Sounds of the Summer: The Allman Betts Band
Most bands don’t choose to wait until they are already in the studio tracking their newborn songs on analog two-inch tape—without the safety net, convenience or backup of digital technology—to play together for the first time. But that’s exactly what ended up happening when The Allman Betts Band entered a recording space that doubles as a museum to track their debut, Down to the River.
Their backstory, of course, is much more involved. Four years ago, Devon Allman stood on the loading dock of The Canyon, a midsize music venue in Agoura Hills, 35 miles northwest of Los Angeles. He’d just finished a set ostensibly promoting his solo album, Ragged & Dirty, but he was gazing at the prospects of an undetermined future. “When the time is right,” Allman said, “I’m going to put a band together with Duane Betts and Berry Oakley.”
His dream was far from a reality: Betts had just announced he was joining Dawes for at least a year’s worth of touring, Oakley was on the road with Allman Brothers Band drummer Butch Trucks and his Freight Train group, and even Devon, a meticulous planner, couldn’t be certain of when, or if, the time for such an endeavor would ever be right. He slipped inside The Canyon to sit in with his father, Gregg Allman, knowing something only a few other people knew at that moment: Gregg had cancer.
Gregg passed away in May 2017, just months after Devon’s mother, and the 44-year-old younger Allman decided to take a break from his career to grieve properly. At a variety of memorial services, he reconnected with family and friends, and talked with Betts and Oakley, whom he’d first met in 1989 during The Allman Brothers Band’s 20th anniversary run, when the three progeny spent time learning from and, occasionally jamming with, the legendary group. Devon was quickly reminded about the healing power of music.
In honor of what would’ve been Gregg’s 70th birthday, he staged a Family Revival at The Fillmore in San Francisco in December of 2017. Devon invited a full slate of special guests to pay tribute, including Betts and Oakley. He also debuted his new band, the Devon Allman Project, and announced a yearlong tour featuring Duane as a special guest.
Devon always hinted that this was a prelude to something bigger. “I’m not going to say it’s definitive but, in 2018, [Duane and I] tour together,” Devon said in an interview with Relix. “In 2019, we release a record together.”
The Project turned into a slow burn, gaining word-of-mouth momentum and selling more tickets with each successive leg. They played Morrison, Colo.’s Red Rocks as part of Blues Traveler’s annual Independence Day celebration, opened for Duane’s father, Dickey, at New York’s Beacon Theatre and embarked on a three-week stint through Europe and the U.K. They also zigzagged across the U.S., often clocking in shows up to six nights a week.
Throughout, Devon and Duane also worked on a batch of new tunes, using their downtime on the bus, in their hotels and before soundcheck to workshop their ideas. Eventually, they flew in Americana singer-songwriter Stoll Vaughan, a Los Angeles transplant from Kentucky who’d toured with John Mellencamp and co-written four of the six songs on Duane’s 2018 debut solo EP, Sketches of American Music, for a few days of writing sessions on the road.
“Most importantly, I wanted these to be their songs,” says Vaughan. “I wanted them to drive everything—the idea, the story, the melody. It’s about getting their concept molded into a song—I wanted them to sing these lyrics they believe to their core.”
By the fall, the pair had composed enough material for an album and accumulated enough goodwill over six months of grueling roadwork to start putting together a new band. They brought in guitarist Johnny Stachela, percussionist R. Scott Bryan and drummer John Lum from the Project tour, recruited Gregg Allman keyboardist Peter Levin and asked onetime Allman Brother and current Rolling Stone Chuck Leavell to guest on a song. And, completing a circle that began when the Allman Brothers Band came together in 1969, they also brought in Berry Duane Oakley, the son of founding ABB bassist Berry Oakley, to hold down the low-end.
