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Tommy Crain

TOMMY CRAIN

by Michael Buffalo Smith
December 2002

During our first three years on the internet, one question that got asked more often than any other was, “Whatever happened to Tommy Crain?” Well, for a while, I had no idea. Following his departure from The Charlie Daniels Band after fifteen glorious years of smoking guitar work, Tommy seemed to drop off the map. Well, we have some good news. Tommy is back, and playing as good as ever. So, without further ado, our interview with southern rock pioneer Tommy Crain.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born and raised in Nashville, Tenn.

When did you first become interested in playing music?

There was a kid in the sixth grade that lived down the street. He had a guitar and he taught me how to play a four string ukelele. We learned “Where Have All The Flowers Gone.”

(Laughs) Oh yeah, “long time passing.”

(laughs)Yeah, and we entered a talent contest in the school and performed it and won and from that time on, I knew this is what I wanted to do. I want to entertain.

So what was the first band that you put together?

I was in the 7th grade and it was a school that was a private boys school called Montgomery Bell Academy  here in Nashville. A very straight upper left kind of thing. And I got with some of my schoolmates in the neighborhood and named our group the Spartans. I believe we must have been studying ancient Greek and Roman history at that time. (laughs) These guys had another guitar player that they didn’t like and then I had borrowed his guitar and amp one day and played with them, and they said he is fired and you are hired. I guess I felt kind of bad about that. (laughs).

How quickly people come and go in this business.

I saw that early on.

What other memories can you share about some of the early groups you performed with? I don’t know much about your pre-Charlie Daniels history, so what can you share about that?

Still in high school-I had made most of my living from the age of 14 onward in music- I was a member of a fraternity and we would play pretty much every Friday and Saturday night for the sorority and fraternity dances. The first one of these bands was called the Lemonade Charade. I was telling you yesterday I went through a trunk load of pictures and found some just classic shots. One of the first promo shots was me with this band in clown-like Beatle outfits, bell-bottoms and flared sleaves and very colorful. This stuff was just fun to look at.

So tell me a little bit about your brother. Did ya’ll play together in the early years?

Here’s the story on how that got started. I was playing guitar and Billy was interested, but I didn’t know he did anything. I came into my bedroom one day and my guitar was sitting up against the wall with a broken string. I went to find Billy and couldn’t find him anywhere and then found him hiding up under my bed. He had taken my guitar out and played it and broke the string and was scared that I would kill him. I said, no, let’s just play together. Then he got his own guitar and we started sitting together and playing without amps and learning stuff. Then we both got busted in 1970, in Nashville for marijuana and I got out of it by going to this group therapy session thing but Billy was under house arrest and could only go to school and come home. So every day I would come home and play with him for 2-3 hours after school. Then the Allman Brothers came out and it just all opened up.

This is skipping around the time line but tell me who Billy went on to play with later.

Billy and I had a band here in Nashville that was pretty successful locally called the Flat Creek Band. He and I both wrote some original music with this band, and after that band broke up I formed a band called Buckeye that played in the southeast region. Then when I got the offer to play with Charlie Daniel’s Band  in 1975, Billy took my place in Buckeye. Then Billy went on to play with Bobby Whitlock, after the Layla and Eric Clapton thing for several years. Then after that, he moved to Florida and played with the Henry Paul Band for about 9 years, and then when Henry went back to the Outlaws and broke that band up he played with The Bellamy Brothers for about 9 years.

I wonder if he was on any of those Whitlock albums, I have all of them.

I honestly couldn’t tell you because I don’t have any of those records.

I’ll have to check it out.Tell me how you came to join the Charlie Daniel’s Band?

The band I mentioned called Flat Creek had a road manager named David Corlew, who is Charlie’s personal manager now. When the band broke up, David went on to road manage Charlie Daniels,  and in 1974, my band Buckeye opened the very first Volunteer Jam, and I actually played the first musical note of any Volunteer Jam ever because it started with a guitar riff. But I had met Charlie that night and he told me that he was losing both his guitar player and drummer and asked me if I would be interested. Well, to be honest with him I told him that I was still playing with my brother Billy and I didn’t want to leave him. I thought it over for about one week and turned him down because of that, and in retrospect that was a stupid thing to do, but I was naive back then and didn’t know what was going on.  One year later we played at another Volunteer Jam and at that time my band had broken up. He asked me again and I gladly accepted. Charlie said that we would be going on tour the first of the year in 1975, so my wife and I drove down to Knoxville and saw a show and she left me at the hotel and went home and Charlie and I went up to the hotel room, and I roomed with him for six years after that. I learned all the songs from the Fire On The Mountain album and he and I just sat up in the room with two electric guitars and no amps and just played the whole thing and it was just magical. I had never experienced anything like it.

