By Jay Smith
The Marshall Tucker Band’s Doug Gray talks with Pollstar about the group’s 45-year anniversary. “We didn’t know where we were going. All we wanted to do was make that audience want more. And that’s what we’re still doing,” Gray said.
Formed in Spartanburg, S.C., in 1972 by musicians who had played together under the name Toy Factory during the ’60s, The Marshall Tucker Band took its name from a local piano tuner whose name was on the key to a rehearsal hall. The original lineup included brothers Tommy and Toy Caldwell along with Jerry Eubanks, George McCorkle, Paul Riddle and Doug Gray.
Nearly half a century later and The Marshall Tucker Band continues its long ride by performing timeless classics like “Fire On The Mountain,” “Can’t You See” and “Heard It in a Love Song.” Gray has kept the band alive, not only through constant touring, but by digging deep into the vault for concert tapes recorded during some of the group’s epic shows.
Why do you think The Marshall Tucker Band has lasted so long?
It has to be the fans that like the music. The memories were created by the music that they first heard. Then they kind of forced it down their kids’ throats by listening in the car going back and forth to work. … It’s a continuous cycle that I’ve seen two or three different times. We’re not a real country band. We’re a rock ’n’ roll band that can play some jazz, can play some heavier rock ’n’ roll if we want it to. When Poison does one of your songs … when Kid Rock does one … Waylon Jennings charted better than we did with “Can’t You See.” Kitty Wells did one of our songs and changed the lyrics from “I’m the kinda man” to “I’m the kinda woman.” These things happened over the years and … people have a memory that goes with a live Marshall Tucker song in a concert.
Most of those things are what I attribute to everything that’s going on around us right now. … I watch “American Idol” and stuff like that … so that I can learn why those kids are doing what they’re doing. What is their dream? I want to see what their dreams are. Because my dream wasn’t to do this business. … I had no dream, no foresight, no anything. All I know is when Toy and I got back from Vietnam, we both said, “Let’s give it one more try.” We all took day jobs and said, “Let’s go out and play together and see if we can have some fun, buy beer for the weekend and get out there and really do it for the right reasons.”
You know what? I think people picked up on it. I know movies have picked up on this – the value of the song Toy Caldwell wrote, and a song George [McCorkle] wrote, and one of my songs was in a [film] as well. There’s something about the lyrical content and the rhythm and the jive that’s going on within the song that makes people feel as if we’re explaining their story.
Josh Groban is a prime example. You hear him sing, the stuff is really there. It’s almost like a gospel, what a song is about.
If talent competitions like “The Voice” were on television back in the ’60s, do you think you and Toy would have gone that route?
No. My nephew [Clay Cook] is in Zac Brown Band. We just opened for Zac down in Charleston for Southern Ground where they raise money for kids. I’ve done a couple of shows with Zac. But not because my nephew’s in it. But because we mean something to their music as well as a lot of other people’s music today.
Would we have known, without the internet, to put ourselves on a brand new TV series? Absolutely not. We were just so fortunate, lucky and, last of all, so busy, that we didn’t even think of what our next move was going to be. There was nobody there to plan what our next move would be for the next 10 years. We just went up there and played. What was most important was who we played with – Carlos Santana, Fleetwood Mac, Allman Brothers … Gregg [Allman] taught me a lot. He said, “I don’t know how I’m going to get up there and sing after y’all put on a show like that?”
I remember Kenny Chesney came up to me in Florida and said, “We’ve got this record out now but y’all just played a show … how do you get up there with all that energy? Everybody all of a sudden, you can see it in their faces, they’re just paying attention so deeply.”
And it still happens today. There are 11, 12, 9-year-old kids, their daddies will come up and say he playa a mean “Can’t You See” [or] “Fire On the Mountain.” And we’ll walk over, get one of the guitars … [from the] sidestage. I’ll walk them in there. You hear them play and you say, “OK. I’m gonna throw you out there right in the middle.” Dad goes and gets his guitar out of the trunk of his car and comes on. I make sure the guitar tech has it right. The guy plugs in and we throw him out there, right in the middle of “Can’t You See” and let him have fun. If he wants it, he’ll come back.
