Gregg Allman started the year with a solo tour and will be in Los Angeles this weekend to accept the Grammy’s lifetime achievement award as a member of the legendary Allman Brothers Band. He could also pick up another Grammy trophy for his latest album, Low Country Blues. And he’ll be following things up next month with the Allman Brothers Band’s 10-night stand at New York’s Beacon Theatre.
Not bad for a guy whose future was uncertain, at best, less than two years ago while awaiting a liver transplant. Since undergoing the surgery in June 2010, Allman has resumed focusing on his career as a singer, songwriter and musician, but he’s also on a special mission to tell the world about the dangers of hepatitis C.
At Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium in early January, Allman was in fine form as he sang, played guitar and offered his signature keyboard riffs on a Hammond B-3 organ. With appearances at the Americana Music Association Awards and Honors in October and with the Zac Brown Band at the CMA Music Awards in November, he’s been spending a lot of time in Nashville, where he was born 63 years ago.
In watching him onstage, it’s impossible to overlook the tattoos on his arms. He says his doctors are convinced he contracted hepatitis C decades ago from a contaminated tattoo needle. In a phone interview with CMT.com, he recalled getting his first ink at age 20 during a visit to San Francisco.
“It’s a blood-to-blood disease,” he said. “There’s a stigma about it. People right away think, ‘It’s something sexual,’ and they get back in the closet. That’s the worst thing they can do.”
When he received his diagnosis in 1999, his doctor had discovered two spots on his liver.
“He asked me, ‘Have you been feeling real sluggish lately?’” he recalled. “I told him I had. I had real lethargy. I wasn’t my good old charging-from-the-gate self. … He said, ‘I wouldn’t advise you to do any drinking.’ And I said, ‘Funny you ask that. I got clean and sober in ’96.’”
Allman’s medical team continued to monitor his condition.
“As the years passed, after about ’08, they put me on interferon,” he said. “I was on it for six months. That was intense. … It makes you feel kind of washed out. It’s a shot and two pills. My wife — I was married then — would give me the shot on Monday, and by Saturday, I would start feeling a little bit human again. And I’d go to bed Sunday night, thinking, ‘Oh, god. I’m gonna wake up to this dripping needle. Here we go again.’”
Ultimately, the treatment was unsuccessful, and the spots on his liver eventually turned into tumors.
“They introduced me to the people at the Mayo Clinic,” he said. “I went there and had a chemoablation. That’s a thing where they go through your femoral artery and shoot your liver with chemo. After all of that, it was still there. They told me the tumors were getting bigger.”
That’s when he found out he’d been added to the list to receive a liver from a donor.
“That didn’t seem to bother me at all,” he said. “As a matter of fact, I was kind of rejoicing the rest of the day. … About five months later, I was sitting out by the pool. They called me and said, ‘Mr. Allman, your liver is ready.’”
Recalling his immediate reaction to the news, he said, “I was still rejoicing. I didn’t even think about surgery because I’d never had any surgery. I thought, ‘This is going to relieve me.’ I was smiling all the way to where they turned the little knob and I was off to dreamland. I woke up and — oh, god — it was quite painful for a while. But, hey, I went through it. I got over it, and I feel much, much better.”
Since the surgery, Allman has been working with Merck Pharmaceuticals and the American Liver Foundation on their website, tuneintohepc.com , to assist others who are — or think they could be — afflicted with the disease.
“There, we have a patient resource guide, and it has all the information,” he said. “It kind of holds your hand through the whole thing. You find out what you’re doing and what you’re going to do. I’m telling you, doing nothing is not an option. Talk to your doctor and get a blood test and see if you have the hep C virus. They give you this medicine at first to kill it, if you catch it early enough. Me, I didn’t, and mine turned into tumors on my liver — and they were cancer.”
This past August, Allman had a slight setback and canceled a series of concerts after surgery for a respiratory problem, but he bounced back in October with an appearance at the Americana Awards show.
“I was so nervous that night,” he said. “Let me tell you, I didn’t know if I was going to open my mouth and just air would come out.”
Responding to the suggestion that people were just happy to see him onstage, Allman laughed and said, “Well, a person like me can’t just get up there and stand there. I think they’d get tired of that pretty quick.”
He enjoyed working with the show’s house band and its leader, Buddy Miller.
“I went to sound check that afternoon,” he said. “They had all those different instruments. I said, ‘What all do we have in the band?’ They said, ‘You tell us. Pick what you want.’ These guys are sitting there. They have three horn players. They’ve got three singers. They’ve got a steel guitar, which I used, and upright bass. God, it was like a kid in a candy store.”
As for his appearance on the CMA Awards, Allman said he didn’t know Zac Brown until they made plans to collaborate on “Georgia on My Mind.”
“They just called me and asked if I’d do it,” he said. “I thought, ‘Yeah. Yeah, I damn sure will.’ … . I went to the CMA Awards back when I was in my mid to late 20s. I remember they had it in what was like an abandoned movie theater. Just a small, everyday movie theater like we went to when we were kids. And, god, I walked into that Bridgestone Arena and went, ‘Wait a minute! This has gotten totally out of hand! … I’m telling you, man, I couldn’t believe it when they turned on all those lights. That’s when you really got an idea of how big the place was.”
Following the performance, Sugarland‘s Jennifer Nettles noted she was impressed by Allman’s very presence at the show, explaining onstage, “Mr. Gregg Allman, that was me on the red carpet who reached out and shook your hand.” Others backstage said Allman appeared to be blushing after hearing the comment.
“I didn’t know her,” he laughed. “And that kind of throws me off. I’m a very shy gentleman.”
The Allman Brothers Band’s shows at the Beacon Theatre, taking place March 9-25, are an annual highlight for Allman and the rest of the band.
“It’ll be our 22nd year, I think,” he said. “That’s just like our second home. The Brothers formed — we all got in the same room together — on March 26, 1969. Sometimes we start [the Beacon shows] on that day or we start a few days before that, but we always have some real special something or other cooked up for that particular day.”
The band was founded in Jacksonville, Fla., with Allman and his late brother, guitarist Duane Allman, guitarist Dickey Betts, drummers Butch Trucks and Jai Johanny “Jaimoe” Johanson and the late bassist Berry Oakley.
Along with Glen Campbell, George Jones, Antonio Carlos Jobim, the Memphis Horns, Diana Ross and the late Gil Scott-Heron, the Allman Brothers Band are among this year’s recipients of the Recording Academy’s Grammy for lifetime achievement. The award will be presented Saturday (Feb. 11) during a private ceremony in Los Angeles.
The following night, Allman will find out if his latest solo project, Low Country Blues, wins the Grammy for best blues album. Ironically, guitarists Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks, two of his fellow musicians in the Allman Brothers Band’s current lineup, are also nominated in the category — Haynes for Man in Motion and Trucks for the Tedeschi-Trucks Band’s Revelator. Marcia Ball and Keb’ Mo’ are the other two nominees.
Regardless of the outcome, Allman is already planning his next solo album.
“There will definitely be another one,” he said. “I don’t know if it will be all blues this time.”
He paused and added, “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll cut a country record.”