Gary James' Interview With Hughie Thomasson of
In 1974, The Outlaws became the first Rock band signed to Clive Davis' Arista Records. The band's first two albums, "The Outlaws" (1975) and "Lady In Waiting" (1976) were produced by Paul Rothchild, who also produced The Doors, Janis Joplin, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Love. The band has four Top 40 albums, three of which surpassed Gold status (500,000 units) and two Top 40 hits. The Rock anthem "Green Grass And High Tides" remains one of the most requested classic Rock songs of all time and was recently named of the Top 20 Greatest Rock Songs by Country Music Television.
The Outlaws other hits include "Ghost Riders In The Sky", "There Goes Another Love Song", "Hurry Sundown", "You Are The Show", "Stick Around For Rock And Roll", "Breaker Breaker", "Freeborn Man", "Prisoner" and "Song For You".
Guitarist / vocalist Hughie Thomasson talked to us about The Outlaws.
Q - Hughie, it is going to be hot tomorrow (August 25th, 2007) when you hit that stage. I've heard 96 degrees plus!
A - That's OK. We're used to it. We've been playing in triple digit heat for weeks. You never get used to it, you just learn to deal with it.
Q - Have you played many fairs (in reference to The Outlaws appearance on August 25th) in the course of your career?
A - Oh gosh, yes. With The Outlaws and Skynyrd. Fairs are always fun. The crowds are always great. We always have a great time. Everybody's there to have a good time anyway and when you throw in some good music, they have a better time!
Q - You actually have a connection to Syracuse, N.Y. because of your connection to (bassist and former member of The Outlaws) Rick Cua.
A - Yeah. Rick's a great friend of mine. He's a great guy. A great bass player. I miss him dearly.
Q - Do you know much about his background? He struggled for years to get some kind of national recognition.
A - I do. I'm happy to say that Rick is doing very well for himself now in Nashville.
Q - He has his own record label, doesn't he?
A - I believe he does, yes. I'm so happy for him 'cause he deserves it. When he was with us, he worked really hard, just like all of us did, to make sure he knew his parts and make us sound better. His wife and kids, I love them all! We tried out bass player after bass player after bass player and he walked in and went Boom! Boom! Boom! and I went "OK, that's it. You don't have to play any more songs, you're hired!"
Q - He was playing a small club before he auditioned for you.
A - Yeah. He's a great guy. Maybe we can get him to come jam with us someday.
Q - So, how many original members are there in this current line-up of The Outlaws?
A - There's three; David Dix, Monte Yoho and myself and Chris Anderson, the other guitar player. He played with me in The Outlaws for a number of years, half a dozen or so years in the '80s. So, he's like a new original. He's back. And our bass player Randy Treat is from Nashville. He was the first bass player on Nashville Star, that TV show and numerous other groups. He played with Black Hawk. So, we got great players in the band. Everybody's a player, so it's a lot of fun playin'. There's no handicapped people musically in this band, put it that way.
Q - You're in the Fender Hall Of Fame. Where is that and what does that mean to you?
A - I don't know where it is, but I'm glad to be in there, and it means a lot. It's quite an honor. I played Fenders my whole life. I'm endorsed by Fender pretty much my entire career. They make custom guitars for me. They've been really great. I can't say enough about them. So, I don't know where the Fender Hall Of Fame is, to be honest with you. I didn't really know I was a member 'til you told me. (laughs)
Q - You didn't know that?
A - No. I knew that I was in their catalogs. They put me in all their yearly catalogs, like they do a lot of their artists. They do little write-ups and stuff. I've been in those just about every year. They did put me on a special project where I was on the shoebox of sneakers for a little while. I was on with a bunch of other guitar players. They had a little picture of me on the shoebox and my Dad thought that was the greatest thing in the world. "You finally made it son. Your picture's on a shoebox."
Q - What kind of place was Tampa, Florida for a Rock group to be playing in the late '60s?
