Once An Outlaw…Always An Outlaw
The Rise Of Southern Rock’s Best Kept Secret
Words: Todd K Smith

At the end of 1983 the Outlaws were a rag-tag bunch. They had scaled the heights of Southern Rock royalty hitting strong with their self-titled debut in 1975 and running a string of hits up to the quintessential Bring It Back Alive (1978). Known for their dual-guitar harmonies with two lead players, (which sounded more like four) and a wild riding rhythm section, the Tampa Florida quintet were inches away from being a household name. The departure of guitarist Henry Paul to a solo career barely phased the band as Freddie Salem stepped in pushing the band further up the charts finally peaking at #25 with Ghost Riders (’80) and their hit of the same Johnny Cash/Stan Jones classic. By 1983 their live set was leaning toward a greatest-hit jukebox and growing dusty. A well-needed break took the band off the road before returning with the over produced Soldiers Of Fortune (’86). Another eight-year hiatus, then the more rootsy Diablo Canyon (’94) with only original singer/guitarist Hughie Thomasson left to guide the ship.

Then a call came from Lynyrd Skynyrd asking Hughie to join them for a six-month contract. Nine years, six records and two DVD’s later, Thomasson was getting the itch again. “I was wanting to write and sing my own songs,” says Thomasson calling in after the Outlaws’ sold out Syracuse, NY gig. His voice cuts out over the cell line, but we get him back. “I was the primary songwriter and the guitarist for years with the Outlaws. I missed singing my songs; I missed writing – even though I did a little in Skynyrd. I wanted to do my own music again and it was unfair to Lynyrd Skynyrd and their fans to be frustrated – so I left.” Hughie points out that they are still the best of friends reminding us that they grew up together and have known each other since their teens. “We played the same circuit, same rec halls and school gyms, so yeah we are family and they understood. We have nothing but respect for each other.”

This year is will mark 14 years since the Outlaws have released new material. Some old friends have returned including drummers David Dix and Monte Yoho, guitarist Chris Anderson from the Soldiers of Fortune days and bassist Randy Threet (Pam Tillis, BlackHawk). Sadly, original guitarist Billy Jones and bassist Frank O’Keefe died in 1995 only three weeks apart. “Our new record is called Once An Outlaw…Always An Outlaw,” says Thomasson. “It’s a great guitar record and will fit right in with our older stuff. We have songs that range from good ‘ol southern rock to country and back to rock again – we cover it all. That’s what we’ve always been about anyway.” Without the constraints of a major record label, the band was able to record in their hometown of Tampa. “Being signed to Arista as their first real rock band was great,” continues the guitarist, “but we were always recording in New York or LA or some other place. This time we were able to move at our own pace and record where we were comfortable.”

Thomasson claims production rights but admits they used several contributing (outside) writers. “There’s 13 tracks on the album so far,” he says. “We might throw in a couple old standards with the new lineup, which will blow people away. I know I digress, but this band is smokin’ right now. We are playing better than ever. A lot of the new songs we’ve been playing live for a while – we’ve worked out all the bugs, so recording them was straightforward. We also worked with some different writers that know what we’re about.” The key ingredient to the Outlaws’ sound has always been their live show. From the late ‘60s through their heyday in the seventies to now they pride themselves on being true to their fans. “That’s what the new record is all about,” says Thomasson. “Bringing the band back to the fans and giving them the best of what we do.”

Original guitarist Henry Paul is still actively involved in country top-forty band BlackHawk and Freddie Salem has now become a restaurateur.  But, Thomasson ascertains that the Outlaws are still a guitar-driven band even calling attention to their website’s special “Axology” section. “We just played in front of several thousand screaming Outlaws fans over the weekend in Syracuse. We cooked’ em up good. Upstate New York has always been really good to this band and we really respond to an enthusiastic crowd. For the last couple of months we’ve been out with Charlie Daniels for the Volunteer Jam. It was us, Marshal Tucker and The Charlie Daniels Band. Charlie knows how to throw a party and that warmed us up real nice for the rest of the summer.” 

Songs Hughie suggested might make the set list include: Love Song, Hurry Sundown, Freeborn Man, Song For You and new songs Trail Of Tears, I Wanna Know, Tell Her I’m Gone, Once a Cowboy, This Town and Full Circle. “We actually play a few of the new songs to give the folks an idea of what’s coming,” says Thomasson. “The record should be out by the beginning of next year (‘08). So we are shopping the record to labels right now.” In light of the band’s history both Lady In Waiting (’76) and Hurry Sundown (’77) have become all out classics and are equally represented in the live set. Thomasson is quick to spotlight the band’s current incarnation as igniting a whole new generation of fans. “Right before we take the stage we play a recording of a cattle stampede then we go straight into ‘Ghost Riders’ – then pile drive through a ton of recognizable hits. It will make your hair stand on end. I guarantee it!”

