By: Jeff Royer
For Fly Magazine
Over the phone from his home in Georgia, Gregg Allman is hooting and cackling like a madman. He’s like a Rodney Dangerfield record stuck on a slow rpm, ripping off one-liners like a snail on acid, his thick southern drawl only exaggerating the situation.
In between bursts of crazy laughter, all Allman wants to talk about is the construction of his new house – the pouring of the foundation, the laying of the sod, the basement studio. It takes a full five minutes to get him to turn the conversation towards anything musical. He’s amiable, polite, completely unconcerned with making an impression; I have to remind myself several times throughout the interview that on the other end of that line sits genuine rock and roll royalty.
In a lot of ways, it’s amazing that Allman’s legendary group, the Allman Brothers Band, still exists. In fact, it’s kind of amazing that Gregg Allman himself still exists. He’s endured a lot over his 35-year career: addictions to alcohol and heroin; the early death of his brother and musical partner, Duane; not one, but two marriages to Cher; and, of course, the Allman Brothers Band’s carnivalesque rise to the heights of rock and roll stardom.
At times during the conversation, he resembles the enigmatic young buck portrayed by James Caviezel in “Almost Famous,” Cameron Crowe’s 1992 movie not-so-secretly based on the Allman Brothers Band and the drugs, drama, debauchery and death that followed the group around like a shadow. He’s unpredictable, cracking goofy jokes and dropping little pearls of profundity in a single breath.
This month, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer will make a stop in Pa. with his long-term side project, Gregg Allman & Friends. Below is a truncated version of the Ramblin’ Man’s words about the tour, his celebrated career, and how he almost ended up working as a dentist.
Fly: What can we expect at the show? Is it going to be mostly material from your solo albums, or do you sneak in some Allman Brothers stuff as well?
Gregg Allman: We do a lot of stuff. That’s the good thing about having a solo band on the side. It’s no-holds-barred. You can do anything because the audience doesn’t expect something from you. They like to be taken by surprise every now and then.
I’ve got a whole new band this time for a change. I am really, really jazzed about it, man. They’re all gonna be here on the 12th. I think I can pack ’em all into my house too. I got bunk beds upstairs, I got this place all ready. I got an elevator here for my mother when she comes. In July she turned 87. I turned 57 yesterday.
F: Oh, happy birthday, man! Well, on that note, did you ever think you’d be sitting here doing interviews and still playing rock and roll at the age of 57?
GA: Absolutely not, man. I didn’t know what I would be doing, but I didn’t think I’d be doing this. For a while, I was seriously into going to med school to become a dental surgeon. But getting up every morning at 5:30? I don’t think so. I think it’d be every day in the same place, the same office and the same old faces.
F: What do you think it is that keeps pushing you forward with the music?
GA: New arrangements, new blood. I’ll tell you what – when you write a new composition and you show it to the band and the band thing gels, man, that is such a youthful feeling that that gives you. After the band works it up and it really comes out nice, for a couple of days there you’re lighter on your feet.
F: You’ve been sober for over seven years now.
GA: I’ve been getting along fine, because I don’t even think about it anymore. The only time I think about it is if I see a young musician, I might try to step forward and help him, say in the fewest amount of words that this might not be the right direction for you there, boy. [laughs] And I would know.
F: How has being sober affected the way you approach music?
GA: First of all, it’s effortless to play. Just effortless. You sing on key and you’re right there for all the stops and starts, and you can keep full concentration on the whole song instead of having your mind somewhere in South Boise. Because your mind wanders, you know, when you’re in an altered state. You’re not really with the real world, you know? You’re out there exploring. It just doesn’t work. The vocals sound like you’ve got maybe two to three tongues in your mouth. [laughs]
At the time, you think you’re kicking some ass. Party! But in the final analysis, it is just atrocious. I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody. Sure, there’s nothing like a good double shot of brandy right before you walk on. Boy, the heat hits your stomach and you feel it go through your muscles and it lowers all that inhibition that you might have had. Lucky for you, that’s all you could reach for while going onstage.
F: A lot of writers who have talked to you recently have written about this “new, peaceful, reflective Gregg Allman.” Do you feel like there’s truth in that?
GA: Reflective? Does that mean they’re calling me old? [laughs] I’ve just settled down, you know? I was very late, too. You know how the old thing goes in the Bible: Now that I’m a man, I put away childish things. I was a – What do you call it? – a late bloomer. [laughs] But I finally got it, and with it I got some spiritualization, and I got turned onto the fact that my life is worth a whole lot more than I was giving it the credit. Because you got to have a certain amount of esteem for the old self. That’s one thing that drugs and alcohol just absolutely eat alive. I’ve got it back now, but for many years I didn’t have it.
F: See, you are reflective!
GA: Oh yeah. You don’t get to be 57 without being a little reflective.
F: You called the most recent Allman Brothers Band album, Hittin’ The Note, your best since 1972, since around the time of Eat A Peach [which yielded the band’s highest-charting single, “Ramblin’ Man”]. What specifically about this album makes you feel that way?
GA: Probably the way it was cut. We just walked in there and bing-bang-bing, we had the damn thing. I don’t like staying in the studio myself more than five hours because my brain starts to get slick. They say whenever you learn something you get one of those little dents in your brain. We used to have this substitute teacher that’d tell us all of our brains were slick!
The goal was to get two songs a day, and damned if we didn’t do it. There’s one first take on there I know of. Hell, I can’t think of the name of the bastard. “Instrumental Illness” …
F: That one just got nominated for a Grammy!
GA: Did it really? [sets down the receiver] Hon, we’re nominated for a Grammy!
F: Yeah, for Best Rock Instrumental. You didn’t know that?
GA: No, I’m always the last to find out. [laughs] This is our fifth nomination, and none of them have been for a vocal song. All of them have been instrumentals! The first couple didn’t bother me, but it’s starting to get a little strange …
F: What are they trying to tell you, man?
GA: Yeah, really!
F: Do you have any new music on the way?
GA: What do you mean “on the way?” Coming down the street? [laughs] That’s not the way you can really do it. You kinda have to just let it hit you. The harder you try, the worse they get.
Until the spirit moves him to record the next album, Allman will continue to tour around with each of his bands, including a January stint with Gregg Allman & Friends that will touch down at the Keswick Theatre, Glenside, on January 29.