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The Free Lance-Star interview


Doug Gray of The Marshall Tucker Band talks about the music and the history of the band



Practically speaking, The Marshall Tucker Band is more of a tribe than a band. According to Wikipedia, there are 25 "former members," and six current players. It can happen when a band is 35 years old.

Some members, like legendary guitarist Toy Caldwell and his bassist brother, Tommy, have moved on to the great gig in the sky. Others have simply retired after a lifetime on the road.

What does The Marshall Tucker Band have left? Everything it needs, really: a great voice and a great song.

Vocalist Doug Gray is the only original member still touring with the group, and "Can't You See" is one of the oft-covered touchstones of '70s rock 'n' roll.

"Including Hank Williams Jr. and Kid Rock, I've got enough outtakes from people's live stuff to put a whole 'Can't You See' album out," Gray said in a recent phone interview. "We could talk about how cool or how uncool that would be, though."

And it wasn't even the band's biggest hit. That honor goes to "Heard It In A Love Song," from their 1977 album "Carolina Dreams." It peaked at No. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart that year.

"'Love Song,'" Gray admitted, "was about the worst song that I ever had to sing, and it's still one of the more popular ones for us."

If you go to the show at the State Theatre in Falls Church tomorrow night, you will probably hear "Love Song," and "Can't You See." (Both reappear on the band's latest CD, "Love Songs," released in January.)

Gray doesn't want your sympathy; he wants you to enjoy those classic rock chestnuts. But pay attention--you will also hear some of the songs that gave the band five gold and two platinum records in a five-year span. It wasn't all due to smooth harmonies and flute solos.

The Marshall Tucker Band, like their label-mates The Allman Brothers, could jam. They were able to take the open energy of gospel, jazz and blues, and bend them into something the rest of the world recognized as pop music. They created "Southern rock."

"We grew up in a time when we had no idea what it was called," Gray admitted. "Music was coming out of the South for a long time. It was called 'rhythm and blues.'"

Bands like Marshall Tucker were able to draw disparate audiences into the rock realm. Country fans, blues fans, even psychedelic San Francisco ex-hippies found something to like about the fiery, amped-up roots rock coming out of a region with a straight-laced reputation.

Marshall Tucker still suggests easy-listening AM hits because of the prominent flute in many of their songs. But the band, with its cowboy hats and boots, also fits in with the "outlaw" country movement. Charlie Daniels was a frequent collaborator, and they made a short cowboy movie in the '70s that was essentially a music video for their instrumental "Long Hard Ride."

Perhaps the most important weapon they had was Toy Caldwell--their lead guitarist, main songwriter and occasional singer. Toy was known for his unusual picking style--he played entirely with the thumb of his strumming hand, using it as a pick. Gray said Toy's nickname was "skinny thumb" because of the unlikely licks he could pull off with his stubby appendage.

After Tommy Caldwell passed away in 1980, Toy decided to bow out of the band. Gray kept it alive, gathering top players to fill the giant holes left by the original members.

"It was a little bit weird for me to go out without Toy," Gray said. "But he shook my hand and said 'Good luck.'"

This tour features Gray's nephew Clay Cook on flute, saxophone and keyboards. Before joining, Cook was one half of a duo called Lo-Fi Masters. The other half was John Mayer, now a friend of the band.

"Do I see Marshall Tucker in him?" Gray asked about Mayer. "Absolutely not."

On the other hand, Gray does hear his music in country-rockers like Confederate Railroad and Travis Tritt, and said that George Jones and Kid Rock have turned up unannounced to check out their show. Plenty of other musicians count the band as an important influence--and plenty of fans still find an escape in those classic radio hits.

"They still scream at me," Gray said of his fans. "I don't know if they're screaming because it's so bad or because it's so good. I'm just proud to be a part of something that was really, really good in the '70s, and it's still hanging on because of the memories we gave people."

  • Posted on   03/18/09 at 06:09:35 PM   by Liza  | 
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Reader Comments (1)

Betsy 06/17/09 04:57:43 PM

Thanks, for "Still Holdin On"!! Their yelling because it "is" good! No matter how many years have past, and how many band members have changed, and the sound may not be like the's your heart and love of the music that people see and that is what keeps everyone,all the fans coming back! You don't see that in music today!

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