
Who are your endorsements?
I have a few of them. Ernie Ball strings, Music Man guitars, Rivera Amplifier Company, The Delta Slide Company, which reproduces the coricidan medicine bottle used by Duane Allman and other slide players. Chicago Joe Nesbitt worked out most of the deals for me.
Who were your guitar heroes?
Duane Allman, of course and Lowell George of Little Feat. He played with so much feeling, straight from the heart.
What’s the best thing about playing with Tucker?
Well, it’s just a lot of fun. I grew up with Tim and Rusty and I’ve known Doug forever. We’re all friends, it’s like a big family. That’s what’s cool about it. B.B. is a great guy and full of energy. And Clay is a great guy, multi talented, too - and one heckuva singer!
What are some of your favorite songs to perform in concert?
Take the Highway is my all-time favorite song to do. That’s just a lot of fun. Hillbilly Band is another good one. Fire on the Mountain and Searchin’ For a Rainbow is fun. Where a Country Boy Belongs and of course Can’t You See. Stay in the Country, too.
What has been your most memorable show?
The most recent one was the last show of the Volunteer Jam tour. There was a lot going on. Just imagine 50 tambourines all going at the same time. That’s what happened on Can’t You See. All the road crews and productions crews had tambourines and they were all playing and singing their hearts out. Then during Charlie’s set each player from all of the bands were all on the stage for The South’s Gonna Do It Again and towards the end of the song they dropped tons of confetti and we didn’t know about it – it was like a blizzard! It was so thick we couldn’t see who was standing next to us!
Another memorable show was Rock the Smokies because of the size of the audience. There were people as far as we could see – about 400 or 500 hundred thousand! There were about 10 bands that played. It was all day and night. It was incredible!
Have you felt any pressure to live up to the original line-up?
Sometimes, but we’ve got great players in our current line-up. Rusty, Tim and I have been with Doug a lot of years (Rusty since ’84, Stuart since ’85 and Tim since ’86 – ed.). I think we sound a lot like they did in the 70’s except with a more modern, up-to-date sound.
Is the band working on a new CD?
I think it’s time for us to do a live CD. I think it’d be cool to include an acoustic set.
You had to leave the band for a while, what happened?
I developed dupuytrens contracture disease. It takes several years to develop. People with ancestors in Northern Europe are prone to get it. It’s a bunch of scar tissue that builds up in your palm and I had some in my ring finger. It gradually pulls your fingers down. There’s no medication they can give you all they can do is operate. There really wasn’t any other choice. If I didn’t have the surgery eventually I wouldn’t be able to play. My fingers were almost down into my palms. It had got to the point where I couldn’t really do a regular solo. I could still play chords, but I couldn’t stretch out and hit any kind of octaves at all. But by finding the best specialist to perform the surgery it was well worth the pain and healing.
Is your son following in his daddy’s footsteps?
No! He did get into playing for a little while, but then he stopped. Over the holidays, though, he picked up another guitar and is playing again. He's living in Spartanburg.
I’d like to say thanks a million to Stuart for taking the time to do the interview. He’s not just a great guitar player, he’s a real down to earth guy. A perfect fit for MTB and their fans.
Stuart would also like to say thanks to a few folks:
First and foremost my wife, Stacy, for putting up with me, the music business, and my being on the road away from home through the years. Also to my son, Billy. Thanks as well to Greg, John, and especially Curt Mangan at Ernie Ball Strings/ Music Man guitars and John McGough from the Delta Slide Company.
Even more thanks to all my family, friends and fans for all their support when my mother, Wilma Walker Swanlund, passed away from cancer last year.
And last but certainly not least thanks to Doug and the rest of the guys for making the Marshall Tucker Band a special part of my life!
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