A - Actually, it was a great place. I put The Outlaws together in 1968. We played teen gigs where you paid $1 on a Friday night and you could see five bands. We played Battle Of The Bands contests, which we actually won one of them. It paid us $500 and we got to record our first record at Tower Records...two singles. A single with a flip side. That was in '69. Then in the 70s Tampa really started to get "hot". The North side of Tampa had a half dozen really good places to play. They were all bars but they were they were really nice. A good stage. We went from one to the other for quite some time before we figured out we can't keep going in circles. We gotta get out of Tampa. So, we started moving North. We played Georgia. We worked our way through Georgia and the Carolinas. We ended up opening a show for Skynyrd. That's where Clive Davis came to see us and decided to sign us to Arista Records. That was 1975.
Q - How'd you get that Skynyrd gig?
A - That was a favor to us. Our manager asked and they were kind enough to put us on the show. They were great guys. I love 'em still. We went out and played and Ronnie Van Zant actually said something to Clive: "If you don't sign 'em, somebody else is gonna." I didn't hear this 'til later on but evidently it happened. Clive signed us and we were with Arista for oh, golly...a dozen records.
Q - That's a long time for a band to be on one label.
A - Yeah, it is. Normally the life span of a band is three or four years if you're lucky and if you keep writing big songs and you keep getting lots of airplay. We were fortunate 'cause we had Arista behind us and had good management and a good booking agency and we worked really hard at it. We love what we do, so we'd stay on the road and play.
Q - Your first album was produced by Paul Rothchild.
A - Yeah. Paul Rothchild produced The Doors and I believe Janis Joplin.
Q - What was it like having him in the studio turning the knobs?
A - It was great. We had him for the first and second record and I picked his brain. I wanted to produce someday so I started from the very beginning...why did you do that? Why do you make it sound like this? What did you just do? He was really great about that. He shared information with me and taught me stuff. He took me under his wing. He was a really great guy. The main thing he taught me was you gotta have the right sounds. The sound through your instrument has to be right before you record a great song. If you tried to do it any other way, you'd end up with an OK song. I'll give you an example: "Green Grass And High Tides" was probably fifteen or sixteen minutes long, our first studio version. It was just too long. Everybody said it's too long. You can't do it. It's not gonna get airplay. Paul Rothchild said "well, let me see what I can do." I left. I walked back into the control room and I see him with a razor blade and there's two inch tape laying over the chairs, around his neck, over the console. He said "I'm editing "Green Grass". My heart came up in my throat. Oh my God! We worked so hard to get that track. We cut that track and we thought it was really the best one and now it's in pieces. He goes "Just trust me." I'm sweating bullets 'cause I'd never seen this before. So, he cut off sections of it, put it back together and that's the version you hear on the record today. I believe it's nine minutes long. I learned to cut tape from him. Of course we don't do that any more. Everything is high-tech, computerized where you can touch a button and get rid of something or add something. But, I was really lucky to work with Paul. Then we got a chance to work with Bill Szymczyk after that. He produced many Eagles records. I did the same thing with him. I picked his brain. I wanted to know everything. I was probably a pain in the butt. But I wanted to learn. That's what I wanted to do. Then after that we got to work with Mutt Lange. We got to work with some of the greatest producers in the business, because of Arista and Clive and that's how we managed to make good records. Those guys would not settle for anything less that the best we could give 'em. I learned how to get the best out of a group of people. You don't do it by yelling at 'em. There's other ways to do it. In Mutt's case, he would come and sing with us. He'd say "If you don't get the part right, the next time, I'm just gonna come sing it." And boy, that popped my cork, so I'd sing it and I got it right. The whole recording process has changed over the years. Finally, Billy Jones and I actually got credit for co-producing some of The Outlaws records and the newest record we just finished, "Once An Outlaw", I produced. And it looks like it's going to be available to our audience sometime in January (2008).
Q - On what label would that be?
A - Koch Records is who we're talking to right now.
Q - I don't believe I've heard of them.
