R.I.P. Gregg Allman

It’s sad news today to hear of Gregg Allman’s passing. It seems like only yesterday that I saw Allman put on an incredible performance at Portland’s Rose Garden, and we published Jaan Uhelszki’s intriguing interview. That was December of 2010. It is crazy how the time flies.

So, for those intrigued to view a snapshot, we pay homage both to Ms. Uhelszki and Mr. Allman today…

Gregg Allman never planned on becoming one of America’s most recognizable white blues singers. In fact, in the early days of his career, it was his brother Duane who did the singing in the Allman Joys, one of the rst incarnations of the bands that the brothers put together prior to founding the Allman Brothers Band.

“I don’t think I really grew into my voice until I turned 50,” claims the 62-year-old icon, speaking by phone from his home in Savannah, Georgia while preparing to release his first solo album in 14 years. “I’ve always been my worst critic and would tell myself that I sound like a million other people at once. But then one day I woke up and said, ‘Well, by God I do have a style all my own.’”

Of course, many consider Gregg Allman’s most signifcant contribution to rock’s historical record is his role as the lead singer, organist, and principle songwriter for the archetypal Southern band founded by his older brother Duane in 1969. Yet the younger Allman had a parallel career as a solo artist almost from the onset of the Allman Brothers, an outfit that proved its mettle with an organic synthesis of blues, jazz, folk, rock, and country influences—and the exquisite dual guitar interplay between Duane and Dickie Betts, a tandem that got so heated on some nights that a listener couldn’t tell where one musician started and the other left off.

Ironically, it was because of these very strengths that one of the band’s most obvious gifts—Gregg Allman’s languid blues pacing and mournful growl—was often overshadowed. Allman’s solo work gave him the recognition that he sorely deserved. “I started thinking about my solo album long before there even was an Allman Brother Band,” he remembers. “A lot of the songs I’d written just weren’t right for the group. I took one of the songs I wrote to the band and they didn’t care for it. It was ‘Queen of Hearts.’”

That winsome love song to his former wife became the cornerstone of a solo career that produced seven solo albums over the next four decades. Hardly a prolific output, but if Allman is anything, he’s careful with his words. A recurring theme in many of his earlier songs is the thundering sound of silence, and his quiet resolve to communicate in spite of it. “I was so anesthetized for so long. I just wanted to be away from it, but I wanted to still be there. Check in on reality, but to do that, you get loaded. A lot of people have great losses. “I didn’t do the best I think I could’ve done.”

Allman realized he nally had to clean up when, at the Allman Brothers Band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, Willie Nelson came up to him and asked if he was all right.

“‘No. I am not all right’, I told him,” Allman recalls. “I think it had something to do with the vodka bottle sitting next to me. I was off dope, but I was a mess. I never believed in God until this point, but I asked him to bring me out of this or let me die before all the innings have been played. I just wish we could redo it that night. You know, let me have another crack at that acceptance speech.”

Allman’s life became further complicated when he learned he needed a liver transplant, brought on by the complications of Hepatitis C. The singer received a new liver last July. Before the operation, he recorded his rst album since 1997, Low Country Blues, with Grammy- winning producer T-Bone Burnett. All but one of the songs on the record is a cover. Yet the way Allman inhabits them, you’d think that he wrote every single one.

“I did think about mortality quite a bit when I was recording. It certainly affected my song choice. But oddly enough, I was not worried. I felt protected. Plus, the doctors are such masters at doing this [operation] now, I wasn’t scared.”

Ju: When do you know when it’s time to record a solo album? Do songs keep forcing their way into your psyche, or does pressure just seem to build up?

GA: A lot of these poor slobs have a contract that calls for a certain amount [of albums] every certain amount of years. Of course, those ways are pretty much dying out. But it’s just like you said. All of a sudden, it starts eating at you a little bit and it comes and goes. Then two, three more years pass and you feel, ‘”Hey, boy, it’s time.” Those feelings won’t go away, like unfriendly ghosts. You say to yourself, “What is it that I do, except travel around the freaking world busting my ass playing songs?” Then, on the other hand, you’ll get a bunch of feelings like, “Gosh, I wish we played some new songs.” Then, all of a sudden, you kind of have this epiphany: “Oh, I get it, it’s time to record.”