Much like Devon and Duane, Berry Duane Oakley had spent much of his life moving in and out of the Allman Brothers Band’s orbit. Born in March 1973—four months after his father died following a motorcycle accident—the bassist grew up in Los Angeles, where he was initiated into the industry by his step-father, Three Dog Night’s Chuck Negron. He moved into the spotlight in the early ‘90s as a lead singer and bassist with Bloodline, a band of young guns that included a teenage guitarist named Joe Bonamassa, and spent years as a working musician, bouncing between smaller, indie efforts and finding some wider exposure with supergroups such as Blue Floyd, led by members of The Black Crowes and Gov’t Mule. His stint with Trucks in 2015 reconnected him to his roots, ending sadly with the drummer’s death two years later.
Excited at the potential of a new band, he accepted the offer to join Devon and Duane for a late-November session at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, a revered recording space that also functions as a museum by day, and rarely grants permission for sessions. The tiny stone box first earned its figurative landmark status in the 1960s and ‘70s hosting rock-and-roll’s Mt. Rushmore—from Aretha Franklin to The Rolling Stones—and received its actual listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 2006.
As an homage to the era of making records Devon and Duane both loved so much, they chose to cut the album analog, without any digital influence. To helm the board, they tapped Matt Ross-Spang, a producer Devon met years earlier at a taping of PBS’ Sun Studio Sessions and who has gone on to earn Grammys, thanks to his work with Jason Isbell.
Over six nights that stretched into mornings, their musicians worked up the nascent repertoire. Devon aimed to “capture moments” as the band recorded live in the studio, performing the eight original songs and one cover that would comprise Down to the River. “Given the legacy of Muscle Shoals and the legacy of their families, they could’ve gotten away with going in and doing some blues covers,” says Ross-Spang. “Instead, they came in with these personal songs.”
Duane says the group gelled quickly, acclimating naturally to the room and to one another, with each successful take becoming a building block of confidence. Recording without digital’s forgiveness fostered a sense of permanence. “We didn’t have the luxury to change certain things, and that’s probably for the better.”
Oakley agrees that the method provoked “a special type of magic in the music.” It’s a magic that is palpable throughout, but especially evident on a pair of songs, sequenced back-to-back at the album’s center. There is the title track, with a performance by Allman at his most soulful and bare. “It might be my proudest moment as a songwriter,” Allman adds.
Then, there is “Autumn Breeze.” Though written by Chris Williams, an old bandmate who perished in a car accident, the song carries the hallmarks of a classic Allman Brothers Band twin guitar opus, yet is distinctly fresh and inventive. At its peak is a magnificent three-minute Duane solo, massaged slowly to an apparent pinnacle, elevated to an even higher plane and, in its eventual release, cathartic and fulfilling.
“I wanted to stir it up, to get in touch with some deeper emotions,” Duane says of his improvisational flight. “In the moment, I’m thinking about Chris. I’m thinking about my family, my friends—the losses in love and in life.”
The birth of The Allman Betts Band signifies all of that: family, friends, love, loss, life. To some, the group’s existence may appear inevitable. The studio band, with John Ginty taking Levin’s place, made their live debut in New York on March 26, coincidently on the Allman Brothers Band’s 50th anniversary. They plan to tour behind Down to the River throughout the year, helping celebrate their fathers’ legacies while building their own catalog.
“It’s a fine line. I don’t think we have to play Allman Brothers songs, but I think it would be a mistake not to,” says Oakley. “It’s where we come from. It’s our roots.”
Duane also makes a point to say that the group has a swagger of its own. “It comes from being a new band with a record we’re all really proud of—the quality of these songs, the thought and care that went into making this music.”
The distant vision that Devon had years before has now sharpened into focus. He’s already talking about returning to Muscle Shoals with Ross-Spang for a follow-up. Ideally, the band will be a creative home base for the next two decades.
“I think this record will make people truly look beyond the Allman Brothers relation,” says Devon. “We’re not here to fill any shoes. We have our own footprints to leave.”
You can catch The Allman Betts Band at The Peach Music Festival, Bayfront Blues Festival, Ann Arbor Blues Festival, LOCKN’ and elsewhere this summer.
This article originally appears in the June 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.