As a founding member of the Allman Brothers Band, Gregg Allman's famous last name has long been revered among rock and country artists. But all along, undercurrents of the blues and R&B have run beneath his music.
With his new solo album, Low Country Blues, Allman applies his unmistakable growl to a batch of forgotten American gems. And with the help of producer T Bone Burnett, he rediscovered his prowess while recovering from a liver transplant resulting from a long battle with hepatitis C.
"When he told me that I couldn't bring my band, that was almost like an insult, you know? And I almost slammed the door on the whole project ... but I didn't," Allman says with a hint of thanks. "I just sat around the house and listened to them tunes and just thought about it for probably a week, 10 days. And I told him, 'You know I'm coming. You got me.'"
Allman's experiences in music could fill a library. Unfortunately, pain, loss and regret have accompanied him all along his way. For example, he contracted hepatitis C from a shady tattoo artist during the bleary-eyed height of San Francisco in the 1960s, lost his brother and musical counterpart Duane Allman to a 1971 motorcycle accident and struggled through several divorces, including one from Cher.
On Low Country, he pours that emotion out as a song stylist since almost all of the tracks are cover tunes. His voice as it stands today, whether in torment or triumph, is put on a pedestal and brought to the forefront for the first time in many years. Free of lengthy guitar solos and a large band, the album showcases an artist with a gift that is still powerful and expressive.
"This record didn't take long at all. It was so much great communication, and everybody was always on time. God, I don't think I've ever been on time for a studio session," Allman chuckles. "Not this one, man. I was there. And I don't think that we had a real booger."
Born in Nashville in 1947, Allman formed his first band in Daytona Beach, Fla., but counts Music City as a defining force in his early years. It was there that his mother sent him to military school -- two separate times -- for acting up, meeting girls and generally being a long-haired rebel.
Not that military school did much good. After starting out at the top of his class, Allman bought a guitar and taught himself and Duane how to play it. The rest, as they say, is history. Duane dropped out of school, obsessed by the instrument, and Gregg's once-stellar grades took a nose dive.
After two years of toughing it out, he returned for senior year but only made it a few weeks.
"I picked up a newspaper and it said 'Vietnam.' I would have gone into 'Nam as a first lieutenant," he scoffs. "I actually got on my full dress uniform with sash and saber and the whole thing, went to the commandant of the whole place and said, 'Sir, if you see me getting smaller, I'm leaving.' He didn't like that too much."
Deciding that military service was not for him, Allman returned to Florida and formed his first touring band, the Allman Joys, with Duane and some friends. His course was set for a career that would include at least 28 album releases -- along with countless concert bootlegs -- and ultimately change the way people thought of Southern music.
Surprisingly enough, though, Low Country Blues is Allman's first solo studio album in 14 years. It's also his best chart performance ever, debuting at No. 5 on the all-genre Billboard 200. But it took the talents and charisma of Burnett to light the fire again -- even though Allman had never even heard of the prolific producer or his work with Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Elvis Costello and, more recently, a collaboration involving Elton John and Leon Russell.
"He has the greatest tactics for recording, and he is so good to work with," Allman says of Burnett. "Such a fine man, too, and quite a gentleman. I'd never heard of him, never heard his name and never saw him until I shook his hand."
Asked how a stranger could convince him to get back in the studio, Allman replies flatly, "He didn't." The songs get credit for that, from tunes so old that no one knows who wrote them (such as "I Believe I'll Go Back Home") to hard blues (Bobby "Blue" Bland's "Blind Man" and Muddy Waters' "I Can't Be Satisfied"). Sprinkled among these are a few Americana-leaning folk songs, and all live in Burnett's signature swampy soundscapes. The producer may have never had an instrument like Allman's voice at his disposal, though, and he makes excellent use of it. By limiting instrumentation to natural sounds, Allman's voice carries warmly and prominently.
Once Allman made it to Burnett's Los Angeles studio, though, he not only found the songs to his liking, but the band as well. An old friend, pianist Dr. John, is joined by guitarist Doyle Bramhall II and two of Burnett's favorites -- bassist Dennis Crouch and drummer Jay Bellerose. Allman says the work proved to be invigorating from the start.
One tracking session in particular stands out to him as typical for the album. For "Blind Man," Allman's voice is as strong as the wail he delivers on his classic "Midnight Rider," if noticeably sung in a lower register.
"We had to do the intro a cappella," he says. "There was no count-off for that song. I remember it was getting late in the day, and [Burnett] said 'Well, why don't we get the intro down to this bad boy?' All the horns were there. The horn arranger and everybody was there. Hell, there was about eight or nine or 11 horn players. So we got going on the intro and, God, it sounded so good that when we finally passed over and felt like we got it, they stopped the tape and I said, 'No, man, just turn it back on and let's take it from where it kicks into the groove.' And we went ahead and finished it up ... it must have taken [only] four takes."
But not everything in his life has been so easy lately. Before the transplant, Allman said it could take up to 15 hours of sleep to recuperate from a two-hour show. When a donor was found and with Low Country Blues completed, he decided to push back the album's release and enter the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla. The surgery was a complete success but not without its trials.
"I thought I had pain in my life before," he says, wincing at the thought. "They don't tell you enough to where you get worried, [so] I never even thought about the pain until afterward."
Luckily his recovery is going smoothly, and Allman commends the doctors for doing an excellent job. He says he already feels better onstage than he has in years and even looks forward to getting back into the studio, as well.
Re-energized and inspired, Allman says there will "definitely be another record" featuring original songs.
"To tell you the truth, I can't wait," he says. "I was ready to keep going when we stopped the other record."