By Brian Wise.
Gregg Allman passed away on Sunday May 28, 2017 at his home in Savannah, Georgia. Along with his brother Duane and colleagues in the Allman Brothers Band he was one of the architects of the Southern Rock movement. Gregg also had his own successful solo career which culminated in the long overdue album and acclaimed Low Country Blues in 2013, produced by T Bone Burnett. Allman’s personal life was turbulent with 6 marriages and bouts of addiction; however, in his later years he was able to kick his bad habits and, after receiving a liver transplant, lead a fulfilling and creative life.
Before he visited Australia in 2014 for Bluesfest, Gregg Allman spoke to Brian Wise (on February 14, 2014) about his career and his most recent release at the time, Low Country Blues. He also spoke about a forthcoming album recorded at Muscle Shoals with producer Don Was (the album is now titles Southern Blood and will be released later this year).
Brian: Whereabouts are you at the moment?
Gregg: I’m at home in Savannah.
You’ve got some big shows coming up in a few weeks time. I’ll talk about those in a minute. We’re looking forward to finally seeing you out in Australia.
Yeah. We’re really looking forward to it. It’ll be my first trip there. First one.
I met Devon last year. He said that he managed to beat you here by a year.
Yeah, he did. Matter of fact, he’s coming with me. Him and his band. So, it’ll be kind of a package deal. His band and my band. We’re all coming. I think we do about six, seven shows. We’re there about twelve days.
Man, I can’t wait. We are all so jazzed about it. I have a nine-piece band now. I have horn players. It is my pride and joy, man. It’s what I’ve searched for all my life. I finally got the perfect band that I want. They are so smoking. I got three horn players. Two tenors and a trumpet. One of the tenor saxophone players switches off on baritone, flute and soprano.
It’s just like Memphis Horns, that baritone, tenor and trumpet. It’s amazing what you can do with just that spread of horns. I mean, you can do just about anything you want to do.
Does Devon come and sit in with you as well?
We sit in with each other from time to time. He’ll have his own band with him. They’ll play probably a little bit before us. He’s got a real good band. As a matter of fact, he’s got two bands. He has the Royal Southern Brotherhood. Was that who came to Australia before? Was it him and one of the Neville Brothers?
Yeah. That’s right. They came, and Mike Zito, they came over last year.
Ah-ha. Right. Cyril, Cyril’s a good friend of mine. All the Neville boys are. I’ve known those guys since I was in my twenties. They are wonderful people. Black Cajuns. Boy can they cook. Oh! (laughter) Man, boy, can they play music, too.
You’re bringing a very large band. It’s surprising the Allman Brothers Band never made it over to Australia, but I guess the logistics would just be too big, would it?
It surprises me, too. Because this year marks the end of the Allman Brothers Band. This is their forty-fifth anniversary. As of New Year’s Eve, the Allman Brothers Band will be no more.
It’s a bit of a pity that we never got to see you out here in the band, with the Allman Brothers Band.
It really is, but of all the people in the Allman Brothers, we all have our own respective bands, right? I’m about the only one that can … I play all the Allman Brothers, well………all the songs that I wrote for the Allman Brothers, I play in my set. The closest thing you’ll ever get toe Allman Brothers is having my band over there.
Gregg, I’ve been fortunate to see the Allman Brothers Band a number of times at Jazz Fest in New Orleans …
… which has been a great experience.
All right. That’s a good one.
A couple of years ago I saw you with your band there as well. You played the House of Blues, then you also played Jazz Fest as well. That was about the time near the release of the latest solo album. That was terrific.
Add three horn players to that and you have my band now. (laughter)
Speaking of the Allman Brothers Band and wrapping up this year, you’re doing an amazing series of shows at the Beacon Theater, aren’t you?
Yeah. I think there’s fourteen. Fourteen in all this year. We usually do … I don’t know. We’ve gone from five to seventeen, but fourteen’s a good number.
That’s quite a substantial number of shows in one venue for a season, isn’t it? It’s quite incredible.
