The Allman Betts Band released their debut album, Down to the River, late last month on June 28th. The studio project was produced by Matt Ross-Spang (Margo Price, John Prine, Elvis Presley), and features contributions from each member in Devon Allman (son of Gregg Allman), Duane Betts (son of Dickey Betts), and Berry Oakley Jr. (son of Berry Oakley), along with keyboardist/organist Peter Levin, slide guitarist Johnny Stachela, and percussionists R. Scott Bryan and John Lum.
The album–and relatively new band–acts as the continuation of America’s southern rock tradition as a new generation of musicians and fans now take over the space left by The Allman Brothers Band with the recent passings of Gregg Allman and Butch Trucks in 2017.
As the band continues its ongoing world tour well into the summer months, Live For Live Music contributor Brennan Carley spoke to Devon Allman and Chuck Leavell (former member of the Allman Brothers Band and currently touring with The Rolling Stones) who performed on the album, about their recent studio debut, the tour, the band’s future plans, and more.
L4LM: When we last spoke you had just gotten the band together and were headed to Muscle Shoals. How does it feel now that the album is finally out?
Devon Allman: I remember rehearsals in February, and [thought], “Okay, check out this band in October, that’s when it’ll really start to be sick,” but it’s already there, [and] there’s a synergy going on. Everyone plays with a lot of care and respect to the composition–It’s multiple layers of guys gelling. Rhythm section gelling with guitars, three guitar players and two drummers, there’s a lot going on. But when you’re just playing, it’s not so crazy. It’s absolutely a band, [and] it started feeling that way a couple of months into the tour. I’m really pleased. There’s an overwhelming response to the record. It’s number one on iTunes, number six on Amazon. The fans are loving it and spreading the word, so we’ll just stay out here and play it live.
L4LM: Let’s talk about the songs on the new album.
DA: Before we sat down to write, before we even pulled out guitars, we spent three days just talking. When a director and a screenwriter sit down, and they’ve gotten their budget to make their movie, they’re going to have a lot of talks before the cameras start rolling. It was the same with this. What kind of record do we want to make, what do we want to say, what do we want the songs to evoke? We chose a few albums that we respect and love as a template. We weren’t trying to copy their styles, just trying to be in the same neighborhood sonically and vibe-wise. Derek and the Dominos‘ Layla, Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, the second Black Crowes record (The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion), and anything by The Band. Acoustic guitars, [Fender] Telecasters, [Gibson] Les Pauls, not a whole bunch of gain on the guitars. [The album is] Not a hard rock record, but it’s not a country record. Kaleidoscopic, little bits of all that.
The first [song] we wrote was “Long Gone”, it has got a jammy jazzy thing on the back end–it’s got some country, rock, and ballad. It’s all of what we do rolled into one song. Once we had that and “Melodies are Memories”, the record started to have an identity and anything we wrote needed to live and breathe with those.
Allman Betts Band – “Melodies are Memories”
[Video: WFUV Public Radio]
L4LM: Let’s talk about the other songs on the new record.
DA: We envisioned “All Night” to be a 1970s [Rolling] Stones kind of riff, Black Crowes kind of thing. We didn’t want the lyrics to be to too thinky, we wanted them to be fun! It’s a male lovers plea to get to know the female. It’s playful and fun, and it harkens back to a 70s-era Keith Richards vibe. We open almost every show with that one.
[With] “Shinin’”, Duane and Stoll [Vaughan, who co-wrote “Down to the River”] did that on their own. I love the lick. It’s a little reminiscent of my family but the song itself is a blend of a lot of flavors, with different things we grew up on. Duane came into his own singing on that song. In the studio, we were pushing him to believe in his voice. It sounds great. It’s a fun song to play live. We just shot the music video for that, it’ll be out next week. We’ve been opening with “All Night” and “Shinin’” back to back like the record, so for the people who fell in love with the record, it’s a cool move. My musical heroes used to do that. Their latest record they just go one-two off the record, so you’re seeing that come to life. I think that’s a cool maneuver, busting right into that lick after the first song.
“Try” was the final of the nine songs we recorded, we’ll perform it live on the European tour. We were in Muscle Shoals and I got a text from Cisco [Adler] and he says, “Hey man, there might be something you could use.” He’s an old buddy, we go pretty far back, Malibu crew, he grew up with Elijah Blue, my brother. I played it for Duane and said, “We need a tune like this.” We landed the guitars quick, I did a little surgery, and the producer had a hand. I wrote a new verse where I name-checked Muscle Shoals.
“Down to the River” was an idea I had during the summer of writing that never got finished. We went to the studio with a dozen or 14 tracks, and that was never one of them, but we were on a lunch break and I was sitting there with a guitar playing and I stopped and went, “Duane, we need to put this on the record. There’s nothing like this on the record and we can finish it right now if we buckle down.” We wrote the bridge on the spot–”Sometimes you need to get away, break away.” That made the song. It had the slinkiness and the lyric. What makes Muscle Shoals magical is the river, it goes back to American Indian times. So bam! The lyric, the location, down to the river, it was the most obvious thing. My intention for the song was an eco-social message of “hey man, when shit gets crazy in your life, just be one with nature.” It could be the river, it could be the ocean, it could be the mountains, but just get lost and clear your mind and center and refocus when you get overwhelmed. That was important.