I can truthfully say having seen you guys together a few times that it has never been quite the same since you left- and there are some great players that have played in the CDB and still are- but there is something about you and Charlie together that just can’t be duplicated.

At that time they were touring with Skynyrd. Charlie said that  he wanted me to come on the road and that the other guitar player was finishing up his last two weeks and Barry, Charlie’s former guitar player left the band and I finally got to play and we were in Chattanooga and opening for Joe Walsh. I will never forget it. It was Jan. 28, 1975.

Then you went on to play for about 15 years?

Yeah, almost 15 years.

Let me jump back for a second and ask you when you were talking about Buckeye wasn’t my friend Ray Brand (now with The Crawlers) in that band?

Yeah, Ray played in there after I had left. It was great to see him at the studio because I had not seen him in years.

Yeah, he is a very nice guy, man. I was fortunate to  meet him, and then his band was the core band on my album. And  having you and Bonnie (Bramlett) on it made it even more special. About songwriting with the Charlie Daniel’s band - didn’t you write some of those songs?

I guess I co-wrote about 60 songs. Charlie is a super guy and he takes very good care of his band members and treats them as front men rather than side men. When I first joined the band, like Taz said in  his interview, Charlie would let us have a song on every record. Taz and I got to do one song per record and no other artist lets you do that. As far as the writing goes, we would go out to Charlie’s and put all our ideas together and start rehearsing and this would all gel and get put together. He would give us 50% and he took the other 50%, and this was so nice of him because he wrote most of the stuff and we all just added to it. He was super-cool to let everyone be a part of the music. That was really big of him and there is no other  man like him alive.
 
I believe that, I really do.

Did you co-write “Devil Went Down To Georgia?”

Yeah, I did Michael. There is a little story behind that.

Which album is that on?

Million Mile Reflections, I think.

Yeah, I am getting older I guess. We had cut our last track and then Charlie’s eyes got real wide and said to Taz and I, “Boys, we don’t have a fiddle song on this album. We have to  have a fiddle song.” Then he asked Taz and I to come out into the studio room and he said that he had this idea about the Devil and this kid having a fiddling contest. I immediately came up with the beginning lick and Taz and I and Charlie sat down and we put the music together in about 30  minutes. We went home that night and overnight Charlie had written the lyrics out and he came in and we recorded it the  next day and then won a Grammy award for it.

It’s amazing. That has to be one of the most played songs of all time. In both country and rock,  it was so popular.

It’s funny because we wrote it so quick. You can spend hours agonizing over a song and then this one just fell together.

One of my friends wanted me to ask you about the song “Cumberland Mountain #9.”

That song was written back when I was in the Flat Creek Band. I used to spend lots of time up in the Smokey Mountains, hanging around with Jerry and Mack Gayden. I would get these ideas driving around East Tennessee in the mountains and like the song “Franklin Limestone.”  I used to go by the Franklin Limestone Company which is right in Crab Orchard, Tennessee and it is a mining operation. That is where I came up with that title for that one just riding by it. “Cumberland Mountain #9”  is about a whiskey still, and it just kind of happened one day.

I wanted to ask you what it was like overall to work with Charlie Daniels.

Oh, well I was a frontman, up there talking on the microphone and he would have us introduce songs and things. He is a super guy to work with. You don’t cross him because he is a disciplined man and has  his values and issues and he knows what he wants. He didn’t get there by being stupid, but by being smart. He has been through lots in his career, with managers, people that were not quite honest. But he has handled it and he is still out there and going for it.

I can’t believe how much he is doing at his age and not slowing down at all.

It is still my pleasure to be able to go out and sit in with the band every once in awhile. I sat in for about 5-6 show s with them this year.

