July , 2012
By Vinny Cecolini
Rocks Outlaw Rebels Still Rolling
JAM Magazine Interviews Founding Member Henry Paul
Photos by Courtsey OutlawsMusic.com
I felt uneasy the first time I held The Outlaws' new album, It's About Pride, in my hands. Many of the band's I idolized during my teen years have recently disappointed me with the new music they've released. These veteran artists, however, refuse to accept that Father Time has passed them by. The new recording is safe, pedestrian and devoid of the brash charm that shaped their early output. That said, the music stays true to the band's legacy, and is the band's strongest work since their classic Ghost Riders album was released in 1980.
Since forming during the 1970s, The Outlaws have enjoyed a die-hard cult following of Southern Rock fans. More raucous country-flavored than their peers, which included the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Marshall Tucker Band and Molly Hatchet, this southern rock band is responsible for some of the genre's most memorable songs. That includes their signature hit "Ghost Riders in the Sky," "Hurry Sundown" and their masterpiece, "Green Grass and High Tides." Although the band briefly achieved arena-rock status during the early '80s, infighting, tragedy, a revolving-door membership, record company pressure and changing musical trends quickly forced them from the spotlight.
Founding member Henry Paul departed after the recording of the band's early classics to form the influential Henry Paul Band and later, Blackhawk. He would rejoin The Outlaws from time to time throughout the next few decades before permanently settling in four years ago. Sadly, fellow founding members Billy Jones and Frank O'Keefe died within months of each other in February 1995. Guitarist Hughie Thomasson passed away in his sleep, just as The Outlaws were reforming, in September 2007.
Today, this group consists of surviving members Paul and drummer / songwriter Monte Yoho. They've enlisted the services of guitarists Billy Crain and Chris Anderson, bassist Randy Threet and keyboardist Dave Robinson. All four have worked with Paul throughout the years. And yes, fear not rock fans, the aforementioned It's About Pride really is a great piece of work. It's full of the stirring, honest, heartfelt lyrics that characterized early Outlaws' compositions, and features the stellar triple-guitar attack the group forged a name on. The title track of the album, as well as tunes like "Hidin' Out In Tennessee," "Nothin' Main About Main Street," "Trouble Rides a Fast Horse" settle in quite nicely with the band's storied past.
JAM: While thinking about questions for this interview, a flood of memories came back. That included purchasing the band's 1975 debut album, the first time I saw The Outlaws perform in the early '80s, and my vain attempts as a young teen to play "Green Grass and High Tides" on guitar. Music, when done right, instantly takes you away, and deposits you in a place no other artistic medium can. Unfortunately, that cherished element of music is sadly missing today.
Henry Paul - Music, along with everything else, is in a constant environment of change. Go back to your old hometown and you'll notice how much it's changed over the years. When you look at yourself in the mirror, you will see a wrinkle here or a gray hair there that wasn't there before. Change is like looking at film that's been sped up so you see the flower blossom open, or watch the sun rise in the East then go across the sky and set in the West. I understand what you're saying. To me, I see music as this wheel that's constantly turning.
JAM: To this very day, The Outlaws hold a special and unique place in the hearts of Southern Rock fans.
When I was in my early-to-mid 20s and a little more reckless, there was this "earth" movement of organic musical styles. Fortunately for us, The Outlaws were in the right place at the right time, with the right racket, to be relevant to the phenomenon of southern rock. It mirrors a stylistic moment. When you think of "Green Grass and High Tides," "Freeborn Man" "Knoxville Girl," "There Goes Another Love Song" or "Hurry Sundown," you can head down a parallel path and think of "Fire on the Mountain," "The South's Gonna Do It Again," or "Idlewild South." There was this moment when everyone came to the concert with their whiskey, cowboy hat, boots and pot. It got to be a cultural, sociological event, not unlike a Grateful Dead concert.
JAM: Do you think the genre is slowing fading away?
I don't think the genre has faded away but it's hard to compare it today to the phenomena that swept the popular music landscape in the mid-seventies, but I think good music will always be in style.
JAM: How has touring changed for the band during the last few years?
We love what we do and feel lucky to be able to still do it. There's a little more attention and respect given to the opportunities we have now. We enjoy the camaraderie on the tour bus together and still have a lot of fun running up and down the road.
JAM: Who are The Outlaws in 2012?
We are in many ways the same band we've always been. There have been personnel changes over the years and we've lost Billy Jones, Frank O'Keefe, and most notably Hughie Thomasson but the spirit that was the Outlaws is still alive inside us today. Along with Monte and myself we have Billy Crain, Chris Anderson, Randy Threet and Dave Robbins. These are guys that we've known and played with in different bands for years and for us it's like family.
JAM: The Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Marshall Tucker Band. These artists were on the front lines pioneering the Southern Rock sound. I think it can be argued that The Outlaws, in their prime, had a bigger influence on the more 'rocking' elements of contemporary country artists.
