By Jeb Wright
Gregg Allman flew into the Top 5 on the Billboard Album Charts with his first solo release in 14 years, “Low Country Blues.” The album was recorded with famed producer T-Bone Burnett, whom Allman had never met and never even heard of before his manager talked him into meeting the man in Memphis. The two hit it off with a connection based on — what else — music, the blues specifically. Gregg ended up recording blues tunes originally written by such legends as Sleepy John Estes, Skip James and B.B. King.
In the interview that follows, we discuss the new album as well how Gregg survived a liver transplant. We also delve into the past and talk about drinking scotch with President Jimmy Carter, watching his brother Duane and Eric Clapton record “Layla” and how a mentally retarded neighbor hooked a 10-year-old Gregory on music.
This is the highest-charting Gregg Allman solo album ever. Are you surprised at the success of “Low Country Blues?”
Gregg Allman: I am flabbergasted; it hasn’t all sunk in yet. All we did was go into the studio to cut some tunes.
You went 14 years between solo albums. I have to ask if producer Tom Dowd’s death had something to do with that gap.
GA: It certainly did. He died, and after I got through mourning, I thought, “What are we going to do when it comes time to record?” A producer is like a member of the band who got there late.
You did make a good choice with T-Bone Burnett.
GA: I had never heard his name before. I was out with The Brothers, and we had a long tour, and I was real tired. We were playing our last gig; this was the latter part of ’09. My manager calls me and says, “Listen, I need you to stop in Memphis on the way to Savannah. There is somebody I want you to meet.” I knew what it was about. I just about said, “Let’s don’t and say we did.” I went ,and I am so glad that I did.
I went to Memphis, and we met at the Peabody Hotel. He gave me thousands of old, old blues songs. He said, “I’m going to peel this down to about 25 songs and send them over to you. Take the best 15 of your liking and rearrange them, totally. When you are satisfied with them, then let’s hit the studio and cut them.” I said, “Sho ’nuff.”
We started talking and I asked him, “What are you in Memphis for?” He said, “I am here with two builders and we are measuring out, board by board, the Sun Recording Studio. I am going to build me a Sun Records right next to my house in California.”
That is the craziest thing I had ever heard, so I thought that this guy has got to be alright. We got closer and closer and we built a good friendship that afternoon.
“Floating Bridge” is damn good. I love your vocals on that. How do you own a song that you didn’t write, vocally?
GA: You’ve just got to be really into it. You want it to sound a certain way, and you try this, and you try that and you just pick and pick and pick at it. It is not quite as tedious as it sounds, though. One thing that helped was having an acoustic bass. Some of the wavelengths of the electric bass cut into the vocal and rub it out.
There is one original song on the album titled “Just Another Rider.” Is that a sequel to “Midnight Rider?”
GA: That is nothing whatsoever about “Midnight Rider.” Me and Warren [Haynes] had been working on that song for most of 2010. The last time I saw him, before we went into the studio, we finished it up. I was doing a charity thing for Michael J. Fox with Elvis Costello and a bunch of other folks. Warren came up to the hotel when I had a day off, so we brought a piano up to the suite and we knocked it out right there.
Duane loved the blues. Did you ever think what Duane would have thought about this project?
GA: Oh yeah, he would’ve shown up and dug it.
I have to ask you about the Tribute to Duane with the 40th Anniversary you did at the Beacon Theater. Was that the best Beacon run ever? You played with Eric Clapton for the first time in your career.
GA: That was the most fun I’ve ever had on stage. I had never played with him before, but I was down there watching my brother when they cut “Layla.” It wasn’t like I was a stranger to him.
You’ve got to tell me about that.
GA: They did that in Miami, and The Brothers were playing in Miami for this thing that the city held for the people. It was set up on the median of Collins Avenue, which is a huge median right by the beach. We were playing along, and I looked down and I thought, “That looks like Tommy Dowd.” I looked to his left, and I saw this guy in this kick-ass set of dark, reddish boots. I looked up the leg and up the shoulder and I thought, “Yahoo, look who’s here.” I was just hoping that my brother was playing a Les Paul and not a Fender. Afterwards they came up to us and said, “We’re cutting a record down here y’all. You want to come down?” We said, “Yeah.” All of us stayed for a little while, and then the band left, and Duane was going to stay down there for a while. I asked if they minded if I sat there and hung around and they said, “No.”
