Words by Tim Newby
Forty-years ago, a younger brother went to visit his older sibling who was home sick. The younger brother had brought a few gifts along to help cheer up his ailing brother – a bottle of Coricidin pills and bluesman Taj Mahal’s first album.
A few hours after dropping off his gifts, the younger brother received an excited phone call from his older brother imploring him to come back over and see what he had done. Gregg Allman rushed back to his Brother Duane’s side, and discovered that he had emptied out the pills from the Coricidin bottle and was using it as a slide to play “Statesboro Blues,” an old Blind Willie McTell tune that Mahal covered on his album. Using the empty Coricidin bottle, Duane was emulating the slide playing that gave the old blues standard its distinct feel.
It was from that moment of discovery, on that day over forty years ago, that the seeds of what would become the defining sound of a band and style was first born.
Gregg Allman once said, “Rock n’ Roll was pretty much born in the south, so was the blues, or at least a certain kind of blues. So saying Southern Rock is like saying Rock- Rock.”
While there were deep southern rock based roots before the Allman Brothers Band existed, and bands that toyed around with that roots-rock sound (Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Band), that feeling, that spirit, that soul that we associate with that Southern Rock or Rock-Rock sound was born in the heat and humidity of Florida and Georgia. As the newly formed Allman Brothers Band looked to find their place in the musical landscape, they incorporated the sounds they found around them in their home in the south – blues, country music, and rock n’ roll – but added an edge and attitude to it that gave it an aggressive sheen. They also looked to influences outside their region and combined it with their love of playing live. Drummer Butch Trucks recalls, “The way we evolved was instrumentally with the jams. We would do a lot of jamming. We would set up and play, and play, and play. And then we would listen to what he had done, and then go listen to Miles Davis and John Coltrane and all the old blues cats, Robert Johnson and those guys. That’s where it came from.”
The Allman Brothers Band formed shortly after that day when a bed-ridden Duane Allman first played “Statesboro Blues” with a Coricidin bottle. The band went on to reinvent rock ‘n’ roll around their own Southern roots – bringing elements of country music, blues, and rock and channeling it through Duane’s guitar. This new sound came to define a region, and provide an identity to many other bands that followed on the wide path that the Allman Brothers Band blazed. The Marshall Tucker Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Charlie Daniels, The Outlaws, Molly Hatchet, .38 Special, and many others carried the Southern Rock torch brightly through the 1970s and into the 80s.
The Allmans rose to fame with the release of the career-defining live album At Fillmore East and Eat a Peach, only to see it nearly come to a premature end with the untimely death of Duane and bassist Berry Oakley, both in motorcycle accidents a year apart in the same neighborhood, mere blocks from each other.
The band soldiered on despite their loss for the next decade – breaking up and reuniting multiple times. Through this time they had moments of pure greatness – the Dickey Betts-dominated Brothers & Sisters, “High Falls” from Win, Lose, or Draw, “Crazy Love” from Enlightened Rogues, but they also had some painfully low moments.
The band eventually dissolved amidst infighting and mistrust for good in 1982. Both Allman and Betts formed solo bands and headed out on the road. They each achieved moderate success, but nothing compared to what they had done together.
In 1986 they got back together to play a benefit show for Bill Graham. This proved to be the catalyst for the rebirth of the Allmans. Allman and Betts’ solo bands toured together over the next year. At each show both bands would play a set, followed by a night ending set of both bands playing Allman Brothers’ songs together.
Eventually they decided to reform. The surviving members of the original line-up returned intact, with the addition of a young guitar player from Betts’ solo band, Warren Haynes, and Allen Woody on bass rounding out the line-up. It was this line-up that would return the Brothers back to the level of greatness that was expected from them.
This new line-up marked the start of a new-found interest in the band. With a burgeoning jam-scene that looked to the Allmans as a founding father, The Allman Brothers Band found a new lease on life and released a trio of albums to start the 1990s that could stand shoulder to shoulder with their classic albums from the past.
Over the course of the next decade, they went through a series of line-up changes before settling on the current line-up of founding members Allman (keys), Butch Trucks (drums), Jaimoe (drums), joined by Haynes (guitar), Oteil Burbridge (bass), Marc Quinones (percussion), and Trucks’ nephew, guitar prodigy Derek Trucks who seems to channel the spirit and playing of Duane’s distinct slide guitar. This current line-up brings new life and energy to the band, yet at the same time plays in a way that recalls and remembers those past greats they have lost.
When the Allman Brothers broke up for a brief period during the 80s, so did it seem that the torch of Southern Rock started to dim. But soon a fresh crop of Georgia bands, including Widespread Panic, Bloodkin, Drivin’ ‘n Cryin’, and the Black Crowes, rekindled the still smoldering embers with their fresh, youthful approach to the Rock-Rock sound. The Allman Brothers reformed around the same time and a rebirth of Southern Rock was well under way. This revival saw the birth of Gov’t Mule, the North Mississippi All-Stars, the Drive by Truckers, and a slew of other like-minded young bands that led a wave of new southern talent that harkened back to the soul and spirit of the Allman Brothers.
For every band that has twin lead guitars, adds a bit of country to their rock n’ roll, or has Georgia clay between their toes, they can trace their musical heritage back to the Allman Brothers. The Allmans have been blazing their path for forty-years, playing what Gregg Allman called “rock-rock”, and many have followed in their huge footsteps.
As the last notes of the double encore of “Whipping Post,” and “Trouble No More,” (the first song the Allmans ever played together) rang through the hallowed halls of the Beacon Theatre for the last time last night – marking the end of the over four-decade plus run of the legendary innovators of Southern Rock – a legion of bands inspired by the incomparable sound that the Allman Brothers created gave thanks for the wide trail they blazed. It is a trail that allowed every band with a twang in their voice and a soulful edge in every guitar solo to follow in their lead and prove that the flame the Allman Brothers Band ignited so many years ago still burns brightly.