Rising from the ashes, the flame still burns
Our exclusive interview with Henry Paul
by Todd K Smith

“Had Hughie not tragically passed away, I probably would not be back in the band again.” ~ Henry Paul

Our history with the Outlaws goes back to the late ‘70s and a tour with Bad Company. At the time both bands were soaring high with an unstoppable show and a glorious night of bandit rock and cowboy guitar. I knew nothing about the Outlaws except their hit “Green Grass and High Tides” (a play on the Stones ‘High Tides and Green Grass’). When they launched into that track live, with three guitars up front and two drummers in the back, I thought I was going to lose my mind. About a year ago it was announced that The Outlaws featuring original guitarist Hughie Thomasson were touring with Charlie Daniels and were as passionate as ever. We did a phone interview with Hughie a week before their date in Reno - two days later, Hughie passed away in his sleep from a massive heart attack. When his heart stopped beating, I thought the flame and the spirit of the Outlaws was extinguished forever.

Last night I got off the phone with Henry Paul, Thomasson’s partner, friend and co-founder of the Outlaws. His voice was tired from a long day of rehearsing in preparation for the band’s second attempt, in fourteen months, to make good on their Reno/Lake Tahoe date. Though exhausted, his enthusiasm for the band was that of a young man, passionate, committed and dedicated to the band’s future. He was frank about his strained relationship with Thomasson but also the desire to keep the songs alive as a tribute to the man they called the Flame. Says Paul, “He and I struggled for control many times. It’s the same old tale and every time I discuss it - it never comes across as complex emotionally as it really was (he sighs). There are some difficult parts to the story and there are some really wonderful parts. I try to focus on the good stuff.”

Paul met Thomasson in the early seventies. Both had recently spent time in New York, Paul soul searching and retracing the steps of Bob Dylan, his greatest influence and inspiration. They knew of each other’s previous bands and ended up on the same stage together in 1972 under the name Sienna with drummer Monte Yoho and bassist Frank O’Keefe. Guitarist Billy Jones showed up from Boulder Colorado and the infamous “Florida guitar army” was in place. After a name change The Outlaws signature sound began to take shape. It consisted of three part harmonies, twin guitar leads and a merging of country, folk and rock into a lethal assault that ignited under the stage lights.

“Going back to the beginning,” says Paul, “when Hughie and I met, and as fate would have it, my musical taste played into his strengths. The first two or three records we did together played directly into the musical tastes of Hughie, Billy and I. It gave the band an identity. We were able to carve out a personality from that. After that, it seems we got pressure from labels or A & R guys for change within the group and the band sort of lost itself and wandered around aimlessly. In the end, I think it distanced itself from its core audience.” While Paul was in the band, the Outlaws released three records, Outlaws (1975), Lady In Waiting (1976) and Hurry Sundown (1977). Many consider them the crowning jewels of their catalog.

Sadly, Paul left before the recording of Bring It Back Live (1977) a barnstorming set that included Freddy Salem, Harvey Dalton Arnold and David Dix, yet lacked Paul signature nuisances. “The sound of the original Outlaws is something that will never be duplicated,” says Paul. “The identity of that sound - especially live, the dynamic peeks and valleys and musical personality was over and above what made the album arrangement. We created some incredible, memorable work including ‘There Goes Another Love Song,’ ‘Freeborn Man,’ ‘Prisoner,’ ‘Hurry Sundown’ and ‘Green Grass and High Tides,’ all of which I’ve very proud of. From a musical concept, what Hughie and I wanted to do was something different. In my opinion I don’t think it ever materialized. There were a couple times it found a musical core that seemed cohesive. In the end, it wasn’t so much one person wanted to go one way and another a different direction it was more complicated than that.”

He goes on to say, “In this business there are always conflicts. It’s inherent to the job description. It comes in John Lennon and Paul McCartney clothes or Stephen Still and Neil Young outfits. It’s characteristic and predictable with the job; whether its ego, control or many other layers. That being said, we had a few moments in popular music history where we came out with a wonderful band offering what was as much about Hughie, Billy and myself as it was about Monte and Frank. It was an amazing collection of personalities that went into making the band a success. I’m always careful to acknowledge the efforts of people like Frank O’Keefe and Billy Jones. Without them, the band would have never had a full musical spectrum. As singers and player they were astounding.”

Paul left the Outlaws to form the Henry Paul Band in 1978 and recorded four records Grey Ghost (1979) whose title track was an ode to Skynyrd frontman Ronnie Van Zant, Feel The Heat (1980) Anytime (1981) and Henry Paul (1982). “That band had a similar feel to the Outlaws,” says Paul, “full of great players and very energetic. It was a solid vehicle for my writing and playing occasionally crossing lines with ideas we’d worked up in the Outlaws like harmonies and layered guitars. I like extend jams as much as Hughie and Billy so that was in there too. With Blackhawk, the country band I formed in the nineties, even though we live and die by top-forty radio, we tear it up live.” Paul re-joined the Outlaws in 1983 and recorded Soldiers of Fortune (1986) a spotty effort but redeemed by the Civil War epic “Cold Harbor.” He left again shortly there after, returning briefly in 2005. “After our reunion tour in ’05, I never spoke to Hughie again. I regret that.” 

