We talk with the Marshall Tucker Band lead singer about the band’s concert comeback with their Through Hell and High Water and Back tour.
Cowboys & Indians: The Marshall Tucker Band is currently on the Through Hell and High Water and Back tour. What’s that been like?
Doug Gray: The good part is we’re in the last part of winding down this year. Winding down means there’s still about 60-something shows left. We’re a different group of people. ... We work like we want to work. ... We all don’t have to be the best in the world, nobody does, but if we work together as team, we have become one big, good, honest band. We are a band that gets along as a family. … We get out there and we listen to the audience. The audience tells us that real story. They want to hear what made them feel good 20 years ago, 15 years ago, 18 years ago, or 40 years ago. They want to be able to remember that one song that made them feel good that night. There might’ve been six songs that they like. There might’ve been a whole bunch more.
C&I: How did you come up with the tour name?
Gray: [We named it] Through Hell and High Water and Back, which is a name I came up with, because we just thought it’d be fun. You know, give people something to think about. Because we have been through hell and high water and we’ve watched ourselves change. We’ve lost many people in our band. We also recognize the fact in that title that we’ve not only lost people in our band, but we’ve lost people in the Allman Brothers; we’ve lost people all the way around. We’re losing more people every day because we’ve been around so long. ...
I think there’s strength and a beauty in having a name that somebody is going to remember forever. ... I remember the “Eat a Peach” thing for the Allman Brothers. I said, “Man, what a cool name for a tour. I’ll remember that.” All of our titles — if you look at them in the discography — you will see that ours started out with The Marshall Tucker Band; then it went to Long Hard Ride; and then it went Together Forever. All of them, if you put them in a song, you put them all straight from that period, all the way to this period, and I’m working real, real hard on the name of the next tour simply because it has to fit. ... So now I have to be brilliant in this [next one], according to the publicists, I’ve got to come up with something really worthy, now — something good, something to top this.”
C&I: What are some favorite places you’ve visited on tour?
Gray: We look forward to playing Gruene [Texas]. We look forward to playing Arizona. We would certainly go back to L.A. and places out there. Some of them are not huge. Orange County Fair is always big. … I used to love to play down in Houston. I used to play Rockefellers during one of our weaker periods. That was back, I don’t know, 20-some years ago. And we would go down there and we’d play. It was a small place, but you got to know everybody in the whole building.
At 71 years old, [I’m] still more than happy playing and spending the next five years on the road. ...
C&I: You guys have been in the business for over 40 years. What has been your most memorable live show so far?
Gray: Probably playing Madison Square Garden, having a sold-out show. Back in the old days, people would light matches and you’d smell the sulfur that was in the hall. They don’t do that anymore, thank God, because that’d choke you to death. You had 20,000 people holding up matches, burning them, and letting you know that they want you back out there to an encore. That was a special time.
C&I: How do you keep your shows fresh?
Gray: We don’t chase the new styles. What we do is incorporate them a little bit. You laugh about them, you make them better, you add something in. Just the other day, I just added a little bit — about two lines of rap and everybody died, the whole audience. Shows you that those people had to listen, somewhere in the last four years, had to listen to that particular song. I only did it really quick. It was probably two bars of it, but the people just died and they knew what it was.
I’ve said this many times. People ask me when I’m going to stop. The only time that I’m going to stop is they’ll be rolling me out on a gurney out of a concert hall. And this sounds morbid, but it’s true. ... I wouldn’t do almost 300 interviews a year. I’d be losing what I feel is the ground — the touch and the feel of the ground of the people that surround us. It means you enjoy doing what you’re doing.
C&I: You were talking about how long you guys have been around and the impact on people. Even this generation still recognizes your music. What’s it like for you to see that reflected on shows like The Voice and American Idol?
Gray: In my business, I think it’s foolish not to listen to everybody out there that’s new and/or old. What we’re doing is we’re all learning to be better, unless you’re the most weird person in the whole world to think that you’re already something, you know? ... I’ve never looked at myself as much more than a person who could sneak in the crowd and nobody would even know it’s me. I like that. I like the fact that I can get out there and watch the people and sip on a beer, take a shot or whatever, watch those people.
Craig Wayne Boyd was a really good guy that [performed “Can’t You See” on The Voice]. I ask my publicist to get in touch when [someone performs our songs]. I watched the show because I watch those young kids. ... I can’t believe [they’re] that young, but then I think back, Well you know, I actually started when I was 7. ... So I mean, there’s an opportunity there if people and families let other people listen to a particular music, whichever they learn from.
“Can’t You See” is one of those songs that people on The Voice like to do; “Fire on the Mountain” is another one. And one of my songs that gets played a lot in Belgium that I wrote some 20-something years ago, it’s called “I Should’ve Never Started Loving You”: [It goes] “There’s something in your eyes that reminds me of all the loves I’ve left behind me. The looks on your face, they tell me that I should’ve never started loving you.”
C&I: Your most recent album was Live From Pleasure Island, a recording of your 1997 performance. What made you pick that particular show for a live album?
Gray: That was a great record. That was put together in the studio. I had a younger guy that was my engineer and he said, “You know, I’d get rid of that bad note.” I said, “No you won’t, that’s reality.” The reality is we all hit bad notes and it took him a minute to figure out why I wouldn’t let him touch that one note. … We’re sitting there and he said, “You know, I finally get what you’re talking about.” He said, “You made me realize that nothing is perfect and never will be.” ... You can’t always fix things. You can make them better, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to let it.
I believe that the soul tells a story in that record. If you listen to the lyrics or you listen to a taste or pick a song on that particular record, I could tell you about it. Because I listened to it just like I was standing on stage whenever I was mixing it.
C&I: Can we expect another album sometime soon?
Gray: Yes, you can.
C&I: Is there a particular song you’re most proud of?
Gray: Not one that I wrote. That would be one that Toy Caldwell wrote. It’s called “In My Own Way.”
“But there’s a special place in my heart and it’s occupied by you and there isn’t no one on God’s earth going to take you away.” ...
When Marshall Tucker Band sings songs like that with more emotion coming out of the music and/or the lyrics then people realize that Marshall Tucker Band had some songs that were way above the songs that were being written back then. Not better, just way above what they expected out of Marshall Tucker Band.
C&I: You guys have gotten to play alongside lots of people, including Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Charlie Daniels. What was it like to play with those guys?
Gray: Well, first of all, Charlie played on our first records. With Charlie, we were friends before we recorded together. Charlie is a true human being, a lover; he loves God, and he is a strength behind Marshall Tucker Band. He really is. He has been up there on stage with us. We’ve got plans to do more shows. … It’s just the drive of the two honest hearts getting up there, playing, having a good time. I learned to be true to your art and play just straight to the audience and pay attention to them. Charlie taught me a whole lot about not only that, but the business as well.
C&I: What other hobbies do you pursue when you’re not on the road, making music, or hanging at home?
Gray: Believe it or not, I sit out in the sun and that’s one of my favorite treats. I come home, see my girlfriend, go see the grandkids.
For more information on the Marshall Tucker Band, visit their website.