Graded on a Curve:
The Marshall Tucker Band, (s/t)

Rock flute is one of mankind’s greatest evils. An abomination so unsavory that, following Focus’ infamous flute work-out “Hocus Pocus,” the world’s 195 nations called for an emergency meeting in Geneva to put an end to the practice. The result was the Hocus Pocus by Focus Treaty of 1972, which was signed by 192 nations. Unfortunately, the 3 countries that declined to sign the treaty were Liechtenstein, the United Kingdom, and the United States. It is for this reason that we have South Carolina’s Marshall Tucker Band, a southern rock outfit that flaunted the flute in its songs, no matter how incongruous the combination.

But here’s the odd thing—more often than not, the damned flute works. It shouldn’t work, it literally can’t work, but work it does. It may induce severe cognitive dissonance in many individuals, and horrific Jethro Tull flashbacks in others, but if you listen long enough you’ll come to a grudging respect for the band’s obstinacy. If you don’t like the flute, they’re basically saying, we have a good idea where you can shove it.

Some history in brief: In 1972 a crew of Spartanburg boys changed the name of their band from the Toy Factory to the Marshall Tucker Band—a name they took from a blind piano tuner, whose name was inscribed on the key to their rehearsal space—and went into the studio to record their self-titled debut LP. Released in 1973, it turned out be a Southern rock classic, and the band (which consisted of Toy Caldwell on lead vocals, guitar, and steel guitar; Doug Gray on lead vocals; Tommy Caldwell on bass; George McCorkle on rhythm and acoustic guitars; Paul Riddle on drums; and Jerry Eubanks on flute and alto sax) never looked back. The band got by on excellent musicianship and a parcel of great songs by Toy Caldwell, who played a mean guitar and had a gruff and powerful voice to boot; if you don’t like the way he manhandles the great “Can’t You See,” one of my favorite songs Southern rock songs ever, you’re an incorrigible Yankee and likely to remain an incorrigible Yankee until the day you die.

Their Capricorn Records debut—which also featured Paul Hornsby playing a variety of keyboards—works for one reason: almost all of its songs are winners, flute or no flute. Opener “Take the Highway” is an upbeat road song featuring Doug Gray (who sounds a tiny bit like Gregg Allman) on lead vocals, and opens with Caldwell’s guitar and Eubanks’ flute. But what makes the song work is its catchy and memorable melody. The flute solo—which should induce involuntary regurgitation—actually works, set up as it is in front of a solid rhythm section, and the Toy Caldwell guitar solo that directly follows it is razor-sharp, impeccably tasteful, and rings like a bell. Then the band returns to that wonderful melody and Gray’s fetching vocals, and he sings over some happening guitar and flute (as well as Hornsby’s organ) before the song suddenly goes into overdrive before stopping dead in its tracks.

As for “Can’t You See,” it opens with acoustic guitar and more flute. Then Caldwell comes in on guitar and vocals, and he’s heartbroken and wants nothing but to skip town and get as far away as he can. He plays lots of piercing guitar fills—while Hornsby throws in on the piano–before tossing off a guitar solo that is too brief for my liking. But that’s probably because he’s in a hurry, either to catch a freight riding southbound until “the train runs out of track” or maybe jump off a high mountain—he ain’t particular. As the song builds and builds his urgent vocals are joined by a host of other vocalists, who repeat the title while he ad-libs about never coming back, no fucking way. Then he plays some more barbwire guitar until the song ends. “Losing You” is a country rock tune whose excellence hinges on a very cool chorus. Gray sings it, while Caldwell contributes lots of top-notch steel guitar, and while it includes a jazzy interlude I’m not crazy about—featuring Hornsby on organ and Eubanks on alto sax—Gray’s vocals and Hornsby’s organ and piano win the day. Next up is “Hillbilly Band,” a barn-burning hoedown of a tune that opens with Eubanks’ flute and highlights both Caldwell’s ever-tasteful guitar licks and an uncredited fiddler. Caldwell invites us all to stomp our feet to a hillbilly band, then says he’s gonna do a little “chicken pickin’” which involves him playing single notes in a give and take with Eubanks’ flute. You can practically smell the hay on the floor of the barn where this song is being played, and taste the moonshine that’s being passed “in a corn liquor jar” from hand to hand while the band plays on, Caldwell saying there’s “nothing in this world” he’d rather do than play them hillbilly blues.

