Backstage Pass: Molly Hatchet ? Flirtin' with greatness

In 1977, Southern rock music needed heroes. The tragic plane crash that claimed Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant and Steve Gaines had done much to cast a dark cloud over not just Southern rock, but all of rock ’n’ roll. The answer, not coincidentally, would come from Van Zant’s own hometown of Jacksonville, Fla., in the shape of a six-piece called Molly Hatchet.

Hatchet’s brand of no-frills boogie-rock was just what the doctor ordered, a large dose of Southern Comfort to take the blues away. The band’s guitar harmonies were shared by founding members Dave Hlubek and Steve Holland along with Duane Roland. Drummer Bruce Crump and bassist Banner Thomas anchored a rhythm section that could drive penny nails into a concrete slab. And in Danny Joe Brown, the band had a lead singer with the pipes and attitude to bring it home (if anyone really doubted them).

The original six recorded two great albums before the strain of touring and other differences began to splinter the oak. Hatchet tunes such as “Flirtin’ With Disaster,” “Gator Country” and “Bounty Hunter” became new anthems for the masses. Thirty years later, they still are.

Goldmine spoke with original Molly Hatchet bassist Banner Thomas about the band’s first two albums and what made them classics.

Was it difficult getting that first record deal?
Banner Thomas:
Well, there was a lot of work involved, I know that. I don’t know how difficult it was, because it was so much fun — we were loving what we were doing.

We started putting a lot more time and effort into writing our own original material. The more we did it, the better it started getting. In the summer of ’77, our manager arranged for us to meet Ronnie Van Zant — most of us already knew Ronnie from the Jacksonville music scene — and Ronnie took an interest in us and offered to produce our first demo tapes and let us go into Skynyrd’s private recording studio that they had on Riverside Avenue, in Jacksonville. And he took us in there and made us be there at 9 o’clock every morning, or some ridiculous hour like that, and rehearsed with us for about a week.

He helped us break down our original songs and polish them up and tighten up the rhythm section and arrange the parts properly. And then, he and his sound engineer, Kevin Nelson, recorded us in Skynyrd’s recording studio there. And those were our first demo tapes.

How much time did you spend in the studio getting the songs right?
BT:
We didn’t have a clue what we were doing. Ronnie, by that time, had finished recording the Lynyrd Skynyrd Street Survivors album, so he had built up a lot of experience doing studio work. He knew how to take our songs and make chicken salad out of, well, something else (laughs).

He didn’t really drastically change anything. He just helped polish off the rough edges — in fact, what he called it was “trimming the fat.” We had three guitar players, and most of our songs had a lot of guitar show-off type stuff in them, and he taught us how to trim the fat down, trim out some of the excess guitar stuff to where the song was just a good song. Plus, we still had songs like “Gator Country” and then later on “Boogie No More,” where we had the lengthy guitar solos for showing off anyway. Ronnie personally taught me a whole lot about how to arrange my bass parts with the drums to form rhythm-section grooves. You’d think I would have learned that from other bass players or something; no, I learned that from a singer. [laughs]

How did you see your role in the band?

BT: We all did our share of the songwriting. Dave and Steve were the main songwriters

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