Guitarist Scott Sharrard On What It Takes To Lead A Band & More
Welcome to another edition of The Art of the Sit-In, where we mix it up with the scene’s most adventurous players and hear some stories from the road. For more, check out our recent interviews with Marco Benevento, Kyle Hollingsworth, Tim Reynolds, Eddie Roberts, Jorma Kaukonen, Jeff Sipe and many more.
Words by: Chad Berndtson
2016 already looks like another banner year in the remarkable career of Scott Sharrard, lead guitarist and musical director of the Gregg Allman Band since 2008 and an accomplished songsmith and bandleader with his cracklingly good Brickyard Band.
Much like Allman and Derek Trucks, Sharrard was already an old soul by the time he was a teenager, having been immersed in music at a very young age, and — through an astonishing combination of luck, lagniappe and self-awareness — was able to learn firsthand from, and play with, some of the giants of blues, R&B and jazz all before turning 20.
The Gregg Allman Band is back on the road starting tonight, Friday April 1, and also has a new album on the way, produced by Don Was and recorded at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, featuring songs Allman and Sharrard wrote together and several cover tunes. In between lengthy tours with GAB, Sharrard can often be found in the New York area indulging his other musical family: the Brickyard Band, which plays rowdy and invigorating regular gigs at Brooklyn haunt Bar Chord and other places around the city, often folding in special guests and fun surprises.
Let’s hear from Sharrard on what the next few months look like.
JAMBASE: We’ll get to your ongoing work with Gregg, but tell me about the Brickyard Band and the growth of your own music. What are you focused on?
SCOTT SHARRARD: I’ve been stopping and starting on a new record for a few years now. We just cut two live shows, actually, one that was recorded at Rockwood [Music Hall] in February and another from the Falcon [in Marlboro, New York]. Those were great shows, and the next step is to release a live album. That’s going to be totally free — we’re going to release it as a completely free product as a gift to our fans. The hope is that it will help as an enticement to join us in a crowdfunding campaign to go to Memphis and record our album.
This is going to be big for us. Scott Bomar from The Bo-Keys is going to be involved to record and produce and we also expect some of the members of the Hi Rhythm Section, who backed Al Green and many others, to be in there too. Scott has an amazing studio in Memphis and has an 8-track Scully machine, like they used at Stax back in the day. So that’s the long game for this band on recording.
As far as playing shows, we’ll be at Mountain Jam this year and I think we’re going to continue on with more tri-state area gigs, some stuff in Philly and Jersey as well as locally. The shows have been great, man. We’ve been having huge turnouts over the last few months in particular and it seems like the demand for the band is growing. Obviously this touring schedule with Gregg is going to affect what I can do with the band, but I’m going to keep making the rounds.
JAMBASE: It definitely seems like the buzz has been strong, and it’s a nice, mixed crowd.
SS: Yeah. The crowd kind of reminds me of what you might get at a Tedeschi Trucks show these days. There’s a whole demographic shift going on now — lot of young people getting into blues and soul and real rock ‘n’ roll. And of course you have the older fans, including the people who saw The Allman Brothers going back to the 70s and even 60s, and who know me through Gregg. It’s an interesting mix. I have a pile of songs that I’ve written that I’m really excited about and haven’t had the opportunity to record yet, and we’re also putting up new HD videos of the band in action, so there’s a lot we’re ready to share.
JAMBASE: So what’s always been interesting to me and to a lot of your fans is your upbringing. You grew up in Michigan, studied music at the High School For The Arts in Milwaukee, but also had the good sense to take advantage of interacting so many musical greats who were sort of parked there. Talk about these experiences.
SS: Well, in terms of my background, I did have the good fortune of being in Milwaukee at a time when a lot of these real legendary musicians were hanging out. This would have been the early to mid 1990s, and in Milwaukee, when you’d go to local blues jam sessions, you could see a rotation guys like Buddy Miles, and Hubert Sumlin, and Pinetop Perkins, and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, and a bunch of other cats you’ve never heard of but who used to play with those guys all the time. It was just this incredible mix of the older generation artists. I don’t want to say they were washed up, that’s not true, but some of them had been completely neglected by the music business for years, and some had drug problems. They hung out in Milwaukee because it was cheap, and they stayed there kind of as a base even if a lot of their success in Europe.
