Doug Gray is still playing because, well, his heart and soul tell him to.
“Get up, come on people, let’s go, MOVE it!”
Those were the first words we woke up to, along with a kick from a Timberland boot, as two tough guys from A1 Security, Connecticut’s notorious concert bouncers, jarred us awake after sleeping on the sidewalk in front of the Hartford, Conn., Civic Center all night for tickets to see the Marshall Tucker Band.
It was the spring of 1980, and my buddy Jason and I were the first two people in line, a line that was only about five or six people deep when we passed out in our sleeping bags after a wild night with some new fellow MTB fans. But the line had swelled to over 100 eager ticket buyers during the early morning hours and as businesspeople gawked at us on their way to work, we shuffled up to the arena doors, looking as close to homeless as anyone could.
When the doors opened, we sprinted to the box office and asked for the best seats in the house. Our long night on the cold cement paid off: 10 seats, dead center, front row. We galloped out of the building, golden tickets in hand, and headed for the car deliriously happy, only to be devastated by terrible news as soon as we turned on the car radio. While we slept in line for tickets, bassist Tommy Caldwell, one of Marshall Tucker’s founding members, flipped his Jeep in the band’s hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina and was critically injured. I called the hospital in Spartanburg every day afterward, only to be told three weeks later that Caldwell had died. I cried my eyes out.
The show we waited in line all night for, the first one ever without Caldwell on stage with his band, went on as scheduled a few weeks later. That night we sat there, front row, emotionally drained yet riveted, watching Caldwell’s brother, guitarist Toy Caldwell with tears streaming down his face, valiantly playing his heart out next to fellow founding member and lead singer Doug Gray, whose eyes were also swollen red with tears. It was an incredible experience and a night I will never forget.
When I mention this experience to Doug Gray, he is quiet on the other end of the phone. He finally says with a soft voice, “That gave me cold chills listenin’ to you tell that story. Really, man. But it’s a good cold chill, because I can tell you loved the band. It’s hard for me to believe that some of those guys are gone. But thanks to people like yourself, and the new kids who come out, the music carries on.”
The Marshall Tucker Band’s story reads like that of so many other legendary Southern rock bands of the ’70s, one steeped in triumph and laced with tragedy. MTB would rise from its South Carolina roots to be one of music’s hottest acts in the mid ’70s to the early ’80s, carrying on not only after Tommy Caldwell’s death in 1980, but also after non-band member and brother Tim Caldwell’s death a month before. They experienced the glory of Southern rock superstardom, and then oh so familiarly, music trends changed, band members left — Toy Caldwell died in 1993 — and the band slowly slipped into the role of nostalgic act, adding and losing members as the years went by. And like so many of their fellow Southern rock brethren, they struggled to hang on to the legacy and dignity they once had, based on the powerful, well written and performed music that once made them famous.
Thanks almost solely to Doug Gray, the Marshall Tucker Band has largely done just that. Because of his passionate and longstanding role as sole survivor, band historian and Southern rock ambassador, and due to his deep dedication to carrying on the music and tradition of his beloved band, MTB has endured, retaining many old fans while adding new younger ones and influencing some of today’s top country rock acts.
“I’ve learned to be the ambassador of the Southern rock thing,” said Gray, who performs as the only original band member with MTB at the Birchmere on March 19th. “And it’s wild. Everybody always mentions you. The new bands mention you in their songs. I mean two songs that just won Grammys mention Marshall Tucker. And why? The fact is, that it all rises, the music, the legacy, and these young guys got hearts. We got a chance to open for Zac Brown, and to me he’s gonna be the next coming of the Southern rock thing. He has that personality. He’s not afraid to talk to people, and just, well, be himself.”
“Be himself.” That seems to be a key to maintaining fans and your soul in Southern rock, and Gray is one of those guys who today seems no different from the young Vietnam veteran who played music with his buddy Toy Caldwell in Spartanburg back in the late ’60s and who never let the band’s fame get away from its humble beginnings and sense of home.
“Toy’s daddy was a master plumber and my daddy worked in a cotton mill all our life. We had jammed together in other bands in high school. The first band Toy and I played in was called The Toy Factory. When we came back from Vietnam, we were still playing together,” Gray remembered. “Toy started working with his dad and I started working at a bank collecting bad debts, believe it or not. Then we got a contract and it all started for us. In our heyday when we played Madison Square Garden, we were like, ‘Who are we? We’re the same guys we’ve always been.’ When that tour was over and I stepped off the tour bus and touched base with reality, you know what, I was still the same person. People respect me to this day because the simplest thing in this whole world is to just be who you are. It’s that simple.”
Along with fellow ’70s Southern rock bands like The Outlaws, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers, The Marshall Tucker Band was part of a close fraternity of musicians that came up at largely the same time and spent much of the time touring together, building a bond that would carry on throughout their glory days. As far as the original rosters of those bands, only Tucker’s Gray, Skynyrd’s Gary Rossington, The Outlaws’ Henry Paul and Monte Yoho, and the Allman Brothers’ Gregg Allman, Butch Trucks and Jai Johanny Johanson remain in the current lineups.
“Us and the Allman Brothers toured for four and half years together in the ’70s,” Gray said, “Gregg, to me, is the best singer that there is. We done it all together, snorted everything, been through it all together. Me and Charlie [Daniels] go way back. When [Marshall Tucker] played the Grand Ol’ Opry, Charlie sent us flowers. We also played with the Outlaws many times. You just get close. Same with [Lynyrd Skynyrd’s] Ronnie Van Zant. We had some wild times together, too, I’ll tell ya.”
Gray’s kind heart and deep appreciation for musicians who deserved recognition they hadn’t yet realized shines through when he relates a memorable story about an opening act on a particular tour when their fame was hitting its stride.
“We were sittin’ around and they asked us who we wanted to open for us. Nobody said nothin’ and I said ‘Well, I’ll tell you what, if I had my choice, what if we had B.B. King and his band open the shows for us?'” Gray said. “B.B hadn’t really hit it all that big yet, plus I wanted to get up and sing The Thrill is Gone with him so we booked him. At a show in Saratoga, I sang it with him. It sounded so great with the horns. Later on we were playing near Chicago, and I said to the guys ‘This is B.B.’s town, this is where he’s from.’ So I waited until the place was full, and I went out and told everyone that we were just gonna go ahead and play first, ‘cuz I just felt that was the thing to do. As it turned out, it made us and everyone else feel good.”
Like many of his Southern rock cohorts, it couldn’t have been easy seeing MTB’s audiences shrink from stadiums to clubs and county fairs over the years, but that doesn’t seem to bother this Southern rock veteran. It’s the music that matters, as well as the legacy of the band he helped start and that he has single-handedly preserved. It’s a tradition that has pushed away temptation and kept the Marshall Tucker Band going for over 40 years now.
“I got asked at one time to leave the band and start a solo thing, and I said to myself, ‘No, this music is way too special to not carry on,'” he said. “I gave up lots of money and people thought I was being stupid. But ya know what? I’ll be stupid if I am staying true to my heart. So that’s what I did, and here I am carryin’ on the music that is close to my heart.”
Thankfully for all of us, Marshall Tucker fans old and new, Doug Gray’s long hard ride continues.
The Marshall Tucker Band performs March 19, 2014 at the Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria, VA 22305. For tickets, click here.
Steve Houk writes about local and national music luminaries for vps3.washingtonlife.com and his own blog at midliferocker.wordpress.com. He is also lead singer for the classic rock cover band Second Wind.