Dru Lombar Recalls Grinderswitch, Joe Dan and Southern Rock of the Seventies
by Michael Buffalo Smith
(prior to the reformation of Grinderswitch, the death of Joe Dan Petty and ultimately the death of Dru in 2005)
Jacksonville, Florida may be best known for some other well-known rock and roll pioneers who busted out of the orange groves and beaches to rise to fame and fortune but there once was another guitar player lurking in the shadows of Duane Allman. A guitar player who possessed a heart full of soul and lightning fingers on the electric six-string. A man whose voice and guitar work would front a band called Grinderswitch, one of the rockingest bands to call the South home during the peak days of Capricorn Records, The Allman Brothers Band, The Charlie Daniels Band and The Marshall Tucker Band. Dru Lombar.
Lombar has been around the world several times backing Bonnie Bramlett, performing with Grinderswitch and opening shows for the Brothers, Charlie, Tucker and countless others. He’s written a peach truck full of great songs and recorded and played with the best of the best.
Today he fronts his band of ten years, Dr. Hector and the Groove Injectors, based out of his Florida home offices. We sat down for a friendly chat with the guitar slinger just a few weeks before the tragic death of his brother of the road, Joe Dan Petty. What follows is that interview in its entirety.
How did you form Grinderswitch and who was originally in the band?
I went to Macon in December of 1972. I had heard that Joe Dan Petty, who was working with The Allman Brothers Band, was going to put together a band. So, I went up there to see about that and I hooked up with him. Larry Howard and Rick Burnett had come up from Aburndale -- they were friends of Les Dudek. We ended up living in this house in the country where we lived and rehearsed and wrote and played twenty-four hours a day. We lived off of $25 a week Joe Dan would pay us. He was the only guy working, as a crewman for the Brothers, so he was keeping us in cigarette, beer and food money. We did that until Paul Hornsby came along and listened to the tunes and he got Phil Walden interested. Then we went into the studio and off we went.
What was life like on the road during the seventies in a rock and roll band?
When you’re 21 years old and you’re out there playing for ten or twenty thousand people a night, you know, you’re just loving it, man. And people loving it -- getting off on what you do -- it was just a good, high-energy, positive situation. It was work, I mean. Like when we toured with the Brothers they might have a day in between each gig. We’d spend that day driving. Say they were in Greensboro one night and the next night they might be in New York or Atlanta. They’d get on their plane, they had a jet they chartered, and they’d pop right up. Us, we’d get in the van and hit the road; but we didn’t care, you know? We spent most of our time on the road. When we weren’t playing with the Brothers we were playing with Skynyrd or the Tuckers or Charlie. We did a lot of dates with Charlie Daniels and Marshall Tucker -- I mean a lot of dates. And we did the stuff with Wet Willie and the clubs, of course, where we’d get to headline our own rooms.
What was it like to work with the Allmans?
Only the best, you know? On the road there are some bands that feel like, “you can’t use this monitor” or, “you can’t use these lights,” you can’t do this, you can’t do that. But the Brothers said go out there and use whatever you want. And if we got an encore, they’d say, “go out there and take your encore.” They were real supportive guys, man.
What are your memories of the original Marshall Tucker Band?
They were a great bunch of guys. The salt of the earth. Carolina boys. Country boys. Not pretentious at all. What a unique sound. They gave a hundred percent. They hit the stage and they’d go out and give the people their money’s worth. They were great guys, man. And, once again, there was a relationship there where they were very supportive of us and, you know, it was like a big family with all those bands.
Same question, Charlie Daniels.
The godfather, man. He’s the one. All of his band were great guys. Always supportive, talented, always in your corner. Always willing to give you a shot.
The bad boys. (laughs) I grew up with them guys in Jacksonville. They were the bad boys but hard working and committed. Ronnie Van Zant was a great talent. A great writer and singer. That’s a sad situation, that whole thing. They lived maybe a little too fast.
