By Thom Smith
For: Cox News Service
Monday, July 24, 2006
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Columnist’s confession: I’ve always felt a kinship with the Allman Brothers Band, which has roots in Macon, Ga., where I was born.
When I heard Duane Allman had died in 1971, after his motorcycle hit a truck, I could visualize the crash site. It was on the street where my grandparents lived.
A few years ago, drummer Butch Trucks, 59, moved to Palm Beach, and we got to know each other. A few months ago, I got to live the dream of every fan: Trucks asked me to join his entourage traveling to Wanee, a two-day jam band festival in Live Oak in North Florida.
Here is a diary from our trip:
10 a.m. — Arrive at Butch’s home in Palm Beach. His wife, Melinda, shows off the house, which is loaded with antique furniture and art, some of it her own work. She’s sitting out this short trip.
10:04 a.m. — One of Butch’s Palm Beach friends, John Leonard, arrives. He lives a few blocks north and deals in real estate. He has traveled with Butch before and knows many of the people in the Allman families, professional and personal.
10:12 a.m. — The bus arrives. It’s typical for a top-shelf band: Leather cushions, thick carpet, curtains, built-in satellite TV and sound system, wood paneling and an extendable salon. Farther back is a galley with a range, oven, microwave and refrigerator. There are six bunks, a toilet and shower, and at the rear is a large stateroom with a king-size bed, TV and DVD player.
10:20 a.m. — We pull out of Palm Beach. Wanee, here we come!
11:15 a.m. — Everybody in the band has aches and pains, Butch says. He’s recently had hernia surgery, and a cyst on his elbow limits his range of movement. Fortunately for him, he’s found some new Nikes with more cushion at the balls of the feet. “If I hadn’t found these, I’d need a knee replacement,” he says.
12:19 p.m. — The talk turns to video games. Butch lights up. He’s usually not one to talk much about his family, but his son, Vaylor, is a computer wiz who as a youngster mystified adults by designing games. On the album “Brothers and Sisters,” Vaylor is the little towhead shuffling through autumn leaves on the cover and sitting on his daddy’s knee next to Butch’s first wife, who’s holding his daughter Melody. Vaylor is 36, married, has a family, lives in Atlanta and — surprise, surprise — is a musician.
2:28 p.m. — The conversation turns to set lists. They figure on 12 to 15 songs each night, of which five or six — mostly classics — mighty be repeated.
“It can change at any time,” Butch says.
2:40 p.m. — When Duane Allman died in the motorcycle crash, he quickly became a legend. But memories can’t play, so for years the band forged on, going from one replacement guitarist to the next. The Allman sound was always based on two lead guitars, originally Duane Allman and Dickey Betts. Jack Pearson, Danny Toler, Warren Haynes, who left in 1997 to form Gov’t Mule, and Betts, who was kicked out for drug and booze problems in 2000, have all played lead guitar over the years.
But the answer to that elusive sound was in the family all along.
He had long, blond hair and blue eyes, and, as a teenager was compared to Duane. Except he was not an Allman, he was a Trucks — Butch’s nephew Derek. He also plays in his own self-named band and currently is touring with Eric Clapton. Derek had to leave immediately after the first show in Wanee to join Clapton in England.
“Eric better be on his A-game or Derek will kick his ass,” Butch says of his nephew’s upcoming performance with Clapton.
3:10 p.m. — The subject of the Grammy Awards is broached. Butch rolls his eyes.
“I really don’t pay attention to the Grammys. It’s a mental illness. Let me put it into perspective. Back in 1972 through 1975, we’re the No. 1 band in the country playing a radically new form of music. Not only are we recording and playing the best music in the country at the time, but we’re the No. 1 commercial band in the country. We’re drawing more people and selling more albums than anybody else. You know how many Grammys we got nominated for? One. You know what for? Best artwork on “Eat a Peach.”
“The one we finally won for was a 26-year-old song, Jessica, off of a live album that we released in 1995.”
3:26 p.m. — The discussion drifts to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Performers become eligible 25 years after their first release. The Allmans were inducted in 1994, their first year of eligibility. Other bands have been elected that shouldn’t be there because they weren’t original, Trucks says. “They didn’t bring anything new to the table. That should be the criteria. Music should be different after you came along. The Beatles in the first few years — I couldn’t stand them. They were nothing but a very, very lightweight Chuck Berry. Then “Rubber Soul” happened and all bets were off. They opened new doors with “Rubber Soul” and “Sgt. Pepper.”
“Go back and listen to Charlie Parker, B.B. King, John Coltrane, Miles Davis. It’s every bit as good now as it was then. And I think so is ours.
“Pop music is in vogue and then it goes out. Real music never does. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is gonna be every bit as powerful a thousand years from now as when he wrote it.”
4:02 p.m. — We’re north of Gainesville. Butch talks about the legendary Duane Allman. “Duane was messianic,” he says. “I knew the day I met him. The bass player in my band said, ‘Duane Allman is gonna make it big, and he is gonna take his baby brother [Gregg Allman] with him.’ All you had to do was meet him and watch him play one time, and he was a god.
“Duane was less than a year older than me. Gregg is less than a year younger than I am. But that’s just chronological. Mentally, emotionally and every other way, Gregg was his son: When Duane died, Gregg’s father died, not his big brother. He had that much influence on him.”
Duane and Gregg’s father was murdered by a hitchhiker when both boys were young.
4:30 pm. — We arrive at Wanee, which is short for Suwannee, which is long for Swannee, as in “How I love ya” and “Way down upon.”
The river forms the northern boundary of the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park, a 700-acre camping and music center near the junction of I-75 and I-10 not far from the bustling metropolis of Live Oak, population 6,828.
