“Let’s dive in,” Devon Allman says with a big smile. After playing an electrifying set with his solo band at the third annual Bogalusa Blues & Heritage Festival last month, the young singer/guitar player/songwriter/producer is excited to sit down and talk about his new album, Ragged & Dirty, which hit shelves on the 14th. For a man used to doing so much of the actual music himself, this ended up going in a slightly different direction. And he considered that not such a bad thing.
Allman is known for his unique blend of blues, rock and deep-rooted lyrics. Despite being the son of acclaimed Southern rocker Gregg Allman, this Allman progeny has walked his own path while respecting the roots that were grown before him. He likes being in a band as well as putting everything out there on his own. Currently a member of the very popular New Orleans ensemble known as the Royal Southern Brotherhood, he has found time to release his follow-up to 2013’s eloquently personal Turquoise. With a title like Ragged & Dirty, you get the feeling the young Allman has pulled back on his rocking blues boots. And that feeling is spot on.
“I try to resonate on a level that’s just real and meaningful,” Allman has told me in the past regarding his songwriting. “I just write what I’m feeling and maybe there’s people out there that are feeling the same thing.” On Ragged & Dirty, Allman continues his exploration into the feelings and thoughts that make him tick as a human being. Only this time, he has allowed some new brainwaves to infiltrate his world and produce some shockingly Allman-esque songs. It was such a happy surprise that Allman relinquished some of the CD slots to songs written by his producer Tom Hambridge (& co-writer Richard Fleming). Although he has always included a cover tune on his albums, this was a whole different ballgame. So between “Traveling,” “Back To You” and “Blackjack Heartattack,” you get “Half The Truth,” “Times Have Changed” and “Can’t Lose’em All,” and remarkably they all flow together seamlessly. This may be Allman’s best work to date, connecting his maturity of voice, words and guitar playing.
The latter, especially, has continued to be a soaring highlight of any live show. Once he relinquishes his soul to the Les Paul in his hands, he flies. It’s a type of harmonic convergence when those notes spiral around you, and in so many ways remind you of his uncle Duane. “Midnight Lake Michigan,” the glorious instrumental on Ragged & Dirty, is a perfect example, mixing spiritual enlightenment with a slow blues R&B funk, while his solos on “Traveling” and “Back To You” just rock.
So following that much needed cool down following his fiery set in Louisiana, Allman is raring to chat about the making of his new musical opus. “I’m all yours,” he says with a laugh.
What do you think sets Ragged & Dirty apart from your last solo album Turquoise?
I think after being in a jam rock band like Honeytribe for so long that Turquoise was really time to make like a singer-songwriter record. So it was pretty introspective, a lot of road songs. Ragged & Dirty is kind of taking back the reins of turning up the blues. I dove into a bunch of old blues that I love and got really inspired. I really wanted to make something that was more blues, you know. So where Turquoise was a singer-songwriter record, this one was a chance to really play a lot of blues guitar and sing soulfully and touch on some different moods of the blues, whether it was kind of hi-octane like the first track, “Half The Truth,” or more of a ballad like “Back To You.”
You are constantly evolving yet you’re keeping your unique sound & spin on your music. You’re not so far out there that we can’t tell it’s you yet you’re giving us a new surprise.
I think that over the years when you mature as an artist, you just get confident with your voice and your sound so that when you sit down to play guitar and a riff comes up and then it turns into a song, you’re not magnifying or second guessing the process of how you fit into it. It’s an extension of you, so I never worry about, oh, does this sound like me. If I’m playing honest, it’s going to sound like me. If you’re honest with it then there’s never any second-guessing. It will always sound like you.
Some of these songs were written by you and some were written by your producer Tom Hambridge with Richard Fleming. Why did you want to let go of some of those slots on your album?
I’ve always done covers here and there. I did “Sir Duke” on Space Age Blues, I did “No Woman No Cry” on Torch, but this was the first time I had a producer write FOR me. He actually kind of researched me and wrote me songs that would make sense based on my path and I was really touched. You know, he didn’t just write a cool song or, “Hey, you should do this.” He said, “I wrote you some songs.” And that was really touching. So I think when you’re dealing with somebody of that caliber, it’s very easy to go, you know what, I’m handing over the reins. I’m trusting this guy. I’m a producer as well, I produce young artists and I tell them, “Trust me and do what I’m telling you.” And they are always happy. And I had to apply the same thing to Tom with me.
Yeah, cause you usually produce your own records
Yeah, well, Jim Gaines did Turquoise but I produced Space Age Blues and I co-produced Torch. I’m used to being in the driver’s seat and having that control (laughs). I’m a fiery Leo, that’s how it is. But at the end of the day, I really had a lot of trust in him. I think he called me a week before the session and said, “I got a great band and I got a bass player that played with Miles Davis and a keyboard player from Buddy Guy and a guitar player that used to play …” And I’m like, “I play guitar. What are you talking about?” Like my ego was a little bruised. And he goes, “No man, just trust me. He’s going to lay down all the rhythm guitars and then all you’ll have to do is sing and play lead guitar.” Sounds pretty good to me, you know. So it was amazing because normally we would cut the bass and drums of everything. And then I would go in, record all the rhythm guitars and then all the secondary guitars and then all the lead guitars before I ever got to vocals. This time, it’s just lead guitar and lead vocals. It was awesome.
