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A modern day minstrel: Gary Lee Tolley

By Staff | Feb 27, 2014

Citing influences like Hank Williams and Elvis, country musician Gary Lee Tolley is a storyteller with a peaceful and welcoming voice. Whether he is singing about that “Redneck Weekend,” or pining for the “Hills of West Virginia,” it is evident that the former Army man and current Virginia resident is most at home with his music.

Graffiti: What attracted you to music in the beginning? Was it a family thing or did you find music on your own?

Tolley: Performing music was not part of growing up in my immediate family. We would listen to country music on the stereo on Sunday afternoons with my parents, but no one played an instrument. I remember listening to Elvis and Chuck Berry with my brother and sister. I went to dances with my older sister in the late 50s and I remember dancing the “Twist” with my sisters classmates. I had aunts, uncles and cousins that played music, though. I remember visiting my uncle one time and he and his sons were playing on the front porch and I remember thinking how magical it seemed. To be able to make music and sing and put smiles on people’s faces. It was like a cool drink of water when you are thirsty, or a good meal when you are hungry. People have always enjoyed music – it creates magic. I remember thinking, ‘I want to be able to do that!’

Graffiti: I read that you used to be in the army. When Johnny Cash – and a few others for that matter – were in the military, they wrote a lot of music. Was music something you had a love for then?

Tolley: No, while I was in the military I wanted to be the best soldier I could be. I volunteered for every school or assignment I could get. I put music aside, soldiered during the day, and went to college at night. I wanted to make a career out of the military and I did, so while I was on active duty, that became my focus. I did start playing guitar and I did get to sing and write some songs while serving but it was as natural as breathing and I didn’t really think much about it.

Graffiti: How long have you been writing, recording, and performing your music?

Tolley: I have been writing songs and performing since the 80s, but my first recording was not until 1994. I was in Nashville and stopped in one of those recording studios where you could sing to background tracks and get the songs to take home on a tape. I next went into the studio in 2007 and recorded the CD, “Heaven’s Just Around the Corner.” I had four original songs on that release and we released it in 2008. My next recording was “Tybee Tyme.” It also had two originals on it and was recorded in 2009 and released in 2010. Then back in the studio for “Life Travels on a One Way Street,” which had all original songs on it and was recorded in 2011 and released in 2012. Finally my current release, “Thanks a Lot” was a departure in that I recorded it in Nashville with studio musicians at the old Conway Twitty studio, now called Trinity Studio. I wrote all but one of the songs on it and recorded in 2012 and released in 2013.

Graffiti: What is your writing process like?

Tolley: Writing a song can take as little as 20 minutes if I get a strong idea or guitar lick. Some songs have taken a year. “Storm Coming Over the Mountain,” one of the strong songs from the “Life Travels on a One Way Street,” I wrote in 20 minutes. I had a guitar lick in my mind – the opening lick – and the rest of the song seemed to write itself. The same thing happened with “Tybee Tyme” and “Hills of West Virginia.” Songs that take longer are songs that I get and idea for but then have to work to make the song capture the feeling that I want to express. Sometimes you have to work a long time to get the words and melody to express the feeling you want to get across. I have a book of my songs, ideas for songs, partial songs and I am always making notes about ideas or lines for songs. I then go back and review the ideas and sometimes find a line or a verse for a song that I wrote months ago that never connected to anything or a partial song that I couldn’t finish that now I can. It’s always an adventure.

Graffiti: Where do you draw your inspiration from? What inspires Gary Lee Tolley musically and lyrically?

Tolley: I want a song to tell a story. I find the songs that seem to stand the test of time are songs that everyone can relate to. Hank Williams was a master of this, but also Cindy Walker and Johnny Cash. The song should tell a story that has some humor or a twist. People will remember a story, but a song without a story is easily forgotten. I pull ideas from life, I wrote “She’s Gone” about a love affair that ends, and the singer seems sad at the beginning, but the chorus shows that he is actually happy about the ending. That song took me to Las Vegas to play at the Palace Station Casino and got me on Fox 5 TV to perform because it was humorous and a surprise with a changing tempo.

