Last year’s Laid Back Festival in Atlanta would be the last time Gregg Allman walked off a concert stage. The legendary singer cancelled the rest of his tour dates due to his failing health, and died May 27 from liver cancer.
This year’s festival at the Verizon Amphitheatre on Saturday will feature a tribute to Allman highlighted by his son taking the stage with the Gregg Allman Band for a complete performance of the highly acclaimed posthumous album Southern Blood.
Devon Allman began to forge his own musical identity before he ever met his father. A talented singer, songwriter and guitarist, Allman has led several successful bands: Honeytribe, the super group Royal Southern Brotherhood and now the Devon Allman Band. His third solo album, Ride or Die, was released this year and went to Number One on the Billboard blues chart.
Gregg Allman’s final interview was with ArtsATL last October. This year, Devon Allman gives ArtsATL his most in-depth and vulnerable interview since the death of his father. He candidly discusses how he forged a relationship with his absentee father, how he has dealt with the loss of both his parents over the past year, his father’s final words to him and why he felt compelled to perform this show with his father’s band.
“For this interview, I threw the rules out,” Allman remarked afterward. “I took the filter off.”
ArtsATL: Have you and your siblings been able to comprehend the enormity of what your dad meant to the world and the tremendous loss so many feel now that he’s gone?
Devon Allman: It’s a delicate balance. We know he was loved by so many and is such an endearing part of history and an endearing part of the arts. I think all of my siblings and I respect and admire the mark he left and truly appreciate that he touched so many people’s lives in so many positive ways. We know that he will live on forever through his music and deeply value the people who love his music. On the other hand, he was also our dad. You know, I’ve seen him sitting around in his underwear — just a dude with highs and lows — like everyone else. So for all of us, Gregg Allman was also just Dad.
ArtsATL: You’ve always been diligent about blazing your own trail, separate from your father and your uncle, Duane Allman. Your new album was released earlier this year, yet you stopped touring to promote it after your dad’s passing. Instead, you’ve been promoting his final album, Southern Blood. You’ve also joined forces with The Gregg Allman Band for this year’s Laid Back Festival. What was behind your decision to set aside your own career for a time and, instead, cross over into your dad’s orbit?
Allman: There were two main things. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to concentrate. I had lost my second parent within a few months of losing the first. I knew that the energy in the room would be about, “Oh, his dad just passed away.” Concerts are very celebratory and about fun — that’s hard to do if you’re in mourning. Secondly, I’ve been on the road for the past 12 years, playing 11 months per year. I’ve been working on my new record, producing a young artist, preparing to launch my own label next spring. I’ve never had an extended time off. I decided this was the time I was going to take off. I needed it to heal.
Then some opportunities came up to help promote Dad’s new record, Southern Blood. I sat with it for a bit, then I said, “Of course, you’re going to do this.” I felt bad about the fact that my dad wasn’t around to promote his own record. Obviously, there are several people involved — such as his musical director and guitarist, Scott Sharrard; Dad’s manager, Michael Lehman; [producer] Don Was, who just did a wonderful thing with us in L.A. at the Grammy Museum and is such a lovely soul.
So I’m not really trying to jump in his orbit as much as I want to help raise awareness about his new record and let people know how important it is to our family.
ArtsATL: What do you think of Southern Blood? Do you feel your dad was able to accomplish what he wanted to say through his final album?
Allman: Dad knew his journey was coming to an end. So there wasn’t time to sit on this record or to go over it for a year. Instead, he harnessed all of his energy and spirit and poured them into the making of this record. I think he was trying to tie up the loose ends of his life, and that’s what is so very poignant about this record. He said, “I need to make this final statement.” This was his final statement. It was so important that he finish it. And he did so, beautifully.
I definitely do think he accomplished what he wanted to say through this record. And I can tell you the hardcore fans are going to love it. You know, everyone says that his crown jewel was the Laid Back album. Well, he’s back to Laid Back because Laid Back and Southern Blood have the same vibe. They are both testaments that his music will live forever.
ArtsATL: Do you feel some sort of responsibility to give of yourself to Allman Brothers fans to help ease their losses of drummer Butch Trucks earlier in the year and then your father a few months later?
Allman: Oh, wow. That’s a lot of weight to put on one man’s shoulders (pauses). Do I feel a responsibility to make quality music which I hope some ABB fans will relate to and enjoy? Yes. But, what I’m not going to do is go out there and play my whole set list of Allman Brothers songs. That’s not what I ever did, and that’s not what I’m ever going to do. There was only one Allman Brothers. Now is there something down the road that can be a special remembrance and tribute to them? Of course. There’s a bunch of us second-generation cats — one most notably is Duane Betts [son of ABB founding guitarist Dickey Betts] – an insanely gifted, talented guitarist. In fact, we’re going to do a tandem tour of the world next year.
ArtsATL: What was your catalyst for picking up a guitar and becoming a musician?
