My father is rarely impressed. Be it by nature or by spending a lifetime in the Navy, seeing things he would never forget and things he wishes he could.
Pop stopped by the office to treat me to lunch after my interview with Doug Gray, founding member of The Marshall Tucker Band. I was interviewing Gray for the Music Matters column of the Pensacola News Journal.
Gray was in between 40 years since their biggest hit “Can’t You See” was released on their self-titled, debut album and one week away from their concert with local support from Timberhawk at Vinyl Music Hall.
Gray called a few minutes early.
DG: I just wanted to make sure that I called. It’s either supposed to be 10:15 A.M. or 10:30 A.M. I can’t keep up with my publicist, you know.
MS: Thank you, Doug. Let me tell you a quick story; I told my father that I was interviewing you, He served in the Navy and he told me, he lit up, he never lights up when I tell him I’m interviewing somebody, but he lit up when I told him that I was interviewing Doug Gray because he used to listen to you on all the bases and he was impressed.
DG: Tell him to light up a little bit more; I was a sergeant in Vietnam myself.
MS: Thank you for your service (I yell to my father) Pop! Come here while we talk. My father’s walking in right now. I’ll ask you the first question; Mr. Gray, you said that you were a sergeant, where again?
DG: I was in Vietnam in 67, 68…
Pop: Oh, man, I was in the 10th grade then. How are you doing, sir?
DG: You know, I’m just riding around, man. I doing these interviews making people think I’m young. (We all laugh)
MS: The Marshall Tucker Band is tagged as a Southern rock band, but I always saw you as a rock band with a lot of influences. For example, your solo album “Soul of the South”. What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
DG: I grew up in Spartanburg, South Carolina so, believe it or not, we had more rhythm and blues and bands like The Tams and the Four Tops and stuff like that, so if you listen to “Soul of the South” you’re listening to something that was my particular choice of music at the time. Soulful stuff that you could bed your woman and dance with her and do all that crazy stuff. I was basically listening to B.B. King and we don’t live to far from where James Brown hung out all the time. I used to go and I’d be the only white guy that could sneak in and get away with it at the auditorium here. Man, I’d sneak in and go in there and talk to the band and end up hanging out with them ‘til four or five in the morning. I learned not a lot about music, I just learned a lot about people. That enabled me to go out there and still do what we do today and then all of a sudden, we end up last year, we played the Grand Ole Opry doing country music. So, I really don’t know what kind of band we really are.
MS: With the history of touring, recording and performing, what’s been the most amazing part of this entire Marshall Tucker Band experience for you?
DG: The most amazing part is, if you look out there and you see kids 20 years old dancing and singing the lyrics to our songs. That’ s the most amazing part of it all. And I know it’s because that they’re in a lot of movies and beer commercials and stuff like that, but when they hear new bands, I mean, let’s face it, Zac Brown is doing one of our songs at the end of his show. Then you got groups like Poison which I never really listened to, but you got groups like that and then you got a new country band coming out called Parmalee, I haven’t really heard the song, but they’re doing one of our songs too, so I guess that could be the reason that a lot of these young people coming to see us and we still get our old people. I’m 64 years old man, they’re coming to see the guy that landed from that place on the moon, you know what I mean?
MS: Yes, sir. That leads to my next question; with everything you’ve seen so far in the new generations coming up, what can fans expect on this new tour?
DG: In all honesty, we never stopped touring. We originally had the original band that lasted eight years and then we never stopped touring; we took off whenever one of our comrades in 1980, he died in a car wreck and we stopped for about four months and didn’t do anything. So we continuously play. We don’t set up for one tour and go out and work the whole year and play that same show. We play our favorite show every night because there’s something like 23 or 33 CDs out there worth of music and we’re known to stand up there and change it around at any time, and I think that’s what keeps a lot of people coming back and that’s what’s going to make people come back this time.
MS: As far as live shows, when was the moment that you decided to let the audience sing “Can’t You See?”
DG: Well, when I realized when Toy was no longer in the band, when he decided to stay at home before he passed away, which was about 30 years ago. I just decided that there would be a time, since that was, I sing 99 percent of those songs, so Toy needed to sing that song because he was testifying. That was his way of testifying, was to sing that song. And now you look out there and men and women and children, Indian chiefs and crazy people and all these people are singing that song. And what I did was 30 years ago, I just decided that I would stick that microphone out there since it’s been played and nominated for all these different things, I stick that microphone out there and they enjoy it the same way as the way that they’re enjoying it, just singing my heart out along with them.