Graffiti: What different musical genres help you draw musical influence out?

Tolley: I love to hear the great singers from the 30s and their control and the way the songs were written. I draw from old country artists like Williams, Cash, Don Gibson, George Jones, Homer and Jethro. I enjoy the beat of Elvis and the quality of his voice, Chuck Berry and the Platters, Floyd Dixon, the Mills Brothers. Then I also like the Mavericks, The Bellamy Brothers, John Denver and Jimmy Buffet.

Graffiti: Is there a follow-up to 2012’s “Life Travels on a One Way Street”?

Tolley: Yes, (in 2013) I released “Thanks a Lot” and the song, “San Pedro Bay” has been in the charts for about nine months now. It reached as high as number three and I discovered it has its own line dance now, choreographed by Karen Kennady from Scotland. She also choreographed a line dance for the song “Drift Where the Currents Take Me,” from the same CD. Sales have been good and I have been pretty happy with the results.

Graffiti: What are you doing now, in terms of writing and recording new material?

Tolley: I am scheduled to record my next project in May. I am booked into the Trinity Recording Studios for May and will be completing my next CD for release in time for Christmas 2014. This one will be a mix of original material and some covers that I really enjoy performing. I am also getting some vocal training from a vocal coach in Nashville at the same time. Renee Grant Williams has been the coach for Tim McGraw, Linda Ronstadt and a lot of (other) very famous singers. I am looking forward to the experience, and that is why I have scheduled it during the recording session. I’m looking forward to this being my best release to date.

Graffiti: You’ve had the opportunity to play music for people around the region and beyond. What have been some of the more special gigs you’ve been a part of?

Tolley: I enjoy playing at casinos a lot. The audience is ready to have a good time and my music seems to go over well with them. I guess I am in the right age group and musically the mix works well. I have enjoyed playing at Tamarack right here in West Virginia and it has been a thrill each time I get to do it. Traveling to Las Vegas to perform was a highlight and performing for Fox 5 in the studio was a real high. I have performed at several State Parks in West Virginia and that is always a good time. I would like to get to play the Wheeling Jamboree or get on Mountain Stage, but so far they haven’t been interested. I have (had) more opportunities to play out of the state than in.

Graffiti: Can you talk a little about playing around Nashville? That must have been something great for you to experience. How was it for you?

Tolley: While I was in Nashville last time I got to be onstage while the Grand Ole Opry was being broadcast. That was a real high. I didn’t get to perform, but I got to meet the band and the artists that were on that night. I got my picture taken with Bill Anderson and Lee Greenwood who performed his hit “Proud To Be An American.” Standing and talking to these guys was a great honor. Diamond Rio was on that night, too, and I talked with them for a while. If an artist wants to perform in Nashville you almost have to do it for free. There are so many great artists in Nashville trying to get discovered and they are all fighting for the same gigs. It’s a tough market. I’ts a great place to go and record because you can get some of the greatest musicians in the world to help cut a record, but without a “Draw” its hard to even make a living.

Graffiti: Do you do anything else, creatively speaking? Write? Paint? Are there any other creative outlets that you’ve experimented with?

Tolley: I have trouble drawing a good circle so being an artist is definitely out. I have written children’s stories and have a collection of them on a character I created for my children called “Charlie the Helicopter”. They are about some young children who have a friend that is a helicopter and he takes them wherever they want to go and protects them when they run into trouble. I also like to refinish furniture. I like to take an old piece and take my time and refinish it and put it back to use. I have refinished chairs, dressers, tables, bookcases and chests. I like to garden and really enjoy growing vegetables and planning the garden. Since I grow the vegetables I also like to cook and am always experimenting with menus and seasonings, especially hot peppers.

Graffiti: With the big picture in mind, what’s up now and then next for Gary Lee Tolley?

Tolley: I am forming a new band and working on some new songs. I would like to see some new venues and bookings for 2014. My fan base is growing and it is all still fun. As long as it is fun, I will continue to play and sing. What better thing than to say you play for a living!

Graffiti: Well, thank you so much for talking with us. We definitely wish you well and hope that the creativity continues to flow freely.