Goose Creek Symphony Goes Around, Comes Around
Goose Creek Symphony is one of those bands that should have been much bigger than they were, but back in the late 60s/early 70s record labels really didn’t know what to do with a band that played a mixture of rock and roll, folk, jazz and country with an undeniable hillbilly influence, a hippie attitude and a reckless sense of instrumental daring. Yes, they were odd, kind of a cross musically between hippies and rednecks, but boy could they play, and in many ways they were a precursor for many of today’s Jambands that utilize bluegrass and country as a base. They used horns and fiddles as well as effects and the usual rock and roll arsenal. If you like Railroad Earth, Leftover Salmon, Hot Buttered Rum, or similar bands, these guys should of more than a passing interest to you. Funny enough the band doesn’t seem to care that it wasn’t more successful and if anything basks in the glory of being just a little “out there.”
I guess you could safely say in the 70s they fit into that country rock mode, but they were more esoteric and versatile than many of their contemporaries and had more grit and a rugged, less commercial sound. This was a good time band that loved to jam and stretch out regardless of the genre. Charlie Gearheart’s a story telling type songwriter. They recorded three eclectic albums for Capitol, Est 1970, (1970) Welcome to Goose Creek (1971) and Words of Earnest (1972). All were moderately successful with the last boasting a hit single cover of Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz.” Remastered versions of these discs are available on the group’s website and all come highly recommended. In 1974 the band moved over to Columbia and recorded Do Your Thing But Don’t Touch Mine, which was perhaps the weakest to date, but its still a solid, if misguided set (as the label decided they needed a producer, which they clearly didn’t). Shortly thereafter the band took a hiatus. a really long one which lasted almost 17 years. Then out of nowhere they came back (and musically it sounds like they never went away), and lo and behold they sound almost contemporary.
The Goose Creek story brings new meaning to “you were ahead of your time.” Unlike many of the other bands from the 70s Goose Creek hasn’t mellowed or gotten more commercial. They aren’t resting on old laurels, if anything they’ve gotten looser and more varied. They found most of their old audience as well as many new fans. In the decade since they resurfaced they’ve played many festivals and released a slew of albums including, the superb live set The Goose Is Loose in 1995, which highlights their extended jamming, witness the meandering 20 minutes of so of “Talk About Goose Creek and Other Important Places.” They’ve done the Acoustic Goose, as well as excellent studio albums, such as Going Home (1998) and I Don’t Know (2003). They’ve also released a couple of lost albums, such as Head For the Hills (recorded in 1978 and released in 1997) and recently the 2 CD set The Same Old Thing Again (one music CD and a bonus DVD). The later was recorded in the mid-70s and essentially forgotten about for three decades. It’s an excellent album that stands the test of time remarkably well. Ironically the title cut has Gearheart singing “If I could live my life over I’d do the same thing again, for 20 long years I’ve picked and I’ve sung.” Well, the band has gotten a new lease of life and while one could say they are doing the same thing again, it’s only in the term that they are playing great music that’s outside the norm and remarkably refreshing, and more than that they simply exude good vibes.
In addition to the studio albums, there are several live sets from various shows available in both CD and download formats. These albums really do capture the timeless, goodtime, anything goes, vibe that the band creates effortlessly. Given the impetus created by the new/old album I figured it was about time that we got to hearing a little about the bands off on history.
MS- Well can we start by talking about The Same Thing Again album, it’s kind of funny that the album got lost for almost three decades and it still sounds fresh, what’s the story with that?
