GREGG ALLMAN INTERVIEWED (2010): The Road Goes On Forever

 |   |  9 min read

Gregg Allman: Floating Bridge
GREGG ALLMAN INTERVIEWED (2010): The Road Goes On Forever

Scroll down the Wikipedia entry for Gregg Allman and two things will surprise: first how brief it is for a musician who has lived such a full, creative and often dangerously self-abusive life.

And second the interestingly inexact sentence which reads, “Allman has been married at least six times . . .”

By the time he was 30, keyboard player and guitarist Allman – now 63, one of rock's great Southern soul-blues voices and the co-founder of the legendary Allman Brothers Band with his guitarist/brother Duane – had done enough to fill a few lifetimes.

By 77 he'd been married twice previously and was hitched to Cher; had delivered the classic ABB live album At Fillmore East, buried Duane who had been killed in a motorcycle accident just months after the Fillmore shows, reformed the band then a week later had buried bassist Berry Oakley killed in an eerily similar accident a year after Duane, fallen out with the band after he'd testified against his friend and road manager in drugs trial (“There is no way we can tour with with Gregg Allman again, ever,” said guitarist Dickey Betts) and was battling various addictions.

greggcherHis album with Cher of that year – Two the Hard Way, credited to “Allman and Woman” – is widely considered a career low for both artists. On e-Bay recently an unopened vinyl album was 10 times more than a previously-played copy.

And Allman did all that before he was 30.

And even last year was colourful: he recorded his first solo album in 14 years, played a few solo shows and had a liver transplant after years of suffering years the debilitating effects of Hepatitis C and Interferon treatment.

That Gregg Allman is here at all after decades of serious drugs and alcohol is surprising, that he is lucid, good-humoured and that the album Low Country Blues is so good seems a bonus.

In fact, much as the new album – a collection of T Bone Burnett-produced blues songs with Dr John and others in the tight band – is worth a conversation, but Allman speaks most about that “glorious moment” of clarity in 95 when he knew he had to clean up for good.

“Well, it wasn't too glorious,” he says in a croaking Southern drawl and sounding every minute his years. “It was glorious in that there was light. It was when we got the award for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and I saw a DVD of it the next day and, 'Ooh God'.

“I'd promised myself I was not going to get all saucer-eyed, it wasn't going to happen and me look like some old wino. So I had measured out lines in the hotel room at the Waldorf Astoria and I would just hit one each hour to keep the shakes off, but I won't get blotched.

“So I went downstairs for something and saw just about everyone in the music business I hadn't seen in about 20 years and they are like 'C'mon on the bar and have a few pops'. My mistake.

“By the time I got to the stage to receive the honour I didn't think I could climb the steps. The rest of the guys in the band were holding their breath. I saw the film the next day and stopped smoking, stopped marijuana, stopped booze, stopped injecting, I stopped it all. Every single thing: nothing but air, food and water.

“And I don't even hardly remember it, man. I remember I hired a male nurse to come in and give me electrolytes and vitamins to put back in the body and he was there for a little over a week. I detoxed down and he gave me something to sleep with.

“When he left I felt like hell for about another week and then one morning I felt good again. I actually wanted to get out and do something. I was able to drive my car and ride my motorcycle too. I thought, 'This is really fun, man'.”

Allman says addicts find their glorious moment in many ways: ”For some people it's when they hit bottom, for some it when the doctor tells you, 'Hey man, you're gonna die', or you see your own baby for the first time. A whole bunch of different things.”

For him it was screwing up in front of important people in his life: “That was the biggest part. I wanted to say things about [Fillmore owner and promoter] Bill Graham, about my mother, something about everybody who got me to that place where I was right then. And I just said, 'This is for my brother' and walked off.

“Later I thought, 'You cheap shit'. I was terribly pissed off at myself. But it was also the best thing that could have happened to me.”

greggstoneAs a man steeped in the lives and stories of old bluesmen and then living the rock'n'roll lifestyle of excess, did he ever justify to himself that what he was doing was somehow just what musicians do, providing the raw material of life?

“Not really, I pretty much give up for everything I've done. I definitely had an addiction and that would screw anybody's life up. It makes you do things you didn't want to do, say things you shouldn't say . . . and then you finally get the glorious moment.

“You try to plod on and get through it, and you have to find yourself and find yourself listening to everybody else who means something to you. And then you find you are starting to run your on show a little bit better, starting to feel better and things seem all new.”

These days Allman lives in in Richmond Hill, a suburb of Savannah near a city he loves. “We have 300 year old oak trees, just beautiful. It looks like New Orleans did 40 years ago.” He tends his tomato plants.

It has been a long haul for Allman to this kind of comfort with himself.

The Allman brothers grew up in Daytona beach, Florida and would sneak “across the tracks” to buy obscure blues records by the likes of Little Milton, Elmore James and Howlin' Wolf. Both brothers played guitar but Duane became obsessed and Gregg moved onto piano then organ. With guitarist Betts, the double rhythm team of drummer Butch Trucks and percussion player Jaimoe, and bassist Berry Oakley the ABB fused blues with Southern rock'n'roll and jazz improvisation.

They hit a peak in '71 when they recorded at the Fillmore East, but after the death of Duane – when they brought in keyboard player Chuck Leavell – they were never quite the same. Still good, but different.

