Hittin' the Note with Gregg Allman
I felt a rush and a little bit of a chill. Gregg Allman, the man who was my gateway drug into the world of blues and soul, was on the line.
I asked him where he was calling from, and he told me he was in New Orleans and that it was raining. I told him it was raining here as well. "It's raining all over the world," he said. He then launched into a bit of Brook Benton's "Rainy Night in Georgia," finishing up with a detailed description of how the label looked. He might have given me the catalog number if I hadn't interrupted him.
I told him how he had introduced me to the music of Bobby "Blue" Bland and any number of other R&B greats. "I've got a 30-gig iPod within arm’s reach right now,” Allman said. “I was a CD guy until one day I was on the road movin' pretty good in my Corvette. I had two big ol' visors full of CDs and I was pickin' one out when I looked up and saw an 18-wheeler headed straight for me. I managed to dodge it and went out and bought an iPod the next day. I asked Derek [Allman’s guitarist Trucks] to load it up for me because he knows what I like. I've got Bland's whole catalog on there. Muddy and the Wolf too."
We talked about life in the South when the Allmans were starting out, and how a racially integrated band like them was a political statement in its own right. "We never burned hot on that issue," he said. "But we sure felt it. Seemed like we always had trouble in Alabama at restaurants and stuff. I remember we had this old Winnebego, that thing wouldn't go over 65 if you dropped it off a cliff, but sure enough we got pulled over in Alabama. This big old cop came on board and said, 'Lemme talk to that Allman boy.’ I went out to the car with him and he set there for a minute. Then he pulled out a syringe, big ol' thing like you'd use on a horse, and asked me what I thought a magistrate would make of that. I asked him what he wanted me to do. He said 'just leave three Franklins there on the seat and get out of here.' I did and we did."
The Allmans were a huge part of what Southerners liked to point to as the “New South,” and their national popularity was a big part of young Southerners not being afraid to say they were from the South. Pride led to reactionism (as it often does), and soon enough you couldn't go to a “Southern Rock” show without seeing the infamous Stars and Bars. The Allmans never bought into that. "Some bands use that as a crutch”, says Allman. "You still see it. When I see it, I always think of my reaction to Les Dudek havin' a live parrot on his guitar: What the hell is that and why is it here?"
Allman and his solo group play Meridian Sunday. Is he working on a new solo album? "I damn sure am!” he says. “I'm really excited about it. My wife and I have been married for 12 years, and last year we hit one of those spots. We got through it with some help, and now we're stronger than ever and lovin' life! I hope these songs might help other folks get through the same thing and not be afraid to ask for help to do it. It won't be preaching though. To me, three things don't mix with music: religion, racism and violence."
Not a lot of people know that Allman began as a guitar player, switching to organ only when it became obvious that the guitar duties were already covered pretty well by his brother Duane and Dickey Betts. But he's back playing guitar on the new project. "It's about half electric and half acoustic," he says. "Live, I divide my time between guitar and the Hammond."
The guitar talk leads into me telling him how I was initially skeptical about a Betts-less Allman Brothers, until I saw the new lineup a couple of years ago. We wrap our conversation up with me telling him how much I like the fact that Haynes and Trucks play with the spirit of Dickey and Duane but don't try to replicate the parts.
"You're exactly right,” Allman says. "It wouldn't work otherwise. I tell Haynes every night I look out over the stage and it feels like a black cloud has been lifted." – Greg Ellis