By Arlene R. Weiss
In January 2002, I was honored to interview the Allman Brothers Band’s legendary Gregg Allman. At the time, Gregg was writing new song material for what would be The Allman Brothers Band’s acclaimed 2003 album, Hittin The Note.
Allman was also writing and rehearsing with members of his solo band, with which Gregg, who has also enjoyed a successful career as a supreme solo artist, regularly tours with, as well as touring, recording, and performing with the Allman Brothers Band. He was in a particularly reflective period and spoke with equal moments of wistful melancholy and joy for the long creative and life journey he had experienced.
In the last decade, the Allman Brothers have, and continue to headline, a host of music’s most prestigious festivals including making their yearly runs at The Bonnaroo Music Festival, where they’ve regularly performed since 2003 and at The Wanee Music Festival, which they co-founded in 2005, while playing one of the most grueling but fulfilling yearly tour schedules, living up to the title of their 1981 album, Brothers Of The Road. And for Gregg and The Allman Brothers Band, they wouldn’t have it any other way.
In 2009, The Allman Brothers Band celebrated their 40thAnniversary crafting music with a fifteen-night stand at New York’s Beacon Theater. A host of musical guests including Eric Clapton in his first ever live appearance with the Allman Brothers, all showed up to jam with Gregg and the band, and pay tribute to legendary slide guitarist, the late, great, Duane Allman.
And this January 2011, Gregg, some 63 years young and still a musical road warrior with a passion for the blues, released his first solo album in some 14 years, the critically acclaimed, “Low Country Blues,” produced by the great T. Bone Burnett. Covering some of music’s great blues artists including Skip James, Melvin London, and Muddy Waters, Allman is still receiving some of the most stellar accolades of his solo career.
Here’s a fond look back with the legendary “Midnight Rider” and blues brother himself, the one and only Gregg Allman.
Legend, music pioneer, and amazing blue-eyed soul stylist Gregg Allman can proudly lay claim to being one of the all time great, influential, landmark artists in rock history. Some thirty years ago, at a lull in America’s artistic pride when The British Invasion swept her by, Gregg, along with his brother, legendary slide guitar virtuoso Duane Allman, came out of the pastoral southern foothills and co-founded the now mythic, Allman Brothers Band. Their brilliant, astonishing hodge podge gumbo of boogie woogie blues rock, took the world by storm and gave the country back a sense of musical pride, while taking their permanent place in the firmament of music theology.
Carving a path and setting a cornerstone benchmark of excellence that many an artist has aspired to, Gregg Allman has become a revered icon in the annals of classic rock and blues. The multi-talented singer, songwriter, musician, and guitarist has composed an esteemed repertoire of classic songs including, “Midnight Rider,” “Whipping Post,” “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More,” and of course, the iconic “Dreams.”
Allman is also a virtuoso player of both the acoustic guitar and the Hammond organ and is regarded as one of the most naturally gifted, powerful, and stunningly soulful vocal interpreters of the blues.
Allman is renowned for singing out his heart and soul with resolute, contemplative, often cathartic weariness and ferocity. No stranger to a life crossed by tragic events and hardship, the pain and scars he’s accumulated in his turbulent life have undeniably informed and indeed are the very sensibility that have enriched his voice, elegiac like the call of a woeful river loon, yet sinfully rich and fat with flavor.
And although it’s a customary sight for fans to see Allman, known for his vocal and keyboard prowess, to be sitting musically at ease behind his beloved Hammond organ, Allman receives an unparalleled magnitude of admiration and adoration from fans and peers alike when he approaches center stage to eloquently strum his acoustic guitar, creating lush melodies of exquisite beauty and grace. His signature, self-penned tune, “Melissa,” never ceases to bring awe inspiring hush, culminating in cheering ovations whenever audiences are treated to his rare but truly inspired turns on the guitar.
For Allman, the acoustic guitar has been an ongoing melodic, sweet romance ever since he bought his first Silvertone guitar as a child with the money he feverishly saved from working a summer paper route. Remarkably, it was Gregg who began his musical career as a lead guitarist, even introducing big brother Duane to the six string.
With reflective candor and wistful fondness, the one and only legend and honorable blues brother, Gregg Allman took time from currently composing new material to regale his lifetime love affair with the acoustic guitar, the blues, and music.
