THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Three scions of one of rock music’s most important bands, the legendary Allman Brothers Band, have – finally – come together to do their own thing. Devon Allman is the son of the Allman Brothers’ keyboard player Gregg and nephew of guitarist Duane. Duane Betts is son of the guitar player Dickey Betts and Berry Duane Oakley is the son of founding Allman Brothers bassist Berry Oakley. Now, as the Allman Betts Band, they’re releasing their second album Bless Your Heart. We got together for a locked down Zoom chat with Devon.
Hi Devon, thanks for talking to The American.
Good to speak to you, how are you?
I’m very well – how are you in these strange days?
I’m doing good, man, as good as you can do in this...environment! I try to make the best of it and look at the positives. I realized that I have been on tour since 2005, and summer is the bread and butter of touring, so this is my first summer off in fifteen years. I’m likin’ it! I miss connecting with the fans, and being with my brothers and making music, but this has some advantages.
Where are you at the moment?
I live in Saint Charles, Missouri, about 30 miles west of the Gateway Arch. I’ve been based here for a little more than 20 years, my son is here and I never wanted to be that dad that would make his son get on an airplane to see him. When he was little I wanted to be able to drive him to school when I could, and see him every chance I got. I was going to relocate when he graduated high school but then he chose an area college so I decided to stay here while he’s in college.
You could live anywhere – why not LA or New York or Nashville?
Yeah, I could make it work from just about anywhere but I don’t think I would pick any of the music places, I don’t really need that. I think a sleepier place kind of befits me a little more.
We’re going to talk about the Allman Betts Band and your new album, but just to go way back, you’ve always lived in the South – I think you were born in Corpus Christi?
Yeah, born and raised in Texas, and lived in Alabama as well, we moved around all over, but the South has always been home.
How is Corpus Christi doing after the hurricane?
I’ve been texting my friends, and they had a little scare but everybody is alright.
So, you are the son of Gregg Allman but you didn’t know him for a long time after your mom and he split up. Is it true that you didn’t meet him until you were in your teens?
Yeah, we met when I was sixteen years old. We had no contact until I was fifteen, and then I just said “Man, I’m gonna write him a letter and we’ll see what happens!” It was the world’s shortest letter, like three sentences long - “Hey I’m your son! I play guitar, I like Ozzy Osbourne. Here’s my phone number.” [Laughs] It was really stupid, but sure as shit he picked up the phone and he called me. We developed a rapport of sorts on the phone and we found that we had a similar sense of humor. By the time we met face-to-face there was a bit of knowing the vibe of the other person, so it was not this earth-shattering moment. It was more like “OK, I think we’re both glad we got that done!”
The basic impetus for my mother to keep me away from that scene was because they were young and dumb and doing drugs and she didn’t want me around it. So kudos to her for pulling me out of that situation and giving me a normal upbringing, which I’ve always been grateful for. It really allowed me to develop my own vibe, my own work ethic, outside of all that. But once we met it was ‘off to the races’ – we really enjoyed each other’s company and we got pretty close pretty quick.
Was music a bonding agent?
Sure, it was always going to be. He would show me some stuff on guitar in the very beginning and I remember looking at his music collection and thinking “I wonder what that’s like”. He didn’t overtly turn me on to things but just by kind of osmosis and being around, I got curious about certain artists. There was definitely a bond over that, and over movies and sports – all kinds of father-son normal things!
You have half-brothers and -sisters all over the place! How close are you as a family?
We used to try every other year. I’d want to do Christmas with my mom and my sister, then the next year I’d want to do an Allman family Christmas. We’re all close. We live in different corners of the country so we don’t get to see each other all the time but that’s my family, those are my siblings so… a lot of love.
Music is the biggest part of your life apart from family. You weren’t surrounded by it with the Allman Brothers Band, so when did music come into your life?
Growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas, every Saturday morning we’d get in the car and drive 15 minutes to the beach with the radio on. There’s an excellent radio station called C101 in Corpus Christi and they played everything – you would hear Jim Croce’s ‘Operator’, then you’d hear Van Halen, Black Sabbath, and Gerry Rafferty, then you would hear The Eagles then the Beach Boys. They were really good at not just playing you one area of rock and roll music, they played all these different sub-genres and that was a great textbook for me for my ear as a little kid. The first thing that really captivated me was driving over the bridge onto the island and hearing the saxophone of Gerry Rafferty’s ‘Baker Street’. I was mesmerized, I was four or five and I just remember this – almost – intoxication, where I really connected to it. It felt like something I wanted to be a part of and the music love affair just grew deeper and deeper. I started pulling records from the living room to take them into my bedroom and study them and the photos and all the liner notes and lyrics. The Beatles were the first huge ones but there were the Stones and Hendrix and the Doors. That culminated, age nine, when I saw Cheap Trick live. When the lights went down and the bass hit my ribcage and the smell of marijuana hit me, it was like wow, that’s it, the love affair is real!