A - Well, evidently they're not that new to the business, but very big. They have several labels underneath them. It's like a conglomerate if you will. They have distribution, record companies, other business all under the name of Koch. So, it may not end up being Koch. I'm not sure to be honest with you 'cause we just started talking with them. They loved the record. They want the record and we're gonna let 'em have it.
Q - While you were recording your first album, you stayed at the Tropicana Motel. That place had a reputation as being a "groupie" hangout. Did you find that to be the case?
A - Not for us it wasn't, 'cause we were too busy working. We were in the studio from ten o'clock in the morning 'til we fell down. The Tropicana did have some other history behind it. Some famous gangster was murdered there, if I remember right. I forget who it was. It was like a landmark on Sunset Strip. So, we thought it was way cool that we were staying at the Tropicana and recording at the Record Plant, which is no longer there anymore. It's torn down. I think it was Elektra Studio. I'm sorry. To us it was just the cat's meow. We could walk from the hotel to the studio. As a matter of fact, one of the days we were there during the final mix, there was an earthquake. We were walking across the parking lot and lifted each other up. "Man, I feel sick to my stomach. What's wrong?" We didn't really know what had happened, but there had been a tremor. It made us feel like sick to our stomach. I never experienced an earthquake before. We never really knew what happened 'til we got to the studio.
Q - It happens!
A - Yeah. I've been out there every year pretty much of my musical life including this year, at one time or another. One time we left the hotel room because the earthquake was so bad the lamps in the room started swinging back and forth. So, we just got out fine. It stopped. It wasn't nothing major or big. But, it certainly did get my attention. In Florida where I live, we have to deal with hurricanes, but you can see them coming.
Q - In the early to mid 70s, why did Southern Rock groups have such a hold on the music business? I'm talking about groups like Skynyrd, Marshall Tucker, The Outlaws. And the popularity was especially widespread in the Northeast.
A - You know what? That's kind of hard to answer, but I think the answer would be because of the style of music and the lyrics to the music. It was real. It wasn't pre-fabricated. It told real stories. As a matter of fact, we call Ronnie Van Zant the Southern Poet. He was famous for lyrics. "Gimme Three Steps", etc. Marshall Tucker, "Take The Highway"...all the classic songs they did. Elvis Bishop, "Fooled Around And Fell In Love".
Q - The Allman Brothers.
A - Of course The Allman Brothers. I saw them when they were The Allman Joys and right before they became The Allman Brothers. They blew my mind to start with. I'd never seen or knew about a slide guitar before that day. We played a place called the Electric Zoo. They came in. There were several bands on. We were on very early that day. We were kids back then. So, they put us on early, but we hung around to hear the other bands. Allman Joy came on and when they started off with "Statesboro Blues", my jaw hit the floor and never came up. I'd never seen anything like that. I stood there and literally did not move the whole time they were playing. I was blown away. I think that also had a very big influence in what you asked me originally. It created a sound that nobody else had. Marshall Tucker, Charlie Daniels, Skynyrd, The Outlaws, we all had to find our own way to create our own sound also. We couldn't copy The Allman Brothers and everybody did. So, I think we're all a hybrid of each other so to speak. If a song tells a story and it fits with the music and the melody and it creates a feeling that you can relate to it, you're gonna remember that song and like it. I know that's the way I feel about songs.
Q - You have to feel sorry for today's kids who don't have bands like the 70s bands.
A - Maybe it will come full circle again. There's a lot of tribute bands. Nobody's Fault, that does nothing but Outlaws songs. Through our website, they got in touch and I was curious. They sent me a CD and it blew me away. I was so shocked. These are 18, 19, 20 year old kids and they're playing Outlaws songs and they sound just like me singing. It sounds just like Billy singing. It sounds like us playing . It's scary they're so good.
Q - What do they look like on stage?
A - This I don't know. All I know is what I heard. There are bands out there that are picking up on the music of that era are carrying the torch, if you will. I imagine we're gonna see some new bands come out of that and create their own sound and make a name for themselves. It's just a matter of time.
