It was June 2, 1979 at Carter-Finley Stadium on the campus of North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Two young guitar slingers, Freddie (Salem, of the Outlaws) and Edward (Van Halen of, well, Van Halen) were having a beer backstage. Their respective groups were sharing a bill with Poco and headliners Boston for a crowd of 40,000. The Outlaws—with a lineup of triple lead guitarists—had just finished a blazing set of southern rock.
“Edward had been watching us and he asked me ‘How do you DO that with three guitars?’” and I said ‘Well, it takes some work! You just have to blaze away six guns loaded, but you have to watch each other. Especially when you’re just jamming. There’s no limit on how many bars you can play a solo,’” Salem recalls today. “And he said ‘That’s amazing! I have enough trouble with one guitar!’ and I said ‘Kid, you’re doing pretty OK for yourself. You don’t have to worry about that!’”
Salem had already told Outlaws singer/guitarist Hughie Thomasson that Van Halen had “reinvented the electric guitar.” He had been brought into the band two years earlier specifically to give the Outlaws a harder sound. One rougher that most people knew from their two hits to date: “Green Grass and High Tides” and “There Goes Another Love Song.”
So by 1981, the “Florida Guitar Army” were firing on all cylinders. And it’s Salem featured on the cover of the new DVD/CD release The Outlaws—Live at Rockpalast (MIG). It was filmed in August of that year at the Test Open Air Festival in Lorelei, Germany (on a bill that also included Thin Lizzy and .38 Special). The lineup at the time also included founding singer/guitarist Billy Jones, bassist Rick Cua, and drummer David Dix. Both the video and audio have been digitized and remastered for its first official release.
“I don’t think we even knew they were filming it!” Salem laughs. “Lorelei is a gorgeous place. We had the best time. And the record is what it is – it was just a two track stereo board mix from the house, and sometimes the mikes would go out. So there were hiccups!”
Salem adds that the outdoor amphitheater overlooked the lush Rhine Valley. He says an exuberant crowd of 15-18,000 consisted of mostly Germans, but with a good sampling of U.S. servicemen stationed nearby. In his liner notes, Salem also waxes rhapsodically about the bus trip from Frankfurt to Lorelei, and the Tampa, Florida-based band passed by literal storybook scenes of castles and small villages.
“It was like looking at a tapestry rather than real life. The roads were right on the Rhine River banks,” he recalls. “The whole trip was enchanting. The stage was overlooking the Rhine Valley, so it was like looking at a painting.”
Some members of the Outlaws began playing together in 1967, but the band really coalesced in 1972. Salem joined in 1977, replacing founding singer/guitarist Henry Paul. Salem had landed in L.A. at the age of 18 with “a guitar and 500 bucks” in his possession, soon landing a gig with the rock ‘n soul band the Chambers Brothers of “Time Has Come Today” fame.
Salem says he didn’t care where he slept or what he ate, but he was hungry to play and make connections. He had become friendly with Thomasson and Jones and the Outlaws management. But when an invite came to jam in Florida, Salem didn’t know it was essentially an audition for a spot he didn’t know existed.
“They wanted a more aggressive style to the music, and that’s what I brought.” Salem says. “Hughie is one of the most visionary musicians I’ve ever worked with. He really loved Jimi Hendrix, and so did Billy. All of a sudden, we had bigger walls of amps and we were raging! We were loud and rude!”
The band also started to use producers like Mutt Lange and Ron Nevison, known as more hard rock guys. Salem made his record debut on the live album Bring it Back Alive and then the studio effort Playin’ to Win. He later appeared on the band’s cover of the western standard “Ghost Riders (In the Sky)”, the group’s third hit.
“It took us six days just to do the basic track for that. But we knew right then it was going to be a hit,” Salem recalls. And while the band – known for their harmonies of mostly Thomasson/Jones, Salem was in the vocal with them for this one. “My voice sounded like the Johnny Cash version rather than Hughie’s did!”
Of course, the Outlaws’ sound is usually described with term “Southern Rock, a convenient—if limiting—tag. The Allman Brothers Band don’t sound like Lynyrd Skynyrd. And the Marshall Tucker Band don’t sound like Molly Hatchet. Or the Outlaws. Salem said there was a lot of work in the Outlaws not only on the vocal arrangements, but trying to keep the axemen from slashing each other.
“If you got three lead guitar players blazing away, it could be one of two things: Very exciting, or trains crashing!” he laughs.
Salem left the Outlaws in 1983 when things started to go downhill for the group. They had lost their record contract, there was conflict with management, and their last record—by Salem’s own assessment—was not really good. And he says their career started taking on a parallel with the beloved mockumentary band Spinal Tap. Not of their stadium-filling days, but of the “Puppet Show…with Spinal Tap” gigs.
“It was like ‘Oh, we’re in Seattle, are we playing the Civic Arena? And it was like ‘No, you’re playing Big John’s Amusement Park.’ Then it was small clubs and roadhouses. Plus, Billy was leaving,” Salem recalls. Finally, he says when he and Thomasson were on a multi-act bill at an outdoor festival that drew a paltry crowd of 200, they kind of looked at each other and both said maybe it was time for a break.
Thomasson would continue the band on an off, and a decade-long run playing in Lynyrd Skynyrd beginning in 1996 put the Outlaws on ice. Various formations would continue after that, and Thomasson passed in 2007. The current lineup includes a returning Henry Paul and original drummer Monte Yoho.
“It’s more of a tribute now, but it is what it is,” Salem says. “Nothing can last forever, but it was a tremendous run. And very exciting.”
Today, Freddie Salem is busy with production and session work, has overseen reissues, and puts his guitar on song files that people send him from all over the world. He’s also finishing up a new solo record Freddie Salem and Lone Wolf. But in the Age of Coronavirus, he’s trying to work fast.
“It’s going to be a hard-edged Americana record, and a conceptual one,” he says. “But we’re just waiting for all the major studios to close down again!”
This article originally appeared at HoustonPress.com