by Michael Buffalo Smith
Chris Hicks is a force to be reckoned with. A Macon, Georgia native, he grew up in the shadows of giants during the hey day of Capricorn Records, listening to The Allman Brothers Band, Marshall Tucker and other Southern Rock pioneers, while playing bluegrass music with his family and enjoying the sweet soul music of Stax and Motown, as well as singer songwriters such as James Taylor. A long time member of The Marshall Tucker Band and former guitarist with The Outlaws, Chris has at long last released a solo album that defines what he himself is as an artist. Dog Eat Dog World is a masterpiece, and Chris is in great position to gain national and world attention in his own right.
We caught Chris in between shows with The Chris Hicks Band and The Marshall Tucker Band for a candid interview.
Who were some of your earliest musical influences?
My earliest influences were in my family, playing bluegrass with my Grandpa and others. Yesterday at my great Aunt’s funeral we were reminiscing about some bluegrass stories when I was a kid. We played quite a few bluegrass festivals and that’s how I learned to play music. It’s funny because I didn’t play rock and roll for a few years, although I liked it and loved to hear it actually better than the music I was playing. Then my cousin Jimmy Howell Hicks had just started to play and I walked into his bedroom one day and he had two electric guitars hooked into a small amp and it changed my life. Then I got it. It was playing stuff that I liked to listen to. It was a whole different ball game and I love bluegrass to this day, but boy it was great to rock.
When was the first time you remember ever hearing The Marshall Tucker Band?
I heard them in 1976 at the Macon Coliseum and saw them again in 1978 two years later in the same place and again in 1980. I believe that was shortly before Tommy passed away. I saw the original band three times.What I remember about the first time was going with my cousin and he got me hip to the vibe, kind of Fillmore East thing, long guitar solos and the band breaks down with Toy playing for however long he wants to play with the spotlight on him. It was very good ensemble type stuff. It’s almost like orchestra music when the bands get to doing that. Even at that young age I remember a couple of moments in my mind that this was just really, really good. I never dreamed at that time I would play with The Marshall Tucker Band, it’s kind of funny how my life has worked out that way. But I definitely understood the energy that they were going for and had already been exposed to it from The Brothers thing. A couple of other bands from here that never made it were Capricorn wannabe artists. One of those bands was Burn’em Wood. I never met anybody that knew them but I loved the sound. They had that vibe going.
We talked about this once before but when you were growing up it was right about the time of the hey day of Capricorn and you were exposed to it and got to see lots of it and got a lot of influence from them right?
Yeah, absolutely, from the music and energy of it. It started with The Allman Brothers who moved in about one mile from my house where I live now and where I grew up. We could hear them rehearse through the woods and at that time I don’t remember seeing Gregg or Dickey or Duane. My great Uncle would say ‘let’s go see the hippies’ and at that time in my mind it was just a bunch of freaky hippies and naked girls riding horseback. The lived in a loving communal way.
I don’t believe that I ever heard of Burn’em Wood? I heard lots about Stillwater and some of those bands down there.
You know when I met the guy from Burn’em Wood the other week, I had never been to Grant’s Lounge where I met him. It is a famous place in Macon and where people jammed and I missed the hey day of that and I had thought they closed it down. I met a lady last week there with a picture of her and Doug (Gray) from 1972. I met Mr. Grant and his daughter and son and he is very well respected by everyone. Grants was a black establishment but open to the white hippies to come and hang out and jam. It was ‘the place’.
