Devon Allman Talks Allman Betts Band, Allman Family Family Revival & Finding His “Home” Band (INTERVIEW)

When Devon Allman announced he was going to expand his Devon Allman Project with Duane Betts into a bigger band, aptly called the Allman Betts Band, it made a lot of people happy, especially with Berry Oakley Jr coming in on bass. It was like the roots of good southern rock & roll was regenerating. With their 2019 debut release, Down To The River, they had crafted some great songs and put on some electric shows. They could feel it was coming together. With the summer release of Bless Your Heart, the Allman Betts Band has found their groove and solidified their brotherhood. And although they love their Allman Brothers Band lineage, they are manifesting their sound into something definitely their own.

So let’s get this out of the way: The last names say it all – they are the sons of Gregg Allman, Dickey Betts and Berry Oakley. They have made music on their own and here and there together. Devon Allman put out two albums with his Honeytribe band, two albums with the Royal Southern Brotherhood and three solo records. Duane has performed with his father’s band, Backbone69, Whitestarr, Jamtown and before joining up with Allman for the Devon Allman Project, he had his own band. Berry has also had his own band as well as being a member of Bloodline with Joe Bonamassa, Waylon Krieger and Erin Davis. The time was now ripe for them to come together and see what they could do.

Along with guitarist Johnny Stachela, drummer John Lum, percussionist R. Scott Bryan and keyboardist John Ginty, the Allman Betts Band got off to a promising start. The second album was coming together and the shows were getting bigger and bigger. And then Coronavirus struck and the slow down unfortunately started to set in. However, they decided to turn a negative into a positive and released Bless Your Heart and hit the road in spurts, doing drive-in shows not only in their area but spreading further out across the US. They have found a way to make it work and the fans are lapping it up. On December 11th, the 4th Annual Allman Family Revival will take place at the Ryman in Nashville, in a socially-distanced celebration of Gregg’s birthday [December 8] that will also be available via livestream. And the guys can’t be more excited.

“With this kind of coming together naturally and organically, it feels really good and the right time to do it rather than forcing it or doing some kind of contrived project,” Betts told me in an interview last year with Glide about partnering up with Allman. Returning to the famed Muscle Shoals Sounds Studio for Bless Your Heart, Allman reiterated the connectivity of the band: “I hope what people hear on Bless Your Heart is a band that’s having a love affair with being a band.”

Allman’s love affair with music has been strong. Starting with a garage band focused on punk, he edged into rock & roll and all it’s atmospheric qualities. What Allman has always strived for in his career as a musician is a depth of connected variety, never allowing one genre or one form of musical direction to dictate his path. “You always hope that for any album you do that you try and strike a balance,” he told me in a 2013 interview. “You don’t want ten songs that sound exactly the same but you don’t want songs that are just totally all over the place. You want stuff that maintains a balance of cohesion and a little exploration and you hope that the common thread is the sound of the voice or the sound of the guitar or whatever the feature instrument may be.” 

As a songwriter, Allman has always allowed his core to be his guiding light, whether he’s singing about emotions or the power of nature’s enlightenment. “I just write what I’m feeling and maybe there’s people out there that are feeling the same thing,” Allman told me in our first interview back in 2010. His instrumentals have also been a source of soul engagement, as on longtime fan favorite “Mahalo” and “Midnight Lake Michigan” from his 2014 solo album, Ragged & Dirty

With the Allman Betts Band, Allman continues to explore his inner and outer spectrums. He openly expresses the loss of his parents on “Southern Rain” and explores a new “voice” on “Much Obliged.” And he directed the animated video for “Magnolia Road.”

I caught up with Allman while the band was on a short run in Florida last week to talk about the new record, playing shows in the time of Covid, his first punk band and what he hopes for in the future of his music. 

You have been in a number of bands throughout your career. Does this one feel like home?

Yeah, without a doubt. I mean, I always wanted to change the landscape every few years, just to kind of challenge myself and keep it fresh. But this one really feels like home, there’s no doubt. I always wanted to be in a bigger band and it being a seven-piece band, there’s a lot more textures of layers to what’s going on. But it definitely feels like home.

How does that work out in the studio with so many chefs in the kitchen, so to speak? Is it easier said than done?

