Sketching American Music: Duane Betts Discusses Playing With Dickey Betts, Devon Allman, Solo & 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 a full archive of more than 60 The Art Of The Sit-In interviews here).
Get Duane Betts in a storytelling mood, and you might be stunned just how many folks he’s known and played with. And why not? As the guitar-slinging son of a famous guitar slinger — legendary The Allman Brothers Band axeman Dickey Betts — Duane experienced a lot at a young age, from having an all-access pass to the “renaissance” Allman Brothers Band lineups of the 1990s, to flowering as first a drummer, then a guitarist, then a sideman and sessions staple, and now, a singer and songwriter as well, continuing to lend his talents to other bands, from Dawes to Great Southern, but also focusing on his own music.
Duane’s debut solo EP, Sketches Of American Music, includes five sturdy originals and his version of a less-known Dickey tune, “California Blues,” which together seem to cover Duane’s own Florida-boy-gone-to-California biography and sound both a little Allmans and a little L.A. Betts is playing a lot of the EP during an ongoing tour with fellow Allman Brothers scion Devon Allman. It’s a well-built show, with Allman and Betts playing respective sets and then combining bands for an extended encore that inevitably includes Allman Bros. songs but goes plenty of other places too.
The other big story in Duane’s 2018 is, of course, the return to the road of Dickey Betts, in whose band Duane plays and also serves as musical council to his dad. The 2018 Dickey band — Betts father and son, along with Frankie Lombardi, Mike Kach, Pedro Arevalo, Damon Fowler and Steve Camilleri — has five July dates and three August dates on its modest schedule, along with festival and cruise appearances booked into January. More are anticipated, Duane revealed, if the elder Betts is up to it.
I caught up with Duane while he was sitting on the front porch of Dickey’s Florida home, preparing to head back on the road.
JAMBASE: So let’s start with your new EP, which is your first release of your own music. Why was now the time to do this?
DUANE BETTS: Well, part of it is that I had just never sang before, or rather, I hadn’t put out anything under my own name with me singing. So I kind of wrote some tunes and did a few sessions. I’ve wanted to do it for the last few years. It just kind of happened that the tour with Devon was coming together, so it felt like I had a deadline to get something out. Instead of making it perfect, we recorded and got it out. That’s really how you do it now, though — everyone just puts things out as they get made, and it doesn’t have to be After The Gold Rush or something. You put it out, you see what people think, and when I played for people, they liked what I was playing and said I had the right idea.
JAMBASE: Do you like singing? Is it work for you?
DB: I like it now. I’m getting more comfortable with it, and it’s definitely something that is different for me. It’s much easier for me to get up and play guitar than to get up and deliver a song I wrote to people, both singing and playing. But I love it when people say to me they like the song. People are going to love it when you do a long guitar solo, but when people say to me, “I loved that song,” that’s really special.
JAMBASE: Have you always written songs?
DB: I’ve always written, yeah. I started writing musical arrangements when I was a teenager, though probably didn’t write any songs until I was in my 20s. I’m guilty of not developing the craft and putting as much work into it as I could have. I got a little carried away in my 20s with partying and other things and got sidetracked for a while. When you come back around after something like that, you realize if you want to be good at something, you really have to hone the craft. So that’s what I’m doing now. I’m trying to really develop and write with different people.
Listening to songwriters is great inspiration, and it’s also humbling, because you’re like, man, I wish I could write like that. Listen to Neil Young or anyone you admire, and it puts into perspective that a lot of people just plain can’t write a song. There’s a lot of great musicians that just don’t write songs, so it’s great to be able to know you can do it. I don’t write 10 songs a day, I’m not Ryan Adams [laughs]. But I know I have something to work with, so that’s very cool.
JAMBASE: Have you and your dad written together?
DB: I have written a little with him and I’d love to write with him for sure. It just has to be the right time. It’s been more of a thing where he’s kind of corrected something I’ve done, or given me lines, or I’ve played him some songs I was working on and he’s been like, “How about you change that to this.” We’ve thrown a few things around.
JAMBASE: Looking at your shows with Devon, how do you two decide what songs to do together each night?
DB: As far as what I do in my set, that’s my decision, and then what happens in his set is his decision, and then we get together and tip our hat to our fathers. We both provided a list of songs and we go from that. It’s cool. I have mixed feelings about it, honestly, because it would be silly not to play at least a couple of Allman Brothers things at the shows, but if I didn’t have my own 40-minute set, I’d feel much different about it. You don’t want to just get up there and play your dad’s music all night.