CG- Well we kind of hung up the whole Goose Creek thing for like 17 years. I mean we did a few things but we didn’t go out and play. I had moved in 1975 to a little town north of Seattle called Mount Vernon to raise my family when we quit the road. We had finished that album in the 70s and we just kind of forgot about it. I like to fish and got into my fishing world. I kind of left the music world. I was still writing things when I live up there and at times we’d go in and do stuff. The band was originally out of Phoenix and I would come down for a visit and the band would say, “Do you have any new tunes, are we going to record some stuff?” It’s like we had forgotten about this album but we hadn’t because it wasn’t mixed. I think it was done on 32 track analog and we had to dump it to digital to mix it. My son has a studio in Nashville where we work. Well, a couple of years ago a friend in Washington brought it up, and I said, “I had forgotten about that, it’s a finished album. It just needs to be mixed.” So I rounded up the tapes. We baked them, dumped them to digital and my son and I mixed them. It was a real trip. Mick, I’ll tell you it was like holy moly. I hadn’t listened to them in 30 years.
MS- Well, that’s what’s so great about the album. It’s been in a time capsule and it comes out sounding like you did it last week.
CG- You know what the record companies used to tell us back in the 70s, you know they had problems trying to market us, and all they would tell us is “you guys are 20 years ahead of your time. I don’t know what to tell you.” Well, we’ve been gone 20 years and we are back, and they well you are still kind of odd, but that was before the whole jambands things really started happening. Back when we were working there was the Grateful Dead who were the original jamband. We didn’t think about jambands or anything when we were recording. We just wanted to do it our way, and we were very lucky to be able to do that.
When we had those albums on Capitol the only thing that we gave them was the stamper. We did our own recordings, album covers; our own mixing, mastering, everything and we decided to keep it that way. It was just us. It was just what we came up with. I’d write songs and we always wanted to get somewhere musically, not just a singer and lyrics, but also have some music in it. I always told the guys that if we have fun doing it then people will enjoy it. That is kind of how we went about it. We’d say that sounds good, but let’s take a left here.
MS- So on the Capitol albums, did you just lease them the product?
CG- Actually, I think we sold them the masters, which I wish we hadn’t done now. Then we did one for Columbia and that’s the only time we used a producer and I wish we hadn’t done that. He didn’t quite understand what the band was about, so not much happened with that album, which is a shame because some of our better stuff was on that album but we have re-recorded some of the songs since that time. But since then we have done quite a bit of stuff ourselves and we have decided to keep it in house, and we do them ourselves. Sometimes we’d go to an indie label. That Goose Is Loose was on an indie label. We have a few live albums available. My son is our sound guy on the road and he will sometimes carry a 2-track digital, or sometimes he brings his 24-track digital recorder and does stuff. In fact, I think we are getting ready to do some more live recordings because we are finding that fans are like, “I’d like to have one of that show,” and probably what we will do is put them up for downloads.
MS- Well, I have to say I think the live stuff that you have put out in recent years really captures the essence and magic of your band better than any of the studio albums.
CG- Oh yeah, Mick when we were back with Capitol in the 70s we were trying to get them to let us do a live album. Everyone was telling us, “You need to do a love album to capture the excitement.” It’s more eclectic live than it is in the studio, you know how it is. We had a promoter in Edmonton, Canada that wanted to do it. You know it where one of the English bands did an album with the Edmonton Symphonywho was it.
MS- It was Procol Harum.
CG- That’s right, and it was the same promoter. It would have cost next to nothing to get the Edmonton Symphony for a rehearsal and a show, and they wanted to do it Jubilee Auditorium which is a wonderful sounding place. It’s like a 3500 seat venue. We used to love playing there because it such a pleasure with the sound on stage, but Capitol wouldn’t put up the bucks to do it, and that was one of the reasons that we left Capitol. We couldn’t get tour support and of course our real connect at the label had left.
MS- That’s one of the downsides to major labels you are often only as good as your connection and frankly they often don’t last too long.
CG- We got some guys that are working on a documentary on us. They found this old tape of use riding around on a bus in Vancouver, British Columbia. We were excited about getting that out (note; It’s the bonus disc for the latest album). It doesn’t have any of the real long songs on it like we used to do, and still do but it’s still definitely Goose Creek.
MS- So when did you actually start Goose Creek?
CG- It would have been the fall of 1968. We started in the studio and decided we weren’t going to play bars anymore or try and sound like anyone else. We were just going to do whatever came out. It became our music.