I bet you liked that
I did like it. I trusted it and I let go of the steering wheel. I said, I trust this cat and I’m going to do it his way. And it’s the best thing I did. You know, I could have played those rhythm guitar parts just the same as Giles Cory did. We’re both good rhythm guitar players but it was nice to not have to do it and have it on my list of stuff to do. It was one thing that was totally done and I’m really thankful.
And Bobby Schneck Jr has taken over some of the guitar live. When you had Honeytribe, it was a trio and you played all the guitar parts yourself. So do you think Bobby has given you a little more freedom on stage?
You know, I’m a real big fan in the studio of having a secondary guitar, you know, so it’s not just a core rhythm. There’s like some little accents and some ear candy going on. So Bobby enables me to make those records come to life on stage. It’s not so one dimensional. And then he’s such a good player that it’s my choice to throw him several bones during the show and let him take big long leads because that’s my duty to look after the next generation and let them blossom. I mean, nobody really did it for me so I kind of want to do it for him.
You’ve been having such a good time with Royal, did any of that vibe rub off or influence the songs that you wrote for your solo record?
I don’t know because I always just do my thing and I write songs for Royal and I write songs for me. I mean, experiences rub off but I don’t know if they have direct connections to what you write on something that is your own. You know, every experience is kind of it’s own little bubble but playing with those guys definitely inspires me. I think without a doubt being to the right of Cyril Neville for three years has made me a better singer, because that man is one of the finest singers I know. It makes me really have to bring my A game to stack up to him. He’s a great guy and I’ve learned a lot from him. So yeah, I’m really grateful for that experience.
Are spirituality & your quest to gain spiritual knowledge still a major factor in your songwriting?
I think so. I think art is derivative of a longing; people are longing to connect with people, to connect with the spirit, a god, a life force, and I think that’s what drives art, that longing, that wanting to connect to a multitude of things. It could be anything but absolutely, spirituality is a daily quest for sure.
Tell us about the instrumental, “Midnight Lake Michigan.” What you were thinking when you were writing it?
I didn’t write it. I just said, “Hey Tom, can I do a spooky blues number and I just want to pull like an old Coltrane trick and hang on the one, hang on the one, let it all kind of percolate and boil and build and build, and I’ll cue the band. Is this cool, Tom?” (laughs) “Then we’ll go from five to four and come back to the one and get real creepy and we’ll do that three times.” The interesting thing about the track is most instrumentals are built around a melody. If you think of Santana’s Moonflower, Allman Brother’s “Jessica;” there’s a melody you can sing. “Midnight Lake Michigan,” there is no key melody. It’s just a vibe piece. It’s kind of like a Jackson Pollack painting. There is no core or center, it’s just everywhere, you know what I mean. And it was the last thing we cut. I had to talk Tom into it. I mean, he was hip to it but I was like, “Man, can I do this? And I want it to be ten minutes long.” And he was like, “You know, we got enough strong tunes on the record. This would be a great artistic statement. There’s room for it.” We cut it at midnight on our last night in the studio and we did it in Chicago so I wanted a little ode to Chicago. It’s a little spooky so I was kind of picturing people dumping bodies in Lake Michigan at midnight, right (laughs). It’s a little macabre but that’s the whole vibe of the piece.
Did you write it all at one sitting?
Well, like I say, I didn’t write it. I wrote it in my head. I wrote the form in my head and he said okay and we went in the room and we started it. And what you hear is one take. We played it in one take, one time.
Tell us about “Ten Million Slaves.” That’s an Otis Taylor song.
I was on tour with Royal, I had my ear buds in watching my iPad, watching the movie Public Enemies, and there’s a chase scene and this amazing song came on. I said, I have to play this song and Mike Zito was like, “Oh man, I know Otis Taylor and I’ll introduce you to him.” Well, the next night, Otis comes to the show and I pull him aside and I say, “Sir, can I please cover your song?” Total fanboy (laughs). And he goes, “Which one?” And I’m like, “’Ten Million Slaves.’” And he goes, “Here,” and he grabs two guitars and he taught it to me. So I had to do it. I like that it’s a different take on it, you know.
Which guitar did you predominately use on this record?
I actually used the Strat half and the Gibson half. “Midnight Lake Michigan” is all Strat. “Blackjack Heart Attack,” which has that snarly lead, is obviously a Les Paul. So whatever the tune called for. I look at guitars as paintbrushes. You’ve got different sizes of paintbrushes, different textures. That’s what a guitar is.
When is the solo tour coming?
I’ve got like a ten day thing in France with Royal and then the Ragged & Dirty tour starts. It starts in Iowa on November 06 and goes all the way through the end of the month. We’re doing the Skynyrd Simple Man Cruise with the solo band. So it’s going to be fun.
Anything with Royal?
Heartsoulblood came out in April or May. We’re going to go record a new one in January and it will come out in May.
Where do you think you are right now in your life?
I’m in a really great place. I get to play music every day for great people. I don’t do this to reach a destination. I don’t do this to reach some massive goal. I mean, I have business career goals. I’d love to win a Grammy, I’d love to produce a record that got really great recognition, obviously, things like that, collaborations. But I’m here. It’s not like I’m going to find happiness when I sell a million records or when I play a stadium. That’s not why I’m here. I’m here to play music. I’ve already arrived (laughs) and that’s a beautiful feeling, cause I gut-checked myself a few years ago and I said, you know, if you’re going to play to the same people, to the same size, you’re going to sell the same number of records. If there is never any growth in your career, will you still do it? And the answer is yes. It’s what I do.
Live photographs by Leslie Michele Derrough