Doug Gray, the lead singer of the Marshall Tucker Band, does not sing lead on what is arguably the Spartanburg Southern-rock band's best-known song. The gut-wrenching performance you hear on "Can't You See," one of the greatest brokenhearted laments that the South has ever produced, is by Toy Caldwell, the band's lead guitarist and the man who wrote the song in the first place. Gray doesn't have a problem with not being in the spotlight for that song, and his reasoning is pretty damn sound.
"When Toy wrote it, I told him, 'I'm not going to sing a song about your ex-wife,'" Gray says with a dry chuckle. "But it never really was my song; the way he sung it, he already had it in his heart. He was testifying. That song was a testimony to his being able to reach into people's hearts. I make the audience sing most of it when we do it now."
It's no skin off Gray's nose if the crowd sings along with the Marshall Tucker Band anyway, as they inevitably do on classics like "Heard it in a Love Song" or "Fire on the Mountain" or "Take the Highway." He's got no illusions about being the best singer in Southern rock. In his view, that spot was, and still is, taken.
"I think that Gregg Allman was the best rock singer to ever come out of the South," he says, "including me. Singers are jerks, most of them, like me, and they don't want to be outdone. But I don't worry about it, because once I heard him sing, I knew there never would be another."
What Gray is, though, is a survivor, because he's more or less the last man standing from the great Southern rock era of the 1970s. Some of his Marshall Tucker bandmates, like Toy and his bassist brother Tommy Caldwell and rhythm guitarist George McCorkle, have passed away. Others, like keyboardist and reed player Jerry Eubanks and drummer Paul Riddle, left the band long ago. Most of the Allman Brothers Band's original lineup has passed away. Col. Bruce Hampton went out with his boots on, onstage. Lynyrd Skynyrd just did their farewell tour. But Gray is still out there with his band, playing somewhere around 140 shows a year even though he's just shy of 70.
"I'm just carrying on the legacy we started all those years ago," Gray says, "I just go out there and try to make them proud. We're still selling out places we'd never have thought of. There are kids and grandkids that have grown up with our music. I saw a young woman at one of our shows, and I said, 'What are you doing here?' And she said, 'My mom used to strap me in the car and that's all she would play is Marshall Tucker,' and now she's grown up and bringing her kids."
The people may still be coming to see him, but Gray still doesn't really know exactly what the Marshall Tucker Band does, per se. They get lumped into the generic "Southern rock" category, but is there really that much common ground between the bands we throw under that heading? Other than geography, do the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd really have that much in common? Skynyrd was a triple-guitar hard-rock band, and the Allman Brothers were blues, rock, soul, jazz ... well, they were the Allman Brothers. It could be said that Marshall Tucker's breezier country-rock sound split the difference between the two, but Eubanks' flute lines on those 1970s classics certainly don't scream "honky-tonk," do they?
"I still don't know what kind of band we are," Gray says. "Billboard magazine said once that they didn't know what kind of music we played, but we were damn good at it."
And then Gray makes a bit of a startling revelation. He says that the term "Southern rock" was simply a handy marketing phrase, and he knows that because he was there when an executive at Capricorn Records, label for both Marshall Tucker and the Allman Brothers, came up with it.
"The 'Southern rock' thing came out from a man (at Capricorn) in Macon, Georgia," he says. "I was in his office when he said we needed to come up with something that would fit on a bumper sticker, and sure enough he did.'
And if that's what you want to call what Doug Gray does with his band, then that's fine with him.
"I think being lumped in with bands that you don't play the same type of music as whatsoever is a beautiful thing," he says. "We've played the Grand Ole Opry; we've played the CMAs; we've played with the Zac Brown Band and come out smelling good. And if somebody wants to name us 'Southern rock,' who cares, y'know what I mean?"
And lest you think Gray is a little too magnanimous and humble, he has a message for those who would follow in the Marshall Tucker Band's footsteps, or on to a concert stage. "These new bands have a hard road to follow," he says. "You've got to be able to go out there and put the pedal to the floor, gig after gig after gig."
And that's what Gray is going to do until he physically can't do it anymore.
"The future holds what it holds," he says. "We record when we have a chance, and if it comes out, then it comes out, but we really have nothing to do but play. The music will be there forever, and I'll never let the people down, not while I'm alive."