MS- It’s interesting because you did have a unique and different sound and it stills sounds good and relevant today. When did you disband?
CG- It was around 75 mainly to go raise the kids. The band is really like a family, and even when members change they are still part of our family. Some guys that left us went on to other things. Doug Haywood went on to Jackson Browne, I think Chris our sax player has been playing with the Eagles for a few years. Nicky played with Ronstadt.
MS- It’s really funny because in the past few years there’s a whole bunch of bands that are not necessarily copying you, I’m talking about Railroad Earth, Yonder Mountain String Band, Leftover Salmon and other lesser known bands, but they are hitting that same kind of groove and feeling that you had and still have. Good time vibe with a country/bluegrass edge and like to jam a lot. Have you listened to any of those bands?
CG- I guess you could say we are an influence. Three of four years ago we played one or two shows with Leftover Salmon, and Vince [Herman] said, “I still listen to Goose Creek. They were a heavy influence on the band especially in his music and his writing and that makes you feel really good as you get older to realize that some of the younger bands are influenced by you. Also probably about five years ago we did one show with Railroad Earth, and it was kind of before they were known and they were buying the CDs and having us sign them for them and telling us that we were an influence on them, and I thought, “Wow what a trip” because there wasn’t many bands like us back then. You know they didn’t quite stretch out that far especially with that Hillbilly country flavor.
MS- Right, Poco used to stretch out a bit but they were more rock oriented.
CG- Right, yeah and the Burrito Brothers too, we all kind of started out around the same time, I think they may have been a little before us I don’t really remember, but you know who our heaviest influence was of all. It was without doubt The Beatles and Hank Williams (laughs)
MS- Hey there’s nothing wrong with those two, two of the biggest names in their fields.
CG- For me it was the Beatles, that was the Amadeus of our time and we will never see that again.
MS- It’s funny over the years I’ve lots of interviews with various jambands and quite a number have said the Beatles were a big influence and they weren’t even around during that time. I guess true quality lasts.
CG- Oh Yeah, they changed everything. They were so amazing. The first time I ever heard them I remember going, “How the hell did they do that,” and at that time I was more in the Jazz world. I’d left rock and roll and was living in San Francisco, not that I was a jazz player as such but I was hanging out with players that were. I’d always appreciated jazz, but anyway I friend of mine had gotten one of the first Beatles albums, it might have been the first, but he said, “You got to hear this.” Their harmonies, and the writing was just great, and people like me and guys my age were into some of that mid-60s stuff , some of which was great and some was mediocre, and the Beatles blew minds.
MS- What blows my mind is what they recorded a lot of that stuff one, two-tracks and maybe four tracks.
CG- Yeah, right. Well actually our first two albums were done on a four-track, you know all that ping-ponging and bouncing stuff back and forth. If I listen to music it’s either Pink Floyd, the Beatles or Native American Indian flute.
MS- Can you explain the 17 year hiatus?
CG- Well, as I said I was living up their North of Seattle raising my family and every once in a while I would come down to Phoenix to visit, my parents lived down here. And the guys would say, “Do you have any songs?” So we would start working on two or three songs, and all of a sudden they’d say, “All we need is a few more songs and we have an album.” I had moved on to my fishing world, I was running a fly fishing shop. I would still write some and play with friends. I came home one day and my wife says, “You are getting bored aren’t you,” and I said, “Yeah.” She’s a great supporter of my music and fishing worlds, and she said, “What do you want to do, go play music again.”
This was after 17 years, and I said, “Yes, it sounds like fun.” [Laughs] So the three of us got together and did three or four dates back East and each was a sell-out. The fans were still there, so we decided to jump back into the music again. It’s really fun to play on stage, Mick. It’s very challenging. I remember our drummer once in an interview telling someone, “There’s one thing about Goose Creek; there are no short naps onstage.”Music is kind of like my fishing, and I’m not one of those fishermen that like to go out and catch everything I can and kill em. I respect the fish more than I do most people. But I like to go play with them and hang out. It’s really hard if I even want to keep one of them. I’m very much into that environmental thing. A lot of our later stuff is environmental and outspoken. The last studio thing we did called I Don’t Know is about the most outspoken thing for Goose Creek. That’s how we kind of got back together, everyone just said, “Let’s go play some music.”