Allman: I was nine years old at Corpus Christi Coliseum for my first concert: Cheap Trick. Rick Nielsen pulled out the five-neck guitar. And, at that moment, I said, “I want to do that.” I felt a vibe and knew music made people feel good. It certainly made me feel good, and that made me want to do it.
ArtsATL: You didn’t meet your dad until you were 16 years old and that you initiated the first contact. What gave you the courage to reach out to him?
Allman: I don’t think I was ever fearsome of reaching out to him. It was more about timing. The Allman Brothers went through some dark years in the 80s. They were disbanded. They weren’t really on the national or international radar at that time. And since I hadn’t had any contact with my dad, he wasn’t really on my radar then. But when I was 15 and, like most 15-year-olds at that time, I was addicted to MTV. One day while I was watching it, sure enough, “I’m No Angel” came on. I’d been playing guitar for two years and had a little garage punk band, and I thought to myself, “I think I’m going to reach out to him. I think it’s time.” So, I wrote him a letter, all of one paragraph long.
ArtsATL: Care to share what you wrote?
Allman: I think I said, “Hey, I am your son. I live in Alabama. I like Ozzy, I play guitar. Here’s my number.” About four days later, I walked in from school and he called me and we talked for three hours. He actually taught me some guitar chords over the phone (chuckles).
ArtsATL: Sounds like a super chill first conversation.
Allman: It was. And, it was the start of a great friendship. We instantly got along. We instantly laughed at the exact same shit. During that call, he said he would be coming to play in Alabama. I said, “Well, I’m getting ready to move to Missouri.” He said, “Well, we’re going to be playing in St. Louis, too.” So, a few months later — at age 16 — I met my dad for the first time in St. Louis in the parking lot of the Fox Theatre.
ArtsATL: Was your mother [Shelley Jefts] worried over the prospect of you merging your life at that tender age of 16 with Gregg Allman, notoriously known at that time as a hell-raising rock ’n’ roller?
Allman: My mother had every reason in the world to dog my dad over the 16 years I didn’t see him. But my mother was an angel. She never once said one word against him. She always told me, “Your dad’s a really great man and someday you’ll meet him. When you do, ya’ll are going to get along, famously. It’s just going to have to be the right timing.” She was really instrumental in my keeping a positive outlook on him — instead of being mad — during those years he was absent.
ArtsATL: Any highlights from that first meeting?
Allman: Absolutely. After meeting in the parking lot, later that night we went somewhere and my dad snuck me a beer (chuckles). Eventually, towards the end of the night, we were standing on the curb and talking about how good it was to meet and hang out. And I said to him, “I have to ask you, what took you so long?”
He pulled my letter out from his wallet, which I had sent him six months prior to this meeting. He unfolded it and said, “I was waiting for this.” So, you know, in reality, he was actually the scared one. All those years, he didn’t know how to reach out to me and cultivate the relationship. But after that, he really came around and tried hard. And because of that, we developed a special and unique relationship.
ArtsATL: You lost both your parents within a few months — your mom at the end of 2016 and your dad in the middle of 2017. How have you found solace to cope with your losses?
Allman: It’s a day at a time. There are good days, and there are bad days. There are two things — and they’re my two biggest passions — which provide me solace: my family and music. I cancelled my entire tour because I wanted to huddle around my family and wanted the flexibility to be able to go to L.A. to see my siblings. I also wanted to be able to take my son and sister and her husband to go see ball games and spend time with them. We have a very special family, and I want to make sure I’m there for my family. Then, there’s my other passion — my music. I have a new record in the works. Obviously, there are some themes of loss in it, some of the tackling of the emotional roller coaster this year has been about. And, as a result, this album will be very different from anything I’ve ever done before.
ArtsATL: Sounds like your passions are helping pull you through the pain.
Allman: I can only tell you, without my family and my music, I probably wouldn’t be here.
ArtsATL: Speaking of family, what was it like to take the stage alongside your father with the Allman Brothers Band, as you did numerous times over the years?
Allman: It was cool. To be included in something that powerful and that magical was definitely cool. I’d walk away from the experience each time saying, “Damn, I need to go practice guitar, like, eight hours a day.” Those guys are just the Jedi Council. I have so much respect for Dickey, Warren [Haynes], Jack Pearson, Jimmy Herring and everybody that has stood on that stage. With my main instrument being the guitar, playing with all those guys — who have so much profound proficiency — made me really love it and really want to play lead guitar. Although I started playing the guitar at age 13, I didn’t actually become a full-on lead guitarist until age 33. So playing with them was like the world’s greatest guitar lesson every time. It was just a great feeling to make music with them. I was very lucky to be invited to that stage.
ArtsATL: I’m sure your dad wouldn’t have invited you to the stage if you hadn’t deserved to be there.