No, I think it’s very easily done. You’ve got seven world-class musicians that really know where to lean into the song and lean back on the song. So there’s nobody desperately trying to get some idea of theirs to see the light of day. They really trust that Duane and I bring them in a completed bunch of songs. We had several rounds of rehearsals where we would arrange them, and that can be a little bit tedious, but also it’s important and it can be fun to say, you know, it feels like we need to do this intro twice as long or the guitar solo in the middle a little shorter. We kind of make those executive decisions so that when we go into the studio there is already a road map for the songs, already an arrangement set. But the great thing about this band is everybody really comes to play the song and everybody really trusts that we’re going to provide them some cool songs to play.

You and Duane wrote most of the new songs but Berry also has a song on here called “The Doctor’s Daughter.”

Yeah, we had heard it backstage and we took it and kind of helped polish it up. It was in rough form but it was a really cool idea. Then once you get the band on it and you get the acoustic guitar and you get the slide guitar and you dress it up, it takes it to another level. We were really grateful for that tune because it really gave us something different that wasn’t already in the collection of songs.

And you’re playing bass on that song, correct?

Yeah, through my career, and a lot of people probably don’t realize this, but I believe on all three of my solo records I’ve played some bass. So out of those, I don’t know, thirty solo songs, I probably played bass on like ten of them. It’s kind of a quiet love affair that I have. I really do like playing bass.

Where do you see this band’s growth the most from the first album to this second one?

I think in having an overall identity. I think the first record, it was good but it was like, hey, what song do you have, what are we doing here, how is it going to sound when it all comes together? Now, we know how it sounds when it comes together. So I think the overall growth is really just the trust in each other, the confidence that playing together has, you know. We’re starting to really sound like a band.

You dig pretty deep inside yourself for some of your lyrics. Is “Southern Rain” that song for you on this album? You seem to get real personal on it.

Yeah, that one is about losing my parents and just the changes that you go through in that grieving process. Sometimes the people that leave you feel a million galaxies away and other times they feel like they’re just brushing shoulders with you. “Southern Rain” is the tears that rolled down my cheek when I was leaving my dad’s for the last time cause I knew it would be the last time I’d see him.

But yeah, we were just on the bus and it just kind of came out, you know. I was strumming on acoustic and we had brought in our outside writer, Stoll Vaughan, again and it just kind of came. We shaped it right there, the lyrics came pretty quick, the melody came immediately and it felt like a cool, minor key, mid-tempo, not a ballad but more of an emotional kind of piece.

“Much Obliged” is a different song for you vocally. What was the inspiration for doing it the way you did it?

You know, it’s kind of a man being grateful for the love of a woman. I kind of put myself into like the Johnny Cash character. It was really just kind of a joke and we were kind of laughing about it but then we were like, no man, let’s just do it that way. It’s different and it was fun for me. I felt like the character of the voice matched the mood of the music. It sounded kind of old and leathery and western, and this guy was going to tell a tale about his love for his lady. So I thought that was pretty fitting for the vibe of the song.

A lot of people are going to see the connection to your lineage through “Savannah’s Dream,” being this long lovely instrumental. Do you know how long Duane had been working on that and when did you come into the creative part on it?

I remember him piecing it together during the run and he worked on that one at home quite a bit. I didn’t have much to do on that one. I played guitar on it and a real small solo but he had it pretty put together in his head and it’s a very Betts-style composition. Really proud of Duane for chasing that one down and flushing it out, cause it’s a really beautiful piece of music that I think we’ll have in the band for a long, long time. So yeah, he was on his own on that one.

What were the main guitars you used recording this record?

I used my 1957 Les Paul Junior and that guitar has P-90 pickups, so they’re a little different than what you would hear on a normal Les Paul or a Strat. I was looking for an in-between tone, something with a little zing and I really fell in love with that guitar. It’s my main guitar on the record. My secondary guitar on the record was a 1964 Gibson 330, and that’s a big red hollow body guitar. Those two guitars were pretty much all I played on the whole record. Not sure what acoustic I might have used but I didn’t play a whole lot of acoustic on this record like I did the first record.

One cool thing that I found while making this record was I rarely used a guitar pick. I used my fingers on this record because the attack was less precise and it was a little grittier kind of, I don’t know, more Rolling Stones or something. So when I’m playing rhythm guitar on “Airboats & Cocaine” and “King Crawler,” it’s just my fingers kind of popping the strings instead of a guitar pick. It was really pretty wild to do that but it just made sense. It sounded better and like I said, it sounded less precise and sounded a little creamier. 

