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Devon Allman Talks the Allman Betts Band Coming of Age on 'Bless Your Heart'

Monday, 07 September 2020 Written by Simon Ramsay

Parents can be a tricky presence in our lives. To most of that simply means suffering countless embarrassments at their decidedly uncool hands during our teenage years.  But when said folks happen to be legendary musicians who formed one of history’s most influential bands, that’s a whole different ball game. Especially if you’re looking to follow in their sizable footsteps.

One duo that has bested such a challenge are Devon Allman and Duane Betts. The sons of Messrs Gregg and Dickey, both founding members of the Allman Brothers Band, were always going to face a level of scrutiny most young musicians don’t encounter. Now in their 40s, and having forged impressive careers for themselves along the way, they’ve not only handled such pressure with dignity and grace, but also proven themselves to be very gifted artists in their own right.  

Friends since they were teenagers, the pair finally decided to pool their resources after touring together in 2017 to celebrate the late Gregg Allman’s 70th birthday.  Step forward the Allman Betts Band, a powerhouse seven piece ensemble (which includes bass player Berry Oakley Jr, son of former Allman Brothers bassist Berry Oakley) who not only honour their families’ musical legacy, but who have also planted an idiosyncratic flag of their own in a land Devon refers to as ‘The United States Of Americana.’   

If 2019’s ‘Down To The River’ was a promising debut from the fledgling group, the septet’s stunningly realised ‘Bless Your Heart’ is the sound of a band who’ve fled the nest and are standing tall on their own two feet. Referencing everyone from Pink Floyd and the Band to Johnny Cash and Santana, it’s a sprawling, soulful giant of a record where tasty rock ‘n’ roll boogie and bucolic southern rock rub shoulders with confessional country and windswept balladry. We caught up with Allman to get the low down on how he and Duane have negotiated their lineage and why he’s finally stopped couch surfing.

From Honeytribe and Royal Southern Brotherhood to your recent solo records and this band, you’ve moved around a lot during your career. Is the Allman Betts Band your priority now?

This is the best way to put it: for the last 20 years of my career I’ve been couch surfing and with this band I’ve finally bought a house. And I like this house, I’m really proud of this house, I feel at home in this house. If we get a few albums in and want to take a year long break, go make a solo record, do some movie work or anything, whatever the need might be, I have a pretty strong inclination that everybody will get back together again. So I think we can have a home for as long as we want it.     

It’s only been a year since you released your debut, yet on ‘Bless Your Heart’ you’ve made a huge leap forward in every department. What do you attribute such rapid growth to?

When we did the first record we hadn’t really been a band yet. We’d done a little jamming but had never gone out on tour or logged any serious hours. That record was the birth of the band. Going into the second, we’ve got a couple of hundred shows under our belt. We’ve developed a lot of chemistry, a lot of trust, knowing where to lean into the songs and where to lean back.  It’s a testament to the time we spent over the last two years diving in together. The first record was more of a postcard. This is more of a long form letter. It’s a band stretching out and finding its confidence and identity.

The sequencing of the album feels very deliberate. Why did you start with Pale Horse Rider and finish with Congratulations?

Duane and I did labour a bit over the flow. When we finished Pale Horse Rider I thought it would be a different way to let people know right out of the gate there’s been growth. It starts off as a lonesome cowboy song and then, for it to erupt into this Neil Young-Crazy Horse thing, felt right. Carolina Song is a song that just falls in the pocket, like a number two spot. Key Crawler, we initially had at the back of the record, and I moved it because I wanted to keep things ‘up’ at the beginning.  

The fourth song is always the one that should be captivating, because if you don’t have them yet then by the fourth you’d better. I thought Duane’s Ashes of My Lovers was so gorgeous it made sense to put it there. It’s like anything—when you find that first thing it opens a doorway and you have a feeling for what needs to fall in line after it. We also knew a few songs did belong at the back. We wanted people to have to dig for things like Much Obliged, Should We Ever Part and Congratulations.  

Savannah’s Dream is a cracking cut that brings a flavour of your extended live workouts to the album. What’s the key to crafting a strong, memorable instrumental that holds the attention?

