Produced by T Bone Burnett, “Low Country Blues” features songs written by blues greats like Muddy Waters, Bobby Bland and B.B. King. But the album also has a historic Americana feel with Allman digging into numbers by such folks as Otis Rush, Sam Milburn and Sleepy John Estes.
Allman recently talked with Pollstar about the album, detailing how “Low Country Blues” came about and describing what it was like to collaborate with Burnett. Allman also noted what it was like to work with someone behind the control board other than his long-time producer Tom Dowd, who passed away in 2002.
And Allman talked about hearing what very well may be the first-ever recording of him singing. Judging from his description, we won’t be hearing that particular effort anytime soon.
What was it like to work with T Bone Burnett?
He was quite a bit like Tommy Dowd. In fact, when we first met we talked quite a bit about Tommy.
I wasn’t all that gung-ho about breaking in a new producer. Tommy, we cut just about everything with him – [Allman] Brothers stuff, solo stuff. I had a real, genuine friend. I tell you, I miss him so bad.
But Mr. T Bone is really a pleasure to work with. His techniques were dynamite, his band was out of sight. And that was hard, cause he told me, “Don’t bring your band.” That almost put a capper on it.
Compared to Dowd, did Burnett come across more as a musician or a producer?
Well, Dowd was a musician, too. But he didn’t come into the studio as much as T Bone did. T Bone played on a lot of the tracks – six-string bass and electric guitar on certain tracks. Anytime you hear what sounds like an electric bass, but it’s E-Qed real high so it doesn’t give you overtones of bass.
It’s also the first time I worked with a stand-up bass. There’s something about having an acoustic bass in a band instead of an electric. It does something for the voice. It lets your voice have more space, more frequencies, I guess. A lot of people tell me, “Man, we can hear your vocals so much more in depth. We didn’t know you sounded like that.”
When you were recording these songs by blues masters, did you ever find yourself thinking about the songwriters? Were you trying to grasp a little of what made, Muddy Waters or Sleepy John Estes so special?
Sort of. The way we came about these songs is T Bone gave me a hard drive that had thousands of blues songs – old ones, obscure ones – that back in the day would have been album cuts but they didn’t have long-playing records back then. Just kind of obscure songs that support the main ones.
He sent them, telling me to “arrange these up to 2010, put your own stuff in it and make them yours as much as you can.”
He sent me 25 of these songs and told me to pick out 15 of them, sit on them for a couple of months and arrange them my way. We cut like 12, and then the one I came up with in the studio.
The Allman Brothers Band has the March New York City shows at the Beacon Theatre, and you have a couple of dates, including the
My band’s going out extensively this year. We’re going to Europe in July.
When you’re writing songs, how do you decide which are Allman Brothers songs and which are for the solo albums?
They [the songs] kind of assign themselves as to where they’re going. It’s either obvious or you feel it while you’re writing or immediately thereafter. It’s not a big problem or anything like that. Most of them will fit both.
With so many family members in music, from Duane to your own children, do you think music runs in your family? Is music ‘in the blood,’ so to speak?
I don’t know. Passion might run in the blood. I was talking about this with someone the other day. I collect knives. I have a big knife case that has these drawers on the bottom. In one of those drawers is a disc made from a reel-to-reel tape that this kind-of geeky dude I knew in high school gave to me. He used to follow us around and tape us.
When the big change came, from me playing lead and my brother playing rhythm and singing, to when he quit school and started playing that guitar from dawn to dusk, I knew I had to start singing. And I was going to be in a band. I started the damn band and I wasn’t going to get thrown out of my first band.
Anyhow, I’ve got this disc from either the third or fourth night I ever sang. Let me tell you something, it’s going to take a lot of money for me to get the son-of-a-bitch out of that drawer. It’s atrocious. Sounds like James Brown with no lips. Like some Tennessee yokel trying to sing like Marvin Gaye.
You’re a long-time R&B fan. Who are some of your favorites?
I was subjected to it before the blues. It was easier to find back then. Like Otis Redding, Ray Charles, Marvin, James Brown, of course. I always loved Johnny “Guitar” Watson. I got a hold of this film of him and it’s real good. He was like Hendrix.
Are there ever moments when, alone and not working or writing new songs, you can still play just for the joy of making music?
Oh, yeah. I have a grand piano in the front room. I tinker around with new stuff a lot. That’s usually what it goes to. I might start off playing for my own enjoyment, but it will dive right back down into taking care of business. It’s an adventure.
Has file-sharing and reduced record sales overall affected either your solo career or The Allman Brothers Band?
The Brothers – Our thing isn’t really records. Back in the early days we thought we had to cut a record every year. Fillmore East, Eat A Peach, Brothers And Sisters – most of those were about a year a part. Then we had a little more time in between each one. Then we realized we weren’t on any kind of a damn schedule. That’s the way we kind of made it out to be.
Speaking of Fillmore East, do you have any Bill Graham stories?
Oh, God, there must be hundreds. That’s another book entirely.
Gregg Allman’s upcoming solo dates include April 23 with the Steve Miller Band in Toledo at The Huntington Center; May 6 at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and June 2 in Englewood, N.J., at the Bergen Performing Arts Center. The Allman Brothers Band take over New York City’s Beacon Theatre March 10-12, 14-15, 17-19, 21-22 and 24-26. For more information, visit GreggAllman.com.