I’ve [know] a young lady, Desireé Bassett, that came to me when she was 11 years old. Her dad said, “She’s got her own amplifiers” and rolled up two great big ol’ Marshalls up there. I went, “Oh my God. What have I got myself into?” Well, I said, “Let’s turn it up and let it rip, and we’ll make her the star of the show.” Because of that show, she got a gig with Cirque du Soleil doing “Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour.”
Do you feel the presence of Toy Caldwell when performing today?
Every day. The last one we did for the Grand Ole Opry up in Nashville was “Christmas For Kids.” We ended up raising more money than they had raised with that. Of course, we had a bunch of other artists there as well. We walked out on that stage and I [thought of] Toy and Tommy [Caldwell], because they were the country people in our band. … I felt the same pride that I did the first time we ever played there. … and four years later we’re going out there and doing a show with all these other artists. Bill Anderson comin’ up and saying how great it was, saying, “For you people in the radio [audience] and all, if y’all don’t know what that was, all the people applauding, that was a standing ovation.” … That was amazing to me. I hadn’t realized that we had crossed over as much as we had. Did we change the show? Absolutely not. If we’d play Sturgis it would be the same show we played at the Grand Ole Opry.
At what point in the band’s career did you actually realize that you had already built an impressive catalog? That even if you didn’t write another song, you could still fill a set with your hits?
We haven’t put a new record out in five years. We have continuously [released], what I call “The rebirth of things.” My thing is [manager] Ron Rainey and I have sat there and thought about what people are asking me for. And Ron said, “Do you remember when you played Englishtown, N.J., with The Grateful Dead? I was one of those people in 150,000 that was there.” New Riders Of The Purple Sage was on that show, too. 150,000 people. They expected 30,000.
Here we were, taking a helicopter in, didn’t know what the hell was going on. And I said, “Boy, this is really going to be something.” And it was. Luckily, with John Scher, we got a hold of the tapes. We did not change the musical content at all. There was some bad notes and my young engineer said, “I can fix that now if you want me to.” And I told him, “Absolutely not… We can’t change anything.” We used the same order. The record sold. People are still buying it today. We pulled it out of the vault and all I did was make it sound as if it was more recently recorded. Not changing any of the music, I think, makes me a bigger person because we all stumbled. Toy stumbled, I stumbled, George stumbled, Jerry [Eubanks] stumbled. The flute sounded like hell in some places; I sounded like hell in some places. I couldn’t take that off. They paid their money to see that show, they’re going to remember that I screwed up. At least I hope they do.
How did Ron Rainey end up managing The Marshall Tucker Band?
Back in the old days he had Steppenwolf with John Kay. We were friends with Kay and the guys in that band. … We knew our place in that business. We knew we wouldn’t be doing 20,000-30,000 people again. So, a larger company said, “Well, we just don’t have room for you right now.” It was obvious that Ron could do the job. So what we did was sign with him and he and I became partners in our Ramblin’ Records and in Marshall Tucker Entertainment. … He books our shows. We watched it come from 50 shows a year when he picked us up, to 135, I think, that we did last year, including private shows.
Some bands that have been performing for decades now have all of their business handled in house. But The Marshall Tucker Band still adheres to the traditional model of having a manager. Do you attribute that to the band’s success?
Of course. There are professionals out there right now that would love to get their hands on Marshall Tucker. I’m not blind to that fact nor are they keeping it a secret. We played Stagecoach and everybody from AEG Live to CAA To ICM, they were all standing back there and watching ol’ Doug Gray who they used to handle. They were watching him stand out there and wow 20,000 people, grabbing their attention and getting an encore. I don’t think they’ll forget that one. … I talked with each and every one of them individually, and we’re all still friends.
I feel that if you’re going to be successful, you maintain reality in knowing where you are. Ron took us to where we are while these other guys would have loved to have [signed] us 20 or 30 years ago.
Our hard tickets are up. We’ve sold out 88 percent of our shows, whether they’re 600, 3,000 or 18,000. You look at those, and those hard tickets are what you really want to talk about. But at the same time you really don’t want to act as if you know everything within what’s going on around you. It’s knowing you are trying so hard on stage.