MS: On that same note, the songs been recorded by so many people-nothing compares to the original, but who has come the closest to doing it right, doing your favorite version of can’t you see?
DG: I think Zac Brown’s doing it right now. Zac Brown has my nephew in the band so I had to give him a little slide there, you know. (We laugh) He’s the one that gets out there and sings that song, you pull it up on Youtube, it will knock you out man. His name is Clay Cook and he studied with me when he was 15 until he was 25 then he went off to Berklee (College of Music) and wrote some stuff with John Mayer and then he went to Zac Brown and now he’s producing a band called Blackberry Smoke. What you got is a bunch of guys who know how to play and somebody’s kind of directing traffic. That’ what we all need.
MS: Well, Mr. Gray, I just have two more questions for you. I thank you for your time. There’s a lot of mystery surrounding “Can’t You See”, it’s almost like “Stairway to Heaven”. What really inspired Toy to write it?
DG: Well, what I think it had to be was, every time, regardless, times have changed and I’m so glad that they have, time’s changed from a long time ago when a woman could scream at a man and get away with it, a man could scream at a woman and get away with it and to be able to testify through the words “Can’t you see what that woman’s been doing to me?” I’m going to find me a hole in the wall, I’m going to crawl inside and die” that used to be what it’s all about. With Toy, I thought we all grew up in that period of time, he wasn’t talking about his wife, he wasn’t talking about anything except for maybe what he saw going around. Some of that song primarily came out of just seeing the things around and how they all approached…it’s just really…you’d think you’d come out of the bathroom and “Look, here’s what I just wrote.”, but it didn’t happen that way. It came out, he said “Write these lyrics down, go take a freight train all the way to Georgia” which you know we were in Macon, Georgia recording the entire time. So, you got to think about all those things put together. Do I see woman out there singing that as much now and I’m kind of happy that it’s happening. Women are singing these songs and they’ve got other people with them and the times have changed so much and I really think that’s good; a guy can be with his wife. I’ve stood out there sang “Can’t You See” a million times I’ve listened to a club band do it and it’s an anthem for a lot of people that ‘s going through a hard time, I guess that’s a quick way to say it. It’s really an anthem for people that’s going through a tough time with their wife or their or husband or whoever and a lot of times you want to crawl up in a ball and die and I think that’s what that songs all about. It approaches and touches so many different types of people.
MS: With your history in the music business, what’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
DG: To not get into the music business. (We all laugh)
DG: I always say that, I started when I was seven, my mom and daddy took me to-my dad was in the Air Force- and he took me to an AmVets club and he said, “Alright! Get up there and sing some of those songs you copied from Elvis.” I was seven years old and you could get away with taking your son in there to the AmVets club and he took me in there and he’d have a drink and then they’d go there on Saturday night, there wasn’t a whole lot of places to go back then and he’d go and say “Alright, you’re all the time singing that Elvis Presley stuff, get up there and sing.” I got up and sang “Love Me Tender” one night and all these people dancing and slobbering all over each other. I made $5 and that was my first entrance at seven years old to my music career.
MS: Excellent way to start. This is my crazy food question, Doug. Do you prefer crunchy or creamy peanut butter?
DG: Oh, it has to be creamy. Well, I tell you, I just got asked that question yesterday by this girl, ok. She wasn’t reviewing me or nothing, we were just talking, I figured out where she was going, alright. We were having dinner and I looked over at her. She said, “What’d you prefer, crunchy or creamy?” I said “Well…” I don’t want to have to go there, a lot of things went through my mind, but I’ll treat you right, right now. (We all laugh) I said, “Peter Pan Creamy” and she said, “Aw, yeah. That’s my favorite kind.” And she never finished her sentence so I said, “Well, maybe I should’ve waited to see what she said first, you know.” (We laugh)
MS: Is there anything else you’d like to add for the fans that are coming out to Pensacola, Florida?
DG: Just tell them all to come and have a good time cause I know if they come and give it a chance, if they’ve never heard the band. We’ve been through many generations and people’s got their grandkids off, they’re not keeping their grandkids at night or their kids are out now, just come on out and experience this again and maybe we’ll recreate a memory that they had a long time ago.
MS: I’m dragging my dad’s ass out there. We’re going to shake hands with you when we get there.
DG: I’ll tell you what, I’ll be there waiting on it and listen, I ain’t going to have no crunchy on my hand. Ok! (We all laugh).
– Michael L. Smith
Here is a link to my Pensacola News Journal article “Marshall Tucker Band, Dark Star Orchestra on Vinyl stage this week.”
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