I saw a lot of cool stuff come through courtesy my cousin Jimmy and my cousin Kyler Mosely. He is a very good writer and does some stuff with Hittin’ the Note. He always knew what was what. He turned me onto Miles Davis and wanted me to hear something new. They would take me to see people in Atlanta even though I was under age that would totally change my life. There was a band called Tall Dogs and it was one of the best live bands I have ever seen. They got their name from Bonnie Bramlett and she said something like ‘if you’re going to piss on a rock,you better be a tall dog’. (laughs) Those guys were funky, jazzy, and they had vocal harmony, they were like The Dreggs and Jamioe played with them a lot. He was sitting in with them the first night I saw them. Earl Ford, the guy that played trombone with them, if you have ever heard the Wet Willie song “Country Side of Life,” he played on that and had all kind of effects. He played the trombone through a wah-wah and they had some great songs. They had a chance to record later when Alan (Walden) had built a writing studio. It was just a little over everybody’s head I think or it was the wrong timing or something. They were funky and great musicians. No one had ever heard of them though.
How long have you been playing with The Marshall Tucker Band?
I started playing with them when I was with The Outlaws because we toured with them a lot, so it kind of turned into one of those things where Hughie and I would jam with Tucker just about every night. So when I was called to fill in for Stuart (Swanlund) I had already been playing with the band for 6-7 years although was not a member. I would play the whole set with them and play “Midnight Promises” or “Everyday I Have The Blues.” I would sit in for the whole set and then I got called to play for Stuart until his hand got better I was asked to stick around for a couple of more years. Then I left and did the Chris Hicks Band thing again, and then out of the blue Doug Gray called in for me to fill in for two weeks. Then Doug said he wanted me to sing and co-write with them and help him do some Marshall Tucker Band stuff. Doug has always been a supporter of mine and wanted to help me get my music out there and that’s what we spoke of and that’s what we have done. We have learned how to record better each time. Then it has come time to do my thing and Doug and Ron Rainey were in total support. I had a vision and they had suggestions and they supported my vision.This has really helped me along the way.
You’ve told me in the past that Toy Caldwell was an influence and I wanted to get you say a few words about your relationship with him?
I have thought about putting a spot on my website called ‘walking with the dinosaurs’ and in a way that is what it felt like to me. After working with Hughie all those years, I met people that were not necessarily my peers but a good 10-15 years older than I was and this has always been the case with me. Even when I was younger, the black musicians like Bobby O’day that I have met in Macon kind of took me in and I was honored to have played with those guys because I do play from the heart and to be accepted by those guys was important. Then another whole level was when you get to the rock and roll thing that got me into the big time with Hughie and that got me into playing with Tucker and Toy. We did a lot of gigs with the Toy Caldwell Band. Toy had just started to get back into playing and he and I had met a couple of times and I had sat in a time or two, when Alan Walden had introduced us. He was very nice. Then we started having a friendship and when we played dates with him he would always play with us. Sometimes, he would not even take his band and we would sit in and do songs with Toy. That’s how much respect Hughie had for him. It was like family.
We spent many late nights together in hotel rooms playing together and spent more time like that than playing onstage. We got to be real musical buddies. We loved to exchange chords that we had learned. I loved songs and so did he, and we would play any song that we enjoyed together. Those were precious times for me to get to know someone like that on that level. I don’t think he or Hughie knew the shadow that they casted in the music world. I think that they just did what they did and to be not just accepted but very close to those two cats in both a personal and musical way was a blessing. I learned that your personality and your music are two different things, but both of those guys shared a cowboy theme. There was definitely a Western feel to their musical styles when they played an E-minor and both were Southern influenced but very similar and quite different at the same time. They both loved me and accepted me and it meant so much to me. Now that it has been years ago and they are both gone and I have an appreciation of being in that family circle. I am looking at a big, mounted bass on my wall that Toy passed down to me... and it means a lot to me.
The very recent passing of Hughie Thomasson, how did that effect you?
I am not sure how it has really effected me yet, and I am sure things will be fine but it was very much of a surprise. I didn’t see that one coming at all. I am grateful that we spent the whole last summer together playing on the Volunteer Jam every night. He had done an album called “Strange Dreams,” about an angel carrying someone off in his sleep.
Have they released that album, Charlie Daniels spoke highly of it as well?
