It’s 1974, and The Marshall Tucker Band has just rocked a sold-out house at UNCG’s Elliott Hall. Unwinding outside a local motel after the show, bassist Tommy Caldwell is proudly showing off the band’s new bus and discussing the band’s road-dawg ethic.
“On the road, we’re a family,” Caldwell says. “We’re at our best, our most comfortable, on the road. Get off, and we stop functioning.”
Forty-five years later, calling in from a sold-out tour stop at the 6,960-seat Oil Palace in Tyler, Texas, frontman Doug Gray says the Tucker road philosophy is still intact.
“I just stepped off my new bus, and that means I have three vehicles going down the road right now,” Gray says. “OK. So what does that tell you, by buying a new bus with me being 71 years old, and having another contract for another five years? We’re still doing right at 140 shows a year.”
Formed in 1972, the Spartanburg, S.C.-based band was made up of musicians who had known one another virtually their whole lives. Lead guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Toy and his brother, bassist Tommy Caldwell, rhythm guitarist George McCorkle, flutist Jerry Eubanks and drummer Paul Riddle made up the original band, after four of the future members including Gray and Toy, had served in Vietnam.
“When we got back from Vietnam, we wanted to be as strong as we could in anything we did because we’d already been playing together on and off, against each other in different bands,” Gray says. “So Toy said, ‘Let’s get one big last thing and see how it works out.’ Well, the rest is history.”
The band hit it big right out of the gate, on the road 300 days a year on the strength of what would become Southern rock’s signature song “Can’t You See,” from their eponymous 1973 debut and the ramblin’ man’s lament “Take The Highway,” from that same release.
Being on the road 40-plus years has taken a toll on Gray, but it’s one he’s still willing to pay.
“I have two daughters and two grandkids — one boy and one girl — and that is the hardest part in the world” Gray says. “You get to see them, but it’s not just anytime you want to. That’s the hurting part. I talk to all of them all the time, but when you get on that bus, you have to forget — not forget, you have to understand what your motive is for continuing on to do this.”
That motive was sorely tested after Tommy’s death in 1980 and the departure of Toy Caldwell, “Fire On the Mountain” composer George McCorkle, and Riddle in 1983. Those three remaining original members sold the band to Gray and Eubanks in what from the outside seemed a gigantic leap of faith to continue to uphold the band’s legacy with only the flutist and lead singer remaining. But Gray had a plan.
“Toy and I talked to each other, then the agency that was representing us at the time said ‘Man, you can do it! Look at all these gold and platinum records you got! You sing so many songs: “Heard It In A Love Song,” “Fire on the Mountain,” “Take The Highway” — how can you not do it?’”
Gray was astute enough to understand the motive for the agency’s enthusiasm. “In their words, you are still marketable. My words, making it as good as we could, OK? So that gave me enough confidence to put this thing together.”
The first year, Gray hired a bunch of sleek Nashville cats to fill out the ranks. “I went to Nashville, made appointments with some of the best musicians up there,” Gray says.
That included bassist Bob Wray (The Osmonds, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin), who worked at Fame Studio in Muscle Shoals, Ala., before becoming a Nashville session man, and drummer James Stroud (Ronnie Milsap, Eddie Rabbitt), most famous for discovering Taylor Swift.
“I put that band together, and we rehearsed, and we had them songs down as best as we possibly could, but we did it for the right reason. We went out there and made it work. We did it for the one year, and then I started hiring local people again that wanted to be in the band, so we probably went through from 50 to a hundred people over the past 20 years,” Gray says.
Gray’s decision to continue has been backed by fans over the years, with the singer claiming an 88 percent sellout rate for Marshall Tucker shows today.
“Toy and I had long conversations about it,” the singer says,. “He wrote right at 95% of those songs for me. He had a way of talking in stories, but he gave them to me to present. Some of ‘em I wouldn’t sing — “Can’t You See.” I kept telling him, ‘I can’t sing “Can’t You See” the way you do. You’re gonna have to sing it.’ Thank God he did, ‘cause it’s been in about 20 movies and gonna be in about five for next year. And I’m part of all that still.
“The goal is pleasing the audience now and pleasing them with the songs they remember, that gave them warm hearts and warm thoughts. Could have probably had a violin playing in the background when I said that, huh?” he says, chuckling.
There’s new material in the works, but it may take a while to surface.
“There’s no reason for us to hurry and put a record out. We own all those old tapes and all of the masters, and they’re selling great.” But Gray’s nephew Clay Cook, a multi-instrumentalist in the Zac Brown Band, has a couple of songs, and John Mayer has a song for them as well. “This is not remakes stuff, this is The Marshall Tucker Band, we’re Tuckerizing them,” Gray says.
And 45 years after Kitty Wells covered Toy’s “Too Stubborn” in 1974, the county music establishment is finally reaching out to the band. The Marshall Tucker Band recently played CMA Fest in Nashville and is set to play the Grand Ole Opry.
“We can do it all day long. I even talk country,” Gray says.
“Billboard magazine said it best,” Gray says, paraphrasing a recent quote from the venerable show biz journal: “We know that they play all this music, but we don’t know what kind of band to call them. We just call them a damn good band.’ ”