It was great seeing you down at Angelus last year and I guess we will be repeating that again this year.

Yeah, we will. I will be seeing you there. We are supposed to play together aren’t we?

Definitely. If you are into it.

Oh, yeah, we will do it.

During the hey day of Southern Rock,  who were some of your favorite bands to be on the road with?

On the road, I guess it would have been Marshall Tucker Band. Toy and I were great friends and once we got to know each other we did everything together. I just loved playing shows with them. I loved Wet Willie, but I guess I enjoyed playing with everyone. My all time heroes are the Allman Brothers, and Duane and Gregg grew up in the same part of Nashville I grew up in,  but at the time I did not know them. When we finally did meet, Gregg was really  nice to me and encouraged me to play. We did some great tours with the Outlaws. They were college tours and were lots of fun with no restrictions on the concerts and we could do whatever we wanted and it was a blast. I used to jump off the bus and ride with the Outlaws because we were just great friends.

Were you telling me about the first time you met Toy Caldwell?

I think it might have been Tommy Caldwell, Toy’s brother. David Corlew told me he had a guy that wanted to meet me named Tommy Caldwell, so I said, let’s do it. He was extremely nice and welcomed me into the band. He said he had wanted to meet me, and said we would all have great fun.

He was right.

I have nothing but great memories of those guys.

I still miss them. Watching them play was magic.

Kind of like a freight train coming right through your living room, or right through the auditorium. One of my most fond memories was the Volunteer Jams.

Do you have any memories that stand out and  make you smile when you think of them?

I played on every Volunteer Jam, even after I left the band. The first Volunteer Jam I opened the show with my  band. The second one I was with Charlie in Murfreesboro. When we had the Volunteer Jam in Nashville we always had it at the Muncipal Auditorium and Charlie always got us rooms at the Hyatt House, a few blocks away, because we would have some beers after the show and would not have to drive home.  Just another way he took care of us. So after the show was over one night I go back - and my Mom was such a great fan and she and Dad always came to the shows-One night I went in after the show and there was my Mom and Dickey Betts arm and arm having a nice time talking. It was a sight. (Laughs) Doing the Volunteer Jam was always such a pleasure and there were so many great performers that I can’t even mention all of them. For the first 7-8 Volunteer Jams we would back up all the performers. We learned all their songs and I was the bandleader at that time.

I was watching one recently, the only one I have on video, the one from 1975 that was released in the movie theatres too. It seemed like so much fun. Maybe it’s because I am a musician, but it just seemed great fun.

We always had rehearsal on a Friday night before and all the artists would come down and we would meet them and we didn’t actually chart the music. They would just play us a song and we would learn it and go for it and know it the next night.

What would you say that out of all those years with Charlie Daniel’s Band would be some of the highlights that stand head and shoulders above the rest for you personally?

We had lunch with President Carter and Rosalynn at the White House. I got to be good friends with Chip Carter, the president’s son while we were campaigning for him and playing shows, and he played a joke on me one time. We had lunch by the pool and they had an oompah-Marine band playing in the corner. Chip says, “does anyone want to go for a swim?” I had brought my trunks and little Amy was playing in the pool at the time. I jumped into the pool big time and made a huge splash, and when I came back up there were four secret service men there saying, “Son, you just don’t do that.” Well, I got out and asked Chip where I could go change back into my clothes and he said to go through this pink door and change. I went through the pink door and I am standing there naked getting  my clothes on, bent over, and the door opened and it was Rosalynn’s Mom standing there. I mooned the first Mother-in-law. (laughs) Chip was laughing his brains out when I came out of there.

(Laughs) I didn’t realize what a multi-instrumentalist that you are until you came to record on my album and brought in that truck load of axes.  What all do you play?

Well, I play Dobro, electric slide, pedal steel, and I play banjo. And of course, guitar.

Wow. As far as guitar goes, who would you say are some of your musical influences?