A lot of people have the misconception that “of course he plays music, he grew up on the road with the Allman Brothers Band.” Well, I got there when I was seventeen – and got a big education from that – but we’re talking thirteen years of a musical love affair that had already started.
You mentioned Ozzy earlier on – when you started playing, was it hard rock?
It was punk! The first band was called Idiosyncrasy, I think I was 14, and we had songs about the Vietnam War and shit – we had songs we knew nothing about. We had these ridiculous ‘trying to be three-chord punk songs’ and it was so much fun! And it was the most hideous sound you’ve ever heard. [Laughs]
I started my first serious band when I was about twenty. That band tried to find its way during the grunge movement, it was kind of a post-grunge hippy rock kind of band which lasted about 5 years. I think it was at the end of that band that I started to try to just let the song be whatever it will be – not worry, at the front end of writing it, about where it’s going to fit. That’s a common problem that a lot of up-and-coming musicians in their teens and twenties have, they’ll hit a road block with that because there’s so much thinking about “How do I want to be perceived? What category do I want to be listed in? How do I want to be looked at?” that they lose the focus of writing the song, telling your story and letting it fall where it may. I was in that trap for ten years until I was 26 or 27, and I finally said “Fuck it! I’m not doing it this way, I’m just going to write some stories and tell the truth and do it with heart and sincerity and this is me and I’ll be strong but I’ll be vulnerable and I’ll tell stories whether they hurt or whether they celebrate...” Once I found that rhythm and that truth, then some of those things started to feel like Americana or R&B or Blues or Classic Rock and Roll or Country or whatever. Over time you bring in these flavors and textures and colors under your dome and that’s what makes a musician truly his own artist, and unique. You have these different facets and you’re okay with showing them.
The South is a place where all those different elements cohabit.
For sure! You had some bands back in the day that were putting together Country and Jazz and R&B and Rock and Roll and people didn’t know what to call it! So they called it ‘Southern Rock’. Well, a lot of those bands came from the South so I get it, and are we on that same highway, so to speak? In a way I guess we are because we are influenced by all of those genres. But sometimes when you think of Southern Rock you think of leather and motorcycles and Lynyrd Skynyrd and all of that – well, we love Lynyrd Skynyrd and I like leather, but there is a lot more to it. I think there’s a deeper rabbit hole to go down with all those influences. All I know is when we write for this band we’re getting more confident and on the new record there’s a lot more diversity.
Three of you are the sons of founding members of the Allman Brothers Band. If you weren’t around that band as a kid, when did you get together?
We met in 1989 on the Allman Brothers 20th Anniversary Reunion tour. I was sixteen or seventeen and Duane was twelve or thirteen. Berry was my age so I actually hung out with Berry a lot, we were chasing girls and trying to sneak beers – we were young men and Duane was still a kid, but that’s where we met. Then twenty years ago I’m opening up for the Dickey Betts Band and who’s in his band? Duane! I go down and play a festival in Florida, who’s on the bill? Berry’s band. So you run into your brothers here and there throughout the years, and we’re family you know? And of course we have the one thing in common which is the three of us all have fathers that were founding members of one of the greatest rock bands ever. That’s a pretty cool thing for three friends to have in common!
You have played together in various formats before, Duane played in your band, and you’ve all been in other bands. Is the Allman Betts Band the main thing, or just one project of many?
No! I had a band called Honeytribe and we put out two records, and I had a band called Royal Southern Brotherhood with Cyril Neville, we put out three records together, I did three solo records, but I feel like for the past twenty years of my career I’ve been couch-surfing with friends and now I’ve finally bought a house! This feels like home to me. Now that’s not to put handcuffs on people, we might do three records and say “hey, we’re going to take a year off and these couple of cats are going to do a solo album and this guy is gonna go be with his new born baby” or something, you never know what’s going to happen, but I think this is always, now, a home base for us. It was really a matter of timing. I had a record deal that I needed to deliver three records for, Duane was in his dad’s band and in a band called Dawes, Berry has done work with Robbie Krieger from The Doors and Chuck Negron and Three Dog Night, so we had never experienced a time where all three of us were available.