So the way we set it up, it’s tasteful — the show has a nice arc to it. We do other things besides Allmans, too. We’ve done some Dead stuff, we do a cool cover of “Purple Rain.” I’d like to throw more stuff in there, too. The cool thing about the songs we chose is that we agree on most of them, and we also don’t do the same ones every night. We might give people a “Midnight Rider” some night, but not every night. “Blue Sky,” too. We pay a lot of attention to the how the songs were played in the original records and we try to keep it authentic to that.
JAMBASE: You and Devon have dates booked into 2019. Do you expect to keep collaborating?
DB: Yeah, we’re kind of throwing ideas around right now. We want to do a full-length record. I really want to do a really great full-length. We have a lot of momentum going together that I think we can build off of, and we like working together. So we’ve been thinking about putting a cool band together and naming it something, and going out and getting on a lot of these jammier festivals, and cultivating a younger audience. We’ve been writing a bit together, too, and so far, so good with that.
JAMBASE: Turning back to your dad, there’s obviously a swell of excitement out there to have him playing shows again, and you’re part of that. Are you surprised this has happened?
DB: I’m happy. I can’t say I’m surprised. I always kind of thought it would happen, I just kind of was waiting for a point where he would be like, “OK, I’ll go back out.” He wasn’t going to do anything unless it was worthwhile, unless he got what he deserved, and it made sense for him. But also, there was so much appreciation from the fans. He knew that people wanted him to come back out — they told him. Also, I think he just got bored enough and it was time to go out again.
JAMBASE: You play guitar, but what is your role overall in the band?
DB: He kind of hadn’t played in a few years, so in rehearsals, I kind of took the role of streamlining the learning process. I’m closest to him, and I can get in his ear, or at least I like to think that. But it helps him to know I’m there and we can make it a little easier. We did a week of rehearsals and then a rehearsal show in Sarasota, and then the show in Macon. It was pretty magical. It was a full house and everyone was happy and we had some great guests and he played some good stuff. You can tell he is getting better every night, and when we go out for a few shows — this next round — we can really start to get some stuff cooking. For these first shows, we didn’t really have time to get him really comfortable. I mean, he’s older now. But he comes out and he’s ready to do his thing.
JAMBASE: He mentioned in a recent interview you helped him relearn “Whipping Post.”
DB: Yeah, I mean, I know the parts. “Whipping Post” has that thing where it’s sometimes easy to get the songs confused. “Hot Lanta” is another one we’re doing and that and “Whipping Post” have a similar lick. “You Don’t Love Me” and “Done Somebody Wrong” are similar.
It’s up to all of us to get it right, but we can also play differences, too. I mean, he can play them however he wants. We start off “Blue Sky,” for example, with a little bit of “Franklin’s Tower,” and my dad, when he plays it, has been doing it that way since Jerry died. I remember that day, the Allmans were playing at Jones Beach, I was there.
But the way this band is playing now, it’s really cool stuff that’s happening behind the beat — we’re able to play in a really relaxed manner. He doesn’t want to play things at a fast tempo. We’ve slowed it down a bit and if you treat it that way, and if you listen that way, and just be like, this is how we’re going to play it, it’s cool, and then a lot of cool stuff is happening at that tempo.
JAMBASE: Do you anticipate that your dad will be on the road in 2019?
DB: Man, I hope so. There are dates booked in January already, and I don’t want to jump the gun, but we could see some dates into next spring. I always want to, but it’s hard because I’m so busy. And I think he wants to keep it kind of minimal right now.
JAMBASE: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about Dawes, where some fans got to know you and might not have in your many other affiliations.
DB: Those guys are great musicians and Taylor’s [Goldsmith] just a really thoughtful guy — really compelling. A band like Dawes, they may be some people’s favorite band, and other people might not get them at all. But that’s a band that’s going to be around for a long time. When people like Jackson Browne are giving you their seal of approval, that’s awesome, and they’re the real thing. I learned a lot playing with them. They were friends of mine first — Taylor and Griffin [Goldsmith] grew up in Malibu, and I knew them through Blake Mills, who’s one of my favorite guitar players in the world and just a really innovative producer, singer, songwriter and guitarist. It was great touring with Dawes and I met a lot of really cool people.
