- Duane and Devon: “We’re staying real true blue to those original studio recordings.”
As descendants of Southern rock royalty who’ve known each other since they were teenagers, Devon Allman and Duane Betts might have been expected to collaborate decades ago. But it was only recent circumstances — one tragic, the others fortunate — that have brought them together on tour and also, if all goes according to current plans, in the studio.
“I think the cliché is true: Timing is everything,” says Devon, whose father Gregg Allman was a co-founder, along with Duane’s father Dickey Betts, of the much-revered Allman Brothers Band back in 1969. “Before now, Duane was touring as a sideman in the band Dawes and playing in his father’s band, so he obviously didn’t really have the power to pick and choose his own touring destiny when he was a side cat.” But after Betts finally released his debut EP Sketches of American Music back in April, the time was right for the two musicians to hit the road together.
Another contributing factor was far less fortuitous: In May of last year, Gregg Allman passed away, shortly after finishing the recording of his posthumously released studio album Southern Blood at the legendary Muscle Shoals studio. Devon, who’d spent years as a musical workaholic, fronting his former band Honeytribe and joining with Cyril Neville, Mike Zito and others in the blues supergroup Royal Southern Brotherhood, was unable to participate in those final sessions, although he did write the liner notes.
“I felt like he would have wanted a little note to the fans,” says Devon. “So really, my contribution was just to write a little message to the fans, and let them know what they meant to him.”
The current Allman-Betts tour will open with a short set by Duane, followed by Devon and his new band, and close with an extended encore in which Duane rejoins the band for a set of Allman Brothers classics. “We’re staying real true blue to those original studio recordings, but also throwing in some nods to other heroes who have left us recently. We’ve covered Tom Petty, we’ve covered Prince. So it’s not solely relegated to the Allman Brothers catalog, but we’re certainly leaning pretty hard on it.”
Devon’s renewed attention to the Allmans’ legacy is not altogether surprising. Facing the loss of both his parents in rapid succession, Devon stepped off the touring treadmill and spent time with the people who were closest to him.
Asked what he learned about himself during that time, the musician answers without hesitation: “I think I learned that I’m a lot stronger than I gave myself credit for, and a lot more savvy to kind of pick up the pieces and rally around my family,” says Devon, who turned 45 last August. “I also got to spend time with my son in his final year of high school. After being on tour for 12 years, I finally had a year where I got to make supper almost every night, and pack his lunches and talk about his day, and be a full-time dad. And now he’s gone off to college. I’m really glad I had that year.”
Devon, who was raised in St. Louis by his mother, didn’t get close to his father until he’d reached his teens. It took even longer for him to let the Allman Brothers music influence his own.
“I didn’t have a eureka moment, like, ‘Oh, I’m going to start doing things this way because my dad does,’” says Devon, whose first band The Dark Horses hewed more toward ’90s stoner-rock. “But I think what did rub off one me, something that I always enjoyed about the band, was that they were song-based, but they could really crack open a song and jam it out if they wanted to. Whereas, a lot of modern-day jam bands just jam and jam and noodle and noodle, but they don’t really have those timeless songs. So that influenced me for sure.”
The lesson paid off with his most recent solo album Ride or Die, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Blues Chart. Did Allman expect that kind of response when he’d gone into a Nashville studio to record it?
“Oh hell no!” he laughs. “If memory serves, I think the particular week that it debuted at No. 1, it only sold 18 copies more than the newest Clapton record. So I just got really lucky; it’s the luck of the draw. I can’t really speak for other artists, but, for me, if you’re thinking about chart positioning or acceptance in the marketplace, then you’re really not being very pure to the art. You need to just dive in, and then, when you release the album, you throw it out into the cosmos and you hope it sticks. You know, you hope some people dig it. And chances are, if you dig it, then a thousand or ten thousand other knuckleheads are going to dig it as well.”