Soulful. A band full of soul. Nice cats. Jimmy Hall, the best kept secret in the South. That guy can sing and play. And showmanship -- he should have been a big, big, big, big star. But he’s a real humble, laid back guy and not a pusher. A beautiful cat. They wrote some great songs, uplifting stuff, like “Keep On Smilin.” They were the funk side of Capricorn, I thought.
What would you say were some of the highlights from your Grinderswitch days?
Charlotte Speedway. The August Jam. We played with the Brothers and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, in front of 300,000 people. I’ve never seen so many people in one place at the same time. We flew in on a helicopter and said "my God, look at this!" It looked like a sea of people. It was an incredible experience. And the Brothers shows, especially Madison Square Garden and Long Island, they were just really great shows. And doing Central Park with the Tuckers. That was real cool, man. Right in the middle of New York City, all these guys in cowboy hats. I loved it. And when we went over to Europe with the Tuckers and we took Bonnie Bramlett with us. We were her band as well as being Grinderswitch. That was real cool because she is the queen of soul, man. I mean, she is probably the very best white woman soul singer on earth.
That must have been a fun trip.
It was great! It was crazy, you know? We were over in Europe, all these cowboys drinking that German beer in the beer garden and listening to the oom-pah band, you know, and Bonnie gets up there and starts jamming with this polka band. We were just whacked, man. It was fun.
I’m sure there was a lot of jamming going on at the end of those shows. Do you enjoy jamming or do you prefer to play straight up songs?
We jammed all the time. That was always the thing, man. With Charlie or the Brothers, or the Tuckers, there was always some jamming going on. But I like it both ways. The jamming, when you play with great players like that, to me it’s fun.
What caused Grinderswitch to break up?
Oh, man. (laughs) Disco kind of took over the mainstream. And if you don’t sell records and you don’t sell tickets...you know what I’m saying?
We began grinding down. Of course, we weren’t up to the level of the Allmans. You know, down to the Brothers was a lot less down than down to Grinderswitch.
When did you finally throw in the towel?
About 1981. We did one final tour and we went with Bonnie and did a bunch of things in Canada and that was it. It was over. Boom! It was over.
So when did you form Dr. Hector and The Groove Injectors?
1986. After a brief break from the music industry. I’ll tell you who’s with me now. I can’t even remember who was with me then. (laughs) Rick Johnson, he’s been with me about eight years. A great sax player and keyboard player. He was the one that was out with Lynyrd Skynyrd on their reunion tour. Then I’ve got Clint Carver, a Jacksonville boy here on bass and vocals. And a guy named Gene Meledreras on drums. He’s out of New England and used to be with Matt “Guitar” Murphy.
How many albums has Dr. Hector done?
Four studio records. And we’re working on a fifth one. Of course we released Cure for the Common Groove (Kingsnake 048) which was a compilation. We got a little press from that one. A good bit from you, actually.
I love that album. When you play out now do you guys do any Grinderswitch tunes?
We do “Pickin’ the Blues” but that’s about it. Nah, man, it’s like, I wrote new tunes. You know what I’m saying? But I’m always toying with the idea of redoing one or two of them.
Do you think you’d ever put Grinderswitch together and tour again?
No. But me, Joe Dan and Larry are talking about doing an album. If that is received I wouldn’t mind doing a Grinderswitch tour.
Maybe you could join Charlie’s Volunteer Jam tour.
I think we could. I love those jams. For me, that’s what it’s all about. We could come out and do a show but it’s pretty cool when you can introduce somebody outside your circle into it and that makes it that much more interesting. Have Charlie come out and play some fiddle with you. Like last fall, the Brothers were here and I went to the gig and they said, hey man, you want to play? So I did a couple of tunes with them at the end of the gig and it was like old times.
What would you say have been some of the highlights for Dr. Hector & The Groove Injectors thus far?