My mom had passed and I canceled a couple of months to grieve and deal with that and then, right when I thought I needed to get back out there and make music, my dad passed. So I canceled the rest of the year, seven months of touring. Near the end of that seven months I realized I was denying myself my own medicine – playing music is medicinal. Not only do we help people get through the day and turn off the world for a little bit, but it heals us as well. I needed that healing so I put together a big jam in honor of my dad, to celebrate his music. And of course if I’m going to celebrate my dad I’ve gotta call on my brothers Duane and Berry. That went well and I said “why don’t we do this on tour?” That went well so I said “why don’t we try and write some songs? Maybe we have something right here under our nose.” That’s the moment of truth. If we sat down to write songs and we didn’t have chemistry, you and I wouldn’t be talking right now. We wouldn’t have an Allman Betts Band, and that would have been okay. We would have gone back to what we were doing.
You had plenty of other things going on.
Yeah. It was never a ‘have to’ situation, it was a ‘want to’. “I want to see what this might yield,” you know? We wrote the first couple of songs and we thought “we actually have a really innocent, normal chemistry, like any other band”. Somebody asked me about how the band started and I said, “probably in the same way that the Stones started, Mick and Keith were buddies, they had music in common. Me and Duane are buddies and we turn each other on to new records and we sat down and “woah! we can write songs together, let’s put a band together around these songs”, Not comparing us in any way to the Stones, but the genesis of how bands start are typically two guys – the main song writers in the band – have a mutual respect, a mutual love for music, and have chemistry. So regardless of the fact that we’re Allman, Betts and Oakley, we have all of those normal building blocks that any band that you can name had to have to start. A very organic, very normal genesis to the whole path. I was so tickled when we had that chemistry and when we wrote those few songs I was like “man if we can write those, we can write anything.”
What’s the process like? Do you just sit around with acoustics or knock out some ideas, play some records?
Yeah, we do man, we do, and we’re really good about not having too much ego... just enough ego to get the point across for something you’re trying to fight for, but we never scrap about it. I’ll walk in on the bus or backstage and I’ll hear Duane playing something and I’ll go “What’s that? Play that again,” and I’ll start scatting to it and our other song writer Stoll Vaughan will go “Man, sing it this way!” then we’re all three kneading the dough for the bread, all helping each other. We really cheerlead each other. I’ll be like “keep going, that’s going somewhere” and Duane’ll turn to me and go “you gotta sing this one,” or I’ll turn to him and go “no, you gotta sing this one.” We have faith in each other. And the song is the boss.
Looking at the songs on the new album, Bless Your Heart, there’s diversity there for sure. You’ve got ‘Savannah’s Dream’, which is 12 minutes of instrumental?
That’s an unusual thing to do, but it works, it builds and builds, almost hypnotically.
It’s pretty wild because I’ve always been a fan of instrumental music. I love vocals but sometimes I just want to hear Coltrane or Santana and go on a musical odyssey. My very first record had an instrumental called ‘Mahalo’ and my second solo album had an instrumental, so I’m very into the instrumental art form. I think it’s a lost art form in a lot of ways, it’s not done as much these days. Specifically the composed ones that are truly written out to take you on a journey. Duane’s instrumental, ‘Savannah’s Dream’, is one of the coolest ones I’ve heard in a long time, I’m really proud of him for following it and finishing it and giving it the attention to detail that it requires to really pull it off. It’s a great piece, man, and I feel like someone’s taking me on a journey just like I do when I hear Coltrane.
And then you jump straight from that to 'Airboats and Cocaine'!
[Laughs] 'Airboats and Cocaine', yeah, we’re writing that and I’m going “oh we’re going to get a lot of shit for that!” It’s a funny thing because cocaine was such a huge part of the ‘70s and Duane’s dad and my dad certainly did their fair share. Thankfully I never tried it, I was scared to death that it would be a love affair, but I remember writing the lyrics and going “we’ve gotta make sure that it’s pretty obvious that it’s a song about this guy who has gotten involved with this girl who obviously comes from the wrong family.” It’s a cautionary tale and you can hear in the bridge “My feet couldn’t move fast enough, Everglade woman you’re just too rough.” The perspective of the storyteller saves it from being a glorifying drug song, which it’s certainly not! Duane brought that on the bus and he was singing it in such a low tone and I was like [singing higher] and I was like “man, these two registers of voice are gonna sound kinda ‘Mick and Keith’ cool,” and it just works. And you’re right, going from ‘that’ to ‘that’ is quite a little move!
