Interview: Devon Allman & Duane Betts Discuss The Allman Betts Band
To hear Devon Allman sing “Midnight Rider” or Duane Betts rip a guitar solo on “Blue Sky” sounds pretty natural — it’s part of each musician’s birthright as heirs to The Allman Brothers Band legacy, and — if you’re feeling all intense about it — in their blood. Collaborating for the fun of it might have been enough. But the two scions of the peach have taken things even further than well-chosen Allmans salutes, not only playing together but also forming a new group, with the loaded title of The Allman Betts Band, that stays on the right side of indulging the ancestry while forging a new path on top of familiar sounds. This is no tribute act.
Allman and Betts have known each other since the late 1980s but started seriously playing together only in the past few years. A successful co-bill tour featuring each musician’s solo band stretched throughout 2018 and into 2019, with a focus on their respective original songs and then a combined collaborative encore heavy with inevitable Allmans material and other covers.
The new ABB is an extended family affair in several ways: bassist and old friend Berry Oakley Jr. is also in the lineup, along with guitarist Johnny Stachela, drummers/percussionists John Lum and R. Scott Bryan and jam scene veteran John Ginty on keyboards. The band recorded a forthcoming debut album, Down To The River, at the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama with producer Matt Ross-Spang, featuring guest appearances from the likes of Chuck Leavell and Peter Levin. It’s out in June, and ahead of it comes an inaugural Allman Betts Band tour that starts March 27.
Here are Devon and Duane on what’s to come.
JamBase: So I know you guys first met as kids on the Allman Brothers reunion tour back in 1989, but when did you first actually play together as musicians?
Devon Allman: That was probably more in the 2000s, maybe being on the same festival. I want to say it was probably the first Rock Legends cruise?
Duane Betts: I know I came to see you playing in the ‘90s. I’m trying to think if we ever played together in L.A. in the ‘90s. I know I played with you at the Ridgefield Playhouse — I sat-in with you guys when I think you opened for my dad there. That might have been before the cruise or around the same time. But we were definitely around each other and there were usually guitars there.
JamBase: You’ve been collaborating closely for the better part of two years now, but how did it come about that you’d go out on tour together?
Devon Allman: We’d been talking about it for the last four or five years and I think the timing had never really worked out. Duane had a really good stint with Dawes and I was out there touring a few different solo records and also in the band with Cyril Neville, the Royal Southern Brotherhood. We were both just so slammed in those years like ‘14, ‘15 and ‘16 and it was never quite in the cards.
When my dad passed, I took a year off of touring for the first time in my career, to grieve, quite honestly, and just take a step back and huddle around family and take care of estate matters and whatnot. I knew I’d need to get back out there, and I wanted to come out bigger and better than before, and I was thinking about what I could do to make it special. I was running a four-piece band, and I really wanted a bigger band. I just kind of started thinking about ways I’d like to come back out, and have it be more of an event.
I thought of Duane. I knew he was wrapping up with Dawes, and he’d been champing at the bit to release his own record and his own songs. “What if we joined forces? You can do a set where you do your own thing, I can do mine, we do a couple of tips of the hat to the dads, it seems like it makes sense.” It clicked, and it worked. The obvious thing that was embedded in that, while we’re out there and had all this downtime, was maybe we try and write some songs. If it happens, it might be cool. And here we are.
Duane Betts: I’m really glad we waited to do it. Part of the reason we didn’t do it before was that we were really busy. But instinctively, and there were some people who said that we should do it, I wanted to wait until it really felt right and could be really special.
JamBase: You’ve both referred to how you tackle songs by Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts and the Allman Brothers as tipping the hat to your dads. It seems like you’re somewhere between doing this as more than an obligation but also not wanting the whole thing to be about Allman Brothers. Is that an accurate way to look at it?
Duane Betts: The way I look at it, I love playing the music. I think it’s some of the greatest music in the world, and they’re not out there playing it. We just made a record, and I put out mine, and Devon has a bunch of records, and maybe we can tip our hat a little bit along with that. I don’t think it would feel good if I was just out there playing that, or if we just played 15 Allman Brothers songs in a set and we’re a tribute band. I don’t have a lot of interest in doing that. But who better to do it a bit than us? We talk about that a lot. We’re really fired up about the new record and about playing with younger bands. We can play with a lot of people, and I think that’s a really cool thing. We could do a blues cruise, we could open for Skynyrd, we could go out with Lukas Nelson.
JamBase: The lineup for the Allman Betts Band, with Johnny Stachela and the drummers and John Ginty and of course Berry, how did this all come together with these players?
Duane Betts: It came together! [laughs]
Devon Allman: When we started last year, I’d already played or worked with a lot of the best players with St. Louis and put together a really cool cast of characters. When we started to look at the transition, it was really like, who needs to stay on board and who needs to come in. It was not really based on ability but based on who would pack the most punch for this.
I had worked really hard with John Lum and R. Scott Bryan from the Sheryl Crow band. They lock-in so well, and we really count on them, so that was a no-brainer to have them shift over. And if we’re going to do something like this, you need Berry along. I mean, you don’t have to, but it just sweetens the pot for the fans, and the playing together is effortless.