It’s probably because it’s a closing show. The brothers will be … I don’t know. We’ll probably get together from time to time after. Just to play one for old time’s sake. It will be quite good, actually, to be ……
Can I ask you about Low Country Blues, which you released a little while back? Your latest solo album. How did you come to team up with T-Bone Burnett? It’s a fantastic combination.
It really was. The reason there was fourteen years between the time of my last record and Low Country, you know Tommy Dowd passed away in 2002. When they mentioned records to me, I would just change the subject on them, you know? I couldn’t bear the idea of trying to go into the studio and work with somebody besides him, but sure enough, they actually made two Tommy Dowds, only they named one of them T-Bone Burnett. (laughter)
Thank goodness, because my manager introduced me to him. He knew the problem I had with recording. I guess he thought if he could get a good enough producer, that I would go for it. I was on tour with the Brothers and he called me and said, “On the way home, I need you to stop by Memphis. I want you to meet somebody.” I knew what it was about immediately.
I said, “Aw, man.” He said, “You’ll like this guy. I promise you.” I said, “Well, okay.” He’d never let me down before. I went to Memphis. Within fifteen minutes, man, I was sold on the cat. He was a delightful man to work with. He really is a prince of a guy. He really is.
What was it that T-Bone Burnett brought to the recording? What qualities did he have that appealed to you that he was able to transfer to the recording?
I wasn’t quite ready to cut one of the original songs, but I was past due to cut a record. He said, “Listen, man. I’ve got this modem that somebody gave me that has on it between three hundred and seven hundred old, old, obscure blues songs on it. They date back to the 20’s.”
He said, “I’m going to send you about twenty of them. You pick out ten, twelve of them that you think you’d like to bring up to date. Kind of rearrange them and make them kind of your own.” I said, “Fine. That sounds like a good deal.”
I wrote one song on there, the rest of them are off that modem. It’s some great old stuff in there. I was supposed to go back this year and cut the other half of Low Country.
We were going to do it, do the whole thing again and do another collection of tunes. I’ve had so much on my plate this year, that I wasn’t able to work it in. I think we’ve postponed it until May. I’ll go back in the studio in May.
Fantastic. One of the interesting things about the choice of songs, Gregg, is that they’re not all obvious songs, as you said. Some of them are pretty obscure. That makes the album a little different from a lot of other albums of the like, doesn’t it?
Oh yes. You want to get stuff that people have absolutely never even heard of, let alone heard. That was the whole thing, to get real obscure songs. Some of them, ‘Little By Little,’ that’s been done quite a bit. That’s about the only one.
If I recall correctly, in your set you do about half the songs on the album? You did when I saw you. Is that the same now? How do you balance that out with the choice of songs from Low Country Blues?
I do songs off of all my solo records. Of course, now I guess of the guys in the Allman Brothers, I’m the only one that can really get out there and play the Allman Brothers songs on account of I wrote them. I guess they could all do them, but there’s a point … Warren Haynes, they’re all songwriters themselves. I’m doing a lot of the songs that I wrote for the Brothers.
You might not recognize them until I get into the song because I’ve either rearranged them, or I’m doing them just exactly like they were written. When I would write a song for the Brothers, I would show it to them in pretty much skeleton form, so everybody could add their own expertise.
It’s not like, “Here’s a song finished. We just want you to play it.” That don’t really go over big with a brand new band. I just showed it to them in the basic form and let everybody do their own thing.
It was great to see Brothers and Sisters re-released last year in that boxed set with all that additional material. It was a fantastic re-release.
Yeah. We’ve done a lot of that. There’s a new box set coming out with just about the whole damn thing in it. It’s like twenty-five discs. They’re still working on it now. Then they’re be another one with a collection of Beacon gigs on it. I don’t know. I was kind of against that re-wrapping it up and selling it again and again.
Why were you against it?
It just seems like you’re in it for the money. (laughs) That’s not the truth. That’s not true. We’re in it for the passion of playing this music, number one. I mean, of course everybody’s got to make a living. I don’t know, I have a lot of ethics. (laughter)
Just talking about that Low Country Blues album. You had a fantastic cast of musicians on the album. I assume that T-Bone sort of brought in some of his friends, didn’t he, for the album? There’s a great list of players. It must have been terrific to go into the studio with them.