No, I don’t think they have. I have spoken with Mary (Thomasson) but don’t know what they are going to do with it, but I hope it does see the light of day. I never thought of Hughie passing. I spoke with Constance, his stepdaughter, right after it happened and was telling her that I know as people age and get into different health situations you realize that they are going to leave at some point, but with Hughie that never even occurred to me. Not that he was invincible, but it was a real shock.
I enjoyed meeting him at the first Volunteer Jam of 2007, when you introduced us.
Well, we all have our time and we must all gain an understanding of it. He did get the band back together and his stint with Skynyrd was good but Hughie was the soul of the Outlaws and that was his thing. He did get to tour with Volunteer Jam and play some great places and that we had that time together to play. In retrospect, it looks like we were put together for three months to say goodbye. I have all kind of photos that people have sent me of us from the road.
Hughie seemed to love playing with you.
It was similar between Hughie and Toy, that they both loved to play. I can remember clubs in Connecticut we were playing in different places and we got done early so we went to go see Toy and I walked into the club to see him. As soon as I did, he put the guitar on me and I played for awhile.
That reminds me of year before last at the Angelus event when you were jamming with Montgomery Gentry and took your Les Paul off and hung it around my neck. That was cool. I’ll never forget that.
It all comes back around, Buffalo. We were playing recently with Barry Richman opening the show, one of the best guitar players anywhere. I handed my guitar off to him. He just played his heart out and I took out the harmonica and it just turned into a hoe down. But there’s something special about that. Jamming with somebody is special but actually playing their guitar through their rig, sitting in their driver’s seat...it’s wild man.
Shifting gears. How did you enjoy the cruise you guys did in January with Lynyrd Skynyrd?
That was a whole lot of fun. I wasn’t sure what to expect before it happened. I’d never been on a cruise or anything. I would never think of going on a cruise for vacation, personally. I almost did a blues cruise with Jimmy Hall a couple of years ago. But I think its a great idea, marrying up rock and roll with a cruise. There were a lot of hard core Skynyrd and Tucker fans, and there were lots of other bands on there, so it was a diverse group of people. We played for two hours and 45 minutes after Skynyrd and we didn’t have a curfew. We had Sparky and Ean and we had half of the Georgia Satellites and we just had a ball. People love to see that. I think that’s a Southern thing. Jammin.’ I don’t think they started it, it came from the old jazz guys, but that’s definitely a Southern rock tradition- “come on up here and get you some of it!”
I live for the jams. We have a lot of those each year down at the Angelus benefit. Your thoughts on the Angelus?
I have been down there lots of times. Marshall Tucker didn’t play this year for the first time I believe since its conception. I’m not sure why. It’s like a family reunion. For three days everybody is eating next to each other and talking and just having fun. You get to catch up with friends you see on the road and spend a little actual time with them. You tell lies and stories about each other and have a few drinks and play each other your demos and all that kind of stuff. And Charlie Daniels is another one. I love playing with him. When we jam he gets right in my face. I love the fact that he never acted like I was trying to take Toy’s place, because that is certainly not the case at all. I loved and respected Toy Caldwell, but I try to just kind of do my own thing. It’s great to be respected by people like that that are the originals and your elders.
Tell me about The Chris Hicks Band.
I only have one rule in the band. Everyone in the band has to do heroin. (Laughs)
No, I have a great band together. We have done three dates and we are starting to feel like a band now. We have got a plan together to stay working and do some promotional things for the album. I have Jake Caldwell, no relation, on drums. Jake played with me back when he was 18 years old. He played with me for three years and Lee Roy Parnell stole him from me. Then he got into the Nashville scene and played with quite a few country artists. At the moment he’s playing with Phil Vassar. He’s done the Nashville thing and he was a good drummer before but he’s even better now. He’s a real special person to me.