One of ‘em was going to Japan. We went over with Alex Taylor in 1992 and it was just so cool. And we played Paris two or three times and that’s always really neat. It’s such an old place. A lot of it’s bread and butter gigs but a lot of it’s fun, like The Illinois Blues Festival. That’s always a lot of fun and the people are so cool. We’re well received. Clubs are a lot of fun, too.
I know you stay in touch with your Grinderswitch band mates. Didn’t you play on Larry Howard’s gospel CD, American Roots?
Yeah. That was almost a Grinderswitch reunion right there. Joe Dan ended up playing on it. It was fun, man. And that’s when we started talking about a new Grinderswitch album. I’d probably do some of my stuff from Dr. Hector but do it more like Grinderswitch. I’d write some new stuff, too. Maybe we’d even recut some old stuff. And I know Larry’s got some tunes.
Well, Dru, thank you for your time, brother.
Thanks, Michael, I appreciate you doing this.
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The GRITZ follow-up interview:
Hello Dru. Do you mind a few more questions?
Not at all. Fire away.
How did you and the rest of Grinderswitch hook up with Bonnie Bramlett?
Bonnie Bramlett just showed up in Macon and immediately became one of us. Not only is she one of the best female singers of all time, she is also a real honest down to earth person. I’m trying to talk her management into letting her go out with Dr. Hector. We could flat burn down any club or festival. She is #1 in my book!
Did you ever work with her ex, Delaney?
I never had a chance to meet or work with Delaney.
What about Bobby Whitlock?
Bobby and me became good friends and started writing and recording together. I played on both his Capricorn records. Rock your Sox Off was one of the best records out on Capricorn that year but they put the ugliest cover on it so that killed it. The art director should have been shot. Bobby’s a very talented guy. Great songwriter. Capricorn should re-release it...with a new cover.
You have just put out a CD called Unfinished Business, a never before released Grinderswitch record, dedicated to Joe Dan. How did that come to be?
One morning in December I woke up and started thinking about going into a new century and I was trying to think of things that should be finished before the New Year. I decided that this record should be released even if I had to just do it on a one-on-one basis (I had already had it mastered). So, I sent out a few emails and postcards to some longtime GS fans making them aware I was going to do this. The response was strong enough to take it up a few steps. So, I came up with a name Unfinished Business and sent out some more emails saying I needed a cover and did anyone have any ideas. I got about four or five emails with cover art, But the one that got my attention was from a longtime fan from Japan. His name is Koji Takagi and he sent me the train track going through the clouds into the circle of light. I was knocked out by it so we emailed each other back and forth to get the text right and finally I had it printed. I added the dedication later. While all this was going on I got the call from Larry Howard about Joe Dan’s death. It floored me.
Joe Dan was a very strong man with a lot of moral fiber. He was always honest and fair. In the rock and roll business he was the exception to the rule. He was not only a band mate but he was a mentor to all of us in Grinderswitch.
We all went to Macon for the service. Larry and Kirk West really put it all together. As sad as it was it was good to see a lot of old friends who had lost touch with each other. So, if anything positive came out of JD’s death it was that it brought a lot of people together and made them realize the importance of staying connected. That's what Southern Music was always about -- the sense of kinship like a big family. Joe Dan was one of the most honest, moral and committed men I’ve ever known. We will miss him greatly.
I suppose there’s no hope for a Grinderswitch reunion now.
I don’t think Grinderswitch will reunite as some of the guys are into different types of careers. I just don’t know. Sometimes I’d like to go out and just play the old tunes but it would just be me and I’m sure it wouldn’t be the same. We’ll see. Presently I’m working on a new Dr. Hector CD as well as producing a 15-16 year old blues rock band from Jacksonville called Thunder and Lightning and planning a live Grinderswitch CD later this year.
UPDATE: Grinderswitch did indeed reunite in the form of Dru and a cast of new players and recorded an excellent CD, Ghost Train From Georgia. Just days after playing the first GRITZFEST in 2005, Dru suffered a major heart attack, went into a coma and slipped away a few days later. We had lost another dear friend.