Doug Gray Interview: Marshall Tucker Band Leader Finds Musical Kinship Everywhere — Even on ‘American Idol’
Over 45 years after he first found success as the frontman of the Marshall Tucker Band, Doug Gray still sees Southern rock as one big band of brothers.
"We're hell to deal with as a group," he jokingly warns. "Individually, we're wusses. But as a group, we were the people that would go into New York City, [and] if they [didn't have any] sweet tea, hell, we wouldn't even eat at the restaurant."
That camaraderie with other artists has come in handy during every stage of MTB's decades-long, multi-era career. It spans way back to the beginning, when the group was cutting their teeth onstage at jazz festivals, alongside people who didn't, on the surface, seem to have much in common with them musically. Yet despite any genre differences, wherever they went, the Marshall Tucker Band found fellow performers who loved to jam and experiment.
"They'd put us in there with jazz festivals, and we'd go, 'What're we doing here? We're a Southern band,'" Gray recalls. "We could never play the same set. We played the same songs, but we'd just add a little more jam in it, and stretch it out a little bit to where we could show people how the individual was working, instead of the whole group. That was something that carried us over."
That's when the other artists on the bill began to take notice: "[After one festival], the next day, Carlos Santana comes up and says, 'Man, you guys sound really good.' So we went out and bought a cowboy hat for him and gave it to him, and he came out onstage with us and jammed," Gray recalls. "Dr. John and people like that, everybody wanted to start playing with the band. Chuck Leavell was the same way, and Jimmy Hall of Wet Willie. So we're still a small family."
In those days, the Marshall Tucker Band were well-served by the fact that they didn't have their sights set on a particular musical genre, but rather on maximizing their opportunities to play live. "I think we were all, in the first eight years, experimenting," Gray relates. "We were looking for an opportunity to perform, instead of looking for a route to take."
"Early on, we were looking for an opportunity to perform, instead of looking for a route to take."
As they continued to play different shows and venues, the Marshall Tucker Band picked up lessons from their tourmates: "I always say that Gregg Allman was my favorite Southern rock singer, and he always will be," Gray says. "I learned a lot from being on the road with him for four years. He taught me a lot, at 21 years old, about how not to work an audience, but work me.
"Heck, walk out and play it the way it's supposed to be played, and make it better. So every time that you can throw a little extra something in there, [the audience will] love you," Gray adds. "And he was right."
Camaraderie can emerge from surprising places, and Gray's fans might be surprised to learn just how broad an array of artists that kinship includes.
"As I watch [shows like] American Idol -- I'm a big fan of Usher and [John] Legend -- I get chills when I see some of these 14, 15-year-old girls and guys get up there and sing as well as they're doing," Gray admits. After all, his own musical origins aren't so different: "'Cause I started at 7.
"Don't ever think that's not where it came from, my mom pushing me out there, making me do this," he says, adding that his mother realized early on that her son had a knack for singing in the style of one especially famous performer in particular: "Elvis [Presley] was singing, and she realized I could imitate Elvis as good as anybody," he goes on to say. "I never do Elvis on the show [now], but I can imitate, and she knew that. So she pushed me out there."
All these years later, Gray still looks to his fellow artists for lessons in performing -- and even in recording. The Marshall Tucker Band are currently gearing up to release a new album, Gray says, and in the studio, the band gets inspired by the innovative ways in which they see talented younger artists applying the tried-and-true tactics that have always worked for MTB's own music.
"You wanna be true to yourself. It's magic, it really is. We'll go in there and cut some stuff that I already know has defining lyrics forever," Gray explains. "And that's why I like the artists that I do. I like Carrie Underwood, specifically because any song that you present to her, she can do it. And my band can do the same thing -- within parameters."
"You wanna be true to yourself. It's magic, it really is."
Certain rules for making good music are evergreen, but others change with decades -- and with age. The Marshall Tucker Band have never dipped under 100 performances a year, but at 70 years old, Gray doesn't like to perform seven days a week anymore. The way he performs has changed as he's gotten older, too, especially the bigger shows. In 2018, he joined his old friends, Southern rock giants Lynyrd Skynyrd, on one last trek, Skynyrd's Last of the Street Survivors Farewell Tour.
"Going out there and performing in front of 80,000 people with Skynyrd, you can't let people know you're that age, you know?" he points out. "You can't let 'em know, but what you can do is work a little harder so they don't think, 'Oh, there's that old fart onstage."
As he's learning how to get onstage as an older performer and still entertain a crowd, Gray once again is figuring it out with a little help from another fellow rocker: Charlie Daniels.
"The reason we got hooked up with Charlie, I think, was 'cause we were destined to be friends," says Gray. "You can see pictures of me and him, and what it is is me and him talking all the time, after the show or before the show, relaxing. He's very instrumental in making me ground myself a little bit more."
Gray isn't alone in benefiting from the camaraderie that artists -- from within and outside the genre -- share.
"We are a Southern family," he concludes. "And we're not necessarily from the South -- there's some people from the North, and out west as well -- but they come in and we jam, and all of the sudden, they become a little more comfortable with what they're doing."
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