A Conversation with Gregg Allman
Gregg Allman, founding member of the legendary Allman Brothers Band, is a gifted blues musician. Allman’s soulful, distinctive voice is as much a part of the American musical landscape as Hendrix’ guitar work or Bob Dylan’s poetic lyrics.
Allman, a 1995 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee, is responsible for classic hits and perennial fan favorites like “Midnight Rider,” “Melissa,” and “Whipping Post.” While ABB played its last show in the fall of 2014, Allman’s solo career has continued to flourish. Last August saw the release of Gregg Allman Live: Back to Macon, GA, and the talented musician is currently working on a new album, his seventh studio disc.
“As a matter of fact, we are just putting the finishing touches on my next album,” Allman said. “We recorded it down in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and while I can’t share too much, I will tell you it’s a great collection of new songs with some really nice covers mixed in.”
Three-time Grammy-award winner, Don Was, produced the album.
“What a pleasure it was to work with that gentleman,” Allman commented. “Don knows how to listen and he knows how to communicate, and those are absolutely essential skills when you’re in the studio. I also got to record with my road band in the studio for the first time in about 30 years, so I was really jazzed about that. It just couldn’t have gone any better; it was truly a wonderful experience, no doubt about it.”
At 68, Allman’s notable voice is remarkably strong. It’s an asset he’s careful to protect.
“I learned the hard way that you have to take care of your throat, which is something I didn’t do when I was younger,” he explained. “One of the best things I did was stop smoking; if you’re a singer, nothing will destroy your voice like cigarettes. I also gargle with hot water when I’m in the shower, and we don’t do back-to-back gigs like we used to, but what I’ve found that works best for saving your voice is a good night’s sleep. Deep, blissful sleep will do wonders for your throat.”
Allman and his brother and ABB cofounder, Duane, were born in Nashville, Tenn. where they spent their early childhood before moving to Florida. Heavily influenced by the blues artists of the ‘50s and ‘60s, the boys got into music as teenagers, with older brother Duane polishing his guitar licks while the younger Allman sang the blues and played both keys and guitar.
Although Allman spent time off and on in Los Angeles, he and his brother Duane grew up in the South, and ABB is closely associated with Macon, Ga., where the band headquartered in “The Big House” in the early ‘70s. ABB’s sound was a jam mix of blues, country, and jazz that came to define Southern rock and influenced so many bands to follow. Allman currently makes his home in Savannah, Ga. According to him, the geography, people and traditional music of the South all helped form his own sound.
“There’s no doubt that growing up in the South influences my music,” he commented. “I’m a Southern boy, and I always will be. When my brother and I were young, we would listen to WLAC, the radio station out of Nashville that played these great old blues songs. Good God almighty, the music we heard on that station! Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Milton, Bobby 'Blue' Bland, Sony Boy Williamson – WLAC is where we first heard them all, and it just went from there.”
Although Allman has achieved tremendous professional success, both with ABB and as a solo artist, it has not always been an easy path. Much of that story is chronicled in Allman’s 2012 autobiography My Cross to Bear. Allman lost his brother Duane to a motorcycle accident in 1971, just as ABB was topping the charts. ABB bass player, Berry Oakley also died in a bike wreck less than a year later. Allman has had his own share of health issues, too, and like many artists in this business, he’s had his struggles with addiction. He received a liver transplant in 2010 after a diagnosis of Hepatitis C in 2007.
While some of that life experience has been reflected in his songwriting, Allman is quick to note that inspiration can be found in many places.
“I’ve always said that there are as many ways to write a song as there are songs, and they can just as easily be based upon what someone else is going through in their life; they don’t always have to come from your experiences,” he explained. “ You don’t have to be sad to write a blues song, but there have been occasions where some of my rough times have inspired me to write songs like ‘Whipping Post,’ ‘Dreams,’ ‘Just Ain’t Easy,’ and ‘Demons.’ But for every one of them, you have a ‘Multicolored Lady’ or a ‘Queen of Hearts,’ so it works both ways.”
Fans are used to seeing Allman on the keys of a Hammond B-3, but this musician is also a talented guitarist who often writes songs on his six-string.
“I do write on both, but most of my songs are written on guitar,” he said. “One of the best things that ever happened to me was learning about open tuning from my brother; that opened up a whole new world to me, and I found out about it by accident. I picked up his acoustic guitar one night, and I didn’t know he had it tuned to an Open E. I started strumming it; all these gorgeous chords just appeared.”
Allman used that tuning on many of his best-known songs.
“Using Open E, I wrote ‘Melissa,’ which was the first song I wrote and actually kept. After that, I really got into open tuning, and eventually I developed my own style. ‘Midnight Rider’ – which is the song that I’m most proud of in my career – was written on Open G, as was ‘Come and Go Blues.’ Now, two of my very favorite songs – ‘Please Call Home’ and ‘Oncoming Traffic’ – were written on the piano, so I’ve had some good luck with both instruments.”
Always a fan of old-school blues, Allman also likes a lot of contemporary musicians, too.
“Sam Smith. I love the power and the soul in that man’s voice,” Allman commented. “I also enjoy Blackberry Smoke’s music. They definitely got it going on, and they’re going to be playing at several of our Laid Back festivals this summer. I’m really excited to have them out with us.”
Fans at Allman’s Oklahoma shows will be treated to plenty of ABB classics, along with some of his own solo work.
“We’ve got some new songs we’ll be playing, along with some older songs that are from my solo career and from my years with the Brothers,” Allman said of the Oklahoma dates. “A few of the songs from the Brothers’ catalogue have been rearranged to better fit the sound of my band, and we’ll throw in some cool covers as well. I want the fans to plan on singing, dancing and having a kick-ass time for two hours, and then walking out with big ol’ smiles on their faces. That’s the power of music, man, and that’s why I still love playing.” And we still love hearing him. For more information, visit his website.
-With permission from Currentland.