Marshall Tucker: How American Rock Rediscovered its Heart

By Michael Orpen

I am currently sitting on a train northbound for Chicago. As I look out the window I am drawn to the simplistic beauty of the Illinois countryside. Dull brown fields serve as both a reminder of a bountiful harvest, yet also a symbol of new beginnings for new life in the fields. Trucks passing by on the highway carrying goods from around the world. As an accompaniment – whenever I find myself witnessing this mosaic of nature and man – I always choose to listen to The Marshall Tucker Band. Allow me to briefly explain why.

The Marshall Tucker Band was founded in the late 60’s by the Caldwell brothers. Both Vietnam veterans returned home to a country swirling with emotion. Anger, sorrow, and anxiety dominated not only the minds of Americans, but their ears as well. Music differed throughout the 1960s – going from happy “go lucky” songs about American excess to the sounds of Psychedelia by the end of the decade. One genre that stayed nearly stagnant however, was that of country western music. Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, anti-fascist icon Woody Gutherie. However, bands like The Marshall Tucker Band changed that steadfast pace forever.

The Caldwells came home to a music scene wrought with negative emotion, and brought a sound that – yes – featured these emotions, while also bringing forth hope. One needs only to listen to the opening track of their sophomore album “A New Life” to understand this. The melancholy flute mixed with soulful, jazz influenced guitar solos evoke the same emotion I get whenever I look out to the American countryside. The lyrics discuss returning home after a long absence, anticipating change while accepting it. In fact, their first three albums each have at least two songs that discuss either returning home or longing to. The opening words on their first album are even “Take the highway, Lord knows I’ve been gone too long.” Words like these introduce us to the prevailing spirit of their music. With that, let’s look at the instrumental structure within their discography. 

The Marshall Tucker Band blended together Blues, Jazz, Soul, Folk, and even incorporated progressive rock elements to their sound. I admit, I could talk for hours about the genius of their music. However for both your sake and my editors sake, I’ll only focus on one song – a song I consider the greatest rock track ever composed. “This Ol’ Cowboy” is so genius I either get goosebumps or well up with tears whenever I hear its jazzy guitar intro (if you have headphones you can even hear someone take a deep breath right before they get into it). The accents of the fiddle to accompany the guitar riff and bouncy bass line are all brought together and nailed down by a swingy drum beat with just the perfect amount of piano chords. This all builds up to a flurry of amazing solos featuring flutes, fiddles, and piano all while being held down by a mighty percussive acoustic guitar. Again, I could go on for ages, so I implore you to please put on this track and let it take you on a journey. A journey filled with the feelings of America – not the imperialist and corporate political entity, but the America that is found in the soil that symbolizes that same hope I was just talking about earlier. 

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