By: Wesley Hodges
In their 42 years the music of The Allman Brothers Band have become as important to the history of my home state of Georgia as the red earth beneath it or the Spanish moss decorating the low country coastal area where Gregg Allman currently resides. The familiar story of the band’s early years is a tragic tale fit a for the theatre stage. There’s rock-and-roll success coupled with excess in contrast with unimaginable tragedy followed by countless tales of redemption and rebirth and a timeless soundtrack underlying it all. Gregg Allman, the band’s unmistakable voice, has defied the odds in recent years, carrying on when most everyone else would have changed directions, proudly carrying the torch for the Allman family for future generations to enjoy. There was arguably enough good music made by the time Eat A Peach was put to wax that the Allman Brothers could have called it a career and the music would’ve lived forever. But the band’s studio prowess in the early years, as majestic, legendary and uplifting as some of the songs are, is simply no match for the live trail they continue to relentlessly blaze as the road continues on.
|Gregg Allman by Danny Clinch|
Until now, Gregg Allman’s solo efforts have mostly been met with lukewarm and/or mixed reviews. However, Gregg’s latest T-Bone Burnett-produced work, Low Country Blues (released January 18 on Rounder) is a special standout album and one the artist, his devout fan base and casual listeners all recognize as a new defining moment in the legend’s career.
Gregg spoke with JamBase just before his appearances in New Orleans for this year’s Jazz Fest to talk mostly about the new record (one that he feared may be released posthumously after his liver transplant), a little about New Orleans and his relationship with Dr. John, and his working relationship with T-Bone Burnett.
JamBase: Many fans and critics are hailing this as your finest solo album to date and I certainly agree. It’s got a real back-to-basics feel, and you seem very natural and in your comfort zone. What made you decide it was time to go into the studio and follow your muse to celebrate blues music?
Gregg Allman: In 2003, Tommy Dowd passed away – he produced most of the things that the Brothers and myself recorded. We had our own little communication thing, our own little set of hieroglyphics. We could talk without speaking in the studio and I thought, “What the hell are we gonna do now?” I didn’t wanna break in another producer, you know. You get all those tunes right, you get all the cutoffs good and sharp, you get everybody knowing the songs, you get ready to go into the studio, and it’ll be like, “Whoa, we got another guy in the band!”
[A producer] has to be there in my case because I’ve tried being on the same side of the glass and it can’t be done, at least not by this person [laughs]. A lot of cats do it, but not me. My manager kind of knew this, too. I was on a Brothers tour that ended up at the top of the country around Detroit and Minneapolis and my manager calls me up right before the end of the tour and tells me that I need to stop off in Memphis on my way to Savannah because he wanted me to meet somebody. Right away I knew what it was. I had never heard the name - T-Bone Walker is about as close as I’ve heard to that. Anyways, I don’t know why I hadn’t because everybody else seemed to already know him. We met at the Peabody Hotel, where they have the ducks and T-Bone came in and I noticed him right away because he’s almost 7-feet tall. One of the first things out of his mouth was that Tommy Dowd was one of his heroes, and I thought to myself, “This can’t be all bad.” We started talking recording techniques and it just felt like, man, this is the thing to be doing; you know, when you just get that gut feeling that you are in the right place where you need to be and you need to listen.
JamBase: Please describe the working relationship you had with T-Bone Burnett – is he a very hands-on, visionary type of producer or is he more interested in working with your ideas and playing the role of facilitator?
Gregg Allman: T-Bone told me that a guy gave him a modem with 2, 3, 4,000 old blues songs and said to me, “I’m gonna peel off about 25 of them and send them to you to arrange to your specifications.” Most of them are 78’s and they are so old that some of it may be difficult to hear even to the point where you may not be able to hear all the words. He told me if I get stumped on one of the words to just write in my own [laughs]. So, I did that.
I like that because when some of those songs were originally made they probably weren’t being recorded and they were probably being passed along in the oral tradition anyways, so I’m sure the lyrics have changed a bit over the years.
Yeah, exactly. So, I got them all together and he told me, “You need to come out to L.A. and we’re gonna record it.” I said, “Well, I guess that’s cool. It’s your playpen.” Then T-Bone said something that almost snookered the whole thing. He told me, “Sorry, but you can’t bring your band out there.” I said, “What the fuck?!” Then T-Bone said, “I kinda figured you’d say that. It’s not anything against your band, that’s all.”
He didn’t tell me who the band was though. He failed to mention that it was gonna include Dr. John who was on my second solo record back in ’76. I thought about it and thought about it and said, “Well shit, it’s your project, so if I wanna get in it, it’s time to go.” So, I got there and we just nailed “Floating Bridge” right on the first take. There was actually two or three on the record in one take.
What were the others y’all did in one take?
|Gregg Allman by Danny Clinch|
“Tears, Tears, Tears” was in one take and I’m not exactly sure what the other one was. It was almost “Blind Man” but we had to do that one live because there’s no count off and there’s no intro, so you had to do it that way. I had to leave the vocal on it. So, it was working out so well, man. You always figure you’re gonna be there at least three weeks to cut a record. 12 days and I was outta there - we was done.
