Checking in with Chris Hicks
by Michael Buffalo Smith
To be so young, Macon, Georgia’s Chris Hicks has been around the Southern Rock block a few times -- and in a big way. As guitarist and singer for The Outlaws and a stint in The Marshall Tucker Band and now as a solo artist, Hicks continues to amaze and astound with powerful blues vocals, smoldering hot guitar work and great songwriting. GRITZ caught up with the well-mannered and cordial Chris at his home in Macon for an enlightening conversation.
Are you originally from Macon?
I was born in Lizella, Georgia. That’s a small town right outside of Macon - about 20 miles or so. A real countrified little place, still is. It’s grown up a little bit but it’s still very small compared to Macon. I have a lot of family out there and all. I started playing when I was 8 years old with my Grandfather who’s still out there; he’s 90 years old. We had a big jam with him a couple of weeks ago. He’s a mandolin player. My Mom sings and he plays mandolin. He’s always played around and had his bluegrass bands. For a while I was playing with them, got a lot of playing time in at a real early age with that stuff. It wasn’t really straight bluegrass, it was more like mountain or hillbilly music. There were a lot of the same songs but more of a country type arrangement. He’s been my master teacher as far as learning how to play. He also plays guitar and he kinda got me started on it.
Coming up through the teenage years I started having my garage bands and playing the junior-senior proms. I actually worked a lot while I was in high school doing that -- playing homecomings and different little sweetheart dances and things like that. We were always a rock and roll band. We were playing Marshall Tucker songs at the junior-senior. Luckily, there were still enough cool people when I was a junior in high school that still got into it. We got in a little trouble by not playing straight Top 40 songs but we got away with it. You know how that kind of thing goes.
What was your first big break in music?
My first taste of the real thing was a band I had together called Loose Change. That was high school buddies that had a band that had changed faces and names and all that a few times through the years but really a lot of the same guys played together for a long time. We started doing original music as well as some covers to get into the clubs and all. We started opening for bands like Charlie Daniels and The Atlanta Rhythm Section and The Outlaws. We were kind of the hot band in town so we always got the opening ticket for a few years, as well as killing them in the the clubs. We built us a little reputation and went to Muscle Shoals; Alan Walden was our manager then, and we recorded our album. We actually got an album on vinyl before they stopped doing that. It was released regionally and did okay; it didn’t break no records but it did okay. We did a single that was going to be on our second album; by this time we were doing some pretty good shows, playing The Cotton Club in Atlanta and things like that. The song was used in a Jim Varney movie called “Fast Foods.” That gave us a little spark and we got a little airplay. It was called “Love is On the Line.” It wasn’t an “Ernest” movie but he’s always the same type of character. It was a college type movie. And 96 Rock jumped on us and played us because of that.
So we opened for The Outlaws a bunch at that time. At the time, Alan was also Hughie’s (Thomasson) publisher so I had known Hughie for a few years during this time and we’d get together and jam and I’d sit in with The Outlaws. And when we’d go down to Muscle Shoals to record Hughie and them would be down there a lot, too so I would play on some of their tracks and they’d play on some of mine, mainly Hughie. We got to be big buddies and everything which eventually lead to him asking me to join The Outlaws in 1989.
So we hooked up and I still did a few dates that year with my band while playing with The Outlaws and then we got going real well with The Outlaws and I ended up having to dissolve my band. I stayed with The Outlaws full time right up until the time I joined Marshall Tucker, really. I guess that was 1996 but we had kind of dissolved The Outlaws the year before that when Hughie joined Lynyrd Skynyrd. But we’re still going to do a couple of more records.
What, The Outlaws?