Arlene: I understand that currently you have been doing a lot of songwriting. Can you discuss some of the current songs that you’re writing, what they’re about, and what presently inspires your composing and creating process?
Gregg Allman: I haven’t been doing a lot of writing. I guess I have compared to a long period of writer’s block for awhile, trying to get my life together, stay free of the substance abuse and what have you. But it takes awhile for all of it to come back. It’s like “Dreams.” It takes you awhile to start dreaming again. We won’t go deeply into that…but now it’s starting to come back to me. I’ve written two or three new things for The Allman Brothers’ new record that I’ve written with Warren Haynes. As a matter of fact, the piano player from my band, Danny Louis, he’s been here at my house the last couple of days and he’s an excellent writer, piano player, and just has incredible chord structure. Co-writing, as I’m getting up in years, is easier work for me. One person sparks off the other one and if one person hits a brick wall, then the other one gets them through it.
Arlene: What instruments do you compose on?
Gregg Allman: I wrote “Dreams” on a Hammond and it’s one of the few songs that I think I might have written on a Hammond. I might have written one other song on a Hammond, but that’s not something that I’ve always had inside my house. I started to go ahead and put one in my house, but they’re so big. They look pretty small on stage, but they’re huge when you put them in the house.
Arlene: Do you compose on the guitar?
Gregg Allman: Yes. Composing on the guitar for me keeps everything simple. Whereas on a piano, I start searching for chords and I might lose my whole train of thought or lose the point I was trying to make. I’ve had more luck with the guitar because you hit certain major chords or certain basic chords, and while doing that, I usually wind up with a really nice melody….and the melody carries it. You wind up with a good melody because you have a simple chord pattern and you have to put a good melody over it.
Arlene: Are you currently working on new albums with both the Allman Brothers Band and your solo band?
Gregg Allman: The songs usually find what slots, what bands they go into. But I’ve got a new band. It’s a nine piece band with horns. Writing for a horn band is somewhat different.
Arlene: Because you orchestrate it different.
Gregg Allman: Exactly. We’re just writing songs, wherever they find their way. We’ve been doing pretty good. We had some real good luck last night.
Arlene: Let’s go back to your beginnings as a musician. What originally sparked your interest in playing the guitar and how old were you when you first began playing the guitar?
Gregg Allman: I was ten years old when I first saw one. I was visiting my grandmother in the housing projects in Nashville, and there was a guy who lived across the street who was mentally challenged. One day he was outside painting his car with a paintbrush [Laughs], I mean every part of his car, the chrome, everything! Anyway, he was a really nice guy and I’ll never forget him. He had this old Beltone guitar sitting up on the porch by the swing. I went up there and I asked him, “What’s that?” and he said, “That’s my guitar.” I asked him if I could pick it up and hold it and he said sure. It was an old Sears Roebuck guitar. So I asked him to play it for me and he got down and played, “She’ll Be Comin’ Round The Mountain” and I thought, “If this guy can do this, I possibly can do it myself!”
So I really got entranced with the damn thing, came immediately home, got a paper route, and the rest of that summer, made enough money to buy myself a $21.95 Silvertone, Sears Roebuck guitar….without the case. It was an archtop. A friend of my mother’s made a planter out of the damn thing! Painted it black, put some gold strings on it, carved two holes in it and put a little cactus in each one. I don’t know where it is but it might be hanging on her wall!
Arlene: What was the very first band you were in?
Gregg Allman: It was called The House Rockers And The Un-Tils with a hyphen. It was a rhythm section and three black cats that stood in front of the band and sang. The Un-Tils were Tootie, Floyd, and Elmo. Floyd Miles is now in my band.
Arlene: I heard that somewhere along the way, you started playing the guitar first and actually inspired Duane to play the guitar.
Gregg Allman: Well I don’t know if I inspired him to do it. My guitar was there and he said, “What’s that?” I’m the one that brought a guitar home and I showed him the basic math to it. He was just a natural, really was.
Arlene: Since you started out as a guitar player, how and what made you expand musically into the Hammond organ, keyboards, and of course, your lead vocals?