“See You Later, I’m gone” features Gray on lead vocals and Caldwell on steel guitar, and like “Can’t You See” and “Losing You” is an old-fashioned heartbreak song in the great country juke joint tradition. Caldwell’s guitar solo is a thing of beauty, and Hornsby plays some sweet piano, while Gray sings, “Empty liquor bottles and crowded bar rooms/Seems to be your home,” and this one, with its catchy melody and Caldwell’s steel guitar, reminds me a bit of a Grateful Dead song, circa American Beauty. “Ramblin,” on the other hand, reminds me of a fast Allman Brothers jam, say off Brothers and Sisters, and highlights the soulful vocals of Gray, while also featuring a guitar solo that proves Caldwell has never gotten his proper due as a guitar-slinger. Why, you’d swear you’re listening to Dickie Betts. It slows down long enough for Gray to do some righteous singing and shouting, then slowly picks up speed, before switching gears in time to give Hornsby an opportunity to play some fancy keyboards. Then Gray ends up with that big voice of his, and what you’ve got here is one cool number.

“My Jesus Told Me So” is a soulful Gospel tune featuring Gray and a chorus of singers on the chorus, and some restrained playing by the band. Gray really throws down at times, just to let you know he’s not messing around, and he so daunts Toy Caldwell the latter keeps his guitar solo short and to the point. As the song comes to an end Gray really begins testifying, female vocalists backing him up, before he once again shuts down a song with his powerful pipes. “Ab’s Song” is a short and pretty number, featuring acoustic guitar and Toy Caldwell singing about how he wants to be buried “in the sunshine.” It’s a sweet number with a slightly disturbing point—Caldwell asks his love to never put anybody above him, even after he’s in the grave. That’s a big order, Toy. Better to give her a statute of limitations and ask her to wait a year or two before transferring her affections to somebody who isn’t planted six feet in the South Carolina soil.

The LP’s bonus track, “Everyday (I Have the Blues),” is a long live track recorded at Winterland in 1973, and it’s a showcase for both Gray’s vocals and Caldwell’s adroit handling of the electric guitar. As in the guy cuts loose, then slows down to play some minimalistic chicken pickin’, as he would say. Southern rock is famous for its long songs (Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird,” the Outlaws’ “Green Grass and High Tides,” and too many Allman Brothers’ songs to mention), and this one stands with the best of them, although I prefer Caldwell the quick gun to Caldwell the slow bluesman. Oh what am I saying: I prefer both the Skynyrd and Outlaws’ tunes because they’re not pussyfooting around, showing off their chops—they just put the pedal to the metal and leave a trail of destruction behind them. That said Caldwell picks up the pace again towards the end, while Gray performs his specialty, namely doing some show-offy blues crooning at the end.

The Marshall Tucker Band went on to record some great songs: “Fire on the Mountain,” the more pop-oriented but catchy “Heard It in a Love Song,” “Searchin’ for a Rainbow,” “Blue Ridge Mountain Sky,” and the great “24 Hours at a Time” to name just a few. Songs that led the Yankee reviewer Robert Christgau to call them “as near as you get these days to hearing that old whistle blow.” And they’ve done it flute—which works in some cases and not in others—in proverbial hand. Eubanks may be gone, retired in 1996, but the band, a sad skeleton of its former self, still flaunts a flautist in the form of Michael James Henderson. It seems some bands simply refuse to do the right thing and adhere to international law. In the case of The Marshall Tucker Band it’s seems to be a case of pure Confederate defiance—if you want their flute, you’re going to have to pry it out of their cold dead hands. Good luck to ya, pilgrim.


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