Southern Rock veteran looks back over 40-year career

When The Marshall Tucker Band roared out of Spartanburg, SC forty years ago, guitarist/vocalist Doug Gray could never have predicted that the band would go on to headline packed stadiums and be proclaimed as one of the progenitors of Southern Rock, a blues, jazz, and country infused style that came to dominate the sound of mid-70’s radio and helped launch the careers of countless gifted musicians south of the Mason Dixon line.

Gray could also never have predicted the sudden disintegration of the original band following the death of bassist Tommy Caldwell, who, along with his brother Toy, played a key role in the musical direction of the tight-knot group.

After the original band split in 1981, Gray soldiered on, recruiting new members and touring compulsively, carrying on the legacy of the band that is still a staple of classic rock stations across the country.

Last week, Gray took time out from his busy schedule to talk to Junkyard Opera about the band’s history, its future, and their upcoming performance at the Freedom Fest event at the Duplin County Events Center.

Junkyard Opera: How did the band first come together?

Doug Gray: “We just wanted beer for the weekend. We were all in high school together in Spartanburg and we just started playing together. Our principal thought we were so good he would let us out early to do shows. All our friends and family understood. We were very lucky in that respect, because that’s a rare thing.

“Me and Toy ended up going to Vietnam and when we got back, we decided to put the band back together. We got the name off a keychain somebody had with the name Marshall Tucker on it. It turned out he was a local piano player. I just recently found out he’s been living in Columbia, SC and just retired from working as choir director of a church.”

J.O.: Who were some of your earliest musical influences?

Gray: “Really just what the people around me and my family were listening to: Hank Williams, Sr.; Bill Haley, who I saw when I was seven-years-old; Elvis was a big influence on everybody. Later on I got into B.B. King and Sam Cooke.

“Toy and I used to go see the Pabst Blue Ribbon Jazz Festival in Greensboro, N.C. when we were in high school. We’d see Dionne Warwick, Thelonious Monk, all kinds of people. That was back in the days when you just got up there and played what you felt, and it wasn’t so organized or written out.

“There were a lot of different influences in the band. Toy was the real country person in the band; Tommy was into R&B. I believe one of the most important parts of everybody’s life is to listen to music and be able to choose different styles to listen to.”

J.O.: Tell me about some of your experiences from the band’s early days.

Gray: “We traveled all up and down playing the strip joints in South Carolina, opening for the Allman Brothers Band and other people. When we finally got a gig in New York, we ended up playing in a club for 42 people. Some of those places were pretty rough, but we were young and it just seemed like a big adventure to all of us.

“I remember one time we were coming from Albuquerque headed to San Antonio, and we stopped at a red light and all the beer and liquor bottles went rolling to the front of the van. By the time we got about halfway through that tour that van really stunk. We ended up leaving it in L.A. and getting our own bus in 1974.

“Later on, we had this band opening for us that wore wings on their back. We didn’t know what to make of that. I kept thinking if they jumped around too much they were going to kill themselves. We just looked at each other and were like, ‘Do we really want to follow this.’’

J.O.: What was it like going from playing the club circuit to headlining arenas?

Gray: “This is when I realized we’d finally made it: We went to play a club in New York, and we were just these redneck guys pulling up in a dodge van. We played the show, and it was just a few people in this place, so we played, got drunk, had a good time and went back home. Three months later, we’re opening for the Allman Brothers Band at Madison Square Garden in front of 20,000 people. That’s pretty freaky stuff; it plays with your mind. Nobody knows they’re going to be a star. We just got together and said ‘Let’s give this one shot. Let’s see if we make any money.’

“When you’re on the road you lose connection with reality. You make a sacrifice to be away from your family. For the first five years, we were touring 300 days a year. We still do 220 days, even now.

“When the money started rolling in, it got scary. Suddenly, all these entertainers that we had grown up watching were coming to see us play; we didn’t know what to do. But I can honestly say, no one changed. No one got too far out.

“Over the years, a lot of people have opened for us who’ve gone on to be big in their own right: Charlie Daniels, Hank Williams, Jr., Alabama. We’re still friends with all these people. I was just talking to Charlie Daniels recently about some of our old friends and what’s been going on with everyone.”

J.O.: Did you feel like the band was part of a Southern Rock scene or was that more of a media creation?

Gray: We never really thought about it; we just played the music we played. But a lot of people got weirded out about it, like it was limiting their success. It never bothered us being seen as a southern band, because when you think about it there were people doing it before us, like Gladys Knight and Otis Redding—they were southern rock.