Gregg Allman: It’s just something that happened. It was on account of a need to be basis because I was a lead guitar player when we began. At that time, my brother played chords and sang. That kind of turned around. My brother went with another band. They traded guitar players. This other guy came into our band and he could just smoke me, so either I learned to play rhythm guitar and sing, or I hit the bricks! [Laughing] So I started singing and I was playing rhythm guitar. Keyboards also came as a need to be basis. I didn’t get a Hammond until I joined the Allman Brothers when I was oh, twenty, twenty-two years old.
Arlene: You’ve been acclaimed as one of the most naturally gifted and soulful of blues singers. What do you think has informed your vocals to be so inherently inflected with such purposeful and powerful emotion, interpretation, and phrasing?
Gregg Allman: Well, they say you don’t have to have the blues to sing the blues, but it helps if you know what they are….if you had them before. And I have gone through one whole lot….two, three lifetimes of fun and maybe one and a half of struggle and pain, or at least my share, let’s put it that way. I’ve been through my share of trouble and woe. I’m not unfamiliar to it, that’s for sure.
Arlene: “Melissa” is one of the most enduring and eloquent songs in the Allman Brothers song repertoire. When you perform it live, it seems to get one of the most overwhelming and emotional responses from the audience, especially when you come out from behind your Hammond to center stage to perform it on the acoustic guitar. What’s your overall feeling regarding this incredible emotional response and the popularity of the song with your fans?
Gregg Allman: It was one of the first songs that I ever wrote, kept, and didn’t wind up throwing in the garbage. As a matter of fact, I didn’t show it to anybody for a couple of years after I wrote it. It wasn’t recorded until after my brother passed away. But I think the response is incredible, especially when I hear people singing along with it.
Arlene: What inspired you to write “Melissa” and explain your melody, chord structure, and playing technique for the acoustic guitar on the song?
Gregg Allman: In 1967 I was trying to get to the end of the damn thing! [Laughs] I wasn’t paying attention to how musically correct all the chords were or how sympathetic they were to each other. At that particular time in my life, I started that chord pattern….and I was very lonely. There is no technique. It’s like asking me where my thoughts come from. There’s many ways to write songs. There’s different places to start. The only way I can tell you is from my end of it. I get inspired by a musical phrase or a lyrical phrase to explain a situation, only in a different way. Not necessarily a cliché, not necessarily something real prophetic, but….
Arlene: ….something with meaning.
Gregg Allman: Right. There are words like… “blunderbust” I guess [Laughing] that just aren’t the kind of words you put in songs. You find out what flows off your own tongue from experience of singing other people’s songs. You don’t really know, but you get a ballpark idea of what to attempt and what not to, even though I go into it every time with wanting to do something totally different and I’m sure that’s what most writers do.
Arlene: How did you actually evolve into songwriting and wanting to be a songwriter?
Gregg Allman: Well, it was either that, or go back to med school, because I was so sick of having to do other people’s songs if I wanted to play music. I love and still have the same depth of passion for playing music as I’ve always had, if not more, and to be able to do that, I had to play all these other compositions. Don’t get me wrong. There were some nice ones. We had a damn good repertoire. But I thought, hell, we got all these tools here. Why don’t we write our own songs? And when it didn’t happen in the first two to three weeks, I really got frustrated, I stepped back, toured a little bit, and I realized that it was something that I had to keep doing.
It helps if you’re a real perfectionist, if you don’t just settle for anything. If anything, I’ve had to coach myself, sometimes nitpick my own songs too much. Even when I start a song. One of the hardest things in writing songs is the first line of the song. You might have the whole song written and still not have the first line or have one that you like. What I usually do, if I do have a first line that I wrote, that usually winds up being it or very close to it. I usually go back and use most of the original stuff that I wrote in the first draft.
Arlene: How much do you draw from your own personal life experiences and your emotions when you’re composing?
Gregg Allman: Everything…because everything that touches you affects what you write. It’s not like I’m sitting down and writing for somebody else, or a children’s record or a Christmas record. I’ve never even thought of doing that.
Arlene: What was the impetus for you writing the very inspirational “Dreams”?