Man, I’m a big fan of instrumentals. I’ve had one on almost every record so when Duane brought in Savannah’s Dream I was so happy. It’s a brilliantly crafted composition. The band brought it to life beautifully. What does it take? A very strong melodic message—the guitar is the vocal so it better be memorable, it better be captivating, it better be enchanting. Then, if you have that memorable thing, it better unfold and go somewhere specific. All of those criteria were met and it’s a gorgeous piece that hearkens back to our heroes: the Brothers, Santana, on and on. As I get older I’m a bigger and bigger fan of jazz too, particularly the sweet spot of ‘55 to ‘65, and there’s some of that in there.

You’ve described this as being a singer-songwriter record at heart and Southern Rain epitomises that. Was it challenging to write what sounds like a very personal lyric?

It was time. My personal fans and fans of the band know what I went through a few years ago. I lost my mom and dad within a few months of each other and it’s life changing, man. You’re early 40s and you lose your parents. You think you’re gonna be in your 60s when you lose your parents. I don’t know if it was a challenge. I think it needed to be written but, at the end of the day, it might have been a challenge to put it in the collection of songs and be OK with the vulnerability and telling that tale.  But fans of the band and my fans, I felt it was time for them to hear a little bit of it.  

What can you say about Johnny Stachela, because any band with the name Allman in it surely has to have a kickass slide player?

I haven’t had a slide player in my 20 year career, to be honest. But I don’t care if you’re the sons of the Allman Brothers, or just from Mississippi and wanting to play blues or blues-based rock, there’s a certain element of slide guitar that marries well with southern music. It’s a backbone of it, an extension of it. We didn’t have to have him, we wanted him because the style of music. Man, it fits like a glove.  

Beyond that, the fact he is playing with a few offspring of the Allman Brothers and playing slide, that alone says he has 10 times bigger balls than you or me. Johnny is just a consummate professional musician. He’s constantly looking for ways to expand his reach, to take that next step. He’s a hell of a player. I’ve been friends with him for a long long time, and Duane has too, and it’s great to see attention come his way. He deserves it.

You didn’t meet your father until your mid-late teens because of the issues he had with addiction. Did that shape your attitude to the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, because you must have been much more aware of the potential pitfalls than many who suddenly get thrust into that world?

Yeah, it can be rough because of so many themes that go along with that lifestyle.  You’re away from home, isolated, in a hotel room, constantly moving. You don’t sleep in your own bed. Relationships are very hard to keep together. The list is endless of the casualties that come from touring. The one thing it definitely did was to scare the hell out of me for hard drugs. I’ve never tried cocaine, heroin, all these things because I’ve always been scared to death.

You’ve spoken about the next generation of musicians keeping their families’ musical legacies alive. You believe people deserve to hear their classic songs from the bloodlines of the original musicians rather than tribute bands. Why do you believe they offer something authentic that others can’t?

We’re tied to the music, man. We grew up on it. We were kids on the side of the stage listening to them make that music. It’s a very personal thing to our family. Why do you think somebody that’s not related to them should play it?

I actually agree with you. Listening to, say, the Eagles with Glenn Frey’s son, it somehow works and does sound more authentic.

It’s crazy, man. I went and saw the Cure last summer and Simon Gallup, their bass player, couldn’t make the gig and had his son play. The kid looked just like him, played just like him. It was like, ‘I don’t miss Simon Gallup as much because this kid is reminding me of 30 years ago.’ There’s something there, maybe being reminded?  

We look like our fathers too, but the thing the new album signals is ‘OK, so the ‘kids’ have got together and formed a band. They could probably do a good version of Midnight Rider or Blue Sky etc etc, but what do they bring to the table?’ And ‘Bless Your Heart,’ I don’t know if you’re aware of the meaning of bless your heart in the south, but it’s not a sincere term.

It’s like ‘Oh bless your heart, you’re really stupid.’  We don’t mean it in a negative way, but it’s like ‘Oh, bless your heart for thinking we’re just ‘the kids’. Bless your heart for thinking we don’t have anything to add to the whole pot of rock ‘n’ roll.’ We feel we do and don’t feel obligated because of who our dads are. We feel we have our place in rock ‘n’ roll because of the work we do and the sincerity we bring.  

We didn’t get handed anything. A lot of people don’t know this, I toured in a van from 2004 to 2017 and racked up 2.5 million miles. Nobody rode those miles for me.  I did it myself. This is my 10th record and I can look back and see a little more progress, a little more confidence, a little more stretching out. So the album, to me, is a very important mile marker in our careers saying: ‘Here we are, and we belong.’

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