As tragedy piled upon drug addiction, and musical differences came into play the Allman Brothers band regularly broke up and reformed, sometimes with new members. Right now, with hot guitarists Doyle Bramhall III (who is on Gregg's Low Country Blues) and Derek Trucks (nephew of Butch and who also plays in Eric Clapton's band), the current touring line-up is the strongest in many years.

Gregg Allman has said he wasn't interested in doing a solo album after the death of the band's longtime producer Tom Dowd in 2002, but then he ran into T Bone Burnett who had a Modem full of thousands of obscure old blue songs. He liked Burnett – a Tom Dowd admirer – who then sent him 25 songs to consider for an album.

greggcd“I recognised very few, these were like album cuts. Had you played me the main cut on the album I might have maybe recognised it, but some like Little Milton tune, that one . . . damn, the [album] is so new so me I don't even know 'em all. I know 'em when I hear 'em though.”

The idea was the album would be done quick and live in Los Angeles.

“After I got there he said, 'Wait a minute, if there's anything you got in the bag you've written then give me one'. I had about two or three and got one Just Another Rider, me and Warren Haynes wrote that and had just finished it up right before I met T Bone.”

With lines like “one step at a time” and “still on the run, just another rider on that train to nowhere”, Just One Rider suggests some autobiographical soul-searching.

“Yeah, somewhat. But it could be about other people, that's pretty much what song writing's all about. There are as many ways to write songs as there are songs.

“It's like your head is divided into two and in the stuff floating on the right side we got different musical licks and riffs, and on the left we got situations and places, and the little things that come to you in a different way or happened to your friends or are on the news.

“And all of a sudden one day you'll be walking along and 'Zap!', two of them fuse together and the music just fits with the words. And there are hundreds of other ways.

“Where do songs come from? Where the hell do thoughts come from? When you find that out I'll let you know.

“[Songwriting] today is just as difficult, rewarding, cantankerous, hair-pulling, hair-splitting and as glorious and wonderful as the first time. I love it. And you can't really tell when, then it gels.”

Allman says aside from reconnecting with Dr John – the first time both had been in each other's company clean and sober – the shape of the album was also determined by the sound of Dennis Crouch's acoustic bass.

“I didn't realise how much that would change things, you have one instrument as different as changing the bass from electric to acoustic . . . and you feel it more than you hear it. It's like the grain in the wood, a grain in the sound and if you follow that grain it enhances the warmness.

“It's coming out on vinyl too so that will be real warm.

“It was so good singing with it, it's like you had something wrong with your throat and it healed up and you thought you'd never sing again – and you hadn't for 14 years – and you thought, 'What the hell, I'll try'. Little do you know the voice has enhanced itself and with those instruments it's like being a kid coming out with a brand new toy and you just can't get enough.”

Allman clearly enjoyed the process of recording again – “T Bone set this one microphone in the middle of the room and it had 'RCA' over the top, one of those ancient Groucho Marx-type of microphones and got the sound with that” – and they did 15 songs in 11 days, 12 of which are on the album.

“Like I said to Mac [Rebennack, aka Dr John] on the way out of the studio 'I can't wait to get down here to do this again'. It was such a gas. That was like going to Disneyworld, he was a load of fun.”

55730aThe album includes a reworking of BB King's obscure Please Accept My Love in the manner of Fats Domino, a deep and moving take on the traditional I Believe I'll Go Back Home and songs by Sleepy John Estes and Skip James which are dark and full of menace.

“Oh yeah, Skip James' Devil Got My Woman, that's a scary one. The Devil, women, whisky and money. The four cornerstones,” he laughs.

Still, it did take 14 years since the last solo album under his name. So what took him so long?

“I got married”, laughs Gregg Allman loudly, a man who has been married “at least six times” . . . and has been far too familiar with those four cornerstones.

Want to read more about the blues? Then go here for more than you fill.

Gregg Allman died in May 2017 of liver cancer. He was 69

Share It

Your Comments

post a comment

More from this section   Blues at Elsewhere articles index

Ben Harper, Charlie Musselwhite: Get Up! (Stax)

Ben Harper, Charlie Musselwhite: Get Up! (Stax)

To be honest, the first couple of times I saw Ben Harper I walked out being bored witless by a man I jokingly came to refer to as "Taj Marley" because he simply seemed to weld together... > Read more

Oli Brown: Here I Am (Ruf)

Oli Brown: Here I Am (Ruf)

On the back of his 2010 album Heads I Win Tails You Lose, Elsewhere noted that while this young, hard-edged blues guitarist came up a little short in the originality stakes he was certainly one to... > Read more

Elsewhere at Elsewhere

Lewis McCallum: Wake (RM)

Lewis McCallum: Wake (RM)

Young Auckland saxophonist McCallum -- son of singer Malcolm -- adopts exactly the approach he should for someone his age: he comes out of the post hip-hop/clubland culture and so is entirely at... > Read more

WANDA JACKSON INTERVIEWED (2010): The 72-year old teenager

WANDA JACKSON INTERVIEWED (2010): The 72-year old teenager

As a teenager barely out of school, Wanda Jackson – “the sweet girl with the nasty voice” as she became known – toured with and dated Elvis Presley; scored minor... > Read more