“When everyone started trying to get away from it, I never did. I’d just as soon be regional and keep that flavor to my music. It’s something you don’t hear much anymore.”

J.O.: What was the songwriting process like?

Gray: “Toy was the main songwriter in the beginning, then Tommy started writing songs, also, and then everybody kind of got into it. There was never any competition; either you had a song or you didn’t. We would use sound checks to run through the new stuff we’d written; we never played any stuff from the show, it was always new stuff.”

J.O.: How did the death of Tommy Caldwell in 1980 affect everyone in the band?

Gray: “What a lot of people don’t know is that Toy and Tommy’s younger brother had also passed away, so for Tommy to die was kind of like double indemnity.

“It did change things. We took out another guy, but every time you’d close your eyes, you’d be like ‘That’s not Tommy.’ It just didn’t feel right.

“We took a couple of months for Toy to decide what he wanted to do. Toy and most of the others reached the point where they didn’t want to continue. I wasn’t ready to let it go, so we worked it out with the lawyers so me and Jerry Eubanks could continue on with the name. Luckily, I was friends with some of the biggest promoters in the world, so it made it easier.”

J.O.: How did the solo album you cut around this time come about?

Gray: “I got offered to sign a solo deal in 1981, to do more of a pop or soul type style. I’ve always been an R&B fan: I used to sneak in to see James Brown when I was 10. So I put out the word that I was looking for songs in that vein, in the soul style.

“I tried to choose songs that would have different feelings and emotions that I’ve gone through over the years. All the original band ended up playing on it, except Tommy, of course. Then I took it around and had a lot of other people add their parts to it, like some Nashville session guys and The Memphis Horns.

“It was really like the stuff I was doing before I joined The Marshall Tucker Band. I really felt good about the results but ended up putting the tapes away because it was time to do another Marshall Tucker Band album and that’s where my loyalty was.

“It had been nearly 10 years since I had listened to it. I was going through some stuff in the warehouse recently and the cassette just fell out, I sent it to Sony and they decided to put it out. It’s made it to number 31 in the Americana charts.”

J.O.: What’s kept you going all these years?

Gray: “When everybody wanted to give up on The Marshall Tucker Band, I’d walk into my study and look at the gold records on the wall, and I’d think about everybody who’d bought one of our albums to make that possible, and everyone I’ve ever played for, and I just couldn’t quiet, even when everybody else wanted to.

“This band has always been considered the fans best friend. Most people don’t realize it, but we sign autographs for an hour and a half after every show. When you’ve been around as long as we have you don’t consider them fans any more, they’re friends.

“We’re still around because we care about our people and our friends. There’s an honesty and a reality about this band that still shows. We’ve never been much for being fake.

“Another thing is, we’re very self-contained. The trucks come rolling in with everything we need; we have the website where the fans can order everything and get all the information about the band. It’s kind of like we’re the biggest faceless band ever, which is kind of nice because I don’t have to put on makeup to look good.

“I live in the woods and the locals are very loyal, a lot of them don’t even know what I do. They just know I’m a guy who’s into music and who doesn’t have a bunch of wrecked cars in his front yard and keeps his grass mowed.

J.O.: Tell me about the band’s current line-up.

Gray: “We’ve got B.B. Borden, who used to play with the Outlaws and Mothers Finest, on the drums; Pat Elwood plays bass for us; Marcus Henderson is on flute and sax; Rick Willis, who’s played with a lot of North Carolina groups including Jackson Crossing, is on guitar; and then we’ve got Stuart Swanlund, who’s been with me 25 years, on guitar and pedal steel.

“Most of these guys are from Spartanburg and they’re all guys who want to be here and love getting out and playing.”

J.O.: What are some of the recent projects the bands been involved with?

Gray: “About a year ago, we filmed a part for a movie called “Angel Camouflaged.” In the movie we show up to play a show on the wrong day and have to try to come up with something the crowd will like. We decide to do a version of the Run-DMC song “It’s Tricky.” I’d never heard the song, but I think it actually came out pretty good. It was fun; it was probably one of the most different things we’ve ever done.

“We’re also cutting a record next year. We’re looking for southern rock and roll songs. We’ve got five songs but we’re looking for seven or eight more.

“We’ll be releasing all our early albums on vinyl over the next two years. They just sent me the artwork for the first releases and I was knocked out, they look great.”

J.O.: What can fans expect at the Freedom Fest performance?

Gray: “Be prepared to move back a little in time. Bring the kids out and just have fun, enjoy the music. I think a lot of people are going to be uniquely surprised, because there are a lot of people who don’t remember us from years ago, so this will be a brand new thing to them.”


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