Gregg Allman: The Other Side of this Life
Photo by Danny Clinch
When Gregg Allman was a young man, his restless soul led him into terrain that tested his limits. Pursued by demons while searching for angels, he never dwelled on the ground he stood on. His writing reflected his spiritual aspirations, so aptly expressed in the transcendent vision of “Dreams,” an Allman Brothers Band anthem and one of the greatest rock songs ever written.
The young Gregg had a voice that crackled with emotional wisdom, an instrument seemingly honed during many lifetimes. At a time when almost all white rockers attempted to sing the blues as if they were trying to put on an ill-fitting suit, Gregg sang with a voice that expressed infinite sadness and unimaginable pain. He was a phenomenal white blues singer—a budding artist whose imagination produced the tortured cry of “Whipping Post,” the anguish of “It’s Not My Cross to Bear” and “Black Hearted Woman,” and the lonely fugitive blues of “Midnight Rider.” Along with his brother Duane, and his great genre-defying band, Gregg interpreted the work of the blues masters with a finesse that only his most inspired contemporaries could match.
Now, Gregg is an aging man who’s packed multiple lifetimes of experience into his 63 years. After years of battling hepatitis C, he received a liver transplant last summer and has slowly made his way through a difficult convalescence.
“Oh, shit. I never knew that a pain like that existed,” he says from his home in Georgia a few days before returning to the road for the first time since the operation. “I’ve been to the pinnacle of pain. I’ve had enough pain to last me the rest of my life—just from the operation itself.”
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’s canon, including his own laconic comment on life, “Just Another Rider.” His voice is like blues elder—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—by his own account—the best vocal performance of his life.
The record was Gregg’s first experience with producer T-Bone Burnett after a lifetime of recording with the late studio mastermind Tom Dowd.
“Mr. T-Bone is an incredible man,” says Gregg. “I tell you I was sweatin’ it. When it came around time to record again, I thought, ‘Man, what are we gonna do without Tommy Dowd?’ We were just coming off the road and my manager said, ‘I want you to stop in Memphis and meet this guy.’ 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, ‘Anybody who would go to such lengths must have something going for him.’”
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 ‘78s on it. He picked out 20 of them and sent them to Gregg for consideration.
“You could hear the crackling and the scratches on them,” says Gregg. “Some were obscure, some of them I had never heard before. He told me to pick 15 that I wouldn’t mind recording.”
Despite the positive first impression, the project almost broke down before it got out of the showroom.
“After I got to know T-Bone a little bit and we got comfortable,” says Gregg, “they told me T-Bone wants you to come to Los Angeles to record. And he wants to use his own band.” He pauses for emphasis.
“I thought, ‘Well, this thing’s over before it starts because I’ve got a hell of a band already.’ And then I thought back to when I first worked with Tommy Dowd. We had Capricorn’s 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’t want to do it. And my brother said, ‘We’re goin’. It’s his sandbox. If he wants us to play in his sandbox, we’re gonna play in it.’ Good thing he didn’t ask us to play with another band,” Gregg exclaims, laughing.
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