JAMBASE: Can you share a sit-in story? As you note, you’ve had a lot of pretty amazing experiences.
DB: Oh man. I’ve sat-in with a lot of people and met a lot of my heroes. I remember in my mid-20s, this is what’s coming to mind first, my dad and I played with Phil Lesh & Friends in Atlanta. We were on it, but also John Scofield and John Molo and the Phil band at that time. Getting to play with Phil was pretty cool. We spent the whole day there, and we also did something — a smaller thing — earlier in the day and I can’t remember who it was for. Phil was really friendly and he played a couple of my dad’s songs with the band, though the way they played them was very unique. But Phil was super sweet and he’s one of my favorite bass players.
JAMBASE: What else comes to mind?
DB: Hmm. Playing Woodstock in ’94 with the Allmans was pretty cool, but my amp didn’t work, and I spent the whole sit-in trying to get the amp to work, so my back was to the crowd. I was maybe 16. Another one, much more recent, I did “Blue Sky” with Gov’t Mule at the Wiltern in L.A. Warren [Haynes] and I traded verses. That’s always fun.
Sitting-in with the Allmans was honestly one thing I swore I would never do again at one point. I played guitar with them, I want to say, at a show in Vail, Colorado, and I was so nervous about it, I forgot my guitar at the hotel on purpose. My dad said, “You’re going to sit-in tonight,” and I told him I forgot my guitar, and he said, “That’s fine, we have plenty of guitars here.” [laughs] So I did it, I pulled it off, it went fine. I took the next show off — I just wanted to enjoy it. I think it was at Red Rocks. Then the next night, or two nights later, we were in Oklahoma City and it’s 110 degrees and there are about 1,200 tickets sold, which wasn’t a lot. So I figured, OK, I took a night off, I’m going to try this again.
I go up there, and I crank my volume, and my string just pops — I broke a string on the first notes I played. I was right in the spotlight, and like a deer in headlights. I kept playing a bit, but then I spent the rest of the show kind of standing off to the side, with my head down. I was so deflated I didn’t know if I’d ever get up there again.
JAMBASE: Doesn’t sound like it deterred you, though.
DB: No, and you know, I just thought of another cool jam. Oh yeah. The Black Crowes were playing at Tampa Stadium with the Dead the next night, and the Allmans were rehearsing down in Sarasota. My dad had gone home because rehearsal wasn’t happening that day for some reason. Anyway, Gov’t Mule had just finished their first record, and they were playing the whole thing through. I think Chris [Robinson] and Marc [Ford] from the Crowes came down to this one, and I can’t remember who else, but I was there the whole night, a fly on the wall taking it all in. I was still playing drums at that time too, and I played a little guitar and drums at some point in the night.
JAMBASE: It seemed like that kind of thing was happening a lot back then among all these bands. What do you remember most about The Allman Brothers in that era?
DB: It was the resurgence — the golden age of the new band. The heyday after the heyday. It was definitely cool then because they were still working, still making records, and getting bigger again. There were younger fans showing up, they did the H.O.R.D.E. thing, I remember all of that. I was really into it. Some nights there would be 5,000 people there, and some nights there’d be 25,000 depending on the market. It was cool to see the band do well. It was cool when the kids started coming out. One of the things I used to do when we got to a venue was go and check out the crowd. In the mid-’90s it became a nice mixture of young people and older people. I always thought it would be pretty amazing to do this all the time.
JAMBASE: When did you first meet Devon?
DB: We actually first met in 1989, on the reunion tour – the Dreams tour. He was out for a bit on that run, I remember. I was only out for a couple of weeks on that run, and then the next year I was out for a little longer, and then later I moved to California with my mom and went to school. Later on I went back, and I was home-schooled, working with a tutor during the school year. From 1991 to 1997 I didn’t really miss a whole lot — I was there for everything.
It was definitely great memories, and I met a lot of people too. I used to sit-in with Blues Traveler — they were on a lot of those shows in the ’90s — and now we’re opening up for them at Red Rocks on July 4. And G. Love, he’s another one — I met him in the early-’90s when he was a kid. I didn’t see him for years, and then I was in a band with him and Donavon Frankenreiter and Cisco Adler last year called Jam Town. It’s cool how things just come full circle. There are a lot of other people I can think of, and some I’m not thinking of, but that I’ll run into after a long time, that I first met in the mid-’90s. They’re all there, along the way.