It was, man. Usually, when you go and do a record, you don’t plan on finishing it that first trip. You want to go and you want to get it all laid down. Then maybe you come back and tweak it out and mix it and then release it. Man, I was there eleven days and that was it. There was such great communication in the studio. Explaining to them guys what I want. I would just tell them like, one time and ‘bang’ they got it.
Man, it was such a thrill working with those guys. Dr. John, all of them. All of the boys. Doyle Bramhall. I can see now why they’re in T-Bone’s personal house band.
It must have been great not to have the pressure to come up with a whole lot of original material. You’ve got one song there that you co-wrote with Warren Haynes. It must be great to go in without that pressure.
It is. It is. Still yet, there’s a certain good feeling about going in there with your own songs. It’s a real satisfying feeling. It’s very satisfying to a song writer, for sure. That’s the way the next one will be. Matter of fact, my next record, I plan on and I’ve already mapped it out. I think Don Was will be producing it in Muscle Shoals.
That’s my next project. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do all my days, man. Since I was in my early thirties, maybe. Just to have a record called … the title is going to be All Compositions By, and then my name. That’s my next order of business.
Can we expect that by the end of the year?
(laughs) I don’t know, man. (laughs) It’ll just be done when it’s ready. It’s hard to put a time on it. I hope so. I certainly hope so.
Do you think it will take more than eleven days to record?
I’ve got about seven now. I need about four to six more, but they’re pretty long.
Hey Gregg, I’ve been reading your book, My Cross to Bear, which is a fascinating read.
Well, thank you.
There’s a description at the start of the book that really struck home with me, because you talk about being on the Letterman Show. I saw that performance. I remember seeing that performance on the Letterman Show. It obviously had a profound effect on you those times. It’s really a book of triumph in the end, isn’t it? You’ve come through all those things. Can you talk little bit about that?
Thank God for the Mayo Clinic. They not only saved my life, I’d probably be dead right about now. They gave me about three years to live, because I had cirrhosis, cancer and hepatitis C. It was all contained within my liver. They pulled that boy out of there and put a twenty-nine year old female liver in there and man, it works like a charm. Not only did they save my life, but I feel like a million bucks day and night.
I haven’t felt this good since I was about twenty, twenty-four. (laughs) I swear, it’s been a long time since I felt this good. Now, I work out every day. I do Pilates. I have a work out room right in my home. My trainer comes by like, four times a week. I just, I have my housekeeper cooks for me and I eat real well. I really do. I feel better than I ever have.
Was it helpful writing the book for you? Being able to sit and write down your thoughts? You give a lot of advice to people in the book.
To tell you the truth, man. I didn’t write that to be a book. That was my journal. I started keeping it in 1981 for the simple fact that if I, I figured if I ever got incapacitated or if I ever got to the place where I couldn’t go out and play, which is something that by now I just absolutely have to do. I get like, four or five weeks off. After about two and a half, I am ready to go. (laughs) It’s beyond passion. It’s almost a disease. I mean that. I just love to play.
I figured if I ever got to where I couldn’t play anymore, I could pick up a few pages of this journal and thumb through them, kind of live it again, you know? That was as far as it went, man. I wrote it all out. I wrote out a bunch of it. That started to be too time consuming. So, I recorded it. I wound up with a big duffle bag full of cassette tapes.
My manager came over one day and he saw it. He says, “What you got in the bag?” I said, “That’s my life.” He said, “Really?” I said, “Yeah, you should check it out.” So, he read part of and he said, “Man, this is good. Do you mind if I show this to this friend of mine?” He brought up the idea of a book and I thought, “Oh man. Are you kidding?” I mean, where do I get off writing a book? I mean, (laughs) they’ll want to read about me.
They said, “Man, probably it would be a good idea.” I said, “Well, we have to take a bunch of it out,” because it was totally unabridged. We took out enough for another book. (laughs) Anyway. It did what it did. Actually, it went to number two on the best seller list in New York.
……..I hate to interrupt this thing but I’ve got three more interviews to do.
Okay. Fantastic to talk to you. Thank you very much for your time, Gregg. Looking forward to seeing you out here.
Okay, my man.