4:45 p.m. — The Allmans’ long-time manager Burt Holman supplies John and me with coveted all-access backstage passes.
4:50 p.m. — The family begins to assemble.
Butch meets up with his brother, who’s come over from Jacksonville with his family. Derek is there with his wife, singer Susan Tedeschi, and their toddlers. Other faces pop up. Jaimoe, born Johnny Lee Johnson, one of the original band members, arrives with his sister.
5:20 p.m. — The music park is full of food and drink vendors and people selling everything else — beads and jewelry, pipes and mirrors, tie-dye and T-shirts. Frisbees float across the main stage ground, Hula Hoops gyrate.
6:22 p.m. — An Allman gathering can be as crowded as a New York subway, as several members have their own bands: The Gregg Allman Band, The Derek Trucks Band, guitarist Warren Haynes’ Gov’t Mule, bassist Oteil Burbridge leads Oteil and the Peacemakers, and, once in a while, Butch Trucks revives Frogwings. The members will gather briefly, but most of the time they stay with “real” family members on their own tour buses.
6:35 p.m. — “Just come on over here, Mama; we’ll just sit over here on the couch,” Gregg Allman says softly as he holds the hand of Mama A, Geraldine Allman, and stoops and shuffles with her across the room. The trailer is filling up.
6:41 p.m. — Outside, Tedeschi is heading for another bus with daughter Sophia on her back in a papoose pack with leg holes. “A gift from the Dead when I was singing with them,” she says.
6:59 p.m. — “There’s been a little change,” Butch tells John and me. “My family’s staying on the bus tonight, and you guys’ll stay in rooms reserved for the band in Lake City.”
9:04 p.m. — “Ladies and gentlemen, the Allman Brothers Band.”
They open with “Don’t Want You no More,” a Spencer Davis instrumental, then slam back with Gregg’s “It’s Not My Cross To Bear.”
Tedeschi joins in and 5,000 fans roar their approval. The set closes with two Betts numbers, “Jessica” and “No One To Run With.”
12:16 a.m. — John and I jump into a van for the ride to Lake City. We’re too tired to talk, too pumped to sleep.
10:15 a.m. — John and I ride with Gregg’s wife, Stacey, in her big SUV, which they drove over from their home in a gated community near Savannah. Stacey is credited with not just keeping Gregg alive but turning his life around from drugs and alcohol. He cleaned up his act and even hired a personal trainer. Stacey has to stop at Wal-Mart, so John and I stock up on trail mix, chocolate-covered raisins, peanuts, cashews and cookies for Butch’s grandkids.
11 a.m. — Back at the campground. The bus is crawling with kids, some belong to Butch’s daughter Melody. Grandpa Trucks spends much of the day bouncing toddlers on his knee.
Noon — Honeytribe opens Day 2 on the main stage. Its lead guitarist, Devon Allman, also has long blond hair and blue eyes and looks something like Gregg Allman, the father he didn’t really know until he was 16. Devon was lost in the hoopla of Gregg’s marriage to Cher.
Devon and Honeytribe are based in St. Louis. Their first CD is due Aug. 29. His family situation with 6-year-old son Orion Gregory and wife Susie is somewhat more stable than the life he knew growing up.
“We watch “SpongeBob SquarePants,” eat Gummi Bears and popcorn and just chill out together,” he says about spending time with his family. “It keeps me grounded in the midst of my gypsy rock-and-roll life.”
8:30 p.m. — Gov’t Mule is on stage, Warren Haynes ripping soaring chords. A North Carolinian, the ferocious-looking Haynes was the busiest man in rock ‘n’ roll as lead guitarist with Mule, the Allmans and the Grateful Dead until the Dead shut down.
10:20 p.m. — Time to close. Pearson sits in for Derek, and the set is eclectic and electric: Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightnin’.” Devon plays lead guitar and sings vocals on “Midnight Rider.” Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” and Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “The Sky Is Crying” follow. Pearson’s wife, Elizabeth, sat in for Oteil on “Statesboro Blues.” Gregg’s mentor from Daytona, Floyd Miles, sings back-up on “Born Under a Bad Sign.” Vaylor plays lead on the Allmans’ legendary instrumental “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.”
12:12 a.m. — Butch is exhausted, a blob of sweat. But he’s pumped. He also has to get home. After tender goodbyes to his kids and grandkids, he climbs back onto the bus.
12:40 a.m. — “Boys, I’m saying good night,” Trucks says and disappears into the stateroom. John and I talk briefly about the show, then sag into the berths, dozing off as Star Wars music oozes faintly through the back wall from Trucks’ bedroom.
5:50 a.m. — I go forward to keep the driver, Rick Stott, company, although, after hundreds of thousands of miles, he’s accustomed to the loneliness of the road.
He’s driven for a lot of musicians. Lil’ Kim is a sweetheart, he says, so are the Indigo Girls. But Rick once stopped a bus and threatened to throw Kid Rock off because of certain “substance” issues. Kid backed down. “I can’t risk losing an $800,000 bus because of some idiot,” Rick says.
6:45 a.m. — “Morning,” Butch says as he emerges from the back. “D’y’all get some sleep?”
He tried. But all that drumming, all that music, that beat, those licks, those riffs, the applause, the effort — “I couldn’t sleep. I tried, but no luck. Watched Star Wars, all three.”
7 a.m. — Palm Beach is empty. The faithful haven’t even begun to arrive for Easter Mass at St. Edward’s. Rick parks the big hauler, and we unload.
“Men, I hope you had a good time,” Butch says as he lets himself into his house.
Finally, the old midnight rider can get some rest.