MS- Now was it easy getting dates since you’d been gone so long?
CG- Well yes, but we stuck to mainly areas where we were strong, in the Southeast where we first started and we didn’t stretch out too far, kind of the Midwest and the East because it was just the hardcore fans. We couldn’t go out and ask for big money because we hadn’t had any albums out in so long, most of the younger people didn’t even know who Goose Creek was at that time. John told me that Railroad Earth had told him that we were one their influences, but of course we all had a lot of influences. My career started in the later 50s. I did one of those Frankie Avalon, Fabian type things and they had me on the Dick Clark show in 1959, and I was doing record hops, and one night I came home and I don’t want to do this. I always wanted to be in a band. I was working at this real nice studio in Phoenix and it was kind of ours at night and it became a hang out. So we’d go in at night and record. I decided I just want to write what comes out rather than it sounds like so and so, and when I first started writing I thought people would think I’m stupid because I just let my hillbilly come out. I’m from a place in South East Kentucky at the head of a hollow and the place is called Goose Creek, and that’s where the name came from. It was different for all of us. It was a challenge.
MS- I also thought it was different that you used horns in that hillbilly environment.
CG- I was a trombone player since I was in the fourth grade. I started playing drums in junior high school, and then I started playing guitar when I was a senior, so all of that was an influence. I always loved horn sections. I always loved trombones and saxes together. We kind of did our stuff with no rules. We weren’t trying to follow anyone or sound like anyone. Of course sometimes it made it tough with the record companies.
MS- Back in the early 70s it was common to have three bands on a show. Who did you get paired up with? I’ve seen some strange billings myself.
CG- That was another thing. I used to tell everyone that we have played with everyone from Bill Monroe to Alice Cooper. We even did the Atlanta Pop Festival with Hendrix.
MS- Didn’t they record that entire festival?
CG- You know, I heard that and I knew Alex Cooley who was the promoter, but I don’t know what Alex ever did with that. After that he kind of took us under his wing because we were the most different act they act on that thing and although we were unheard of, we were the first band to get an encore that day. He asked us to stay and play the next day. That was what broke us in the Southeast. We got a lot of college dates that fall. I never analyzed it, but the crowd seemed to enjoy it and would be boogieing and getting it on. I think at that time it was a couple of years before anyone started listening to the lyrics in our songs. We were one of the first rock bands to use a fiddle and include it with that rock and roll, big band and hillbilly sound all in one.
MS- Looking back, can you relate one particular event that you consider a highlight in your long career?
CG- One particular thing, that’s hard, but I’d have to say the Atlanta Pop Festival, because we were unknown and I think we only had like a week’s notice. It was really something to see the crowd give us a standing ovation, and we are like, hey they don’t even know who we were, but then there are acts we played with like Springsteen, Stevie Wonder.
MS- Did you jam with many people?
CG- Sometimes we’d have people come onstage. It was really strange because when we first started we got to play some bluegrass festivals and while we weren’t the first electric rock and roll band to play, we were one of the early ones. Vassar Clements and Josh Graves, the Dobro player, I think it kind of caught them, and they’d say can we sit in with you guys and we’d go “Hell, Vassar Clements wants to sit in with us.” I remember the first time he sat in with us. We set him up a twin amp and plugged him in and I don’t think he had ever played through an amplifier and it just blew us away and Josh Graves sat in with us a few times and we’d get into a rock jam out thing and he blew our minds. He could sound like Hendrix; it wasn’t just your typical bluegrass Dobro player. He would get into it and crank with feedback and all sorts of stuff. I remember we did a thing in the park with the Allman Brothers and jammed with them. We did a lot of dates with the Allmans and Duane was just the greatest guy. He’d always show up in the dressing room with a doob before the shows and say, “Hey let’s smoke this.” Duane was just electric on stage.