They were all great. And for me, I was at the High School For The Arts and got to do a really advanced jazz program — we were playing Wayne Shorter and Miles Davis in high school, and people like Mel Rhyne, who was the B3 organ player for Wes Montgomery, would come through and play and teach. I ended up doing gigs with Mel and Buddy Miles and others, all when I was a teenager. I’d hang out with Pinetop and Hubert and pick their brains and get as much as I could. But it was as much the other guys you’ve never heard of, guys who played with Magic Sam and Junior Parker. And they all turned me onto other artists and a lot of the kings of Chicago blues guitar. A lot of people think of Chicago blues guitar and go straight to Buddy Guy and that makes sense, but that’s also missing the fact that there were these virtuoso heroes of that same scene: Earl Hooker, Robert Nighthawk, Magic Sam, Otis Rush.
I had the good fortune of going to Chicago very often and seeing some of these guys. My parents would take me. I was all of 15, and my parents were big music fans and loved blues and jazz and rock ‘n’ roll and American roots music — my dad’s a musician. And there would be all of 10 people there in the club for fucking Otis Rush — Otis Rush, man! And he’d play for 10 people, that was the work ethic.
JAMBASE: It sounds like you took a lot away from that work ethic.
SS: I was into wide palettes of music. At school I was playing jazz and checking out tons of people we’d probably call jazz guitarists, like Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt and Wes Montgomery, but who in musicians’ eyes are thought of as just great guitarist. Grant Green was the one that stood out. I had wanted to play saxophone early on and Grant Green sounded most like a sax player.
But there was a lot going on. I loved writing songs. That comes from my dad, he was a songwriter and performed as an acoustic singer-songwriter. So we’ve always been steeped in Bob Dylan, and Tom Waits, and that whole singer-songwriter thing was filtering through as well.
When I came to New York I used to have all these mixtapes I made. I recently gave them away, actually. But I’d be driving around in an old car in New York, and I’d put these on from when I was in my early teens, and they’d go from Son House and The Rolling Stones to Miles Davis to to Tom Waits to Kenny Burrell to Shakti. Soul music has always been a cornerstone for me too.
JAMBASE: The time you spent with guys like Pinetop, and Hubert Sumlin — what did you learn about performance from those guys? What did you really take away?
SS: You know, man, I was so busy chasing girls at that point — remember, I’m 16, 17, 18 at this point — that … well, I got a lot of life in during that time. [laughs] But I did have some important conversations. All the musicians I met and worked with had ethics they learned from the older guys. They espoused that and they reinforced it, and that wasn’t just from Hubert and Pinetop, I was also playing with a lot of bandleaders who were younger than them but also 20 and 30 years older than me.
I was distracted but I definitely didn’t take it for granted. I mean, a guy like Hubert, at the time a lot of my friends didn’t give a shit who he was. This was sort of the tail end of grunge, I think “Smells Like Teen Spirit” had been out for years. That was the era in Milwaukee, though. You could meet Hubert and Pinetop and those guys at the local clubs. Shit, man, I bought a mint condition Rhodes piano for $90 from a local music shop that was shutting down. My dad bought a B3 that had been at a jingle house in the 60s and never moved, for $1,200. It was the most beautiful-sounding B3 organ I’d ever heard. Nobody wanted any of this shit.
These guys aren’t forgotten but it takes a younger generation to shine light on them. Keith Richards took care of Hubert for many years, and Hubert was one of the guys who ended up better. He was scraping a bit and things started to pick up, and then he went to Jersey and was helped quite a bit by Jimmy Vivino, who has also helped me and many others out at various times. Keith was in Connecticut and hanging with him a lot. Anyway, most of them moved, but there was just this weird magical time when they were all in a holding pattern together in Milwaukee, and that was the point that I was there.
JAMBASE: When did you first meet Gregg Allman?
SS: The first actual time I shook his hand was the night of my audition for his band, which involved sitting in with The Allmans in Camden, New Jersey, in 2008.