“Autumn Breeze” [was written by] Chris Williams [who] was the son of Jerry Lynn Williams. Chris played in a band with Duane [named] Backbone69. Chris was a really big Allman Brothers fan, that’s why “Autumn Breeze” feels Allman Brothers-y. It’s ironic that I didn’t have any writing on it and Duane didn’t have any writing on it. It’s a really special moment in the show and in the record. The guitar harmony is a really sweet captivating piece. Chris Williams passed away years ago, but Duane used to play that with him. I thought Duane put it on his EP and he hadn’t. I was like, “Man, would anybody be against us doing this, like his surviving family?” But they were really jazzed that it made it onto a record. I’m stoked that it got some life breathed into it. It’s become a fan favorite.
“Good Old Days” is the only one I wrote by myself. I was sitting in the back of the bus with Stoll and I was just strumming a G-chord and thinking about how lucky we were to have each other. I had lost my parents but I was starting to get over that loss and dive back into what was sweet about our lives, and being around Duane again, and fans getting excited about us working together. It just hit me–So many people think that the good old days were our early 20s, and here we are in our 40s. If we’re blessed enough to make it to 83 or 85 or 90, we’re going to look back on this as the good old days. We have to remember that so we don’t just skim past them. It’s a poignant song for me and I’m glad it made the record.
L4LM: Chuck, you contributed piano accents on “Good Old Days”, how did that come about?
Chuck Leavell: I’ve had a couple of gigs in the last two or three years where the boys were also involved, and we arranged some sit-ins between us on those shows. That included Peach Fest, the Marcus King Family Fest, and a tribute to Charlie Daniels. That led to Devon ringing me up to ask if I would play on “Good Old Days”. They already had the arrangement worked out on the basic tracks, so it was just a matter of adding in some flavor, which I was happy to do. I had to do it remotely, due to our respective schedules, but I’m very glad it worked out. It was overdubbed at Paul Hornsby’s studio, Muscadine Studios, in Macon, GA. If I had had time to go to Muscle Shoals where they were doing tracks, there would likely have been more, but given the situation, I’m just glad I got to contribute on that one. I’m sure there will be more up the road–I certainly hope so!
DA: [With] “Melodies Are Memories”, we got a Derek and the Dominos vibe. I pushed for Duane to sing it, he just sounded natural singing it, and I got to harmonize with the choruses and stuff.
“Southern Accents”–I grew up in South Texas. When I moved to Cleveland, OH, and the brutality that is elementary school, I got made fun of so horribly that I used to practice in the mirror to lose my Southern accent. As soon as I’m in Nashville or the south, it just naturally comes back! When I’m in Chicago or New York or in the in the north, it takes a backseat. It’s subconscious, I think it’s leftover from feeling insecure as a kid that I was made fun, it’s not a cerebral thing, but if I have a couple of beers in New York, it comes back! I lost my parents [and] we lost Tom Petty, who was a huge hero of the whole band, and we did the record in the south. There’s a verse, “There’s a dream I keep having, where my mama comes to me.” That was very poignant to me after losing my mother. We just debuted “Southern Accents” a couple nights ago and it gets an insane response.
L4LM: You’ve got three singers and three guitar players in the band, how do you balance that out?
DA: It’s never been anything planned, we didn’t have to. There wasn’t any, “Hey I wanted to play the lead on that” or “Hey I wanted to sing that.” There was no friction. Everybody’s pushing for everybody and at the end of the day [we’re all] pushing for what’s best for the song. Like on “Long Gone”, how cool would it be [if we] each take a verse and then sing the chorus together? Things like that happen organically, I took the lead solo on “Down to the River”. There’s so much Les Paul guitar solo on the record, it’s nice to have a Strat solo. Little things like that would reveal themselves. Stoll or Duane would say, “Man we got this riff, you got to sing because we can hear your voice on it.” It was what’s best for the song.
L4LM: How have the songs evolved since you’ve been touring?
DA: We have so many songs that are jam songs. When we play one of my instrumentals, whether it’s “Mahalo” or “Midnight Lake Michigan”, these are 10-minute instrumentals that can go off and take a little journey. That said, we’re pretty true blue to the new tunes. It’s a pretty faithful representation of the record.
L4LM: As you’ve added more of the band’s original material into the setlists, are you stepping back from some of the covers?
DA: We always want to pay homage to our heroes: Tom Petty, the Allman Brothers, Prince, the Dead. One night we’re doing “Purple Rain”, “Jessica”, and “Southern Accents”, and the next night we’re doing “Dreams” and “Friend of the Devil”. We found the comfort zone to be about three songs from our dads’ out of twenty. [Anything] More than that starts to feel campy, but if we play none that would be would be really weird. We’ve got a whole record of our own to play, other heroes to tip the hat to, jamming to do, so there’s plenty to pull from. We’re playing way more original music now that we have the record out of course.
L4LM: How is the songwriting going now that you’re touring?
DA: Two weeks ago, we had Stoll Vaughan come back out and we spent seven days [writing]. We already wrote 10 tunes that we’re really excited about, this time we want to get about 30 and pick the best dozen. We have Muscle Shoals booked, and we have Matt [Ross-Spang] booked. We want this record to be a sequel, lyrically and sonically. We’re going to record it live again, this time we’ll have John Ginty. John was the only one who didn’t record with us. We’re excited about having our full band to make this record. We’re going to go in December, and we hope to put it out in June next year, in time for summer touring.
Head to the band’s website for more information on upcoming tour dates.