Everything Old is New Again:
The Marshall Tucker Band Release
Tommy Caldwell's Final Performance
by Michael Buffalo Smith
The Marshall Tucker Band is alive and well in the 21st century, thanks to the “never say die” attitude of lead singer Doug Gray, the management of Ron Rainey, the support of Shout! Factory Records and most of all, because of the legions of fans from eight to eighty who still buy the back catalog, the new records and come out for the shows.
The band today consists of Gray, along with guitarists Chris Hicks and Stuart Swanlund; horn and key man Dave Muse (formerly of Firefall); bassist Pat Elwood and drummer B.B. Borden, an original member of Mother’s Finest.
Recently, Shout! Factory released the MTB fan’s dream album, available for the first time. It’s a 2-CD set, recorded back in 1980 at Nassau Coliseum in Long Island, New York. The special concert was the last for bassist Tommy Caldwell, who suffered a Jeep wreck back home in Spartanburg, S.C. the day after this show, and died a few days later.
Doug Gray met me for a seafood lunch in Greenville, SC, and gave us his thoughts on the new album, and discussed his recent throat surgery and guitarist Chris Hicks’ upcoming solo album.
How long has The Marshall Tucker Band been recording and performing now?
Since February of 1972. Thirty-five years.
Carolina Christmas is the latest studio album. Now you have released what is one of my all time favorite classic MTB shows on a 2-CD set, Live On Long Island, the show that was recorded in 1980 the night before Tommy Caldwell had his Jeep wreck in Spartanburg, SC.
I remixed that with Buddy Strong at Southeastern Sound Studios (Easley, SC). We did that record with more love than you can imagine. It brought back more than just memories. It brought back the feelings of why we ever started The Marshall Tucker Band in the first place. It makes you wonder where we would be now if Toy and Tommy were still alive. Their dream was as strong as mine was. And it brought back those memories. It brought tears to my eyes, and stirred up those feelings. It actually puts you back onstage during that night. I have some regrets about sounding bad one night or things not going well, but with nights like that one you just think at the time there’s never gonna be an end to it. I’m sure if I’d been the on that died in that Land Cruiser instead of Tommy, I would hope and pray that they’d still be out there doing the same thing, because that is why we started it to begin with. We wanted to make something of ourselves. That’s all we knew. We were from South Carolina, and we weren't the most educated of people, but we’d been to high school and we did everything we possibly could to make everybody proud.
People have been asking for this concert on CD for years now.
It’s not only the last show of the original band, it really is the last time you could feel that particular feeling. And how do you go on from that? I sure don’t know how Toy went on after losing his brother, and after losing his younger brother a year earlier. I remember when Toy shook my hand and said “keep on rocking,” that for me was his approval. Toy was a huge strength even without playing guitar. He was a strong person. He just didn’t want to do it any more, so he just took a break from it in 1984.
What can you tell me about Chris Hicks and his solo record?
Chris had already worked on a lot of projects himself and played on his own and other people’s stuff, so we just decided it was time for him to do his thing. He has dedicated so much to Marshall Tucker. He gave his whole life to The Marshall Tucker Band. Chris is one hell of a songwriter, and I never met a person who didn’t like Chris. He’s got the songs. Paul Hornsby is helping him with it. It’s going to be great.
Any plans for more MTB DVD’s?
There are other ones. They need to be cleaned up. We have several on the books.
You guys have been touring for a long time. How are things on the road these days? Have you noticed any changes in recent years?
Audiences are getting younger. It’s really surprising because some of them don’t know that you have even one record out. When I go to the message board or the guest book, it is amazing to read someone saying, “I’m 17 and this was my first concert,” or “That was the best concert I’ve ever seen.” I don’t know if we’ll ever be anything more than what we are today, but we never knew a long time ago we’d ever be around for thirty-something years. The most important thing is to see everybody happy. It’s always been my goal that whoever was playing in the band leave that stage with a big smile. We found out that a big part of it was knowing each other so well, and having laughs about one guy having to wear a shit he didn’t like onstage because he didn’t have anything clean, and he had to wear a shirt that had not been washed in five weeks. Laughing and happiness makes you keep on going. Not just the band, but the fans of Marshall Tucker come to have fun. They don’t come just to get drunk. Like Tommy’s last concert, on this CD. You can feel the happiness and the fun. And on this CD, you don’t have to wait for a song to fade out and then go to another track, it’s all together. Two CDs worth of music, back to back, without any breaks. Just like being at the actual show.
You’ve gone through quite an ordeal lately with your throat. What can you tell us about that?
Why did I finally have surgery after so long of sounding one way? About five years ago I realized that my voice wasn’t as strong as it once was. People can work out and get stronger but you can’t work out your voice, it just gets raw. So I started looking for a doctor that could make my voice stronger. So I went to Wake Forest, to their Voice and Throat department, where they have a person that’s been around for a long time. I went up and talked to her. I had spoken with some people in France, but I felt comfortable with her, and I talked to some people that she had done some work with. So she did one side and she didn’t want to do the other side. I was pretty messed up. That was Dr. Jane Kaufman. And she had tried this experimental stuff for a long time. Now she’s going around teaching other doctors. But it worked, and my voice was back within about three hours. I was awake during surgery, which was really something. I took a chance because I was not very happy with the way my voice was headed, so I was willing to take the chance. Then we had to go back in and do the other side.
We’re all glad it working out for you. Have you noticed a resurge in interest in Southern rock?
Well, everything always comes back around. In 1977 everyone said Southern rock was dead and gone. Now, thirty years later, it is back strong as ever. But I don’t believe it will ever go huge and mainstream again, because the companies are not marketing Southern music. They are concentrating on rap, hip-hop and pop. The big companies, and I am part owner of one of them, have a tendency to want to make money, and they make money that way. But still, Southern rock will always have its audience, and when I am on that stage it’s not about making money; it’s about expressing yourself and entertaining. And the money is an afterthought.