Knocked it out in a hurry sounds like.
[laughs] Well, we all looked around and thought, “Well, we got anything else to record? Hell, let’s cut two records while we’re here [so we] could have another in the bag.” We finished it up in late 2009. That was good because the whole time I was healing up from this liver transplant - I’m still healin’ up from it - I always had that thought in the back of my head that I got this killer record in the can in case something bad happens. I didn’t know - you never know what it’s gonna do - I didn’t know it was gonna do this well and I’m really, really thrilled about it. I really am.
The album’s opening track “Floating Bridge” is such an attention-grabbing cut, and it’s got such a haunting lyric. You said it was the first song that you went in and recorded. What made this the perfect fit for the album opener? It seems to be the perfect metaphor for your recent history and health issues.
You got it there. Couldn’t really say it better myself.
Well, I never will forget that floating bridge
|Gregg Allman by Jimmy Grotting|
Lord, I never will forget that floating bridge
Lord, I never will forget that floating bridge
They tell me five minutes time underwater I was hid
I was going down and I throwed up my hands
As I was going down I throwed up my hands
As I was going down I throwed up my hands,
Saying, please lord, take me on dry land.
Can you tell me a little bit about your relationship with Dr. John, who appears on the album. How long have you known Mac?
Back when we first hung out we were both kind of in the fog. I hate to say that and bring it up, ya know, but it was so great seein’ him again. I’ve been clean and sober 16 years.
Anyhow, Dr. John and I used to hang together a little bit and played and all that and always had a good ole time. Now with the time and experience, he just plays so well still. Havin’ him and that acoustic bass on the record was so special. I’ve come up with this theory that there are certain wavelengths that the bass robs from the vocal. Something is lost in the vocals. On this record you can hear me breathing and hear every nuance and bit of ambience that my voice makes. I really liked it. I had never worked with a standup bass before; I just love it man.
It seems to give it that more hollow sound that you can only find on vinyl records. That sound always seems to come out on the records T-Bone makes, it’s a real defining characteristic of his work the last several years. He always seems to be able to bring out those kind of sounds that most other producers cannot seem to capture anymore now matter how hard they try.
He’s got some incredible techniques. He’d use some cheap old mics, usually it would have the old RCA logo or CBS or something. [It] would be that old square job, not a ribbon mic, but it ain’t far away.
Since I’m from South Georgia that cover kinda caught my eye and have to ask where the shot was taken. You are standing on an avenue of oaks, a common feature around this area.
That’s the Wormsloe Plantation in Savannah; the same family still owns it. You’ve probably seen that before if you saw Forrest Gump - same plantation, same trees, different time of year. It was the good ole springtime when they shot the Gump.
Tell me a little bit about the solo tour. How is the setlist composed? What songs are getting played? Is your band largely made up of the guys who were in the studio with you?
Mostly stuff I wrote, some of the old solo records material, some of my stuff with the Brothers, that’s how it’s made up. I’m traveling with my road band and they’ll probably be on my next record, too.
Since you have Jazz Fest and Bonnaroo on the slate this spring/summer, I have to ask about a couple of the big events from your early days. Obviously there was the Atlanta International Pop Festival, which you guys played in the Brothers’ relative infancy, and three years later shared a historic bill with the Grateful Dead and The Band in front of 600,000 people at the Summer Jam at Watkins Glen. How has that feeling of stepping onto a stage in front of a monster crowd changed or is that initial thrill still there? Is this something you have gotten used to?
|Atlanta International Pop Festival Poster|
Ah, if you pay too much attention to it it’ll get you. I’ve always and still have a little touch of stage fright. About 4 o’clock in the afternoon I’ll start to worry. On the inside I’m thinking that we’re not gonna be good enough, just ridiculous shit.
And does that sort of go away once you get going and get into it?
Oh yeah, I think if I didn’t have that something serious would go wrong, and so I just roll with it.
I wanted to ask, since I’m down in New Orleans right now and you are about to play Jazz Fest, about any memorable times you’ve had in the city.
Ah yeah, man [gives that old familiar laugh when you bring up New Orleans to just about anybody], we had some great times down there playing at The Warehouse; it seems like we were the house band there for a few years.
|Gregg Allman by Jimmy Grotting|
Where was that located?
Down there past Tipitina’s; it used to be an old storehouse for cotton or something. I don’t know what happened to it. They might’ve mowed it down or something, but we had some great shows in that building.
Your somewhat-senior contemporaries Phil Lesh and Levon Helm have opened intimate performance spaces (Ramble Barn in Woodstock and the upcoming Terrapin Landing in Northern California) in their respective home states over the years and the reports from these shows are the stuff of legend, do you ever envision yourself trying to facilitate something like that in Middle Georgia?
They have it right on the premises of their houses don’t they?
Levon does. Phil’s is still in the planning stages and won’t be at his house
Levon’s son-in-law is in my band. It’s a small world, huh? I don’t know if I want that many people to know where I live. I live behind two gates; it’d be difficult to do it. I don’t know if I have the place to put people. I can see having one but I’d have to put it clear across town.
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