Marshall Coates on bass is a guy I met through Paul Hornsby. Marshall is from Atlanta. Not only is he a great bass player, he also plays drums, there’s no telling what the guy can do. But his bass playing fits perfectly with my music. He and Jake are tight, its just a pocket thing. They had never met. We had one rehearsal and they just clicked. They understand what I am going for. It’s kind of funny, to those guys I am like an old school dude. It may be like when I started playing with Hughie or Toy. It’s there first time going out and playing original music. And Joe Boogie from Memphis on keyboard. What a player. I met him when I was doing that Deep South project with Jimmy Hall, Artimus Pyle, Robert Nix, Dean Daughtrey and Hal McCormack. It was a Southern Rock all star kind of thing. We did a video and we did four or five shows. About the second show Dean Daughtrey had to have brain surgery, which he has now recovered from and he is fine. But Joe Boogie was his replacement. I had never met him. He was friends with Hal. He came in and, he’s like the other guys, a younger dude with great energy and all the right equipment.
My guitar player is Ricky Ussery. Rick and I grew up playing together. I haven’t played with him in 20 years. His sister Christy Ussery is one of my background singers. But Rick is great. And my sweet wife Jenny Hicks is the other Chicklette or Hick-Up or whatever you call our backup singers. The girls have really added a lot to the band. I had girls on the record so I wanted to bring out girls on the live show. It reminds me of a reverse Gladys Knight and the Pips, or Aretha when Carolyn and the other sister were really singing good backup vocals.
Who produced Dog Eat Dog World? Tell me a little about the album.
Technically I suppose I produced the album, but I produced it with Paul Hornsby and Clay Cook too. I cut all the tracks in Macon with Paul. I did all my overdubs with Paul. We were pretty much finished and it was suggested to me that I take it somewhere else to get a fresh perspective. We sent it out to Clay and he worked on it for a couple of days and I liked what he had done. He actually took stuff out more than adding to what we had done.
We recut a couple of tracks at Clay’s and he played on a couple of tracks. And on the record where I was doing all the vocals, Clay went back and sang harmony on some of the songs so it is not all me, it doesn’t sound overdubbed. He put it in Pro Tools and kind of updated the sound. We had a kind of Stax or Motown sound, and that’s still there, but Clay kind of modernized it. Then we sent it to California to John Porter. He has quite a track record, mastering Los Lonley Boys and Steppenwolf and many others. He’s an English cat. He called me and told me he liked the stuff and even thanked me for letting him be a part of it. He did a great job mastering it, he really did. But it was about a two year project. It was a labor of love, but it was also a test of patience for me. We’ve got a few campaigns lined up for it.
Ron Rainey told me you were already getting some air play around the country.
Yeah, I hear Nashville and Knoxville radio are playing “The Chokin’ Kind.” And there's a lot of stations playing “Dog Eat Dog.” I hear some internet radio stations are playing “The Tie That Binds.” We’re treating it like the old days, as an album, and the program directors can just pick what they want to play.
I just love “Georgia Moon.” I think it should be the Georgia state song.
Paul Hornsby wrote it. He played it for me 20 years ago and I said “that’s mine. One day I want to record that.” I think he won songwriter of the year for that song that year. It’s a great song. It’s really a Ray Charles style piano song, but I ended up recording it as an acoustic guitar song. It was Paul’s suggestion. But that song is bigger than all of us. I knew that 20 years ago and I’m proud that its on my record.
Shifting gears again. What do you feel are the most important things in life?
I believe - learning to understand what this life is. How to act rather than react when bad situations come up. I believe there is good energy and bad energy. I’m not wearing too many beads right now but I believe the hippie generation had a lot of it right. If you throw lots of love at things it’s a lot better. Even in a bad situation. It’s a lesson for some of us to learn. Other people may have a different mission in life, but I think it’s about understanding and helping other people understand what it is we are doing here and why. I think that’s what’s great about music. A great song takes you out of reality for a minute and puts you into a different place. If you are in a certain state of mind you are going to see and hear things you wouldn’t otherwise see or hear. You have to open up your heart and show love. It’s about giving and forgiving, even when people say or do things to hurt you. With love and music people all feel it in their own way, and that’s what life is all about.