MS- How much do you play these days and what kind of shows do you play?
CG- We are kind of doing a little less. This summer we went out for eight weeks and I think one thing was an indoor theater and the rest was outdoor festivals and theaters. Most things we were headliners. Back in the old days, some times we’d headline but not if it was major, major acts, and we played with a lot of them, like Stevie Wonder, and the like. It so wonderful, we played with most of the big American acts. This time though I think we headlined everything we did.
MS- So what kind of audience are you getting?
CG- It’s everything from the old hardcore, that are maybe 50 or even 60 and their kids, and sometimes with their grandkids. It’s amazing how we have such a mixed crowd. Even in the old days we had an odd audience. You’d look out and see hippies and guys in three-piece suits. I think the music just spreads around to different places.
MS- Are you keeping the touring more regionalized?
CG- Yes, we are at the moment. It’s kind of hard as we are all getting older, and it’s not the shows, Mick the shows save our butt, and we play usually two and a half to three hours. Just the travel and the day to day stuff, you know what its like. It was easy to do when you were in your 30s. So, we have been doing a little less. We try to pick good shows. We are working on a video now, something that was shot in 2005 in a really nice theater about an 1100 seater in Kentucky which we normally sell out. It’s not one of those $200,000 videos, but Goose Creek has never done one, but its like a five camera shoot recorded to 24-track audio, and my son mixed it. So, we will have a DVD soon.
MS- That’s the greatest thing today even making an album or DVD; you don’t need a fortune to do it because the technology is so readily available.
CG- It’s amazing what you can do at home, especially if you have 10 or 15 grand and you have all your recording gear, but you know something, I still like analog best. It has that warmer I can’t put my finger on it.
MS- I think warmer is the right description, digital can sometimes kind of sound clinical. Analog has more depth to it. Its funny there has actually been a resurgence of interest, albeit at the high end of audiophiles in vinyl.
CG- It’s funny some time ago one of the distributors told me that he was probably selling more vinyl than he was CDs and of course the download thing has hurt the record companies a bunch but I think they are trying to get into it now. I don’t stay that close to that stuff.
MS- It sounds like you are really having a blast playing. How long do you envision doing this?
CG- Mick, it’s a pleasure playing and three or four years ago we decided that we had to cut down on the travel because it was hard on us. But I have done this most of my life and I love it and when you start thinking “this is coming to end” and I love it. Your brain is telling you, “Go rock and roll!” And your body is going, “Fuck you, I’ll show you! [laughs hysterically]
Most of the guys are like, “Charlie we can’t do eight weeks again,” but we have this new CD coming out and I thought it would be good to get out there and play some places that we hadn’t played in awhile. And of course you can always use the money, because the way we did it we never became rich. We just would not go the commercial route. The only thing that we ever did that was a hit single was “Mercedes Benz.” A couple of the tunes off this latest album (_Same Old Thing_) I think when we first recorded them we were looking for a single to give to Capitol. I think we did “Tulsa Turnaround,” which I didn’t write and we did “Cindy,” which again I didn’t write, but at that time I thought in those days both of them could have been singles. But it was really hard to motivate Capitol. That’s how that album started. Back in the old days it was easier to get airplay because there were so many of the underground stations and our stuff was right up their alley. I love being in the studio and recording. You feel like you are the pilot of the spaceship or something. You can take it where you want to go.
Well, in the 30 years I’ve been writing about music I’d have to say that Charlie Gearheart was one of most affable, humble and honest guys I ever spoken to. Do yourself a favor and check out Goose Creek Symphony they really are a one of kind band, and ironically just as viable and entertaining as they were back in the early 70s and in many ways they are an inspiration for younger bands to simply follow your dreams and desires.