On Low Country Blues, except for one song you wrote with Warren Haynes, you play all covers. That’s a first. How do you inhabit other people’s songs? How do you know what to cover?

Well, you have a real connection with the song, and of course you have quite a yen for it, and you know immediately what you want to do with it. If you don’t, you shouldn’t cover it. Songwriting is such a vague damn subject. The song’s there and it’s not there, you know? It can go in any given second.

You teamed with T-Bone Burnett, who has thousands of songs stored on his computer. He said he went through them and chose some for you to sort through. Was that an efficient way to work, with T-Bone doing the heavy lifting of whittling down the songs for you?

Heavy lifting? The heavy lifting was trying to make something out of that damn thing that he sent me because there were things like old Billie Holiday songs. You could hear scratches and crackles on the old 78s that I trudged through. Plus, I didn’t know it was coming to me digitally. It was tiring to go through all of that.

You start the record off with “Floating Bridge,” told from the perspective of a man drowning.

That’s a good song. That’s the first one we cut, and I think it was one of the ones we did in just one take. First takes just scare the hell out of me. I went out to LA and had just had met the guys I was going to record with. Well, I already knew a couple of ‘em. But I got out there and I say, “All right guys, let’s run this first one through.”

They had already heard the same tired versions of this song that I had, so I wanted to just rehearse it to see what’s happening with all of us together. As we ran it down I was thinking, “Man, this sounds good.” You can tell right away when the musicians meld and when they don’t. And they really did; it was just uncanny. We got through the song and I asked, “How’s it sound in there, T-Bone?” “Come on in and hear for yourself,” he says. I thought he was kidding, right? So I said, “ Turn on the red light and let’s take one.” “No, you’re nished. You’ve already got it,” T-Bone says. “Wait a minute, man. Half of us don’t even know the son of a bitch yet,” I replied. He’d recorded it, and that’s what you hear on the record.

That’s a Sleepy John Estes tune. For being so young, you and Duane always had sophisticated musical tastes.

There used to be this radio station called WLAC that was in Gallatin, Tennessee that we’d listen to at night—that was the only time you could get it. They would play Howling Wolf and Little Walter and Sleepy John Estes and Magic Sam, Muddy Waters, and Bobby Bland. Everybody that today I just really revel. I was 17 years old, we were on the chitlin’ circuit, playing all these funky little clubs. We had to play Beatles songs just to be able to stay in the clubs. Because if you didn’t play so many Top 40 and so many Beatles songs, they’d say “You can you hit the bricks.” So we did, but then on the side, my brother and I would play the blues. We had so much energy back then. We worked six nights a week and rehearsed in the afternoon. So this album [is about] the songs that I couldn’t play in the clubs back then.

The last producer you worked with was Tom Dowd. After he died, how did you choose somebody to work with? How did you know T-Bone was the right guy?

He listened to WLAC. When Dowd died in 2002, I thought, man, what in the hell are we going to do now? I guess we’ve had it, there’s no way we’re going to record. I thought Michael Barbiero was an okay producer but he didn’t have that “thing,” like he knew what you were thinking. And with the Bone, man, he was just right there. Then, if he’d get hung up on something, I would free him loose, and vice versa.

Your brother’s spirit looms on this album. Do you think history has accurately represented him?

Boy, I really think it has. I think for what he did, and for the length of time he did it, and as genius as it was, he made a big footprint. I would venture to say that had it been me instead of him, there wouldn’t have been too many ripples in the water. No, I mean I think he’s real, real happy with me that I kept on going, and I owe a lot of it to him and I feel a lot of him coming through me. I have this psychic friend that lives near me. She said that when I  first met her I hated her guts because she said, “You know, your brother comes around all the time. He’s always around you, can’t you feel him?” And I was just like, “Who in the fuck do you think you are?” You know, telling me that even after so many years, you know, that I’ve longed for my brother and all that. She said he takes the form of a little bird. He wakes me up every morning. That little bird comes to my window every single morning of my life.”