I Make of You What I Will

By  |  November 19, 2019
“An Aerosol Container in an Abandoned Peach Orchard” (2012), by Adam Ekberg.  Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York “An Aerosol Container in an Abandoned Peach Orchard” (2012), by Adam Ekberg. Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York

 

W

hen the Marshall Tucker Band played my hometown, I didn’t go. Not that I didn’t want to. That bluesy guitar sound—half Allman Brothers, half John Lee Hooker, with an eerie flute that now and then floats by—may well be the best music ever to come out of upstate South Carolina where I was born and raised. It’s music for the campfire, music for the banks of the Chattooga on a Friday night. You sway a little, you sing along. To listen to “Can’t You See” or “Heard It in a Love Song” is to encounter a certain elemental joy: it sounds good, it feels good. But like so much of the South, it’s a complicated joy. 

Few groups are as associated with a particular place as the Marshall Tucker Band is with Spartanburg, South Carolina. I grew up ninety minutes west in Walhalla, and while Greenville was the place you went—it had a shopping mall and a minor league baseball team—Spartanburg was not. Known as “Hub City” for the intersecting railroad lines, it was a textile town until the mills left, departures that hit the city hard, shearing away both jobs and a collective identity. It was painful, but for roughly a decade—from the mid-1970s to mid-1980s—some of that pain was assuaged by the pride the city took in a few good ole boys made good. The platinum albums, the Billboard hits—the Marshall Tucker Band were as successful as they were hardworking. By 1974, they were a proto–jam band playing three hundred shows a year, building a fan base and a body of work that—at least to my ear—holds up still. 

They were also consummately Southern: “Most of the write-ups used Spartanburg as a kind of Southern everyplace,” writes Peter Cooper in Hub City Music Makers, “a naïve, backwoods town that wouldn’t allow a few hundred thousand record sales to go to the heads of its rock and roll boys . . . a quiet reverent town with a sextet of loud, long-haired musicians.” They were hippies, but, as band member George McCorkle told Cooper, “We weren’t your typical hippies. . . . We had long hair, but we’d whip your ass. They smoked dope and everything was cool, we drank liquor and fought.” There’s even a story behind the name that has the shine of rock & roll legend: one night before a gig, guitarist Tommy Caldwell found a key tagged “Marshall Tucker,” and just like that the Toy Factory was rechristened. 

But the Marshall Tucker Band—at least in its current incarnation—may be best known for its 2003 anti–Dixie Chicks concert. To jog your memory, in the frenetic buildup to the Iraq War, Natalie Maines, the Dixie Chicks’ lead singer, had acknowledged her disgust with President George W. Bush at a London concert. What followed was a faux grassroots backlash that culminated in radio boycotts, pyres of burning Chicks CDs, and a decision by lead singer Doug Gray—a Vietnam vet and the only original member left—that when the Dixie Chicks played in Greenville, the Marshall Tucker Band would offer a free concert just a few miles away in Spartanburg. Dueling concerts, red versus blue, the rhetoric of us versus them—you might consider it one of the earliest acts of a political and cultural division that has widened to the seemingly unbridgeable chasm we have today. Which should make it easy not to listen to that bluesy guitar sound, were it not so damn good, and were it not so deceivingly complex.

To be clear, this was not the Marshall Tucker Band of old, again: only lead singer Doug Gray is left. Toy Caldwell—like Gray, a Vietnam vet—died of a heart attack, Tommy Caldwell in a wreck. Jerry Eubanks, Paul Riddle, and George McCorkle are all alive but no longer associated with what, by 2003, was effectively a shell of itself.

You could write off the incident as an embarrassing lapse of late-life judgment. Yet, because we’re talking about the South here, there’s more to the story than that.

