Catching Up From The Road With Doug Gray of The Marshall Tucker Band

Doug Gray, 3rd from left

And catching up with The Marshall Tucker Band is hard these days. They’re out with Lynyrd Skynyrd on the Last of the Street Survivors tour for fifty dates and they’re headlining plenty of their own shows. It would be a tough schedule for a bunch of young guys, but Doug Gray, who is now the last member of the original Marshall Tucker Band, has been bustin’ it on the road since the early Seventies. Even so, he swears he has no intention of hanging it up as long as people want to see The Marshall Tucker Band. And we do.

By fan demand, we’re bringing them back for the 2019 Southern Rock Cruise. They were a big hit for us on the first sailing, and we’re sure they’ll be a big hit again.

Are you enjoying working with Skynyrd again?

It’s wonderful to see those guys. We sit backstage, share stories, renew friendships. There’s nothing more important to me at this point in my life. A lot of the new bands are great, but there’s nothing like having a close relationship with folks you’ve known for years. And we have known the Skynyrd guys for years. Our first album and their first album came out within a few weeks of each other. Ours had the hit, “Can’t You See,” and we must have been one of the first bands to take Skynyrd out as a supporting act. I think it was a tour of North Carolina. See, before that, the Allmans had taken us out as their supporting act. I grew up faster on those shows than I did in Vietnam. Learned to duck faster, too. Thing about Skynyrd was that they opened for us, then later on we opened for them. Personally, I never cared about who went on first or last. It was all about the show. Did we do good?

You mentioned Vietnam. You were in Vietnam as a soldier, and then thirty-five years later you were in Iraq as an entertainer. It’s a volunteer army now and the technology is way different, but did you see anything of yourself in the servicemen you met in Iraq.

Oh, man, yeah. And of course, in Iraq we saw servicemen AND women. That’s one big difference right there. Crazy little stuff makes an impression on you. In Vietnam, you kinda heard the bullets fly. In Iraq there was a lot of sniper fire out of nowhere. When you’re in a rock ‘n’ roll band, you can be a little divorced from reality sometimes. Being someplace like Iraq will make you grow back up pretty quick. I’m real proud of our guys over there. We always try to hire veterans in our road crew, too. We know it’s important.

When you started, you were making music for 1973. How do you reflect on the fact that forty-five years later, The Marshall Tucker Band is still touring and that grandkids of your original fans are singing along to “Can’t You See” and your other hits?

Tell you what, if someone says they know what they’ll be doing forty-five years from now, they’re lying or deluding themselves. We had no idea. We just thought about the next record and the next show. We’ve been up and down three or four times. Now we’re up again. We’re playing to fifty thousand people with Skynyrd and maybe fifteen thousand with Charlie Daniels or Travis Tritt. If someone had told us about that forty-five years ago, we’d have laughed ourselves stupid. Monumental things have happened to us.

We see so many younger people at our shows. They know all the songs and I’ll ask them where they heard them. They say they were kids strapped in the back seat when their mom or dad or grandma or grandpa played our records on the eight-track or the cassette player. Now, you know what, they’re doing the same thing with their kids.

In the South, blues guys, country guys, or rock guys always seem more hell-bent on making music. They play with more intensity. Is that part of what makes Southern Rock special?

My father took me to the mill when I was twelve years old and said, ‘Do you want to do this, boy? Or do you want to sing and try to make you some money?’ And that’s gotta be the way Ronnie Van Zant thought. His dad was a trucker.

When we started The Marshall Tucker Band, I was back from Vietnam and working in a bank. On one level, I was doing good. They offered me a promotion to Atlanta the same day we got the offer from Phil Walden at Capricorn Records. Guess which one I chose. I like being home, but I’d go crazy working a regular day job.

You were there when Southern Rock started. When did you first come to think of Southern Rock as a THING? As something different?

Back before us, a lot of guys, like Gladys Knight or James Brown, who came from the South had to go someplace else to record. We were on Capricorn Records alongside the Allmans, Wet Willie, and a bunch of others. Capricorn was in Macon, Georgia, and the studio was there. I’ll tell you where I think “Southern Rock” came from. Phil Walden was the company president, and he came up with the slogan “Support Southern Music.” The name “Southern Rock” came from that, I’m pretty sure. I mean, we were all from the South. Soon as you hear me talk, you’ll know that.

Are you surprised at Southern Rock’s global reach now?

I’ll tell you what surprised me was when we played at the Grand Ole Opry – the home of country music. It was a hallowed place to us because Hank Williams Sr. played there and I love his music. That’s real Southern music. After the show, artists came up to us and asked to take their photo with us, so they’d been taking notice of us all along.

Where do you see the future of Southern Rock? Who are the guys carrying it forward?

To me, it’s Zac Brown and Blackberry Smoke.

The Marshall Tucker Band has a reputation as a fan-friendly band. Do you think that’s part of the reason you’ve endured?

We have all the social media accounts, and, believe it or not, I read all the messages. I click on the links when people send me videos of them singing one of our songs. If they ask questions, I try to answer them. We probably get one-hundred-and-fifty messages a day. It’s a point of honor with us to read them all and respond to all we can.

We hope you enjoyed the first Southern Rock Cruise, and welcome back!

Thank you. When you sail out of port, it’s like the first day of school. Everyone’s kinda feeling their way around. And then after a few hours, the music’s going, folks are smiling, they’re having a few drinks, and the whole boat is rocking and rolling. The fans treat us great. The folks at StarVista treat us great. It really is like one big happy family, except big families aren’t always happy. You know that. There’s usually a grumpy ol’ uncle. With the Southern Rock Cruise, it really does feel like one big happy family.

I’ll tell you what, I sure as hell won’t go hide on the boat. Some artists never let you get real close, but I’ll sit and talk to you any time you see me. Another thing, I’m happy to take photos. On the last Southern Rock Cruise, I got more exercise jumping up and down to take photos than I’ve gotten the last ten years! And you haven’t been hugged ‘til you’ve had a Doug Hug.

Southern music … rock, blues, country … it all began with folks getting together and having a great time. That’s the kind of feel we try to keep in our music. We play the songs folks want to hear. I want to click with everyone, no matter if they’re twenty-five, forty-five, sixty-five or however old they are. The folks tell us what they want to hear, and we’ll do our damndest to please ‘em. When we go out on-stage, I have a set-list at my feet, and I’ve never once followed it. We’ll listen to the audience and just pull it together from there. Folks need to be heard, not driven down a path.

I really look forward to meeting the fans in a more intimate kind of venue than we have on the road. You know, at home my girlfriend has put up all the gold and platinum records and the photos of me with Santana or whoever, and it’s not that I don’t respect getting the awards and meeting the other artists, but it’s meeting the fans that matters, it’s what they tell me about what our music means to them that really means the most. When the Southern Rock Cruise asked us to come back, we had to say yes because so many fans had asked us to!

- Colin Escott © 2018