Which song on this record would you say changed the most from its original conception to its final recorded version?

Maybe “Doctor’s Daughter.” We had to do some surgery to that one and take it to a new place with the chorus and the back end of it. But even that one didn’t require too much surgery. I think the way we kind of lay things out, they stay pretty much close to the original idea and flavor.

Had you been playing any of these new songs live prior to recording the album?

I want to say that before we recorded, maybe “Magnolia Road.” I think we started playing that one before we recorded.

And you got animated for that video

(laughs) We couldn’t all be together so the result was, alright, let’s have some fun. Everybody was kind of missing the festival season this summer with Covid so it was like, alright, that would be a nice reminder of what we really do. I had a kick doing that. I got to direct that video. I wrote the whole storyboard, wanted to have fun with it, and then the animator brought it all alive so it was kind of my first attempt at that and it was really fun.

Talking about live music, you guys have actually found a way to bring live music to people through drive-in shows and such. I know you and I know you like to go out in that crowd. How do you adjust for these kinds of shows?

It’s just a slight adjustment. It’s a little bit different layout but I think wherever you bring the music, the people come together and they’re really hungry for it right now and it feels good to be doing it, even in this somewhat limited capacity. It feels great.

What can you tell us about the Allman Family Revival that’s coming up in a few weeks?

Oh man, I can’t wait. It’s such a great celebration for Dad and we have some great special guests this year. We have some people returning from past Revivals and then we have some new faces. They’re going to socially distance at the Ryman Auditorium, so it’s about a quarter of the normal capacity, then also the livestream component will be added on to that and people can watch anywhere in the world live as it goes down. 

We’re just really excited for it, you know. It’s always fun. I can’t believe it’s in it’s fourth year. But being in the situation we’re in, it was either skip the year altogether or try and do something a little different. Nashville seemed like a good spot. We haven’t done one there yet and the Ryman was available so it works out. And really when it came down to guests for this Revival, we didn’t want to make people feel like they had to get on an airplane. So doing it in Nashville and then inviting people that were either in Nashville or a short car ride away, made more sense logistically this time around. So we started thinking of our friends that were in the area: Shannon McNally’s in northern Mississippi, Jimmy Hall is Nashville, JD Simo is Nashville, Luther Dickinson is northern Mississippi. So it makes sense and everybody can get there safely and have some fun.

One of your first bands, I understand, was a punk band. Why didn’t you stick with it?

(laughs) Well, we were fifteen years old and we were writing songs about like Vietnam, like things we knew nothing about, that we just thought were interesting. It was the most ridiculous thing (laughs). We were so young but I don’t know, man, I think it was more like just kind of reckless abandon and power chord punk/metal thing. It was just fun but we weren’t even like official, we never had gigs or anything. We’d get together on Sunday and make the whole neighborhood hate us (laughs). It was a lot of fun but you grow into what you’re meant to do.

Did you learn anything from that experience that you utilize today?

I don’t know, that’s so hard to say because we were just absolute beginners, you know. Like I said, we were not very good. The drummer was awful. I’m trying to sing and play guitar and the tones were horrible. Everybody is playing all over everybody, it’s spastic! It was awful. So I don’t think I learned anything. But that was the first time I really got to play with people so I’m sure that had some influence down the line.

Out of all the songs you have written, which one has changed the most in its meaning to you – maybe was written about one thing and now means something else?

I would say “Turn Off The World” has a deeper meaning and that was on my Turquoise record [2013]. I think it’s a song that means a lot now, you know. There’s just so much unrest and media overblown bullshit that I think people really, really need, now more than ever, to learn how to put the phone down, turn the Tv off, go outside and spend the entire day out there and let nature kind of move you and direct you instead of anything else. And I think that’s more than ever. We have to remember that our biggest family member is our planet and when you’re out in it, that’s when you can really heal.

What is your goal for the Allman Betts Band?

We just want to continue a tradition of music that is meaningful and that moves people and makes people feel good. We literally book flights and hotels and rent the tour bus and leave our families behind and go out on this crusade together to make people feel good. It’s literally the only reason you do it. That’s the goal and I just want to do that for as long as possible.

 

Portrait by Kaelan Barowsky; live photographs by Leslie Michele Derrough

 

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