There’s some great slide guitar playing on the album.
The slide on the record is Johnny Stachela, he is an amazing slide player and we go back for years and years. On this album he comes into his own, he really owns it.
You don’t play slide yourself? With your family history [uncle Duane was a king of slide guitar] people are going to ask!
I don’t. I thought it would be really cool maybe way later in my career to pull it out, not start my career with it. I can do it and I will do it but it’s going to be one of those ‘in the ninth inning of the game’ kind of things.
You have some interesting guest artists on the album.
There’s a song called ‘Ashes of My Lovers’ that features Shannon McNally, she’s from Mississippi, a beautiful voice, unbelievable soul and she really killed it on this. The legend Jimmy Hall is on this record playing harmonica on the same track – Jimmy is in the band Wet Willie, they had a big hit in the 70s with Keep On Smilin'. Yeah, we had some help and this is the first record with keyboardist John Ginty who was in Robert Randolph and the Family Band, he was a member the Dixie Chicks, he’s just been an amazing piece of the puzzle. And the drummers kicked ass and Berry Oakley our bass player sings for the first time on an Allman Betts record – that song is called ‘Doctor’s Daughter’ and he played piano and sang the track which it was really cool. Now, if Berry Oakley is playing piano who’s playing bass? So I got to play bass for the first time on the record which was fun.
It’s interesting when guitarists play bass, you bring something extra to it.
Yeah man, I love playing bass! I love it! And Duane and I swap around a bit with acoustics and electrics, we’ll change it up but that’s just with guitars, we don’t exactly say “I’m gonna get behind the drum kit and add this little bit” - we got guys for that!
Speaking of guitars, are you a ‘gearhead’?
I’m a gearhead to the degree that I have an affinity for instruments and amplifiers that were made in the ‘50s and ‘60s at the birth of rock and roll. Not just because they were cool years, or innocent years, but because that’s before the big corporations bought the companies out and started churning them out by the thousands instead of the dozens. The instruments that were made between, loosely, ‘55 to ‘65 are the best ones that I put in my hands and that sound the best to my ears. I can’t remember the names and model numbers of pedals and new amplifiers and new this and that. I have an insane collection, I’ll tell you that, but I can’t tell you what 70 percent of it is! [laughs] I really can’t! I’ve probably got 30 amps, 250 pedals, 120 guitars, it’s a ton of stuff but I collect it because my dream, when my son graduates college, is to open my own recording studio. I want you to be able to go in and use my dad’s grand piano, that I have, my dad’s Hammond B3 organ, vintage acoustic and electric guitars, vintage amps, and be able to make a record that sounds instantly classic. That’s the goal. I’m not just hoarding all of this stuff to be cool. Guitars, to me, are like paintbrushes, you’ve got to have different sizes and shapes, and every guitar has a different sound.
So you’re not hung up on, say, early Les Pauls – although I know you have at least one of those!
I’ve got a ‘57 Les Paul Junior that’s my Number One guitar. But those ‘59 Les Paul Standards go for two or three hundred thousand dollars – you could buy a house for that! - and if you break it, you’re really screwed. So I’m not into that kind of collecting so much. But if you have one of each classic, like one vintage Strat, one vintage Les Paul, that’s enough for me and I have that. I don’t need multiple $300,000 guitars, that would just make me nervous.
[Devon grabbed his tablet – we were on a Zoom call – and kindly showed me round some of his guitars – the ‘57 Les Paul Junior, a ‘66s 12 string Rickenbacker, his dad’s acoustic, “a whole wall of Gibsons” including an unusual white ES-330 and, yes, a ‘59 Les Paul.]
When I go to make a record I have to have a Strat, a Tele, a Les Paul, an acoustic, a 12 string acoustic, a 12 string electric and a hollow body – it’s usually about seven guitars. I might pull out that a 12 string electric for just one thing – like the intro to ‘Magnolia Road’, that jangly Byrds kinda thing, and not use it for the rest of the record.
Finally, to sign off, what’s the best thing about being Devon Allman?
Jesus Christ, why would you ask me that!? [Laughs] What’s the best thing about being Devon Allman? Hmmm. Having such an amazing family. And being able to share my music with people. That’s it.
Oh, and Mexican food – I make really good Mexican food!
GET THE MUSIC
See the video for 'Pale Horse Rider', a single from the new album Bless Your Heart here The new album is available to pre-order from https://theallmanbettsband.lnk.to/BlessYourHeart and https://amzn.to/2NKWYz5