Yeah. We’ve been working on some demos. But I did a couple of records with them by then, we did Diablo Canyon and we did the live record and I had songs on both of those. My role in the band had expanded to where we were doing some of my material as new Outlaws stuff and I was getting a lot of freedom in it. I got to play and sing songs during the shows and on the record so I was a real part of the band. That was a real fruitful time for me; we played about 200 dates a year between ‘89 and ‘95. During that time when I’d come off the road I’d record a song or two with Paul Hornsby who is a good friend of mine. We ended up with 20-25 pretty good tracks. So, I’d start playing around here and there calling it The Chris Hicks Band and I started snooping around and got me a little record deal with Ichiban Records. That actually didn’t come about until after we’d shut things down with The Outlaws. I put the band together during that year between Outlaws and Tucker and we played steadily and did some good stuff, opened for a bunch of bands again. During that time is when Doug (Gray) called me. As a matter of fact, we had a date opening up for Marshall Tucker down in Florida. So, I was siting at the house and I got a call from Doug. I thought he was probably calling about this date coming up because I hadn’t seen him in 6-8 months or so but what it was, he was calling me to come in and help them out because Stuart (Swanlund) was having hand surgery. So, I said sure, I can do it and I jumped out there on the road and it ended up being a good situation for both of us and I joined The Marshall Tucker Band for a year. Doug and all those guys have been real supportive. I kept my band together the whole time and we opened up a few shows with them in the South. Doug really helped me out with my record deal too. I was discussing all of these contracts and Doug’s good with those things so he gave me a lot of good advice on those things. I ended up leaving the band when we took the Christmas break because my album was coming out, and I knew I needed to jump on that or it was just going to go nowhere. So, we talked about it and I didn’t want to leave and I don’t think the guys wanted me to leave but there just wasn’t a good way to work it all out. So, we ended up shaking hands and deciding the best thing would be for me to get out and go ahead and get in this thing. As much as we all wanted to stay together they really supported me in getting out and doing what I had to do. That’s one of the things I love about those guys, they were like, “man, do it! Anything we can do to help...” And they have, They’ve thrown me dates here and there when I wanted to kind of be high profile or when they were just coming to town or whatever.
That brings us to now. I am working on a second album for Ichiban. We’re going to be finishing that up through the holidays and maybe put it out around St. Patrick's day -- that’s usually a good time to come out with stuff. So, we are just working real hard with this band, trying to change the world one night at a time. We’ve been cutting a lot of live stuff, too in hopes of putting it out either as a part of this album or as a third one. We’re that type of band -- we inherited a lot from The Allman Brothers and Marshall Tucker -- we play them a lot better live.
I’d like to jump back for a minute and get you to share with us your fondest memories of playing with The Outlaws.
I have lots of good memories with them. Those guys were tons of fun. We stayed on the road all the time. We’d come home for a week or two. They were like Tucker -- they played all the time. The “Southern Spirit Tour” was a good one. With Tucker and .38 Special and The Fabulous Thunderbirds and The Barefoot Servants. That was a big package tour that hit all the big amphitheaters across the country. That was a lot of fun because we toured with a lot of those bands but not in a big traveling show like that. It was one big rolling road show. And we were jamming every night with Tucker, me and Hughie. A lot of people were sitting in and jamming like it used to be. Van Zant was out of .38 a couple of nights and I got up and sang his parts like on “Wild Eyed Southern Boys,” and nobody sits in with .38, but before it was over they were pulling us out onstage to jam too!
Same question. Your high points with The Marshall Tucker Band?
I had a lot of fun with them guys, too. I had toured with them and played with them before so much. I knew all the guys real well. A couple of highlights: I did a couple of TV shows with them. We did “Nashville Now,” and we did this Pay-Per-View special out in Houston for 65,000 people. It was us and Charlie Daniels and Hank Williams, Jr. in the Astrodome. That was a ton of fun. They do a lot of outdoor stuff in the summer time that evokes memories of the way it used to be. It almost felt like the ‘70s to me, that same groove.
What are your memories of Toy Caldwell?
Toy was a dear friend of mine. I had cut a lot of tracks with him and was going to be on his second record. I don’t know if they’ll ever be released or not but I sang on a couple of the songs. As a matter of fact, I was in the studio with him two nights before he passed away. We did a lot of dates with The Outlaws and Toy and he’d always get up and jam with us and we’d jam with him. He always loved the way I sang. I used to sing a lot with him and then after the record came out I said, “Thanks a lot man, you got Gregg Allman to sing my part!” I ribbed Toy about it but he knew I was kidding about it.
Speaking of Volunteer Jam, I rode up there with Lynyrd Skynyrd the first time they played again. We ended up hanging out and partying, and Toy was there. I missed the little shuttle bus that came through to carry you back to the hotel but a car stopped and picked me up. It was Stevie Ray Vaughn and his people. I sat down right next to Stevie Ray. Him and B.B. King and Toy had just got through jamming. That was far enough back where they still did a lot of jamming and he had set everything on fire. I never got to know Stevie -- that was my only encounter with him -- but he was great.
Update: Chris has been back in the Marshall Tucker Band for many years now, writing many of the songs and keeping it real. His solo album on Shout! Factory is coming in 2007.