After years of doing this is easy to look back and find significant similarities in the musical groups we've been a part of. The guitar driven three-part vocal harmony was a cornerstone of the Outlaws as well as the Henry Paul Band and later Blackhawk. There is an accessible and honest quality to country music, especially lyrically. That with the aggressive musical backdrop that defines the Outlaws sound mirrors what has become the hallmark of modern country music. I think the new Outlaws record is an honest collection of songs and it straddles both a country and rock personality.
JAM: Why did you decide to shoot a documentary about the making of your new album, It's About Pride?
At the beginning of the documentary, I'm sitting on a stool holding my guitar and I say how we're excited to record this new album from a very personal perspective. This documentary gives you a behind the scenes look at that process. There's very little film on the Outlaws so I thought this would be a good opportunity to record the creative process and share it with our audience. My son made the film and I thought he did an incredible job. He works with us on the road and everyone was comfortable around him with the camera.
JAM: You don't envy the success of contemporary country artists?
I know how hard it is to find success in the music business and I'm really genuinely happy for someone who can break through. What we do is really good for us and I think we more or less concentrate on that.
JAM: Do you equate hit songs with pop music?
Picking a great song and cutting a really good record on it goes back the Elvis formula and before. With the advent of singer-songwriters from the sixties and seventies the game was changed forever. We always tried to write our own songs and that is what we continue to do today. I had a few hits in Blackhawk with outside songs but I think writing and recording your own is much more satisfying.
JAM: Had The Outlaws formed a decade ago instead of nearly 40 years earlier, do you think the band would be better appreciated by rock fans, or even country audiences?
I really don't know. We formed at a time when creativity in music was at an all time high. Today, you have groups like the Avett Brothers and Mumford and Sons succeeding because they fill a lot of the same artistic space with their efforts. Allison Krauss may not write all of her songs, but the integrity she puts into her work is very important. I think the timing issue is a relative one and we would have found our way regardless of when it was we came along.
JAM: Nice segue.
During the '70s, we toured with the Marshall Tucker Band, The Allman Brothers, The Charlie Daniels Band, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. We were fiercely proud of our southern heritage and we banded together to form friendships both musical and personal.
JAM: Is there any one song that sums up what you're saying right now?
I think the title track off the new album “It's About Pride” defines where we're at right now. It has a historical perspective and also an optimistic view of the future.
JAM: I don't believe The Outlaws were ever perceived to be racists. Rebel rousers maybe, but as far as racist goes, no! I think it was the use of the rebel flag that symbolized Southern Rock that cast a shadow over all the bands playing the music because those groups were proud of that flag.
That's a confounding issue. I know none of us viewed the confederate flag with any political significance. I think to us it was a banner that just represented geographical pride. Time has played a significant role in redefining it's meaning and I understand the sensitivity connected to it.
JAM: Do you have a theory as to why The Outlaws have been able to thrive and survive after four decades and countless lineup changes?
I think the Outlaws have been able to survive because the spirit of the original group has persevered through the many line up changes and the different trends in popular music. I also think that there is a time frame were any group can go from being in vogue to being out of style. The Outlaws have passed that gauntlet and have reached a somewhat classic status. It's American guitar driven rock with great songs and memorable vocal arrangements have solidified themselves on the landscape of popular music.
JAM: Although I was disappointed when The Outlaws first split up, I was excited that Hughie Thomasson joined Lynyrd Skynyrd. That was when they briefly morphed into a Southern Rock super group featuring not only original members of Skynyrd, but the Outlaws and Blackfoot because of Rickey Medlocke.
That incarnation of Lynyrd Skynyrd was a very good band. I was very happy for Hughie when I heard he got the opportunity to play with Skynyrd. It was a slow time for the Outlaws and the timing was great. Losing Ronnie and Steve Gaines in the tragic plane crash was devastating to the band. Getting Johnny to come into the group as well as Ricky and Hughie was an important boost to the band's personality. I think it's important to mention that the group had original members Gary Rossington, Leon Wilkerson, and Billy Powell, three cornerstone players in that group. With the addition of the others the band was a new force to be reckoned with. I think Hughie must of felt a genuine sense of pride being invited into that band and it certainly was good for everyone. I think the fans embraced that lineup in a very sincere way.
JAM: The Outlaws were one of the many artists to emerge from Florida during the '70s. What was it about the area that made it such a talented musical hotbed?
Florida always had a very active music scene. It was a fertile music environment. There were a lot of places to play and it just produced a lot of good local bands. First, there were the little Beatles cover bands. Then, eventually, those bands would start writing their own songs. The bands would start improving to the point where people would really begin to like them for their original compositions.
JAM: A lot of people forget that Tom Petty did not come out of the California music scene, but out of the Florida. The Outlaws often played on bills with his band Mudcrutch.
He was from Gainesville, Florida. Petty had a bit of a different musical personality, so he eventually headed west. Tom turned out to be a really incredible songwriter and singer.
JAM: Unlike a number of veteran musicians, who seem bitter their days in the spotlight are over, The Outlaws seem grounded in reality and well aware of their surroundings.