Q - This present line-up of The Outlaws did not perform or record for nine years. You put the band together in 2005. What was your incentive to put the band back together?
A - I just did nine years with Lynyrd Skynyrd. They called and asked me to come and fill in for six months. One of the guitar players was having heath issues. I said "Sure." So, I put the band on break at the time and went and ended up staying nine years. I co-wrote 32 songs with them, did a half dozen albums, a couple of DVDs, multiple TV shows. I knew those guys when Ronnie was in the band still. We toured together with them, so it wasn't like I was going into a band where I didn't know anybody. I knew everybody. We were friends already. It ended up where I stayed for nine years. I had a great time doing it. It got to the point where, OK, I want to sing more, write more. I want to do more Outlaws stuff. At the end of the year I went to the band and said "God bless you guys. You don't need me anymore. You'll always be Lynyrd Skynyrd. With or without me it's not gonna change who Lynyrd Skynyrd is. It's been a beautiful time in my life. I get to play "Freebird" and "Green Grass" and "High Tides", so I can't complain. I'm very lucky. I don't know too many people who can say that. I get to play with Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Outlaws. I do miss 'em. I must admit I miss playin' with 'em. But, I love playin' with The Outlaws again too.
Q - Skynyrd was at the New York State Fair just yesterday. Did you know that?
A - Our driver told us that on the way from the airport today. I was going "dog gone it!" Well, maybe someday we'll tour together and play together. I hope so. You never know.
Q - The Outlaws opened for The Who and The Rolling Stones. How were you treated by those acts?
A - The Who were just good ol' boys, the most polite, the most cordial. We were playing a stadium in California with the Stones and we were opening. We're in our little dressing room. We're all nervous, right? This is 1975 or 1976. In walks Mick Jagger. He says "Hello. I'm Mick Jagger." We looked at each other and said "no shit. Yes you are." He said "you got a beer?" We said "sure." So we got a beer out of the cooler for him, gave it to him, he sat down and said "I just wanted to come over, hang out and say hello to you guys for a minute and wish you to break a leg out there and have a great set!" Shook everybody's hand and was very polite, and walked out. We were all just dumb-founded. I was going "You realize what just happened guys? That was Mick Jagger." He didn't have to come into our dressing room. We were nobody. Literally nobody to them. He's a Rolling Stone. Then we did some other shows with them and they were always just the best. The Who also. We did a whole European tour with The Who. Actually we ended up having a band dinner. Our management and both bands got together after the tour was over and went to this Greek restaurant and had a fabulous dinner. The two guys started breaking the wrong plates. (laughs) If you know anything about Greek dinners, when you get done eating, you break the plates. It shows you had a great meal. It's respectful. So, they bring you plates to break, not the ones you're eating on. So, it got a little crazy with The Who. The guy was just standing there with his tab. Nobody got upset. It ends up being a very fine memory of mine. It was almost like a food fight except not. They were tossin' plates, saucers, cups. The owner of the restaurant is calmly writing down everything and gave the bill to the managers at the end of it. Nobody said a word. They just paid it and that was the end of the tour. We all gave each other a big hug and said we hope to do it again sometime. We were treated with great respect by those guys. It was an honor to be on the same stage they played on. That's how I feel about that.
Q - Hughie, before I let you go, I just have to tell you something. I've been an interviewer since 1978 and you are my 1,200th interview.
A - Excellent. Well, when you get to 1,300 let's do another one (interview) 'cause that's my lucky number. That's my birthday, 13. You'll see it on my shirt sometimes. I was born on the 13th. You get around to number 1,300, you call me. Deal?
Q - Sure. But I don't know when that will be. I don't know how long it's gonna take me to get there.
A - That's OK. I'll be around. You will too. We ain't goin' nowhere.
Note: Sadly, there will be no 1,300th interview. On Sunday, September 9th, 2007, just 16 days after doing this interview (which may in fact be his very last interview) Hugh Thomasson passed away at his home in Brooksville, Florida of an apparent heart attack. He was 55 years old.