How the Allman Brothers Survived Tragedy To Release Their Best Album
Author/musician Alan Paul probably knows more about the Allman Brothers Band than just about anyone else on the planet.
His 2014 book One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band is regarded as the definitive history of the band and was a New York Times bestseller.
Alan’s new book Brothers and Sisters: The Allman Brothers Band and the Inside Story of the Album That Defined the ’70s was an instant New York Times bestseller, and takes a look deep into the making of the album, detailing how they overcame dual tragedies and released their best album.
Alan and Jim Monaghan talked about the Allman Brothers Band, their mutual experiences with the group’s music, and a special show happening on Friday October 20 in Rutherford.
JIM MONAGHAN – When it comes to the Allman Brothers Band, I don’t think anybody in the group or out of it knows as much about the Allman Brothers as my guest, Alan Paul, who’s written the definitive One Way Out Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band. It is my go-to source when I need to know something. Alan, good morning and welcome to WDHA.
ALAN PAUL – Good morning. Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.
JM – And there’s the new book, Brothers and Sisters, the Allman Brothers Band and the Inside Story of the Album That Defined the ’70s. Alan, it’s an album that I was stunned even got made.
AP – And that’s part of what made it such an intriguing era to dig into, which is they were making this album in the aftermath of Duane Allman‘s death. They muddled through a year. Muddled is probably not a good word. They powered through a year without their leader, somehow made it through. And as they finally got it together and began recording this album, Berry Oakley died, the bass player who was really the second in command. So most of this album was made in the shadow of these two deaths. And so that’s part of what made it so intriguing. How did they do that? And then how did it become by far their most commercially successful record and the record that changed everything for them.
JM – I think back to when Duane passed and Eat A Peach comes out, and I don’t think it’s an accident that “Little Martha” closes that album out. And just in its pristine beauty just two acoustic guitars or a resonator guitar on one and you can hear them breathe. You can hear Duane and Dickie (Betts) breathe if you put headphones on and listen to it. And it just seemed such a fitting way to close out that album. And I think at one point you talk about an “undercurrent of sadness.” And I don’t think anyone would have been surprised had that been the swan song for the band. “This is it. We’ve given you everything we can. It’s time to move on.” And whether that was solo careers or what, I was very surprised when I heard and pleased, I should say, when I heard that they were going back into the studio and came out with the Brothers and Sisters album.
AP – Right. Well, just to back up a little bit, I would point to one other song on Eat A Peach that if anyone was really paying attention, which I don’t think they were at the time, pointed towards the direction they would take, which is “Ain’t Wasting Time No More” because “Little Martha” was one of the last songs Duane recorded. I don’t think it was the very last one. It’s the only one that he wrote or had a songwriting credit on anyhow. But the album wasn’t finished when Duane died and they went back into the studio pretty quickly, just over a month, I believe, after Duane’s passing, and they recorded three songs to finish it. That was “Melissa,” “Ain’t Wasting Time No More,” and “Les Brers in A Minor.” “Melissa,” the song Gregg (Allman) had had for years but never recorded with the Allman Brothers because it didn’t seem quite appropriate. But Duane had always encouraged him to. And so Gregg decided to do that. He played it at his funeral. So the first time, really, that he played it publicly, and then he recorded it sort of in honor of Duane and “Ain’t Wasting Time No More,” he wrote for his brother. And it’s a very moving song. It’s the song that has helped a lot of people, including me, through hard times, and I know many people listening probably have had that experience, and that’s how Gregg wrote it. And also, not coincidentally, the first song that Dickie played slide on. Nobody had ever heard Dickie play slide. Gregg raved about Dickie’s ability to rise up in some of these great old interviews I was able to use for the Brothers and Sisters book. And he said in that interview he “learned how to play slide in two weeks. I couldn’t believe it.” That’s an exaggeration. Dickie did know how to play slide. He was a great acoustic slide player, but he didn’t play electric slide. He had definitely never played it with the Allman Brothers because, of course, that was Duane’s territory. So I feel like “Ain’t Wasting Time No More” is the song that showed, “Yes, we can continue, and we will continue. I will write great songs,” Gregg saying and Dickie saying, “And I can and will play slide guitar and continue that legacy.” So it’s an incredibly moving song and to me, and I never thought of it this way, I realized it until I wrote the book. But it strikes me now that it’s, in a way, the first song of the Brothers and Sisters era.
