“I’ve got my hand over my heart,” Gregg Allman says of his extraordinary new album, “and if it’s a hit there, it’s a hit.” As a founding member of the one and only Allman Brothers Band and in his own storied solo career, Allman has long been a gifted natural interpreter of the blues, his soulful and distinctive voice one of the defining sounds in the history of American music. Low Country Blues marks the legendary Rock & Roll Hall of Famer’s seventh solo recording and first in more than 13 years. Produced by T Bone Burnett, the album finds Allman putting his own stamp on songs by some of the blues giants whose work has long informed his own, from Muddy Waters and BB King to Buddy Guy and Magic Sam. Named for the coastal Georgia region Allman calls home, Low Country Blues stands as a high water mark in an already remarkable body of work, rich with passion, verve, and the unerring confidence of a true survivor.
Though Allman has been a constant presence on the road over the past decade, with The Allman Brothers Band as well as with his own crack combo, he has spent precious little time in the studio since the 2002 death of producer Tom Dowd – the man behind the glass for much of his recorded career. So when his manager suggested he veer off from a 2009 tour for a Memphis meeting with the multiple Grammy Award-winning Burnett, Allman admits to being not entirely enthused. “I said, ‘Oh man, I don’t wanna start meeting a string of dudes, all of ‘em trying to outdo the other one,” he recalls. “But we stopped in Memphis and here comes T Bone. The first sentence out of his mouth was something like, ‘Tommy Dowd was The Man, wasn’t he? I’ve patterned a lot of my stuff after that gentleman.’ I thought, ‘Right, what’ve we got here?’” The two musicians quickly bonded, chatting about favorite records, mutual friends, and reminiscences of Nashville’s renowned clear channel station, WLAC, which introduced rhythm & blues music to a generation of late night listeners from New York to Miami.
“He told me some guy gave him a hard drive, it has 10,000 obscure blues songs,” Allman says. “He says, ‘I’m gonna pick out twenty of ‘em and send ‘em to ya and you tell me what you think.’ He said, ‘They’re old, like Billie Holliday old, and when you listen to ‘em, I want you to think about us gettin’ in there and about bringin’ ‘em up to today.’” Allman found the idea irresistible and in January 2010, a stunning combo was assembled at Los Angeles’ The Village Recorder, comprising Burnett and Doyle Bramhall II on guitars, backed by the brilliant rhythm section of upright bassist
Dennis Crouch and drummer Jay Bellerose. What’s more, the lineup included a brass section arranged and conducted by trumpeter Darrell Leonard, whose illustrious resume extends back to his work with Delaney & Bonnie & Friends (featuring Gregg’s late, great brother Duane). As if that weren’t enough, sitting in on piano was a dear old friend, the Night Tripper himself, Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack, with whom Allman co-wrote “Let This Be A Lesson To Ya’” on The Gregg Allman Band’s 1977 classic, Playin’ Up A Storm. “T Bone knew that that him being there would put a certain fire in my ass,” Allman says. “It was so good seeing Dr. John, both of us being sober. ‘Cause last time I saw him, both of us were pretty much nose to the floor. He’s such a nice dude, he’s funny, God, is he funny. Before he was so stoned, it didn’t really come out full force, but oh man, he is hilarious!”
This powerhouse band – which of course also features Gregg’s own acoustic guitar expertise and trademark Hammond B-3 organ – cooks up an earthy and atmospheric musical stew infused with gritty R&B muscle, spooky Southern psychedelia, and greasy deep soul grooves. “The band was just a bitch, man,” Allman says. “It’s not all just a wall of guitars – not that there’s anything at all wrong with The Brothers, because that’s very, very tasty.”
The tracking came fast and furious, kicking off with an ominous take on Sleepy John Estes’ ominous “Floating Bridge.” From there, the album covers the blues’ many emotional terrains, from exuberant showstoppers like Little Milton’s “Blind Man” and the album’s one original composition, the swaggering “Just Another Rider” (co-written with longtime ABB guitarist Warren Haynes), to Skip James’ haunted “Devil Got My Woman” and the weary but unbowed traditional, “Rolling Stone.” “If it works right, it all turns real magic,” Allman says. “And that’s what happened this time, more so I think than anything I’ve ever recorded. We got 15 masters in 11 days; let me tell ya, they just went Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop!”
When it came to vocals, Burnett was determined to push Allman out of his comfort zone, encouraging spontaneity and soul above all else. “First takes scare me to death,” he says, “they really do. On about three or maybe four of ‘em, Bone comes over the microphone, ‘Alright, we got it.’ I said, ‘Well wait, hold it, hold it! What do you mean got it? We just ran it down!’ ‘No, we got it.’ I went back in the control room, I said, ‘Man, I know I can get it better than that.’ He says, ‘What’s wrong with that?’ I said, ‘Well, nothin’s wrong with it, I just think I can do it with a little more interesting feel.’ So we went back out there, I tried, man, I tried as hard as I could. Nope.”
Indeed, Allman’s instantly identifiable voice remains a wonder, wringing nuance and history from every lyric. “I have an evolved throat,” he says. “I think I’m a little more meticulous now. I’m a real stickler for melody. I used to think more about beat than I did about melody, but now I think about both of ‘em. See, you’ve got to have beat, because first of all, you’ve got to feel something as well as hear it. Both of those entities have to be really personified in my book.”
Like any genuine bluesman, Allman’s own life has been colored by myriad triumphs and too many tragedies. Low Country Blues was initially slated for a mid-2010 release, but that plan changed when Gregg, who had long battled chronic Hepatitis C, was notified that he was a candidate for a liver transplant. In June 2010, he entered the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida where he successfully underwent the difficult surgery. Knowing that he had only just made one of the defining albums of his recorded career proved to be the best medicine, giving Allman the inner strength he needed to fully heal. “This record’s one of the things that’s held me together,” he says. “Because when I woke up in the hospital from this incredibly big surgery, I held on to the idea that, hey man, you’ve got a record in the can!”
An inveterate road warrior, Allman is understandably itching to return to the endless highway. He spent the months following the surgery hitting both the gym and the rehearsal studio, working hard to restore his vitality to its requisite level.
Moreover, Allman is justifiably proud of Low Country Blues and is eager to get out there to bring these songs to his countless fans. “When you have a new record it always feels different,” he says. “Man, you gotta get out there and move the muscles, you\ gotta move it and shake it.” “It’s been too long,” he adds. “I guess I was just born with a lot of gypsy in my soul.” Simply put, Low Country Blues is Gregg Allman at his very best, a self-assured, spirited collection that will stand as a major milestone in what is undeniably an exceptional career.