One of my childhood heroes died recently.
Hughie Thomasson, the leader of the southern rock band The Outlaws, fell asleep in front
of his TV and passed away. He was 55.
Clive Davis, the music impresario who’d left Columbia Records for the upstart label Arista, loved the Tampa five-piece and made them his first rock signees. These days the band that some promoter dubbed “The Florida Guitar Army” is listed as second-tier southern rock, below the Allman Brothers and then Lynyrd Skynyrd and alongside the Marshall Tucker Band, the Charlie Daniels Band and Wet Willie. I could quibble, but the purpose here is not to explicate how contemporary interpretations of the genre overemphasize the superficial to the near exclusion of anything like ingenuity.
No, the purpose here is simpler, to say that, you know, this guy blew my mind when I was 15 years old. Until then, I had heard and enjoyed my big sister’s music. But I discovered The Outlaws on my own. They were mine. I saw them at least a couple dozen times over four formative years. This was personal carbon dating, fixed in time.
Hughie was the wiry-haired beanpole whose confident hands dominated his Fender Stratocaster. With one leg angled forward, a stance he cooked up after Gene Simmons noted that he lacked one, he ripped quickly and cleanly through one pentatonic scale after another. In a band of talented singers, his tenor stood out, and he wrote some of the most memorable material, like “Green Grass and High Tides” and “There Goes Another Love Song.” No one confused The Outlaws’s southern oeuvre with Faulkner, but they did have a sweet sound, fat, playful guitars with vocal harmonies out of the Poco playbook.
The other lead guitarist, Billy Jones, left in 1982 and sadly committed suicide in 1995, about the time original bassist Frank O’Keefe succumbed to years of hard living. Hughie, who always seemed very business-like, forged on, eventually spending nine years with the latter-day Skynyrd band before putting The Outlaws back together in 2005. Original member Henry Paul eventually stuck with his longtime country band Blackhawk, but the Outlaws’s two drummers, Monte Yoho and David Dix, were back on the scene as well.
I caught them in Cincinnati last winter, serendipitously it turns out. They were stellar (and thankfully not nearly as loud as an infamous Coyote’s appearance in the mid-’90s, with apologies to the Culture Maven on behalf of yours truly and his friend Bettin’ Bill, who broke the bad news to me the day after Hughie died).
Even as a teen, I knew some of our musical heroes would either die young or live on to perform in increasingly smaller venues. The latter was true for Hughie, and he seemed quite happy to be back playing his own songs. He often casually hung out with fans before shows. By now he was more of a pole barn than a beanpole. Time marches on.
I often wondered if, when this moment arrived, I’d try to write some maudlin poem like Charlie Daniels did when Ronnie Van Zant died. I think not. I merely want to say, Thank you, Mr. Thomasson, for your talent, and for letting me believe in heroes. You were a class act.