ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, MARCH 31, 1989
By Steve Newton
Southern rock. The raw bite of the blues tempered by a free-wheelin’, down-home country feel. Gruff, unencumbered vocals and soaring, twin lead guitars. Songs about ramblin’ men, poison whiskey, and Saturday night specials. You have no choice: ya gotta like it.
Unfortunately, in the last days of the ’80s, real good Southern bands are a rare species. The onslaught of the video age has hindered bands that aren’t image-oriented. The early-to-mid 1970s heyday of Southern rock–when bands like the Allman Brothers, the Outlaws, and Lynyrd Skynyrd prospered–predated the era of MTV and its siblings. Some of the bands from the period are still slugging it out–like the Outlaws, who cruised through town recently, though hardly anyone noticed. Others have lost their lifeblood through personal tragedy: like Duane Allman’s motorcycle accident and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s airplane crash. Still other decent Southern rock bands from the late-70s have either faded from view (Molly Hatchet, Blackfoot) or betrayed their roots for airplay (.38 Special).
Times are definitely tough for fans of the genre, but thankfully there are still people like Dickey Betts carrying on the fine old tradition of his former band, the Allman Brothers. The ace guitarist brings his own band to the 86 Street Music Hall this Sunday (April 20) to work out on some old Allman classics and new tunes from his latest album, Pattern Disruptive.
At 45, Dickey Betts is a southern rock warhorse who’s been touring ever since he was a teen. The Florida-born axeman started off covering material by Duane Eddy, Chuck Berry, and the Ventures, before working his way back to the music of country bluesmen like Robert Johnson, Willie McTell, and Big Bill Broonzy.
In the late ’60s, Betts was a member of Second Coming, a band that also included Allman Brother-to-be Berry Oakley, keyboardist Reese Wynans (now with Stevie Ray Vaughan), and Larry Rheinhardt (later of Iron Butterfly and Captain Beyond). One fateful 1969 night in Jacksonville, Florida, the Second Coming jammed with another local group called the Hourglass, which included guitarist Duane Allman and drummer Butch Trucks. Out of that came the core of the Allman Brothers Band, with Duane’s brother Gregg joining as lead vocalist.
The Allmans released their self-titled debut album in 1969, following it up with Idlewild South the next year and two double albums, At Fillmore East and Eat a Peach in 1971 and ’72. Soon after, the band was devastated by the motorcycle death of Duane Allman, the legendary lead and slide player considered by many to be one of the best pickers ever. But the band held together to produce the most successful album of its career, 1973’s Brothers & Sisters, and it was on that record that Betts came to prominence, writing and singing the hit single “Ramblin’ Man”, and penning the classic instrumental “Jessica”. The band released six more records after that, but none captured its essence.
In between the Allman Brothers projects, Dickey Betts released a country-ish solo album, Highway Call, and two albums with a band called Great Southern. His new album, the first in seven years, is one of his heaviest records ever. Mixed in with the blues-based boogie is a sweeping instrumental track titled “Duane’s Tune”, a tribute to his late friend. On the line from a motel in Ventura Beach, California, Betts explained what he thought “brother” Duane might be doing if he were still around today.
“He’d probably be pulling his hair out at some of the music that’s around,” chuckled Betts. “But most likely he’d be producing albums–he was always very strong in the studio. And hopefully he’d be playing with me once in a while.”
Although Betts took over the slide guitar duties in the Allman Brothers after Duane’s demise, he now has second guitarist Warren Haynes handling the slide parts on the new album. A relative newcomer to the Dickey Betts Band, Haynes was serving a stewardship with country singer David Allen Coe when he attracted Betts’ attention. The same five guys who played on Betts’ new album are in his touring band: along with Betts and Haynes, the band includes keyboardist/harpist Johnny Neel, bassist Marty Privette, and drummer Matt Abts–all veteran sessionmen.
Pattern Disruptive was recorded during May and June of last year at Butch Trucks’ Pegasus Studio in Tallahassee, Florida, and the old Allman Brothers drummer (who used to share percussion duties with Jai Johanny Johanson) got in a few licks on the sessions. Says Betts: “It would have looked kind of funny if we stayed there for two months and didn’t even let him play.”
Betts and Trucks also got together recently with Johanson and Gregg Allman to discuss the possibilities of an Allman Brothers reunion, though Betts claims that nothing definite has been decided. “I think it could be a good idea,” he says. “And it wouldn’t look like a desperate move, because both Gregg and I have pretty good solo albums out now.”
Whether the reunion happens or not, Allman Brothers fans will be happy to know that a six-album anthology of the band–containing an hour’s worth of previously unreleased material–is in the works. No doubt several of the tunes contained on that album will be performed by the Betts band on Sunday. Betts says that the current set list often includes his own Allman Brothers tunes such as “Blue Sky”, “Jessica”, and “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed”, as well as such old blues rave-ups as “One Way Out” and “Statesboro Blues”.
And maybe, if you scream real loud for it, he’ll do “Ramblin’ Man” too.