Dickey Betts: Good Times, Bad Blood and Delta Style (Relix Revisited)
Today Dickey Betts celebrates 70th birthday. In honor of the occasion, we revisit this interview with Betts, which originally appeared in the December 2001 issue of the magazine.
Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Dickey Betts will inevitably go down in history as the fringe rogue of America’s top 20 guitar heavyweights. With his razor tremolo and vicious shuffling blues attacks, tossed up with poignant acoustic balladry and raw rock-jazz improvisations, the 57-year-old delta crooner has played it all, and played it with gravity. For the man who largely defined the Southern Rock phenomenon, on stage Betts is the life of the party. People close to him, though, know his humble candor and introspective nature.
Despite getting canned last summer after a 31-year roller coaster career with the Allman Brothers Band, along with a savage barrage of recent media hamstrings with far-flung rumors of drug abuse and a couple of misdemeanor domestic violence arrests, Betts is shining through with an iron will, some homegrown guitar genius, and a little help from friends and fans. In one of his sporadic interviews, the guitar legend discusses life after the Allman Brothers, the new Dickey Betts Band and his latest solo release, Let’s Get Together.
Dickey, how’s the tour going?
Betts It’s going great. I’m in Columbus, Ohio now. We just played the second show of the fourth leg of the tour. You know, we’re building momentum; our crowds are getting stronger. They love the CD. Once they hear the band, they really get into it.
How does this incarnation differ from previous Dickey Betts Bands?
DB: There’s a whole lot of difference with personality dynamics. The main and most obvious sight and sound is the tenor horn with the two guitar players. Kris Jensen’s such a great horn player. He’s got a Charlie Parker thing going on that finds a way to fit into what we’re doing. Well, we’re not too far from jazz anyway on most stuff. I’ve wanted to have a horn in one of my bands for a long time. When I was working with the Brothers, if you think about it, I never did any side projects. You know, I haven’t had a band together since way in the hell back there during the ‘80s.
It seems like you’re revisiting the past while moving forward with the new song “Let’s All Get Together.” Is this your answer to “Revival” [Betts' first song written and recorded with the Allman Brothers in 1970], and is it a symbolic revival for yourself?
DB: Well, you know that’s exactly what that song was written for. In fact, I told my wife, Dona, I said, “This is my new ‘Revival’” [laughs]. It’s one of those songs played for the audience, and they know it’s written for them. It’s telling them, “Come on, let’s have a good time.” But I wasn’t revisiting older ideas with anything else. It takes a lot of balls to put a song like “Tombstone Eyes” on a record, but I thought it was a message that needs to be told because of the problems everybody’s having with this heroin and stuff. You know, dead is dead and it’s final. That’s what that song’s basically saying.
Is this mostly newer material you’ve been working on?
DB: None of the songs have been recorded before. I wrote “Tombstone Eyes” four or five years ago when I was with the Brothers. Gregg didn’t want to sing it, so I did. But I sang it so damn cold and straight ahead, you know. It was too damned depressing the way I sang it, so I just kinda put the song away. When I put this band together, Matt Zeiner, the keyboard player, has kind of a Delbert McClinton-Ray Charlesy gravelly voice, and I asked him to try it. God, he did a wonderful job! So we went ahead and recorded it. “One Stop Be-Bop” and “Rave On” were written at the Beacon rehearsals on that last Beacon thing I did [March, 2000], right before I got thrown out of the band.
How did you piece together this band?
DB: The first thing I did was call Mark May, the guitar player. I’d been watching him for about five years, enjoying his CDs with Icehouse [Records]. There are a lot of good guitar players around, but I liked his playing and the way he sang, and I needed a good blues singer. I knew Brother Dave Stoltz from when he auditioned with the Allman Brothers Band after Allen Woody and Warren [Haynes] left. He didn’t get the gig, Oteil [Burbridge] got it, but I thought he was good, so I called him for bass. Then I sent out word on the streets to different people I know. After carefully looking through about seventy-five applications, I selected ten and flew ‘em down to my house and came out with the six I needed. It’s a seven-piece band with me.
So you weren’t waiting around for anything after the Allman Brothers?
DB: No, you know what my idea with that was. Gregg was, and still is, kinda running me down in the press real bad. So I knew I needed to get out very quickly before that touring season was over and let everybody see that I was, indeed, okay and a lot of these things weren’t true. Because I think if I would have just disappeared with all that bad press out, people would have said, “Well, I guess he’s not playing anymore.” So I worked hard to get the band out quick. So things are cooking along good; we’re just trying to gain ground. You kinda gotta go back and start over when these things happen.
The media has always had this scandalous infatuation with the Allman Brothers. Gregg and Cher… the drugs… It seems like it’s Dickey Betts’ turn these days.
DB: I will say about this bad ink I’ve got here on this domestic thing. Once the story comes out—I can’t talk about it now because it’s pending—but you know my wife and I have been under a hell of a lot of emotional stress from this stuff that happened with the band, plus my workload has tripled by trying to get this new band off the ground, and it’s been kinda hard on us. My wife and I love each other very much. You know how the press likes to pick up on these matters and blow things up, but you only get part of the story. When the truth comes out, people will see it’s not what it appears. You know, it ain’t me babe, and I hope people will understand.
So what actually happened with the Brothers gig? Got anything you want to say about that?
DB: Yeah, there’s a million things that happened. The social dynamics, I guess you would call it, became so pressurized and stressed that it just finally blew up. Butch Trucks decided that—and I don’t mean to say this in a vicious kind of way, but it is true—Butch Trucks about three years ago decided he was the leader of the Allman Brothers Band. That’s basically when all the problems started.
You two locked horns?
DB: Well, he wanted to get the Allman Brothers to promote his private business affairs. We didn’t want to do that. So he took offense. Anyway, that’s basically what happened, at least from where I was standing.
Any hard feelings?
DB: I don’t like the words “hard feelings” because I think all of us practice every day not to hold bitter feelings, but yeah, to be honest, yeah, there’s some pretty raw feelings still about Gregg and Butch. I’m not surprised about Butch, but Gregg selling me out really, really hurt. I didn’t think he’d ever turn on me like that. You know, I hope those guys do good, that’s all I can say.