Duane Betts: Berry is just a great bass player and that’s really why. He’s a great musician; that’s why I like playing with him.
Devon Allman: He was an obvious choice to sweeten the pot, and have it be an exciting band. John Ginty … we were going to use Peter Levin, who played with my dad, and he recently moved away from New York for the first time, got married, and I think it was a really hard thing for him, but he decided to concentrate on being a newlywed and will probably do a lot more session work than hardcore touring. He knew we were planning to go hard and carve out a lot of dates. John, he’s been my friend for years. And Johnny Stachela on slide guitar, he’s been playing with Duane for the last few years and been a friend of mine for 15 years and has started to really step into the spotlight with his playing, so he was an obvious choice for slide guitar. It’s a seven-piece beast.
Duane Betts: Ha!
Devon Allman: The first time we all got together was at Muscle Shoals. It’s a record we can hang our hat on. We can play the material for what the material needs. I think it’s something we can be proud of and it has great moments of slide guitar and drumming and just everything. We did the record in five days.
JamBase: How did you pull together the material for the record? Is it all new songs?
Duane Betts: We wrote them over the course of the tour last summer. We wrote probably 12 songs and used six or seven of those. There are a couple of other things, and one is from a fairly well-known artist. We also did a song from one of the first bands I was in with Alex Orbison on drums called Backbone. That band did a record in Nashville — I was like 20 or 21 years old — and our singer, and the other guitar partner of mine [the late Chris Williams], he ended up passing away, but he and I wrote the material in that band. He had a song called “Autumn Breeze,” and it’s the song from him that I connected with the most. I started doing it [with my band], and it just kind of took on a great role as far as being a live piece, really go in a freeform, kind of jammy direction. Everybody liked it here and we put it on the record.
Devon Allman: We brought in a writer, Stoll Vaughan, he’s from Kentucky and he’s L.A-based now. He was an important piece of the puzzle. He just kind of played mediator and would cheerlead us through sessions, and if someone had a hot hand, he’d lean on it, or he’d say things like, “We can do a better verse than that, or maybe we try this.” He kept us organized and rolling — all the lyrics and the voice memos on the phones. We put him on the bus for a few days, we flew him out a few times. We did a lot of talking and we kind of settled on a blueprint: “We’d like the music to fit into this realm, not that we wanted to sound like this record or that, but exist in this realm.” That realm included Sticky Fingers, by The Stones, Layla by Derek & The Dominoes, and everything ever recorded by The Band. Not a bad blueprint [laughs]. So you’ve got three knuckleheads in the back of a bus, writing, and we got lucky with the stars aligning.
JamBase: What will this all sound like with the seven-piece in place?
Devon Allman: Well, the record was recorded 90 percent live, with few overdubs. So it’ll sound like that, man.
Duane Betts: We’re itching to play this stuff, and we’ve been playing a couple of the tunes already. But yeah there’s some songs that could go in different directions. Some of them are pretty self-explanatory about how they are played. It’s really exciting to have a new record that I’m really proud of, and I think some people will be surprised by how good it is. Not that people don’t think we could make a good record, but I think they’ll be surprised how good.
Devon Allman: I think they’ll be surprised at the depth.
Duane Betts: It’s got Americana, some outlaw country influence, and some stone-cold rhythm-and-blues influence, and some elements of some of the great classic rock ‘n’ roll records we love. And the production — Matt Ross-Spang, he [did] what a producer does and just kind of let the musicians go, make them comfortable and kind of gave a little advice to try it a different way. It was really fun to work together, and the trust was a big thing, working with someone like that.
JamBase: It seems silly to ask about the choice of Muscle Shoals — who wouldn’t want to record there? But what was that experience like?
Devon Allman: In this day and age, you can make a record in any asshole’s basement, you know? A lot of people would cut corners and save the bread. I really wanted to do it in a historic place. All kinds of historic studios are still popping, but that really made sense. The [studio] is a museum until 4 p.m., so we couldn’t start our sessions until 4 p.m., which was fine for us, and we went from about 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. each day we were there. But I really wanted this record to sound like the ‘60s and ‘70s.
We got two-inch tape, and there was no dump over to digital for editing, for vocals. That stuff is so much easier to do digitally, but having a really lush, organic sound was paramount to the vibe. We really wanted this to sound like the ‘70s at Muscle Shoals, to actually make it where “Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll” and “Wild Horses” and “Brown Sugar” were cut. We wanted to add to that history. You get in there, and it really hits you — the ghosts of the past are there. But also, at the same time, you gotta duck your head down and do the work. We’re already talking about doing the second record there.
Duane Betts: I was walking on a cloud the whole time I was there. Yeah, we’re just recording here, and these 200 legendary records happened here, and The Stones did “Wild Horses” here, and you’re kind of like, OK. You’re a kid at Disney World, you just can’t believe it. It’s so rich musically, just rich with musical history.
JamBase: So when does this record arrive?
Devon Allman: We have offers on the table and we’re wrapping it up through the next couple of weeks. It just came back from mastering, so we’re eyeballing an early June release, with a single dropping in May. It’ll be out in the world then and it’ll be exciting.