Take the gorgeous ballad “Fly Eagle Fly.” The song is a lament for a disappearing world, not unlike James Dickey’s poem “For the Last Wolverine,” and begins: 

I can’t imagine how the world would be
Not to see the gray squirrel climbing in an oak tree
To walk through a corn field and not see the wild duck flying
I believe before the world ever got that bad
I’d be on my knees crying

What follows is a world already lost—“the lion ain’t got no jungle / old black bear got no cave”—and a mournful slide guitar that slips right off the edge of the track into some place of nebulous, if absolute, grief. It breaks your heart, to have something you know intuitively be articulated with such beauty. And I do know it. As someone who spent the greater part of his childhood traipsing through the woods, BB gun in hand, then grew up to watch the ridges cleared for vacation homes, that sense of physical loss has a deep resonance, and not just for me. Lyrically, the song could be embraced by hunters in their Mossy Oak coveralls as easily as members of, say, Earth First! I love the song for both its specificity and its universality. I love the song for standing on the side of a natural world we have very nearly ruined.

But there is a part of me that’s always suspicious. There’s a part of me that wonders if what appears as an elegy for a vanishing place isn’t also an elegy for a (perceived) vanishing white hegemony, and this is where the joy of listening to the Marshall Tucker Band gets complicated. “Fly Eagle Fly” appeared on the band’s 1974 album A New Life, two years before I was even born. Is it possible I’m reading the politics of a later generation into the music of an earlier? Absolutely. Am I paranoid I’m embracing a music wrapped in so soft a loveliness that I’m staring right past its regressive heart? Oh, yes. Am I, perhaps, simply overthinking it? It certainly wouldn’t be the first time. And that, I suppose, is my point. That I can’t be certain. That I remain suspicious. That, growing up in the South, you can either ignore the world around you, squinting, turning a blind eye, or you can go through life with a vigilance that is ultimately exhausting. To recognize the beautiful while wondering what trick the beautiful holds. When will it strike? When it will bite you? Never, maybe. But that doesn’t mean you can drop your guard. It’s a lesson I grew up learning in my South. It’s a lesson we are now busy teaching the rest of America. Still, it doesn’t mean the music isn’t gorgeous. It doesn’t mean the sadness isn’t real either. The sadness is complex. The sadness makes more sense to me than I would like.

107 PS Powell MarshallTucker1 bwCCDoug Gray, Paul Riddle, George McCorkle, Tommy Caldwell, Toy Caldwell, and Jerry Eubanks. Photo courtesy of the Marshall Tucker Band

 

Sometime in your thirties, maybe your early forties if you are lucky, you come to realize you are being weaned from this world. You come to realize that as the world steadily becomes less recognizable, a loss of orientation that includes a tallying of the gone—people and places—you are slowly being prepared to someday shrug off this life, to slip away with some hesitation, but not too much. You begin, I suppose, to realize how much of this world is no longer in this world. That’s how it began for me, and if you’re anything like me—just past the middle of life’s way—I suspect you number your dead, too. I suspect you start to sound like the person you swore you’d never be. You start, as the late country singer Blaze Foley put it, to build “a castle of memories just to have somewhere to go.” You spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about that confounding thing the French surrealist Paul Éluard said, “There is another world, and it is this one.” And it is that one, the one you touch only through memory, you spend more and more time inhabiting. 

I went looking for what was left of the Marshall Tucker Band on a bright June day, driving down from Boone, North Carolina, to Spartanburg. I have a list of points of interest, but what I find is that they are gone. Long gone, in most cases. The bars and honky-tonks, the Gladstone Hotel where the band known first as the Toy Factory rehearsed—all razed, all plowed under, all of it gone for condos and boutiques. 

It’s like that all over the South now, and not just the physical landscapes. Driving down 221, I’m listening to Aaron Sorkin discuss his stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s blasphemous to say as much, but I never cared for the book, a white-savior fairy tale rendered in clunky prose. But I recognize its cultural importance. It’s the first serious novel many Americans read. For some, it’s the last serious novel they read, and to hear the book’s merits debated rather than feted feels as liberating as it does disconcerting. What we’re coming to terms with in the South—what we’re coming to terms with all over the United States—are these icons of the past, golden and revered, that, turns out, maybe weren’t so perfect after all. So much of the past, for better and worse, is being reexamined or, more often, simply buried. 

