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Working for Everybody

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A band may realize the full scope of its success and influence when it’s referred to nostalgically in a current hit. There may be no greater form of flattery or conviction for one’s work than to be recognized by another generation of musicians and fans, especially as a key part of the younger ones’ lives. For instance, newcomers to the country scene Florida Georgia Line fall for a girl in their hit track “Cruise,” as “she was sippin’ on Southern and singin’ Marshall Tucker.” A nod, no doubt, to the 40-year-old act The Marshall Tucker Band.

In the early ‘70s, six musicians assembled in Spartanburg, South Carolina: Tommy Caldwell (bass), Toy Caldwell (lead guitarist, songwriter), Paul Riddle (drums), George McCorkle (guitarist), Jerry Eubanks (flute, saxophone), and Doug Gray (vocals). The act’s moniker came from that of a blind piano tuner, the previous renter of their rehearsal space, whose name remained on the key. In 1972, Capricorn Records signed The Marshall Tucker Band, and in 1973 they opened concerts for The Allman Brothers Band. By ‘74, they were headlining their own shows with a platinum debut album in tow.

Since, The Marshall Tucker Band has recorded over 20 albums. Perhaps their most famous hit, “Can’t You See,” was named the greatest Southern rock song ever recorded by the music site, and all of their tunes—old and new—are heavily steeped in rock, country, and rhythm and blues. The line-up, however, has changed in the years.

Tommy Caldwell passed away after suffering massive injuries in an auto accident in 1980. In 1984, Toy Caldwell, McCorkle, and Riddle retired. Gray and Eubanks kept the legend alive until the latter retired in 1996. With an impressive fervor and upbeat personality, Gray still continues on with his current band: Chris Hicks (lead and slide guitars, vocals), Pat Elwood (bass), Rick Willis (lead guitar, vocals), B.B. Borden (drums), and Marcus Henderson (keys, saxophone, flute, vocals).

“I’m the only original guy left in our band,” Gray notes. “So I try to recreate what we started right out of high school and Vietnam.”

His band mates are on board with the aim. “They don’t just support me, they support what our original idea was and how we played those original songs,” he says. “We’ll take it just a step further to make it more interesting for the band, for us, first. If we ever get out a little too far, then it’s really cool to see the audience go, ‘Wow, this is something I haven’t heard before.’ These guys are excellent. Some of them have been there with me for, gosh, 18 or 20 years, so they’re not new.”

Gray recently participated in the Rock Legends Cruise II, sailing from Florida to Haiti January 10th through 14th. “It was nasty. It was great,” he muses. “My favorite [explanation] for the whole thing is for somebody who’s been in this business as long as I have, and to be able to say I had the most fun I’ve had in over 20 years—yeah, it was there. I had over 29 different musicians come up for my three-and-a-half-hour-jam. I had people from Jerry Garcia’s band, Whiskey Myers, different new bands, Molly Hatchet, some people from Bachman-Turner Overdrive—just about everybody from every band that was on there. And we never stopped; the music never stopped. That was what was cool.”

Back at home in Spartanburg, Gray gets a short break to relish in his younger daughter’s college days and being a grandfather to his older daughter’s children. Even still, he’s looking forward to being back on the road. “If I can keep the music going and have them feel what we feel every night onstage, I’m a happy camper,” he shares. “I just get jacked up; this is what I love. It’s why we do it and why people keep coming out for us.”

He attributes the opportunity to continue creating and performing to one young songwriter. “It’s basically because a song that was written in 1973, ‘Can’t You See,’ and ‘Heard it in a Love Song’ and ‘Take the Highway,’ it was written from the heart,” Gray tells. “‘Can’t you see what this woman’s been doing to me?’ I have a lot of friends who come and it still works for them; it works for everybody.”

The singer’s goal at each show is to respect and relieve the audience. He believes if guests must pay money first, he has a certain job to do. “I feel like we ought to take them away from thinking about work, their bills, their responsibilities, for that period of time that they’re with us,” he says. “If I can do that, guess what? They’re gonna bring their daughter who’s old enough, or they’re gonna bring their son who has been taking guitar lessons for two years. I bring them up onstage if I hear about it early enough.”

In fact, Gray gave then 15-year-old Desiree Bassett a chance to sit in on a set in Connecticut. She’s now 20 and the lead guitarist for Cirque du Soleil’s world tour “Michael Jackson: The Immortal.”

Gray recognizes many of the faces in the audience, telling one Nashville interviewer that the same folks are coming out to shows—just now they bring cookies instead of Jack Daniels as three generations are in attendance. To know his fans are now sharing his music with their families is something which brings Gray a lot of joy. It’s most apparent, he says, when he visits Sturgis, South Dakota, where The Marshall Tucker Band has performed at the bike rallies for over 37 years. “By going out there, I’ve watched those people go from 20-years-old to over 50-years-old.”

One can predict Gray will continue as long as possible. His love for the band and the music is all-encompassing. “I get as much out of it because I’m simply one person that tries to make everybody get along,” he explains. “It ain’t just about me. It’s about the whole group of people onstage playing. It’s about singing your heart out; that’s all it takes.”

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