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Gregg Allman: The Other Side of This Life (From The Archives)

by John Swenson on March 21, 2017
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.

Gregg in 1987
Allaying Gregg’s 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’s vocal, guitar and Hammond B-3 organ work.
“We did ‘Please Accept My Love’ in a version that was listed as B.B. King’s but it was a Texas blues arrangement,” remembers Gregg. "Dr. John was in there and he says, ‘This ain’t B.B. King, it’s T-Bone Walker.’ So we were trying it out and I said through the microphone to T-Bone, ‘OK, you wanna take a crack at this?’ And he says, ‘It’s OK we already got it!’ [Laughs.] I said, ‘No man, we just ran that down.’ So we tried it again but he was right – we had it before we knew it. One take. “It’s been a long time since we played together,” says Gregg of Dr. John. “It’s such a pleasure playing with him again. He played on my second record [1977’s Playin’ Up a Storm ], but back then, even though we were friends, we couldn’t really enjoy each other’s company because we were both so strung out.”
One of the highlights of the record is a big band arrangement of “Blind Man,” a staple for Bobby “Blue” Bland but also for Gregg’s favorite vocalist, Little Milton. “It was all cut live – the whole damn thing, horns and all,” says Gregg. “There’s no count off to that song. It has big band feel to it. I’ve 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.”
Gregg becomes animated as he recalls Little Milton’s guest appearance at The Allman Brothers Band annual run at the Beacon Theatre in 2005. “He came and played with us and the next thing you know the man’s gone,” he says, still sounding wounded. “Every song he did, he would stand back with his head raised like he’s in church and the microphone would be at a full arm’s length. Man, he could deliver it.”
As they were selecting material for the record, a particular song caught Gregg’s attention: a chilling Sleepy John Estes tune called “Floating Bridge.” The episodic tale of a drowning told from the perspective of the victim had an eerie, dreamlike quality that fascinated the singer. “I wasn’t familiar with it, but it stood out,” he recalls. “I carefully listened to the lyrics and we changed them a little bit.” Gregg sings the song in a high, reedy voice, fragile and otherworldly. It’s the voice of a man who’s faced death.
“Wait ‘til you see the cover,” he says of Low Country Blues. “The cover looks like it came from that song. It’s about death. Being an addict, I had many brushes with death. Because they’re self administered, they make you feel,” he pauses, "like such a fool. “It’s very scary when you wake up,” he trails off, this time pausing longer. “We won’t go there. If you listen to the whole record there’s another song, ‘I Believe I’ll Go Back Home,’ that also touches on that. It was a very emotional recording session.”
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