All of my guys, we call them the “new band” but they’ve been there 20-25 years. … Those guys have the same … want and drive that we had in the very beginning. We didn’t know where we were going. All we wanted to do was make that audience want more. And that’s what we’re still doing. … I know we’ve had our name on “The Voice” and on “American Idol” and in movies. We get offered commercials and there some out there right now. … Then they find out there’s a couple of new [TV] series coming out in the fall that have Marshall Tucker Songs in them. And a couple of movies, too. Something is right. Our audience, because of the downloads, we know [part of] our audience is 18-37 years old.
As The Marshall Tucker Band began to rise in the ’70s, the artwork on the band’s album covers – Searchin’ For A Rainbow, Where We All Belong, Long Hard Ride – was spectacular.
The Long Hard Ride [cover] was done by David Worm Holmes. … You see … the mountains, and fireplaces burning with smoke going up into the sky, you see a cow in the clouds. You really got to search to see these things but they’re in there. We were a little psychedelic at the time and [Holmes was] too.
What’s your take on today’s packaging where detailed album cover art is reduced to a small square inserted on a CD or an even smaller image if an album is downloaded onto a phone?
I wish that if you downloaded something, you could download and print out [the cover] We went back to putting out LPs for that one simple reason. Grandmas and Grandpas were bringing their LPs, saying, “Please sign it again. You signed it in 1974.” Ron, and I talked and said “Let’s do this. Let’s find out what the cost is.”
We wanted to put the best vinyl grain on the record. It started with 180-gram vinyl. We approved it, we mixed it a little bit to make it sound deeper and throatier, and we put those same album covers out. Are they selling? Yeah, they’re selling. They sell mostly to collectors because they’re a bit expensive to have that kind of thing done.
There is good artwork for a lot of these bands coming out. There are still tons of creative people out there that know what they’re doing. If you can blow up [the artwork] to album size, they look good. We blow them up to poster size and sell them on the road.
I recall posters of your album covers hanging on walls in people’s houses.
Yeah. And a lot of times we just gave them away, according to what kind of paper they were on. … I love that. I love the fact that artwork can be done. I just wish there was a way that if someone actually [downloads] the whole album, it would be a treat for them to have a piece of art go along with it. Whether it was mailed to them, or whatever. To me, that would be a selling point, for an extra $1.50 or whatever … if you could do that, I think you would find that it would help to sell, not only the record, it would make people feel more a part of it, if it’s hanging on the wall in the hall or in their bedroom. It makes them remember. And if they read that The Marshall Tucker Band is down at the Orpheum Theatre in Chicago, they say, “Let’s go, Honey. This will be a good night for us to go. The kids are out of the house.” Then, all of a sudden, you go to a county fair and these people start bringing these things for us to sign.
When The Marshall Tucker Band’s star was rising during the ’70s the music journalists you met were probably in the same age group as members of the band. Do you have any thoughts about when you first started meeting reporters that weren’t even born when “Can’t You See” came out?
Without being able to pull it up and read [about the band] in a bio? People didn’t know about us. We didn’t get any airplay during the first year of The Marshall Tucker Band. We were out there doing 300 dates a year with The Allman Brothers.
[Looking back] I don’t feel I’ve lived all those years. I feel like I’m looking forward to the next show, as if this is the first gig ever. It’s a strange feeling. In a few days I’ll be turning 68 years old. I don’t feel that way and my doctor tells me I don’t act that way. People onstage say I rock with the best of them. I know there’s a few people, a few rockers out there that don’t need to be out there again. There are jokes about people going backstage and having to run ointments on their bodies just to feel better or have oxygen tanks [nearby]. But I’m in pretty good shape. So I feel good, I feel honored, blessed that I am. My thoughts about it is we continuously worked. We never sat back on our Laurel and Hardys. I said to Ron, “Ever since 37 years ago, I’ve never done less than 125 shows a year.” Which means we never slowed down. … All I did was get a little tired. I sleep for four to five hours and get up and it’s go to work. … We’re honored and blessed that people are still interested in The Marshall Tucker Band.
Do you still get questions from people asking which one in the band is Marshall Tucker?
Happened this past weekend. I tell them that I can’t show them Marshall but they call me “Doug” now.