September 14th 2007 the phone rang. “Getting the call that Hughie passed was devastating,” says Paul. “Through the years, through all the shenanigans, he was always good at self monitoring, pushing back, knowing when to call it a night. He was a very smart guy; his brilliance was in his playing. To try and define his style is a rather complex issue. His sense of melody was so incredible. It was a shock to me. I thought he would have grown old in the music business. Sadly, when I left the band in ‘05 that was the last time we spoke. I was busy with Blackhawk and he with The Outlaws. We both had our professional careers going.”

“Had Hughie not tragically passed away I probably would not be back in the band again. The band’s future fell to me. I was the only person left that could pull it together and give it legitimacy. I say that humbly because look… Frank, Billy and now Hughie have left us. I was one of the fundamental architects of the band, an original founder and partner with Flame (Hughie’s nickname) back when we were young men, sharing a high profile position in the group I felt responsible to keep the memory of the group and the integrity of the songs in place. I felt it was a real challenge to go back out there and be the Outlaws again.”

Faced with the difficulty of combining two musical entities, Paul openly discussed the practicality of merging Blackhawk and the Outlaws into a unique and energetic phenomena. “Without Hughie it seemed like a daunting task,” says Paul. “Monte, the original drummer and my long time friend called me after Hughie’s death and I told him, ‘You and I will put the band back together and we’ll carry on the sprit of The Outlaws.’ We decided to keep Randy Threet (bass) and Chris Anderson from Blackhawk in place, I brought in my friend from the Henry Paul Band, Billy Crain to play lead guitar. I wanted to bring a keyboard player, Jon Coleman, on board because I thought it would give the band dimension. I stepped up and played Hughie’s songs and my songs and in that since have become the lead singer of the group.”

The Outlaws audience is one of the most loyal, dedicated and intimidating to play for. Paul knew the risks of taking the band on the road. “Going out on tour last summer and putting the band in front of the faithful and under that kind of scrutiny was a gamble,” he says, “but we needed it if the band was going to move forward. We all came to realize that if we were faithful to the music and turned in a spectacular performance, staying true to the original portrayal of the band - the fans would accept it and react accordingly. It occurred to me that it was more about the music than the personalities. I felt that the music was performed for the first time in quite a while with such energy and reckless bravado, completely soulful and so heartfelt, that it felt like a young band again.”

“Fans, and I mean real students of the band, have said it’s as good or better that it ever has been. I knew there would be a risk involved doing both Blackhawk and the Outlaws, but I’ve learned that if you’re going to stick your neck out, you better damn well know what you’re doing, or the crowd will eat you alive. If you don’t sell it, they’re right there to let you know. We attract some pretty wild characters to our shows and trust me; they don’t stand for anything but the best. I gotta say our audience has let us know they are thrilled to have us back and have welcomed us with open arms. Let me tell you right now, the band members are at the top of their game. There is an energy and sprit in the group that mirrors the band’s earliest effort. It’s real and we’re all playing from of our hearts.”

Committed to keeping the band vibrant and alive includes releasing a new album. Fans of the band are aware Once An Outlaw, Thomasson’s last recording was in the can but never released. Two songs from that session, “Full Circle” and “Trail Of Tears” have been posted on YouTube but no further information has been forthcoming. Paul clarifies its current status. “The Once An Outlaw record came under the control of Hughie’s estate. That takes it out of our hands. In my opinion ‘Full Circle’ is the best song Hughie ever wrote. It’s magnificent. There was a time I was willing to work the song up with the band, get it out to radio and really get behind it. But it sat around in legal limbo with people I felt did not have Hughie’s best interest at heart for too long. The window may have come and gone for its release. All the commercial advantage is fading fast. I say that with all due respect but rather than concern myself with something totally out of our control, I moved on.”

“We closed the door on that chapter, went back to basics and are now writing a new Outlaws album that is probably the best record I’ve ever written. It’s deeply personal and from the heart. You can hear it in the words and the musical arrangements, from the western character Hughie brought to the band, to the fierce guitar jams associated with the Outlaws. The stories, the perspective, the skill, the craftsmanship of these new songs clearly reflect a lifetime of working at it to get to this level. There’s a song I wrote as a tribute to Hughie called ‘The Flame’. Another called ‘Tomorrow’s Another Night’ and ‘The Good Old Days’ that is a kind of forward-thinking Outlaws song. I also have a great Blackhawk record written. We have a really faithful audience. As an entertainer that makes a living by playing live, it’s important to have a band in great shape musically. This one is ready for anything I throw at them.”

Paul confirms that Blackhawk did more shows last year than the Outlaws. Yet, wherever one is, the other is soon to follow. “As it turns out I use the same band, I use the guys I have now – guys that I love and have known for many years and we’ve worked it up so one day we can do an Outlaws show and another a Blackhawk show. Sometimes Blackhawk opens for the Outlaws. Since I have control of both franchises, we can represent one band or the other - whichever the opportunity presents itself. We also keep it equal. Everybody got an equal voice, everybody’s a partner. It’s been a lot of fun for everyone financially and artistically.”

The Outlaws live set includes:
There Goes Another Love Song, Hurry Sundown, Freeborn Man, Grey Ghost, Song In The Breeze, Keep Praying, Feel The Heat, You Are The Show, South Carolina, Water Hole, Knoxville, Green Grass and High Tides, So Long, Prisoner, with Ghostrider as an encore. They are also working up an acoustic set to put in the middle of the show including Breaker Breaker, Girl from Ohio, Heavenly Blues and Cold Harbor.

Photos © John Gellman. All rights reserved.

Website: The Outlaws