Allman: (chuckles) Well, the funny thing about that is, it wasn’t Dad who invited me on stage for the first time. It was Dickey’s doing. I had joined my dad out on tour — the reunion tour of 1989. We had a night off and were hanging out at a piano bar. And I started singing. Dickey Betts shot straight up and came over to me and said, “I didn’t know you could sing like that. You need to come on stage with us and sing.” So my dad came around and said to me, “I hear Dickey Betts wants you to come up and sing. Are you ready for that?” And, I said, “Hell yeah, I’m ready for that.”
It was eye-opening. It was all about energy and sharing the energy with the crowd. It was intoxicating. It was electric.
ArtsATL: Gregg Allman was known to say you reminded him of his brother, Duane, who died in 1971. Did he ever elaborate with you about the similarities he thought the two of you possess?
Allman: Yeah (chuckles), he always said, “You’re as stubborn as my brother,” and, “You’re a leader, like your uncle.” You know, my dad never saw himself as the leader of ABB. He certainly led by being an insanely gifted singer and writer. But, as far as orchestrating things — making shit happen — leading was not his vibe. But it was totally Duane’s vibe, and it’s always been my vibe. I like to jump right in and get things done, and, according to my dad, I’m real passionate in those ways like Duane.
ArtsATL: Think it’s safe to say your dad appreciated that you’d inherited that trait of passion?
Allman: Yes. Especially with certain things, like when he saw how passionate I was about being a dad and how much I enjoyed and loved it — that really made him happy. He didn’t have that point of reference himself, so I think he really liked seeing it between me and my son. And, funny enough, after we really developed our relationship, my dad would actually come to me for advice quite often.
ArtsATL: On what sort of things would he seek your advice?
Allman: Obviously, not about music. But life advice. And he sometimes sought my advice about women (chuckles). He’d usually ask me what I’d do in a certain situation. I wasn’t afraid to tell my dad the truth, and if I thought he was wrong, I wasn’t afraid to call him out. Things could get rascally between us at times. But in that tension, he knew I was one of the few people who would tell him to fuck off, if need be. At the end of the day, we had a lot of respect for each other.
ArtsATL: Sounds as though you were cast in a reversed fatherly role with him at times?
Allman: Well, the last thing my dad said to me was, “Take care of your siblings. You are the patriarch of this family now.” Then he told me he was proud of me and that he loved me.
ArtsATL: Those are powerful last words.
Allman: Yeah. And when he said those words to me, I knew they’d be his last words to me. I miss him so much.
ArtsATL: What were some passions — other than the obvious one of music — that you and your dad shared?
Allman: Off the top of my head, we were both passionate about NFL football, Asian food, Godfather movies. We were passionate about the same humor. There were just so many things we were both passionate about.
ArtsATL: What was the single most valuable lesson your dad taught you?
Allman: One day my dad looked at me and said, “Son, there’s something more powerful on this planet than the nuclear bomb.” And because I was a punk-ass 19-year-old, I said, “OK, whatever. What’s that, Dad?” And he said, “Words.” And that planted a deep seed in me. It taught me the importance of thinking before I speak. It also caused me to be concise with lyrics. You know, there’s an art to lyrics. You can’t just give the full reveal. That’s no fun. You’ve got to take the journey and leave things open-ended for your listener — not put a bow on it. But his statement about the power of words showed me all the subtleties wrapped within that statement and was a very powerful lesson.
ArtsATL: At almost this same time last year, I was fortunate to interview your father prior to the 2016 Laid Back Festival in Atlanta. It would be his final interview and his final concert. During that interview, he told me how tight he was with his band. And, I quote him, “It took me about eight years to put this band together, and I couldn’t be happier. Playing with these guys is a gas. We’re at a point where we can damn near read each other’s minds.” What has it been like for you to play with his band, knowing that tight bond they all share with one another and shared with your dad?
Allman: It’s been an education. The first few times I sat in with them, I was a bit cavalier and had a renegade attitude and was like, “Let’s crank it up — let me burn my solo and get the hell out of here.” I never meant any disrespect by that. I think it was just kind of a vibe I was on. As I did it more and more and more, it took on another dimension, though.
ArtsATL: How so?
Allman: Well, like when I was doing a full jazzy solo in “Dreams,” it really made me understand the nuance of how you fit into a band — whether you’re just strumming in the background or you’re taking the lead, there’s an appropriate approach. The song is the boss. You play to the needs of the song. And, whether you’re with four, six or nine guys, you find your place while playing to the song. Playing with these guys has made me become a more mature musician.
ArtsATL: If you could speak a few words to your dad before going on stage at Laid Back Festival 2017, what would you say to him?
Allman: Oh man. I’d say, “Dad, I miss you like crazy. And, I’m gonna give it hell in your honor.”
ArtsATL: And, what do you think he’d say back to you?
Allman: He’d say, “Go get that shit. Go get ’em!” That’s what he’d say.