JAMBASE: Ah, of course. I was at that show. [August 23, 2008]
SS: Yeah man. That was intense. I mean, some of the first solos I ever memorized as a guitar player were from Fillmore East and Beginnings. I started cutting my teeth on Allmans music when I was 10. So when I got the opportunity, which came through Jay Collins — he was fighting to get me in there — I went down and I played that gig. I was shaking in my boots! But Gregg liked how I played. Early in the discussion, he was like, “Hey, do you know those Wayne Bennett licks from the Bobby Bland records?” He loves that stuff. I felt like the luckiest guy ever to have the upbringing that I did — that Wayne Bennett stuff was already ingrained when I was a teenager. How I was taught was that those licks are how you learn to play with a singer, and if you want to learn how to back up singers you need to understand that style. I learned who all these guys like Wayne were and studied them more. So I had a big jump on that stuff when I played with Gregg, and I told him that later, and made him laugh. From there our relationship developed.
JAMBASE: If I remember correctly you played on “Southbound” that night.
SS: Yes, I actually played two songs with them that night: “You Don’t Love Me,” and then I came back out for the encore which was “Southbound.”
JAMBASE: What’s in your mind in those moments?
SS: Playing my best and not overdoing it. But like I said I had a sense of what he liked — I was treating it as an audition, which it was.
JAMBASE: Well let’s start in on working with Gregg and the way the current band is now.
SS: The Gregg Allman Band is its own thing, and even within it, there are multiple legacies to think about. There is The Allman Brothers Band, there is the Gregg Allman Band legacy, and there’s the Gregg Allman solo artist legacy. And Gregg’s had all these albums, including Low Country Blues which came out a few years ago. And on top of that you have Gregg’s taste in covers, which is expansive, and covers not only blues, but he’s also a huge fan of the great singer-songwriters. He’s a peer of, and also greatly influenced by, Jackson Browne. He loves Jackson Browne’s music. He loves Bob Dylan and Tim Buckley. But there are plenty of sides people don’t know as well. One day I walked into a rehearsal space and he’s blasting Pharoah Sanders.
He’s a real tuned-in musician. He has a humble attitude toward his craft and that’s consistent. I mean, he came out an old soul — listen to the way he was singing when he was 19. And obviously that just deepened over decades and he remembers what the masters told him. I’ve had those principles hammered into me from an early age, so in taking on this music director gig with him and beginning to compose with him, and watching him cover a few of my songs, it’s all been an amazing turn of events.
I feel his ethic and respect for music and the journey. I got to learn from the older musicians. It’s the same with Gregg. As he grew as a musician and learned more and gained fame, he also got to eventually meet and jam with his idols. He talks a lot about Willie Dixon and Little Milton and Bobby Bland. He got to know these guys. He started out as a white kid interested in black music, and his older friend Floyd Miles took him across the tracks as a teenager. He lived that.https://www.facebook.com/scottsharrardandthebrickyardband/posts/1004278606276527
JAMBASE: What does the new album sound like?
SS: The whole experience has had a lot of layers. It’s been an emotional experience, too. We’re recording at FAME in Muscle Shoals, and the music that was recorded here has been a huge part of shaping my life and those of the other musicians. I mean the first thing you’re doing is walking through the door here and seeing how meticulously maintained this studio is. It’s a time capsule to 1970. Same couches in some places, and same break areas where these legends would hang out. That’s a little overwhelming.
We have Don Was producing, and he’s always been a favorite. He’s one of the coolest people I’ve ever worked with regardless of stature or anything else. He’s just fun to be around: hardworking, but makes the process so natural that it’s just inspiring. You want to make him move, you want to make him happy. He does a wonderful job with communication, including with Gregg, and I think Gregg feels the same about him. Marc Quinones, who’s also been in the Gregg band now for a few years, talks about Don and how much he reminds them of Tom Dowd. That’s pretty serious. Tom was in many ways a father of The Allman Brothers — an authority figure and the guy they all looked to get things over the finish line.
But it’s been great finding the material together, arranging the songs as a band together, cutting a song Gregg and I wrote together. This is going to be really special. I don’t know how long it’ll take to get mixed and finished and out, but we’re finishing up. This is the first Gregg Allman Band record he’s done since the 80s when the band was the Tolers and Chaz Trippi and those guys. We’re a different band than that, but this is a special group of people. So I feel extremely thankful to be part of two musical families: my own band, which is my brothers, and his band.
