When Phil Walden launched Capricorn Records in Macon, Ga., back in 1969, his primary mission at the time was to give the Allman Brothers Band an outlet to spread their music to the world.
While he certainly accomplished that goal, he should also be credited with shaping the playlists of most country music radio stations these days. Turn your radio dial to a country music station in 2007 and its a safe bet you'll hear something that would have been classified as "southern rock" back in 1977.
Walden's stable of artists at Capricorn included most of the trailblazing pioneers of southern rock -- bands that blurred the lines between rock, blues, jazz, and yes, even country music. Bands like the aforementioned Brothers, Wet Willie, Grinderswitch and the Elvin Bishop Band. But of all Walden's Capricorn acts, the one that had the least use for musical boundaries had to have been the Marshall Tucker Band.
The Marshall Tucker Band took heaping helpings of all their influences, from John Coltrane to Johnny Cash, and stirred them into a unique blend that sounds as current today as it did back in 1973.
This musical melting pot should be mixed up good and hot when the boys from Spartanburg, SC., visit the Arkansaw Traveller Dinner Theatre in Hardy for a show Sept. 2.
On one end of the spectrum, the Marshall Tucker Band (MTB) was among the jazziest of the Capricorn acts, while at the other end, they were also the most country-fried of the groups, helping to create the template for today's "classic country music" market.
"It sure seems like what's country today, especially the last 10 years or so, they were calling southern rock back in the seventies," said Marshall Tucker Band co-founder and lead singer Doug Gray. "Travis Tritt used to come around to my studio all the time when he was first breaking into the music business, and I went to see one of his shows. I stood on the side of the stage and said, 'That's probably harder rock than MTB ever did.' And I've kept my eyes on things over the years, and it seems that some of these artists on the (country) charts have gotten a little influence from us. But the songs that (MTB co-founding members) Toy Caldwell and George McCorkle and Tommy Caldwell wrote, they're timeless -- they'll live forever, whatever you want to call them."
And while those songs that Gray referred to, songs like "Can't You See," "Fire On The Mountain," "Heard It In A Love Song" and "Take The Highway" will most certainly live forever, thanks especially to classic rock radio, the original lineup of the Marshall Tucker Band began to splinter in 1983, three years after bass player Tommy Caldwell died from injuries sustained in a Jeep accident. Tommy's brother, Toy, left to start his own band in the early eighties and continued playing music until he succumbed to heart disease in 1993.
"Everybody just decided they didn't want to be on the road anymore," Gray said of the reason the original members began to drift apart after Tommy Caldwell's passing. "Some wanted to pursue other dreams, and when there's a death in the family, or close by, it makes you smarten up, or wise up somehow."
While Gray's dream continued to revolve around keeping MTB on the road and in the studio for new projects, for McCorkle, those dreams included getting off the road, moving to Nashville and becoming a full-time songwriter. Although it had been some 24 years since McCorkle had been a full time member of the MTB, he remained close to Gray and even contributed three songs to the group's latest CD, its 27th, entitled The Next Adventure.
McCorkle's role in the latest chapter of the band turned out to be a bittersweet one, as he lost a sudden bout with cancer, passing away June 29, just 10 days after The Next Adventure hit the shelves of record stores.
"George was a very personal friend of mine at the very beginning (of MTB). George was 100 percent a songwriter. He was always writing songs," Gray said. "He was all about the music and was an integral part of everything the Marshall Tucker Band ever did. I was a screamer and singer and he was a song-writing, guitar-playing man -- that's what he was. After he left the band (he "retired" in 1984 to concentrate on song writing) we stayed in touch and talked. George gave me about seven songs for this new project and I ended up doing three on the new album, not having any indication of him being sick. He didn't know it, either. After he realized something was wrong, he was gone in 14 days. I got to see him the night before he passed away. The good part is, I got to know someone who put their heart into everything they did -- with George, it was songwriting."
And putting "their heart into everything" has long been a hallmark of the Marshall Tucker Band.
This is evident on The Next Adventure's 10 cuts, any number of which should, if there's any justice in the world, become staples on the radio dial, either on the country or the rock-n-roll side of things.
"People are saying it has got a good flavor, like the first two or three MTB albums. A lot of people, if you don't tell them, don't know we've been around 35 years," said Gray. "Someone told me the other day, 'Boy, that's some timeless stuff.' As many times as people have told me something's timeless, I never really understood what that word meant. But when George handed me these new songs, I said 'That sounds like some old Marshall Tucker stuff.'"
Old Marshall Tucker stuff with a slightly different twist.
Gabrielle Gray, daughter of proud papa Doug, shares lead vocals with MTB guitarist Chris Hicks on the McCorkle-penned "I Love You That Way," a tune tailor-made for heavy rotation on Country Music Television.
"I'm particularly proud of the song my daughter sings on. She's 25 and sang on our gospel and Christmas records," said Gray. "She's never really performed in front of many people, but there's some strong, strong emotion coming out of that voice. I think that one ("I Love You That Way") will do pretty well on the country charts. When I was presented that song, I told George, 'This one's way too good for me to sing.' We're getting ready to shoot a video for that one."
Video play on any number of music-oriented TV channels may be important in the here-and-now, but back in MTB's golden age, the key to success was taking the key to the highway and running with it, playing as many shows as possible in a year's time.
"It's all about hitting that special moment on stage. When you find it, you don't want to let it go, and that's what this band has always been about," Gray said. "You know, I had no idea, and I don't think anybody else did, that we'd be doing this after all these years. If I go just a few steps from where I'm talking to you right now (Myrtle Beach), it's where our manager first called down and said 'Hey, guess what? I've got a gold record for you.' I'm literally just feet away from where he called me and told me that after our first album had been out a year. That's a year after a lot of shows and work. We still sell records and we still draw crowds, and to me, that's unbelievable, to be truthful."
And what can local fans expect when Gray and his co-horts (Hicks, guitar; Pat Elwood, bass; Stuart Swanlund, slide guitar; B.B. Borden, drums; David Muse, flute and saxophone) storm the stage at the Arkansaw Traveller in early September?
"A bunch of people smiling and having a good time on stage instead of a bunch of people who look like they've been forced to get up there and perform," Gray said. "The enthusiasm that the audience shows -- we give them about 10 times that emotion back by playing."