Gregg Allman: The Other Side of this Life (Relix Revisited)
Gregg has become one of those wizened bluesmen that he emulated so many decades ago. His new album, Low Country Blues, is an extraordinary exercise in blues singing. On the record, which was cut last year before his liver transplant, Gregg inhabits songs culled from the mythological depths of the genre‚Äôs canon, including his own laconic comment on life, ‚ÄúJust Another Rider.‚ÄĚ His voice is like blues elder ‚Äď several of the men who originally sang these songs died before they reached his age.
The hard living is now behind Gregg. He has now been sober for 14 years after a hectic 30 years of heavily indulging in narcotic drugs and alcohol that would have killed most people. In 2009, he stopped smoking marijuana, a decision that he credits with improving his voice to a point where his singing on Low Country Blues may be ‚Äď by his own account ‚Äď the best vocal performance of his life.
The record was Gregg‚Äôs first experience with producer T-Bone Burnett after a lifetime of recording with the late studio mastermind Tom Dowd.
‚ÄúMr. T-Bone is an incredible man,‚ÄĚ says Gregg. ‚ÄúI tell you I was sweatin‚Äô it. When it came around time to record again, I thought, ‚ÄėMan, what are we gonna do without Tommy Dowd?‚Äô We were just coming off the road and my manager said, ‚ÄėI want you to stop in Memphis and meet this guy.‚Äô I made up my mind about T-Bone when I got to Memphis and he was there with some architects measuring the Sun Records building board for board because he was going to build an exact replica of it. I thought, ‚ÄėAnybody who would go to such lengths must have something going for him.‚Äô‚ÄĚ
The two hit it off as soon as T-Bone told Gregg how much he respected Dowd. They began talking about listening to the blues on Nashville radio station WLAC when they were younger and decided to make a record concentrating on those old blues songs. Burnett had a hard drive with about a thousand blues ‚Äė78s on it. He picked out 20 of them and sent them to Gregg for consideration.
‚ÄúYou could hear the crackling and the scratches on them,‚ÄĚ says Gregg. ‚ÄúSome were obscure, some of them I had never heard before. He told me to pick 15 that I wouldn‚Äôt mind recording.‚ÄĚ
Despite the positive first impression, the project almost broke down before it got out of the showroom.
‚ÄúAfter I got to know T-Bone a little bit and we got comfortable,‚ÄĚ says Gregg, ‚Äúthey told me T-Bone wants you to come to Los Angeles to record. And he wants to use his own band.‚ÄĚ He pauses for emphasis. ‚ÄúI thought, ‚ÄėWell, this thing‚Äôs over before it starts because I‚Äôve got a hell of a band already.‚Äô And then I thought back to when I first worked with Tommy Dowd. We had Capricorn‚Äôs studio right there in Macon but he wanted us to come to Criteria in Miami, in the dead of summer, hotter than hell. I didn‚Äôt want to do it. And my brother said, ‚ÄėWe‚Äôre goin‚Äô. It‚Äôs his sandbox. If he wants us to play in his sandbox, we‚Äôre gonna play in it.‚Äô Good thing he didn‚Äôt ask us to play with another band,‚ÄĚ Gregg exclaims, laughing.
Gregg in 1987
Allaying Gregg‚Äôs fears further was the discovery that the band for the session included Dr. John on piano and Doyle Bramhall II on guitar. Both play brilliantly in a tight, well-focused backing group that offers terse, powerful accompaniment to Gregg‚Äôs vocal, guitar and Hammond B-3 organ work.
‚ÄúWe did ‚ÄėPlease Accept My Love‚Äô in a version that was listed as B.B. King‚Äôs but it was a Texas blues arrangement,‚ÄĚ remembers Gregg. "Dr. John was in there and he says, ‚ÄėThis ain‚Äôt B.B. King, it‚Äôs T-Bone Walker.‚Äô So we were trying it out and I said through the microphone to T-Bone, ‚ÄėOK, you wanna take a crack at this?‚Äô And he says, ‚ÄėIt‚Äôs OK we already got it!‚Äô [Laughs.] I said, ‚ÄėNo man, we just ran that down.‚Äô So we tried it again but he was right ‚Äď we had it before we knew it. One take. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs been a long time since we played together,‚ÄĚ says Gregg of Dr. John. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs such a pleasure playing with him again. He played on my second record [1977‚Äôs Playin‚Äô Up a Storm ], but back then, even though we were friends, we couldn‚Äôt really enjoy each other‚Äôs company because we were both so strung out.‚ÄĚ
One of the highlights of the record is a big band arrangement of ‚ÄúBlind Man,‚ÄĚ a staple for Bobby ‚ÄúBlue‚ÄĚ Bland but also for Gregg‚Äôs favorite vocalist, Little Milton. ‚ÄúIt was all cut live ‚Äď the whole damn thing, horns and all,‚ÄĚ says Gregg. ‚ÄúThere‚Äôs no count off to that song. It has big band feel to it. I‚Äôve always wanted to do that. Not so much live, but in the studio. Bobby Bland would use a huge band sometimes. Little Milton killed that more than anybody.‚ÄĚ
Gregg becomes animated as he recalls Little Milton‚Äôs guest appearance at The Allman Brothers Band annual run at the Beacon Theatre in 2005. ‚ÄúHe came and played with us and the next thing you know the man‚Äôs gone,‚ÄĚ he says, still sounding wounded. ‚ÄúEvery song he did, he would stand back with his head raised like he‚Äôs in church and the microphone would be at a full arm‚Äôs length. Man, he could deliver it.‚ÄĚ
As they were selecting material for the record, a particular song caught Gregg‚Äôs attention: a chilling Sleepy John Estes tune called ‚ÄúFloating Bridge.‚ÄĚ The episodic tale of a drowning told from the perspective of the victim had an eerie, dreamlike quality that fascinated the singer. ‚ÄúI wasn‚Äôt familiar with it, but it stood out,‚ÄĚ he recalls. ‚ÄúI carefully listened to the lyrics and we changed them a little bit.‚ÄĚ Gregg sings the song in a high, reedy voice, fragile and otherworldly. It‚Äôs the voice of a man who‚Äôs faced death.
‚ÄúWait ‚Äėtil you see the cover,‚ÄĚ he says of Low Country Blues. ‚ÄúThe cover looks like it came from that song. It‚Äôs about death. Being an addict, I had many brushes with death. Because they‚Äôre self administered, they make you feel,‚ÄĚ he pauses, "like such a fool. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs very scary when you wake up,‚ÄĚ he trails off, this time pausing longer. ‚ÄúWe won‚Äôt go there. If you listen to the whole record there‚Äôs another song, ‚ÄėI Believe I‚Äôll Go Back Home,‚Äô that also touches on that. It was a very emotional recording session.‚ÄĚ