JAMBASE: How do you conduct yourself as music director? Obviously Gregg’s name is the name of the band — you have to serve his vision. How much of a leadership role and freedom to direct do you then take?
SS: The best way to describe it is he’s the chef, I’m the chef de partie, and then you have your line cooks in the individual players. But this is also truly a band where everyone feels like they can speak up and contribute. When it comes to the more administrative, day-to-day stuff, that’s more where my director role comes out. I have to know when to stop a conversation and when to keep things moving so we get done what we need to get done. But it’s not a Gregg Allman dictatorship. It’s a balancing act of figuring out when to push Gregg and when to just let him drive — there’s some give and take there, and sure, there are uncomfortable conversations. But that happens with any producer or music director. The MD is the producer of the live show, is another way to think about it. I’m here to facilitate Gregg’s vision, get the band’s input, build trust among all of us as musicians, and find valuable ideas. It keeps thing simpler for Gregg to have me do that. He wants to be dedicated to the music. He’s been very good to work with, man, and I’ve learned so much from him.
JAMBASE: Do Gregg and Marc talk much about the end of The Allmans?
SS: No, I think everything’s been said about that. It ran its course, and when you look around and see what we’re doing with this band, and what Warren is doing, and Tedeschi Trucks Band, you’ve got all these different bands now and that’s exciting. Jaimoe’s band, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, sounds better than ever. And Butch has put together these bands that are very cool, man — I love that he’s working with Bruce Katz, who is an old friend of mine.
I hated to see it happen because I’ve been a fan of The Allman Brothers Band my entire life. I sat-in with them all these times and found them all to be really lovely and interesting people — I always enjoyed every show. So yeah I hate that they’re not playing together anymore, but it ran its course. It’s not something they dwell on — I don’t hear them talking about it.
What I think is really important is to understand how and why The Allmans started — it really was all about Duane Allman saying “trust me” to all of these guys. That vision and what motivated these guys and the shared vision that created. Duane was the hero, man. When I talk with those guys about The Allmans, we don’t really talk about the end of the band, or any of the conflicts or anything, we usually talk about Duane. I try never to forget that, what he did here. I mean, he’s the fucking Orson Welles of rock ‘n’ roll, man, he was a total visionary. He had every opportunity to be a legendary musician without ever putting The Allmans together, and when he was at that time he was already inspiring guys like Clapton. He said, instead of all this, I’m going to go live in this house and starve and play in the park for free with these guys until we get this shit dialed-in. That’s the big bang.
So I think when you get to the last Allmans show, which was a highly charged and definitely emotional thing, it was in part because they were laying Duane’s vision to rest. That’s how I thought about it: it was laid to rest and splintered into a new day. It was the most loving thing possible. I was at that last show, it was something. These guys steered the ship admirably for so many years, and took the band in new and amazing directions. There’s something to be said for bowing out before that got old.
JAMBASE: Close-out time for this chat, Scott, and that means asking you for a sit-in story — a favorite one. To tell you the truth, I already got some of the sit-in story I was hoping for, your first jam with the Allmans, but what comes to mind?
SS: I’ll talk about some of the nights we’ve had at Bar Chord. Playing in that club, it’s like a New Orleans place. It’s a tiny-ass place — it’s kind of a hole-in-the-wall. But people bring their dogs and come on down, it’s people from the neighborhood as well as this amazing mix of ages and ethnicities from all over the area. It feels like everyone’s in there.
The owners are this amazing couple who just love music, and [owner] Johnny, if we get playing really well, he’s up there and dancing in front of the band. That’s a great vibe, and we’ve had a number of people come through and play with us who were part of that — people like Clark Gayton and Bill Sims and Scott Metzger, and Solomon Hicks and Teddy Kumpel. What I love is that local New York musicians pop in and listen even if they aren’t a featured guest. We’ve had Amy Helm in there watching gigs and she’s one person I want to collaborate with a lot more, having gotten to work with her dad quite a few times. So I can’t highlight any one experience so much as the Bar Chord experience. Having that incubator and getting to be creative in an environment like that with different musicians. We can play all night if we want and take breaks when we want. It’s a special thing to have a place like that.
Got someone you’d like to see interviewed for a future installment of The Art of the Sit-In? Leave a comment below, or e-mail Chad at chad[at]jambase[dot]com.