Gregg Allman: The Hour Glass had broken up. The members all went back east and the record label let them out of their contract, but not me. That was back in the days of cross collateralization. They could take your writer’s rights. After the record label first signed you, they would give you say, two hundred grand and to get their money back, they could take your publishing rights. Thankfully, it is no more. But they could take your royalties, artists lost mountains of money and some of the artists were the people that needed it most too.
Arlene: Especially the blues artists.
Gregg Allman: And most of them that needed it are dying or deceased.
Arlene: Like John Lee Hooker.
Gregg Allman: Oh yes. He was a personal friend of mine for years. He used to call me on my birthday and tell me that he loved me. Anyway, the Hour Glass members went on back east and “Dreams” was just about what it says. I didn’t think about it at the time, that it was autobiographical, but it pretty much was. It’s where I was in my life at that time. I didn’t know what to do, except I had this urge, this passion, and now I was getting this inspiration on top of it. And so I wasn’t really at a total loss, but I was really lonely. I didn’t have anybody to do all that with, until I met my current wife, she’s very inspiring.
Arlene: What was the impetus for writing “Midnight Rider” not just for The Allman Brothers Band, but later on reworking it, rearranging it, and re-recording it in a completely different way for your solo band on “Laid Back”?
Gregg Allman: You got it backwards. It was originally written in the arrangement recorded for my solo band. I showed it to all the Brothers and so they cut it that way on “Idlewild South.” Then the next year, 1973, when I cut “Laid Back,” that’s when I did it the original way. I finally got to do it the real swamp style that I originally heard in my head….which is identical to the record. It happened that way on two or three songs. That song came about two different ways and I like both of them.
Arlene: How did The Gregg Allman Signature Melissa® model acoustic guitar come about?
Gregg Allman: Washburn approached me to do that guitar. I had a little bit to do with shaping that guitar out. Also, now I’m using LR Baggs which is the absolute best pickup. That’s my only pickup. My Taylor was my first introduction to it. I have this old gut string guitar that a friend of mine gave me that used to belong to Joe Pass. It’s real old, made in Spain, and I’m going to try to put one of these LR Baggs pickups in it.
Arlene: What guitars do you use live and in the studio?
Gregg Allman: I use and have used for many years, my favorite Gibson J-200 as my main guitar. Then I have a Taylor. I haven’t tuned it so I use two of them. I have an old one and a new one. These new ones, now they’re putting in these LR Baggs. It’s an incredible pickup. Each string has its own separate pickup. You can balance it how you want it. It has the greatest EQ. I’m not paid by them or anything. I bought this guitar for about $4400. It’s the finest acoustic guitar that I own.
Arlene: Can you detail and outline your rig and equipment that you use for your guitars?
Gregg Allman: I use D’Addario strings. I use medium to medium light. I use a Crate acoustic amp for my acoustic guitar. I put it on something like a barstool for a platform that brings it up about level to my waist and it tilts back a little bit. It’s a very nice, splendid amp. It doesn’t have any feedback at all.
Arlene: As a guitarist, a songwriter, and an overall musician, what are the similarities, the differences, the challenges, and your creative goals that you are striving to achieve in creating two uniquely personal artistic statements….one as a founding member of the Allman Brothers band, and one as a solo artist with your own band?
Gregg Allman: The differences with the two bands is that with one of them you have one head chef, and with the other one, you get to toss everything around. It seems like it’s easier on one side, like with my solo band. It’s also getting a lot easier now that we pulled the bad tooth so to speak in the Allman Brothers. The vibe is getting beautiful, really good again, like it used to be, like it’s supposed to be. I think that you’re going to be hearing some really good stuff out of the Allman Brothers. I was all ready to walk. I had thirty years of it and that’s enough for me. Then I realized all I had to do was pull the bad tooth. I realized shortly after that, that I have a lot more fish to fry, a lot more things to do with the Allman Brothers. So yes, I do have goals. But at the same time, I don’t play live as much. As you get older….the road….hell in 1970 we worked 306 nights.
Arlene: No time for a personal life or to rest.
Gregg Allman: Hell no! [Laughing] I always get that same basic, lame question. “How did you all make it? Where did you get your break?” Break, hell!
Arlene: There’s no such thing. It’s called hard dues.
