SPARTANBURG IS a mill town of 50,000 nestled in the hills of western South Carolina. All six members of the Marshall Tucker Band grew up there and still live there between tours. The town’s typically Southern mixture of rhythm and blues, country, bluegrass and rock ‘n’ roll gave the band its distinctive sound. And its isolation from the ever-changing winds of the music business have preserved that blend over 10 years and 12 albums. In an era when regional music in general and Southern rock in particular are being wiped out by homogenized radio formats, this is no mean accomplishment.
“We’ve been able to maintain our own sound,” boasts bandleader Toy Caldwell. “We never had to live somewhere else and have a whole lot of other people influence our music. We just go home and get away from everybody. We’re independent. We live in our own little town and don’t have a lot of record company people around us all the time, giving us too much advice.”
The Marshall Tucker Band kicks off a summer of Southern rock with a concert at the Merriweather Post Pavilion tonight. The Charlie Daniels Band will be at the Pavilion August 29, the Outlaws will appear at the Capital Centre July 9, and the Artimus Pyle Band will show at Desperado’s in Washington in July.
Southern rock is not in very good shape right now. The Allman Brothers Band, which founded the movement in 1970, suffered two costly deaths: the brilliant slide guitarist Duane Allman in a motorcycle accident in 1971, and the bassist Berry Oakley in a similar accident in the same neighborhood 13 months later. The band split apart in 1976 over a messy drug trial, reunited in 1979, suffered further defections and is now trying to reassemble again. Sea Level, a much acclaimed spinoff band, has broken up for good.
After the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd is considered the primary creative force in Southern rock. This Jacksonville (Fla.) sextet ended abruptly when its plane crashed in a Mississippi swamp in 1977, killing lead singer Ronnie Van Zant and guitarist Steve Gaines.
After extensive physical therapy, three of the four, survivors formed the Rossington-Collins Band and released the two best Southern rock albums of the Eighties. Just last week word came that internal conflicts had rended the band asunder, with guitarist Allen Collins going in one direction and guitarist Gary Rossington and singer Dale Krantz going in another: The fourth Skynyrd survivor has ended his five-year silence to become the drummer-bandleader of the Artimus Pyle Band.
The death of the genre’s most potent creative talents — Duane Allman and Ronnie Van Zant — stripped Southern rock of its vanguard. As a result, the music’s identity has been diluted to the point that Florida bands like .38 Special, the Outlaws, Molly Hatchet and Blackfoot sound like hard rock bands from anywhere. They have so little Southern character left that they might as well be Journey or the Jefferson Starship.
Nor has tragedy left the Marshall Tucker Band untouched. On April 28, 1980, bassist Tommy Caldwell (Toy’s brother) was killed in an auto accident in Spartanburg. “Watching the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd go through the same thing helped a little,” Toy Caldwell says softly, “but nothing can help you that much. It’s just something you have to go through yourself. Now I know what they went through, I can tell you that.”
In the only personnel change in the band’s history, Tommy Caldwell was replaced by Franklin Wilkie. “When my brother died,” Toy Caldwell asserts, “it never even crossed my mind to break up the band. I knew the best thing to do would be to just keep playing, I knew that’s what Tommy would want. Franklin had played bass with us off and on; he was a good friend of Tommy’s, and he’s from our home town, so he was the perfect choice.”
In the late Sixties, Southern bands were almost totally ignored by rock ‘n’ roll record companies in New York and Los Angeles. Rock ‘n’ roll in the old Confederacy was leavened with the yeast of rhythm and blues and country, which were ubiquitous oh the radio down there.
In 1969 Phil Walden, manager of the late Otis Redding, formed his own label, Capricorn Records, to record some of these Southern rock bands. His first project was a North Florida band led by guitarist Duane Allman (who had played on sessions for Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin) and his blues-singing brother, Gregg Allman.
“The Allman Brothers were a new thing on the national scene,” Toy Caldwell recalls. “They played a whole lot more R&B — at least for white boys — than normal, and they got away with it. They opened doors for us; they opened doors for a lot of bands. People listened to the Allman Brothers and didn’t really know what it was. They turned on a lot of people to that sort of music.”
“That sort of music” was soon dubbed Southern rock and the name stuck. It was marked by the boogie-woogie syncopated rhythms, bluesy drawls, Southern song settings and twin lead guitar lines pioneered by the Allmans.