You never really get over losing a sibling.
GA: Remembering them is what keeps them alive.
You had a heath scare. You survived a liver transplant.
GA: Yeah, I’m still in a little bit of pain. I asked them, “When do I feel like nothing’s happened?” They said that it would be a year and a half. I am closing in on eight months. It’s a really slow process. Every day you feel a teeny bit better, and I mean a little tiny bit. If it was any less, then you wouldn’t notice it. You don’t really feel anything until about 10 days have passed.
I heard you got Hepatitis C from a tattoo needle.
GA: I didn’t get it from drinking; I got it from a tattoo, but the drinking didn’t help.
Legend has is that you shared a bottle of J&B with Jimmy Carter?
GA: Bob Dylan was in town, and he loved Bob Dylan so he threw a big party. I was in the studio cutting “Laid Back.” I was down in Macon, and he was in the governor’s mansion in Atlanta. We were recording and kept hearing, “Let’s do one more take of this guitar solo.” I finally said, “Dig it; it’s 10 o’clock, we are shutting this thing down. We better hope our asses get there before the last people have left.” Of all people, and don’t ask me to explain this, but Johnny Winter and Buddy Miles were there. They asked if they could out and jam and I said, “Sure.” I thought, “What have I got myself into?” We all piled in the limousine and the driver broke all kinds of records. We made 92 miles in 40 minutes; that’s boogieing.”
We showed up, and there was this big horseshoe drive, and at the end of the horseshoe there is a little stand with a Smokey Bear standing there. I got out and said, “Allman for the party.” He said, “I’m sorry but that is the last of the guests driving down the other end of the driveway.” I said, “Can you please tell Governor Carter that I did show and that I did come to see him? I told him on the phone that I was in the studio and that I might be a little late, but I didn’t think I would be this late.” I turned around, and I had my hand on the door of the car and I heard him go, “Hey you. The Governor wants to see you in the mansion right now.”
As we were driving up to the house I see this silhouette of this old bum. He didn’t have any shirt or shoes on and he had on a pair of these old 1940 Levis that were held together by holes. I thought, “Why don’t they run this trash off?” It was him! I went up to him, and he smiled and said, “How you doing, Gregory? I need some money.” He told me to call him “Jimmy.” I said, “Jimmy, none of us are really into politics.” He said, “I noticed. You and your other musical friends just sit around and smoke that stuff and listen to music.” I said, “Oh no …” We helped him out by raising money for his campaign. I will say that he loves a good Scotch.
I heard you started playing guitar after you saw a neighbor play guitar. The odd thing about this story is that he was painting his entire car with a brush. Can you explain?
GA: I went to visit my grandmother every summer. Duane and I were both born in Nashville, and we moved to Daytona, Fla., in 1959. You know how it is; you have to change schools and all this. I think I was in the fifth grade, and I hated this new place. So every summer I went back to visit my Grandmother who lived in a housing project. One day, I went outside and there was this really retarded dude named Jimmy Bain. He had a 1940-something Packard, and he was painting it with a house brush. He was painting everything black but the windshield. He painted the chrome and the tires … I looked up on the porch and I saw a guitar sitting there. I went over there and I said, “Jimmy, what’s that?” He said, “That’s my gee-tar.” I said, “Can you play it?” He said, “Why, hell yes, I can play it. It’s there ain’t it?” I said, “Well, listen, when you take a break from painting why don’t you come over here and play me something.”
He sat the brush down and wiped his hands off, they were still full of black paint. He picks up his guitar and plays “She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain.” Boy, I just got the fever for that damn piece of wood. I just was in entranced to that thing. I was knocked out.
How long after that was it until you got your own guitar?
GA: I got one Nov. 10, 1960, and that is really how it happened.
I want to end this interview getting back to “Low Country Blues.” The music is amazing, but so is the photography. Where was this taken, because it is really beautiful?
GA: That was taken at the Wormsloe Plantation in Savannah. The family still owns it, and I know the man. At that end of the tunnel is where the big house is. They have a house on the land that is marked on it in cast iron “The Whisky Room,” where they made their own whisky. This is pre-Civil War, man.
I love the way the album cover looks. It’s amazing.
GA: You’ve seen it before. You saw it in the springtime in the movies. You saw this little girl running after this guy with leg braces on yelling “Run, Forrest, run!” That was shot right on the same spot.