Okay. when I first started playing serious guitar- remember the old Small Stone fuzz box? I had one of those and was just making noise. I was actually grabbing a microphone and playing slide with the microphone stand. I was playing with a guy named Steve Davis that eventually went on to join Barefoot Jerry. We did this concert here at Peabody Music School, and I was just making all this noise with the Fuzz box and he told me that I had to get over this and learn  how to play. He told me to go out and buy a Les Paul and the Super Sessions album that Santana, Al Kooper, and Michael Bloomfield and some of those guys were on. So I sat down and plugged into a Fender Twin with no effects and started learning those licks. That kind of clued me into what I needed to do. Then Hendrix and Clapton came out, and then I learned some of that. I went up to see my sister at UT and stayed with her. She had the Allman Brothers first record and played it for me and my jaw hit the ground. I decided then and there that that was what I wanted to do.

Me and about 400,000 other people want to know- Why did you leave The Charlie Daniels’ Band?

There were many, many reasons. I was getting burned out traveling on the road. When I first joined the band we were doing about 300 dates per year. I was getting older and my daughter was fixing to become a teenager and my wife’s career in endurance riding was blooming and my brother and I had made a pact that if he had come off the road and wanted to do a band that I would do it with him. I had told Charlie years earlier that there may come a time when I would have to  leave the band to play with my brother again. He said that all I had to do was let him know when that happened, so I went to him and told him how I felt. Six months later I was at home working with my brother Billy.

What happened with that project?

Well, the band was called Big Sir, and I always hated that name, because people always mispelled it and thought we were from  Big Sur, California. Then we called it the Whooping Cranes later.

(laughs). What year did you leave Charlie?

I gave him notice in the late winter of 1989 and I had planned to stay with the band through the year and put money back to form this new band. Knowing Charlie, he is not wasting any time. He goes looking for people. About two months later, I was backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, and Mel McDaniel had just played and he had a guitar player named Bruce Brown and my roadie Roger came up and told me that I had been replaced by that guy standing right over there.

So you said that Jack Gavin also played with Mel McDaniel?

Yeah, Jack Gavin was originally with Mel,  and we did some auditions for drummers and he got the job. He had told Charlie about Bruce Brown and Charlie hired him that night after hearing him right there on the spot.

Tell me about this project with Gene Golden, the Golden Crane album (14 Shades of Rhythm & Blues) that I personally love, and how you guys decided to do this great R & B album?

Thanks, I really appreciate that. We have known each other since high school, but were not playing together. He had been on the road with Kenny Rogers for over 20 years and then I was playing with Charlie for all that time. Then Gene had quit Kenny and he called me one night and wanted me to come out to his studio in his house at Hermitage and just play some. It really worked out and we have been working together for about seven years now. We have about 6-700 songs in the can and as you know it is very hard to place things in Nashville-and I am not a 16th Avenue kind of guy. I stay down here in Franklin, Tennessee, away from all that stuff. The same people are there all the time and are hiring each other and tooting each others horns. So you can’t compete with them. Gene and I just decided to go other places and we had all this material and we decided  to put something out and see what happens. Gene picked out a bunch of songs that I helped him arrange.

What is the other project that you are excited about now?

Oh, this is the project that I have been working toward for 13 years. We have Steve Grisham formerly of The Outlaws, on guitar and vocals. We have Bary Rapp, formerly of the Henry Paul Band, on keyboards and we have Johnny Few, formerly of the Dickey Betts Band, on bass. And Jimmy Gunn formerly of Brooks and Dunn is on drums. All five of us are lead singers and back up singers, and we have had three rehearsals so far and it is just coming out great and we  have great material that is all original and it is pure Southern Rock. The band is called Gone South.

Not to blow wind up your skirt but people have been looking for Tommy Crain for a while now.

The person that has really pushed me along more than anyone has been my wife. When I came off the road, it was to help her to become an endurance rider professionally. She does these 100-mile horse races and is very successful at it. She needs me as a crewman to help her do this, and I really wanted to do it. She has won medals and world championships. For the past several years she has said that I am not using my talents,  and now I am going to do it. Just get out there and play.

What’s next on your agenda?

The boys are coming up from Florida next weekend and we have some rehearsals going, and then me and Jimmy and Johnny are going down there to stay with Steve and Barry and woodshed down there for about one week in the studio, and do a couple of club dates.We are ready to go!
              

UPDATE: Tommy Crain is now touring with his excellent band, The Crosstown Allstars, as well as sitiing in from time to time with The Charlie Daniels Band.                       

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