Photos © John Gellman. All rights reserved.

Website: Outlaws

A week after our interview with Hughie we received this press release:

Press release Sept 14, 2007:
Hughie Thomasson - founder of the legendary Southern rock band the Outlaws - passed away at his home in Brooksville, Florida on Sunday, September 9th, of an apparent heart attack. He was 55. A true guitar hero, Thomasson (born Hugh Edward Thomasson Jr.) formed the Outlaws in that late 60's. The band would quickly establish themselves as a great live band and would be known as Florida's Guitar Army, which was a reference to their unique triple lead guitar assault.

In 1974, they would become the first rock band signed by Clive Davis (who signed them immediately after seeing them open up for Lynyrd Skynyrd at the Civic Center in Columbus, Georgia) for his then new label, Arista Records. As legend has it, the band had just left the stage when Skynyrd front man Ronnie Van Zant said to Davis, "If you don't sign the Outlaws, you're the dumbest music person I've ever met... and I know you're not."

In August of 1975, the Outlaws -- consisting of Hughie Thomasson (lead guitar, vocals), Monte Yoho (drums), Henry Paul (electric and acoustic guitar, vocals), Billy Jones (lead guitar, vocals) and Frank O'Keefe (bass guitar) -- would release their self-titled debut album produced by Paul Rothchild (The Doors/Janis Joplin/Paul Butterfield Blues Band/Love).

The album would be their first of three to go gold (sales of over 500,000 units) in their illustrious career and would enter the Top 40 (as would three of the band's subsequent albums). The band would record 13 albums in all.

Hughie Thomasson wrote the majority of the Outlaws' greatest hits including "There Goes Another Love Song," "Hurry Sundown" and the rock anthem, "Green Grass & High Tides," which remains one of the most requested classic rock songs of all-time and was recently named by Country Music Television (CMT) as one of the top Greatest Southern Rock Songs.

The band continued in various incarnations through the mid 90's until Hughie joined his friends in Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1996 for a ten-year stint. He would co-write several of the band's songs during his tenure.

In 2005, at the suggestion of their longtime and original manager Charlie Brusco, the band reunited with drummers David Dix (an original member of the Outlaws who began performing with Hughie in the late 60's) and Monte Yoho along with bassist Randy Threet and guitarist Chris Anderson for a successful 30th Anniversary tour of the United States.

This past summer, the Outlaws toured as part of the immensely popular Charlie Daniels Volunteer Jam Tour along with the Marshall Tucker Band. Ironically, the band just completed their forthcoming album tentatively titled, Once An Outlaw, which was produced by Hughie. He also had hopes of re-releasing his So Low solo project as Lone Outlaw later this year.

David Dix of the Outlaws - "When he picked up a guitar, magic happened. It is an honor for me to have played a small part in his musical legacy."

Monte Yoho of the Outlaws - "Hugh Edward Thomasson was my friend, brother, band mate, greatest guitar player I had ever seen, and most importantly, a true Southern Gentlemen that will be missed forever but never forgotten."

Charlie Brusco (Manager) - Hughie Thomasson, besides being one of the premier guitarists of our era, was also a warm and gentle person who would do just about anything for someone in need. He was a good friend for 34 years whether I was managing him or on the sidelines. He was one of a kind. Green Grass and High Tides Forever... Fly on Freebird... We are all better from our times with you."

Jeff Albright (Publicist) - "To his friends, he was known as Flame... through the brilliant music he left behind, that's something that will be burning bright for many years to come. You'd be hard pressed to find a better guitar player or better human being, period. May he be in a place you only dream of where your soul is always free."

He is survived by his wife of more than twenty years, Mary Thomasson, his daughter Constance Golder, an adult son and granddaughter.

# # #

 The family has asked that donations be made in Hughie's honor be made to three organizations:

1) The Heroes Fund (www.theheroesfund.org) - an organization that provides assistance to the families of veterans who have financial or medical hardships as well as providing grants to other veterans related organizations.

2) The Angelus (www.theangelus.com) - a non-profit organization, The Angelus is a residential group home near Tampa, Florida for severely handicapped persons who are not able to care for themselves. All of the residents and students have cerebral palsy and all use wheelchairs.

3) The Freedom Calls Foundation (www.freedomcalls.org) - a foundation that provides over a million minutes of voice communications and hundreds and hundreds of video links per month via satellite for our troops to see and talk to their loved ones back home.

The Outlaws were planning benefit concerts for the above organizations.

 "Always remember that there's a
little Outlaw in all of us. May your
grass be green and your tides high."

--Hughie Thomasson--

Website: www.outlawsmusic.com