It’s like that in Spartanburg—just as I knew it would be. What surprises me as I park downtown and make the trek over to the Hub City Bookshop is the city’s rebirth. In place of mills and warehouses and the sort of old-school music halls the Marshall Tucker Band once played are bakeries and coffee shops, home décor and hiking stores. The city has long lived in the shadow of Greenville, but as I’m waiting to cross West Main—an Americana band busking on the sidewalk, a flock of girls in sundresses window-shopping—it appears Spartanburg has done some catching up.

I’m not sure what to think of this. Actually, I am: I’m happy, but it’s a happiness tinged with the sort of sadness I recognize as two parts nostalgia and one part bullshit. This is progress, and of course I want it. But there is also this sneaking suspicion that in paving over so much of the past we’ve lost the last authentic culture in the United States. That we’ve thrown out the things that made us; that we’ve thrown out the things—just to put a narcissistic point on it—that made me. That’s the nostalgia part. The bullshit part is that we needed, and need still, to bury so much of that last authentic culture because so much of that last authentic culture was a racist, homophobic patriarchy. 

That said, there used to be a bar in Pickens County called Bob’s Place, better known as Scatterbrains. You didn’t go in Scatterbrains, you didn’t go near Scatterbrains, unless you were a biker or at least fancied yourself badass enough to handle a biker. Then, before it burned, it started showing up on various lists of the South’s best dive bars. It started showing up on Pinterest. It became, through no fault of its own, a caricature of itself. A place where retirees in Land Rovers could drive over from their gated communities—they’re everywhere now—have a two-dollar Bud, and then dine out with their HOA friends on the story of their night slumming with the locals. 

Somehow this infuriates me, the way in which the things that still exist have become commodified, served up as “authentic” Southern, all of it grits and field greens, all of it scored to James Dickey’s banjo. 

It makes me think of the Marshall Tucker Band, though I’m inside the Hub City Bookshop talking to its co-founder Betsy Teter and its director, Meg Reid, before Meg articulates it perfectly. 

“It’s because what we have now,” she says, gesturing to the books, the good coffee, the folks sitting at the sidewalk tables, “is reliant on what was here before, and on covering it up.”

It’s that covering up that, much as I want to, I can’t get around.

And I do want to get around it. I’m infuriated at my own anger. I’m also, when I’m completely honest, afraid of it. Lately, I’ve been thinking about Donald Trump’s “you also had some very fine people on both sides” comment made in regard to protesters and counter-protesters at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017. It’s a repulsive comment—on one side were white supremacists and white nationalists, Nazis. On the other side was, well, everyone else. Then I think of all the people I’ve loved in my life, people I believe were indeed very fine people, but who were also racists. Not Klansmen, but people who were—as some folks used to say—“products of their time,” and I start to worry that my frustration at witnessing so much of the past disappear is, in fact, nothing more than some deep-seated unacknowledged evil, something that as a middle-aged Southern white man is neither more nor less than my cultural inheritance. 

I don’t want this. 

What I want is to love Southern rock without being implicated in the Old South politics. I want progress but I want it surgical. Take secession and Strom Thurmond, take Bob Jones and his university, take the racism and the guy wearing the sandwich board, all bad eye and venom, and leave me the Chattooga River, leave me my grandparents on the porch, leave me the fish fries and Ronnie Milsap and the old man at Open Arms Church who played the dobro so lovingly you swore he was cradling his child. Leave me the South I knew before I actually knew anything. Leave me the world I grew up in, only make it better. That’s what I really want: I want it both ways.

Which is what makes me Southern.

It’s also what makes me American.