Gregg Allman: We got around and played everywhere. If they paid us money, fine. If they didn’t, fine. We made enough money to live on and we played, and we played, and we played.
Arlene: Slide guitar players and the music of the great blues artists such as Elmore James, Muddy Waters, and Sonny Boy Williamson have always played particularly significant roles in the music of the Allman Brothers Band. Can you elaborate on their implementation in the band’s music?
Gregg Allman: It’s kind of a father to son thing. When I came into the band, my background was mostly rhythm and blues, Jaimoe was from jazz, my brother was pretty much hard core blues. He got into it real deep since he started playing slide. He got in deep into the country blues, Texas blues, Chicago blues which is like Muddy Waters what have you. We put all these things together and I wouldn’t call that Southern Rock, but I would call it a progressive blues band. We leaned heavier towards the blues because the blues has a good, deep groove in it and it gets to your soul.
Arlene: Who are your influences?
Gregg Allman: Everybody I hear. But mostly old rhythm and blues guys. My favorite singer is probably Little Milton Campbell. At the same time I love listening to Miles Davis, Lee Morgan, Stanley Turrentine, jazz artists like that, but I also like listening to Woody Guthrie and Lightnin’ Hopkins. I really like Lightnin’ Hopkins.
Arlene: “I’m No Angel,” written by Tony Colton and Phil Palmer, was your biggest commercial and artistic hit as a solo artist and along with “Melissa,” it’s become your signature tune with your fans. How did you originally come by the song, why did it resonate so strongly for you, and how did that influence you to title your 1986 solo album after the song?
Gregg Allman: It came in the mail, I liked it, I heard something in it, and I wanted to try it real bad. I did it with my band, and along with that, we tried eighteen other songs, and that one poked out from the rest of them.
Arlene: I heard that you feel that your most recent solo album, 1997’s Searching For Simplicity, in your opinion represents for you, some of your finest work. Can you elaborate on that?
Gregg Allman: Recording wise, I’ve evolved a lot between Searching For Simplicity and my last record, Just Before The Bullets Fly from 1988. There were ten whole years in there. It was a long time coming. I’m itching to get back in the studio now, especially with my new band. I really look forward to it.
Arlene: As an artist, encompassing your many creative roles, songwriter, vocalist, guitarist, keyboardist, in both The Allman Brothers Band, and with your solo band, which or what element of these artistic roles is the most creatively satisfying for you?
Gregg Allman: Rehearsal! That’s when everything gels. When you learn a new song, it gels, it gets orgasmic! [Laughs]
Arlene: You’ve included many talented guitar players in the many lineups of The Allman Brothers Band and your different solo bands. Let’s discuss what you feel some of these guitarists bring creatively into the band. What about Derek Trucks?
Gregg Allman: He brings some young blood and he’s a good slide player. My brother was pretty much his inspiration. He’s still a bit young but he’s good. The good thing about Derek is he’s young, he’s flexible, he’s got a real open mind. The same way with Oteil Burbridge. Both of them. They’re young, they’ve got a lot of energy, and to tell you the truth, they every now and then, give us old guys a well needed professional, proverbial kick in the butt!
Arlene: What about Warren Haynes?
Gregg Allman: Warren’s my baby. He’s become one of the major blues players around. I’m talking about with the Allman Brothers Band of which he is, yes, a full fledged member….and of course the things he’s done and is currently doing with Government Mule. He’s done some beautiful work and we should be doing some more together.
Arlene: Are you considering doing more guitar playing with the band, because you’re a wonderful acoustic guitar player?
Gregg Allman: If you’ve seen my band lately, I play a lot of guitar in my band.
Arlene: Do you prefer the acoustic guitar over the electric guitar and what’s your reason for the preference?
Gregg Allman: Yes. I don’t even own an electric guitar. The reason is the volume and an acoustic just doesn’t have the same sound as an electric guitar. It’s more resonant to me. Don’t get me wrong. There’s definitely a place for lead guitars! God knows, I’ve been around enough of them. But you just can’t beat the sweet sound of an acoustic guitar, and that’s only an opinion.
Arlene: Exactly, like with “Melissa.” It has such an eloquent sound to it. It has its own voice so to speak.
Gregg Allman: It just wouldn’t sound right with an electric!