Elmore writer Melissa Caruso had a chat with Marshall Tucker Band’s Doug Gray, who shared a little of the band’s history and some of its future.
Lynyrd Skynyrd has announced its final tour and Marshall Tucker Band will hit the road with their Southern rock brethren for a string of dates in eleven North American amphitheaters. The tour is named “Last of the Street Survivors Farewell Tour,” a nod to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s fifth studio album Street Survivors (the last album recorded by original members Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, and Cassie Gaines), and will celebrate the band’s illustrious career as one of Southern rock’s quintessential outfits, a forty-plus year career that includes platinum records and an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But to Marshall Tucker Band frontman Doug Gray, the word “farewell” doesn’t entirely register, “Elton John said he’s gonna do a farewell tour,” Gray told us. “I can’t honestly believe that he’ll stop completely playing. We’re all playing ’til we’re dead. It’s as simple as that.”
The Marshall Tucker Band swept blues, country, and jazz into a melodic cocktail that would permeate through four decades. They have been at the helm of Southern rock, along with Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers Band, with records reaching platinum status and sold-out tours. In recent years, the band has traveled to Iraq to entertain American troops through Stars for Stripes, took their sound to uncharted waters aboard the Southern Rock Cruise, and had their songs licensed in television and film, the latter causing a recognizable spike in attention and sales. The band is also known for their altruism, donating “Doug Hug” T-Shirt sales directly to the Native American Heritage Association.
Having participated in some 300 interviews last year alone, it’s no surprise to find Gray to be an amicable man who colors the conversation with humor and excitement. He recounts stories of being on the road with the Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd, tales of hotel hangouts, that time in Pittsburgh a girl rode an elevator up and down four floors buck naked claiming to have been locked out of her room. “You know Gregg [Allman] especially, he attracted attention all the time. You didn’t want to ask why, you just wanted to get the hell out of there!” Other memories that stand out include celebrities like Roy Rodgers coming to MTB shows, and the time Santana joined the band on stage. “Oh man, you don’t have a clue what that makes you feel like!”
Marshall Tucker Band’s longevity could be attributed to Gray’s spirit and down-to-earth demeanor. He is known to invite fans in the crowd up on stage to sing or jam along. “I let one guy get up there and he sang and everybody loved him, so I let him finish the song. I just walked to the back and let him have it. What is there to be afraid of? Somebody being good?” At another show a girl and her violin wanted to join the magic. “She spoke another language; I didn’t know what she was saying, but then I heard her say ‘This Ol’ Cowboy,’ and go, ‘Fine with me,’ because there’s a fiddle on it. I wish I recorded that. She just got up there and floored everybody.” Imagine that juxtaposition: a girl trained in classical music “with a bunch of rednecks like us,” Gray laughed.
There were other moments in the conversation when Gray pointed out how he wished that he had saved that photo, kept that article. In response to Jack White’s plans to ban cell phones from his upcoming tour, Gray has opposing views: “As far as cell phones and pictures and stuff like that, people do that because they want to keep the memories. That’s why they still come out to see Marshall Tucker Band. I want people to remember it. I want them to be able to show their kids.”
Aside from touring, the band has found music licensing to be lucrative. “Can’t You See” and “Heard It In a Love Song” appeared in Blow and Breaking Bad, respectively. Similarly, contestants on American Idol and The Voice sang “Can’t You See” in front of the programs’ millions of viewers. “It was like we were just in the background for a long time,” Gray said. But when people hear a song in a movie or a popular show, they start downloading MTB songs, attending shows. More importantly, younger generations are discovering MTB and the tradition continues.
After gigs, Gray is the very last person to board the tour bus for roll call because he’s still outside signing autographs, “They [the band] know how aggressive I am to make people happy.” That desire to please never atrophies no matter how many shows he’s put on. He puts himself wholeheartedly into each performance with his fans’ interests serving as impetus. “You got to push as hard as you can and do as best as you can. Some of them have to go home to take care of kids, some have to get up and go to work at seven in the morning. You have to be ready for them. They pay a hell of a lot of money to come see our shows and Skynyrd and everybody else. That’s what we’re about. It’s about raising hell.”
When he’s not touring, Gray soaks up the sun at his Myrtle Beach home, takes the Harley out for a spin, and spends time with his daughters and grandkids. But whether he’s on stage or off, he’s thinking about the band’s original members—Toy and Tommy Caldwell, George McCorkle—and their untimely passings. He has no doubt that they are standing right up there on stage with him at each gig. “I’ll tell you right now that there’s no question about it, I know that they are there with us. I’ve talked to Skynyrd and I know Ronnie’s there, too.”
As far as farewells go for the Marshall Tucker Band, Doug Gray says there’s plenty more fuel to burn in the tank, “I’m rockin! My health’s good. Most people can’t believe it, and when people come to see us most people don’t even have a clue what my age is—except for some of the guys in my band—because we get up here and close our eyes and then we fall back into the original groove that Marshall Tucker has.”
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