 

The Gladstone Hotel appears to be in the process of becoming high-end condominiums. The entire downtown, in fact, is in the process of change. There are boutiques and doughnut shops, ice cream parlors and noodle shops. There are crepes, for goodness’ sake. I’ve met up with Stephen, one of my oldest and dearest friends. Stephen lives between Greenville and Spartanburg—physically, though you get the sense it’s metaphorical too—and has an encyclopedic knowledge of upstate South Carolina. We step into a Mexican restaurant called Nacho Taco to try to make sense of things. It’s a stroke of good fortune that the owner, Fabian Mata, turns out to have gone to school with Doug Gray’s daughter. Stephen and I sit at the bar, surrounded by Lucha Libre masks and stickers for breweries. The place is hip and friendly, and Fabian knows everyone. He remembers the PlayStation in the back of Gray’s vehicle, 2006 this must have been. He remembers what a good man Gray has always been.

“No one was ever sideways to him,” he tells us. 

After, we walk the streets, talking to anyone we encounter. No one seems to remember the anti–Dixie Chicks concert. More likely they do. But it’s complicated.

 

That night, Stephen and I go to a party at the Velo Fellow, a Greenville bar hosting the book launch of another friend. When Stephen’s wife, Heather, arrives, she asks what we’ve been doing all afternoon.

“Searching for what’s left of the Marshall Tucker Band,” I tell her.

“Oh, yeah,” she says, “the ones who died in the plane crash, right?”

That would be Lynyrd Skynyrd, but the comment perfectly captures the place of the Marshall Tucker Band in the Southern pantheon, a sort of kid brother, second place but just barely because were there no “Free Bird,” wouldn’t “Can’t You See” be the anthem of Southern rock? Had it not been for Ronnie Van Zant, wouldn’t more of us know the name Doug Gray? We certainly should.

Years and years ago, I would spend hours in a coffee shop, a divinity student in the gray Northeast, reading Karl Rahner and Søren Kierkegaard, lonely for the South. Missing the humidity, the backroads, throwing the football in the Wednesday gloaming while we waited to be called inside for youth group. Then I’d hear “Can’t You See,” and I’d hear Doug Gray pleading as much as singing, 

I gonna buy me a ticket now, as far as I can
Ain’t a-never comin’ back
Ride me a Southbound
All the way to Georgia now
Till the train run out of track

It’s a song about a man, broken by a woman leaving him, who goes home to heal, or maybe die. He goes home to Georgia, I like to think, because Georgia will be the same as when he left it. Though of course it won’t be. And even if it was, would he want that? That’s why it always got to me, I think. Because that was me in that coffee shop, reading my theology while outside the sleet fell in long, slanting curtains. That was me, knowing how deeply I’d wanted out of the South, and simultaneously longing to go back. 

That duality—another great Southern rock band, the Drive-By Truckers, would later call it “the duality of the Southern thing”—that ability to both celebrate and lament the South, is ever present in the music of the Marshall Tucker Band, and it’s that duality, that complexity that won’t allow me to write them off as just another rock band. Amid all the flash and noise, amid the reactionary politics and fading glory, what they knew—the original band, the band before they gave way to all the things that rock bands so often give way to—is that there are at least two parts to everything: what we hope for and what we fear. The chorus of “Fly Eagle Fly,” after all, entangles an eagle and the cottontail it hunts. The chorus hopes they “both live long enough to see the setting sun.” The painful melancholy of the music hints that they likely won’t. 

Later that night, I drive from Greenville to my parents’ house, where I sleep in my childhood bed, above me the same shadows, around me the same comforting smells. I think about Spartanburg, about the city as a palimpsest, the present reliant on what was here, and on covering it up. Or maybe I’m talking about my own heart. Either way, so much is gone, for good and bad. Either way, I shouldn’t get stuck on it.

The regrettable complexity of the world is a child’s complaint. 

But that doesn’t make it any less real, and it doesn’t make you any less lonely. Which is maybe what the Marshall Tucker Band knew from the start. I can almost hear it, I can almost see it. Look me in the eye and tell me 

I’m the only one. Tell me the truth: can’t you see?

Can’t you see?


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Mark Powell is the author of six novels, including Firebird, forthcoming in January. He directs the creative writing program at Appalachian State University. He last wrote for the magazine about North Carolina songwriter Malcolm Holcombe.