I'm eternally optimistic and I think that we are right where we are supposed to be. The re-birth of this band was not an invitation to easy street rather an opportunity to once again go out and prove our-selves. That's a very humbling position and one that requires a realistic look at your situation. I think journey is the more fun than the destination and we're having a great time rebuilding.
JAM: Brutal honesty is one element this band does not lack, whether it's the music or the swagger you proudly display.
I think we've come to terms with who we are. I think that honesty is a quality that comes with wisdom. I think we're collectively very sure of ourselves but we're also realistic at the same time. This is something that takes time and perseverance.
JAM: What you want, and where you want to be, are the million dollar questions bands ask themselves every day of their existence.
I think we've got very realistic goals. Our dreams are ambitious but they're no bigger than our willingness to work. I would love to see the band elevate itself on the musical landscape and in the process become relevant. I know it's not easy but I believe in each individual in the group and I know it's possible to catch lightning in a bottle.
JAM: I never perceived The Outlaws to be a "Lynyrd Skynyrd knockoff." I always looked at the band as fellow pioneers of Southern Rock. The problem with spearheading a movement is you're actions often go unappreciated until after your time in the spotlight is over.
Lynyrd Skynyrd is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and deservedly so. Today, they have a very loyal fan base. They have multiplatinum albums. They are woven into the cultural fabric of society with their music appearing in feature films, commercials and staples on rock radio. They did that on the strength of their music with hits like "Sweet Home Alabama." Hell there even a movie named after that song. The Outlaws had there own personality. We had our own fans many of which we shared with Skynyrd. We had our anthem, "Green Grass and High Tides" back in the day. Now we have "It's About Pride" to rally around. The Henry Paul band had "Grey Ghost" , Marshal Tucker had "Heard It in a Love Song", Charlie Daniels had "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." These were all songs that defined these southern bands and collectively “Southern Rock” Maybe we didn't rise to the commercial heights of Lynyrd Skynrd but we enjoyed the rewards our music provided us then as we do now.
JAM: I think you are underplaying the significance of "Green Grass and High Tides" in this conversation.
I think “Green Grass And High Tides” is one of the best records ever cut. I'm just saying that all the bands in our circle of friends didn't enjoy the same level of commercial success. Let me say this I wouldn't change anything about our band, and I'm very proud of what we've accomplished.
JAM: While recently driving with my wife, "Hurry Sundown" played on my iPod. My wife asked, "Why do you love this music?" Our conversation today has helped me answer that question.
Not everyone appreciates and loves the music the same. If you're a musician and you don't believe in it, if you no longer have the capacity to dream of people embracing your music, you probably don't have a reason for being out here. I can tell you right now, it is not about the money. I know you love music and I know it plays a big part in your life. For those that need an explanation of what that means, they have no possibility of understanding it. For those that do understand what that means, there is no explanation needed. That is the way it is with music.
JAM: It seems like we lost many of our Southern Rock icons too soon. Duane Allman, Ronnie Van Zant, even the founding members of The Outlaws, Billy Jones, Frank O'Keefe and Hughie Thomasson.
The lifestyle out on the road is very hard. The legacy of loss is storied. Travel is dangerous. There's a fast forward character to being an entertainer and it encompasses all walks of one's life. I wish all these people were still with us. It's such a devastating loss of such incredible talent. My affection for Hughie, Billy , and Frank is immense, and I wish they were still with us. The friendships I shared and the respect I had for Toy and Tommy Caldwell, and Ronnie VanZant was enormous. They had a profound effect on my life. I never met Duane Allman or Berry Oakley but we revered them. It's very sad to think of those lost so young.
JAM: When you're young, you have this feeling of invincibility.
Your youth can be a reckless time. There's nothing to stand in your way. Dreams are only for dreamers. Time is the judge and jury on how they play out. There's a time limitation on learning from your mistakes. If you're lucky you learn but in many cases it's out of your control.
JAM: Or even remembering your late brother's guitar playing during that album come alive again.
Exactly, and the band's original personality included. I think after time, the drug abuse is like repeated concussions. You become punch drunk like Muhammad Ali. It's sad. You ask why these people bow out so quickly. I'll sum it up for you. It is lifestyle issues. It's choosing to lead a really hard life instead of a determined clean one.
JAM: This life you lead isn't for everyone. It's like Darwin's Theory of survival of the fittest.
Like everything we do in life, it all comes down to choice. When everyone is out grilling on the Fourth of July, and you're squeezed onto a bus with 10 other guys going to the next gig, you're making shared sacrifices. Your meal for the day could be a peanut butter sandwich. You have no idea whether you'll get a shower after you've poured your blood, sweat and tears on that stage. Then you get back on that bus, sleep poorly, and do the whole thing over and over again. That's where your find a band's true heart and soul. Yeah, it's hard, but I'm not complaining because I love it. Look at The Rolling Stones' Keith Richards. He's built for this lifestyle. I swear he's indestructible.
JAM: You're still around to weave your tales through your music. It must give you some degree of satisfaction?
Take a look at Henrypaul.com. As you click on the different sections you'll land on different chapters of my career. It's been a fun ride and I'm very proud of what I've been able to do with help from my friends. I still love it.