JM – And listening to Brothers and Sisters when it first came out, and we talk about what had happened prior to it, you lose two band members and then everything that’s going on in the country at that point. We’re still in Vietnam, college campuses are still a hotbed of protest and what have you. We’re not that far removed from the assassinations of both Kennedys and Martin Luther King. But the optimism that came out of that record always surprised me, Alan.
AP – Yeah. And I think, again, it’s part of what, if you back up one step, it’s like, okay, how did they survive these deaths? Well, they survived by playing music. That’s what they did. They got together and they survived. They wouldn’t have survived if they had been out on their own. Gregg clearly could have been a great solo artist. He was at the same time they were recording that he recorded Laid Back. But without the security and the success and the brotherhood of the Allman Brothers Band, I don’t think he would have been able to stand on his own at that point. He was an emotional mess. They all were. It’s not like any of these guys went into therapy and talked it out about their grief. I mean, they put it all into their music. And part of that was some deep blues, but part of that was optimism. I mean, how do you make yourself optimistic? You record optimistic music. It is amazing. And they did fit into the zeitgeist of the era in a way that they couldn’t have really possibly understood. I mean, it sort of struck me when I was writing this, that Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons came out around the same time and became really popular. And I feel like there was a little bit of a quest in America subconsciously. None of these things are ever thought out or planned. It just happens. People wanted to go back to a simpler time. It was a little bit of a longing. And Brothers and Sisters, in a weird way, tapped into that with the album title, with the picture of the kids on the cover. They didn’t even have a picture of the band on Brothers and Sisters, which is kind of wild. I mean, the inside spread is the whole extended family with the band members just sprinkled in there around wives and kids and the roadies and the roadies’ wives and everyone else. So that was all sort of a statement of communal living. And it was real. It was, at least in part, real. And that’s how they survived and that’s how they remained optimistic and kept moving forward.
JM – I think some of that survival kind of goes back to a lyric from the Rolling Stones to borrow that, “what can a poor boy do except sing for a rock and roll band.”
AP – Yeah, exactly. I think that’s right.
JM -There are a handful of albums when I think of the 70’s that I think defined that decade. Hotel California, Sticky Fingers, Exile On Main Street by the Stones, the two Fleetwood Mac albums, Frampton Comes Alive, and then this one from the Allman Brothers Band. And kind of interesting to note that it’s just the Eagles and the Allman Brothers, the two American artists that at least in my mind, I know there were other albums, but those are the two that pop into my head when I think of the decade of the 70s.
AP – Yeah, I’ve gotten great reviews for the book, thank God. But one thing that a lot of people have picked on is me calling it that. And you can only use so many words in a subtitle because I think you raise a good point. If I said “defined America in the 70’s” or the American 70’s, I think it would be less controversial or called it AN album that defined the 70’s instead of THE album. And I think that’s fair game to some extent. But I did feel that way. And I do feel that way because of everything I just mentioned, of how it was summing up this back to basics feeling. People had this sort of weird mix of optimism and pessimism, and just most directly, it led to Jimmy Carter being elected president. And in my mind, Jimmy Carter in many ways, defined America of the second half of the 70s. He is a somewhat controversial figure politically, but whether you believe that he defined it in a positive or a negative way, I do think that he defined it as much as the yellow smiley face avatar that we all know. I just think Jimmy Carter was such a huge character of the 70’s in America, and 100%, he would not have been president without the Allman Brothers Band. And Brothers and Sisters.
JM – The imagery of Jimmy Carter and Gregg Allman talking about Allman Brothers Band lyrics is really cool when you think about.
AP – Yeah. And I really enjoyed writing about that. I learned a lot about it myself. I did have access to this wonderful trove of never-before-heard interviews that Kirk West, the band’s tour mystic and archivist, had recorded in the 80’s while the band was broken up. And there was a lot of wonderful stuff in there. But Gregg talking about Carter was a big part of that. It was really interesting stuff. And I did a lot of research in the Carter Center Library and I discovered a lot, and I really explored that relationship in depth. And it is interesting to note, as you’re mentioning them talking about lyrics, as much as their relationship in some ways, was convenient for both of them, it wasn’t a relationship of convenience alone. They really liked each other. Gregg really, and all the Allman Brothers supported Carter politically. They were aligned with him. And Carter loved the music. He loved the Allman Brothers. He loved Willie Nelson. He loved the Marshall Tucker Band. He had Muddy Waters play at the White House, Dizzy Gillespie and other jazz. Greats. He was a true lover of what I would refer to broadly as Americana roots music.