The Marshall Tucker Band was the second Southern rock band to crack the Top 40. It was signed by Capricorn and went to Macon, Ga., to record its self-titled debut album in 1972. It was different from the Allman Brothers Band in that the touch was lighter, with a jazzy swing rhythm modifying the boogie and a definite country tilt modifying the rhythm and blues.
Moreover, the band’s lineup included Jerry Eubanks, saxophonist and flutist, who gave the music an unusual tonal color. “We thought it would be nice to get away from just being a guitar band,” explains Mr. Caldwell. “Also it underscored the rhythm and blues elements in the music.”
“The Allman Brothers had a big impact on us,” Mr. Caldwell admits. “They came over one day when we were recording in Macon, and we all hit it off; it was that easy. The biggest thing they did for us was let us open a lot of shows for them the year after our first record came out. They gave us a lot of exposure, which really helped us get off the ground.”
The constant touring improved both the sales and the music of the second album. The 1974 A New Life is arguably the best record they ever made. It achieved a real pastoral affection for the South, both in the lyrics’ nature imagery and in the music’s contagious harmonies. A two-record live album that same year, Where We All Belong, marked their first collaboration with Charlie Daniels (who appeared as a fiddler). The 1975 Searchin’ For a Rainbow and the 1977 Carolina Dreams elevated the band to platinum status. The latter yielded the band’s biggest single, ‘Heard It in a Love Song’.
Back in those heady days, there was a real camaraderie among Southern rock bands. The more established bands would take the younger bands along on tour, they would eat and room together for weeks at a time. They often made guest appearances on each other’s shows and albums. “It was one big happy family,” Mr. Caldwell remembers. “You spent so much time together on the road that you almost had to be that way. We’d get together at least once a year and have, some fun.”
In more recent days, times have been tougher. The Marshall Tucker Band’s first three albums for Warner Brothers didn’t sell that well. That and Tommy Caldwell’s death have tested the band’s confidence. In response, the band has embarked on two unusual projects this year.
First of all, Doug Gray, Jerry Eubanks and George McCorkle of the Marshall Tucker Band agreed to produce the debut album of the Artimus Pyle Band. The resulting record, A.P.B. (MCA), has more authentic Southern rock feel to it than the combined recent releases by the Outlaws, .38 Special and Blackfoot. Though the songwriting is not up to Skynyrd standards, the boisterous guitars, strong soul singing and general spirit are worthy of the tradition.
Secondly, the Marshall Tucker Band itself recorded an album of mostly outside material for the first time, ever. Only 2 of the 10 songs are originals; the others come from top country and pop tunesmiths. Moreover, producer Gary Klein (who has worked with Dolly Parton and Glen Campbell) has played down the rock ‘n’ roll boogie and emphasized country-flavored melodies and harmonies.
“I’ve been writing so many songs for so long,” explains Mr. Caldwell, “that we just thought it’d be nice to find some other writers. I didn’t have enough songs to do a whole album anyway, so we decided to look for stuff that sounded like us. Some of it ended up sounding real country, but that wasn’t our purpose. It was just the best way to do those songs. The more melodic music is the kind of music we like to play anyway. We never were really a hard rock band.”
The first single is Randy Newman’s ‘Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)’, originally written as an anti-Nixon cabaret piece, but transformed by the Marshall Tucker Band as a foot-stomping anti-Reagan hoedown. “It seems like our band has always been geared towards the working man,” Mr. Caldwell notes. “Our stuff is more country than most rock bands and that brings out the everyday person.”
Perhaps the best songs on the album are Guy Clark’s ‘Heartbroke’ and Tim Hardin’s ‘Unforgiven’. The first shows off Toy Caldwell’s jazz guitar fills, the second shows off Doug Gray’s creamy country crooning. All in all, the album maintains the Marshall Tucker Band’s light touch and distinct Southern flavor. It is one of the few Southern bands to resist the blandishments of the hard rock and pop-country radio formats.
“When I was growing up,” Mr. Caldwell relates, “R&B was about all we heard on the radio. And of course country and bluegrass were very popular down there. But it was a lot different from what someone in New York would have heard on the radio at the same time. Now the radio in South Carolina has gotten like everywhere else; it’s real programmed. That’s a real loss. I think regional music is great; that’s what it’s all about. If music everywhere is the same, there won’t be any personality left to it.”
© Geoffrey Himes, Baltimore Sun, 27 June 1982