JM – I’m a little bit older than you are, so my history with the Allman Brothers Band goes back to, like, Idlewild South. I think that was the first album I was really aware of them, although the first time I saw them was around roughly the same time the first time you saw them. For me, it was July of 1980 at the Palladium on 14th Street in Manhattan, and they had hit kind of a few bumps in the road. The sobriety was an issue. The couple of albums that had come out prior to that tour were lackluster, I think, to say the least. I think you saw them in ’81, so probably was the same tour. Alan. I’m backstage, and not to drop a name, but I’m standing next to John McEnroe and he’s not talking to me, but just to set the scene. And I’m watching the band and the room is shaking. The stage itself is bouncing up and down. I’m thinking, “Wow, they still have it! There’s still something here.” And I think that’s the same energy that you’ve talked about in the past when you saw the Allman Brothers Band for the first time. And even though, yeah, okay, Duane’s not here, and it’s not 1971, there’s still a life and an energy that came out on stage with this band.
AP – Absolutely. And then, of course, shortly after that time that we both saw them, they broke up in early 1982. And when they reformed in 1989, there was a lot of skepticism, as there is when classic bands reform with some new members, and they really brought it. When I saw them the first time on that iteration, which in my mind, in some ways, was the first time I really saw them because I was pretty much a kid when I saw those earlier iterations, and I saw them with Warren Haynes and Allen Woody, and they absolutely shook the stage and they rocked the place. I was briefly living in Florida. I saw them in Tampa and I couldn’t believe it. And that’s when I really really got back on the bus and never left. They managed to do something in that last well, the last several, but the last iteration, starting in 1989, that few classic bands do, of adding new members, going somewhere a bit new, but absolutely retaining the flavor and fire of the original band. They had that knack for finding young players. First Warren Haynes and then Derek Trucks and Oteil Burbridge, most famously, that could keep that legend alive while also moving it forward. So I feel honored to have been along for the ride and to have chronicled it as I go out and I do events and talk to people about the book. So many people have come up to me and thanked me for keeping the music alive. And it’s interesting, I didn’t set out to do that. I’m a writer. I want to tell the story. I’ve been lucky to have access to something I’m passionate about, but as it turns out, that’s somewhat what I’ve done, and I’m proud to serve that role, even though, again, it wasn’t really my goal when I set out.
JM – You’ve been keeping the band alive and the music alive as well, not just with your writing, but with your performing as well. And there’s a show this Friday in Rutherford at the Williams Center with Friends of the Brothers. Tell our listeners about that, Alan.
AP – Yeah, thank you. Well, Friends of the Brothers, we’re playing at the Williams Center in Rutherford, which is a great venue that I didn’t even know about until pretty recently. Really cool theater out in Rutherford downtown there. Friends of the Brothers features me, obviously my history with the Allman Brothers is well documented. Junior Mack, another New Jerseyite who played with Jaimoe’s jazz band for 15 years and has played with the Allman Brothers about 15 times. And Tedeschi Trucks and Gov’t Mule and Los Lobos. And anyone who goes to any of those kinds of shows in New Jersey has probably seen him on stage because he pops up all the time. And Andy Aledort, good friend of mine from Guitar World magazine for years, who played with Dickie Betts for ten years, and then, of course, we’ve rounded up a bunch of other great musicians. And in Rutherford on Friday, we have a special guest, Quinn Sullivan, great young blues guitar player who’s a protege of Buddy Guy. I think I saw him with Buddy Guy the first time. He was like nine or ten years old. But we are getting older. Quinn is still a lot younger than us, but he’s no longer a kid, it turns out. Got facial hair and everything, but it’s great. And it’s fun for us to be able to have the younger generation participate in this great music, too. And he’s a fantastic player and he has the right attitude. I mean, that’s what Derek Trucks always said. Anybody who has the right intent is what I’m looking for. And we definitely have the right intent and we don’t bring guests up like Quinn unless they have the right intent, and he definitely does.
JM – You can find out all the information on the show which is happening this Friday in Rutherford at friendsofthebrothersband.com. You can find things on Alan Paul on his website as well, alanpaul.net. And again, the book Brothers and Sisters: The Allman Brothers Band and the Inside Story of the Album That Defined the ’70s. Alan, thank you so much for your time this morning here on WDHA. Best of luck with the book, best of luck with the show.
AP – Thank you. Thanks for having me and thanks for all you do to keep the music alive. And thanks to everyone listening. I know anybody who is listening to this is a dedicated lover of great rock and roll and you probably support life music and we appreciate you. We’re nothing without you guys. So thank you.