The Allman Betts Band: Clear Eyes, Full Hearts
In 2019, The Allman Betts Band released their debut record to rave reviews. Now, a health setback and a global pandemic later, they’re ready to prove that those early jam sessions were just the beginning.
Devon Allman and Duane Betts approach on horseback, ambling across California’s Mojave Desert, through a canyon strewn with cholla cacti and creosote bushes. Allman sits astride a dusty white mare; Betts straddles a chestnut brown gelding. The fading mid-July sun has Allman concerned. “We’re going to lose our light soon,” he says. “We need to get close-ups.”
These are the last hours of a two-day, on-location The Allman Betts Band video shoot and there’s still a lot to do. A drone whirs some 200 feet overhead; it would spook the horses if it got any lower. The video’s director and producer, Devon Williams, jogs down the hillside to meet the pair.
The two Devons confer. “This is when the rattlesnakes come out to hunt,” cautions a trail guide. In minutes, this arid patch—within the 154,000 acres of the Sand to Snow National Monument—will become dark and daunting.
Allman and Betts gallop past a camouflaged Williams, completing the shots, then disappear into the chaparral. The three-man film crew piles into a four-wheel utility terrain vehicle—limited to two-wheel mode—combatting jutting stone and jagged brush on the drive back to base. “Wonder if it’s safer on horses,” Williams quips.
Back at Coyote Ridge Stables, Allman and Betts change out of their cowboy attire and follow Williams into the nearby scrub. Williams presses play on a portable speaker and the foreboding tones of “Pale Horse Rider,” the second single from band’s forthcoming album, Bless Your Heart, echo into the dusk.
Just over a year ago, Allman wouldn’t have been saddling up in the high desert. In fact, he was barely standing upright at all. “We played the Herzberg Festival in Germany, right before Graham Nash, in front of thousands and thousands of people,” says Allman. “And I walked off that stage feeling 80 years old. I didn’t have pain, but I had this pressure in my guts.”
Two days later, physicians at a Berlin hospital diagnosed Allman with appendicitis. The band canceled the remaining dates on their European schedule. They also shelved a Northeast U.S. run of shows with John Fogerty and a slew of late summer headlining dates.
The unexpected ailment put a sudden stop to the early momentum The Allman Betts Band had been building since the release of their successful debut LP, Down to the River, in mid-2019. Cut at Muscle Shoals Sound in November 2018, the River sessions marked the first time that the ensemble had ever played together. Their connection was palpable and, after adding keyboardist John Ginty to their lineup, the septet made their official debut in March 2019. (Gregg Allman’s keyboardist, Peter Levin, also contributed to the Muscle Shoals sessions.) The group quickly started selling out small theaters and nabbing choice festival spots—working six days a week—until Allman’s heath issues put everything on pause.
Allman’s surgery was successful, yet he was not recovering as Steve Rood quickly as expected and he eventually realized that his appendicitis had been misdiagnosed. When he returned home to St. Louis, Allman’s doctors recommended a separate intestinal procedure and, after another operation and some more time off to recover, the singer/guitarist started working toward the group’s sophomore record.
By late fall, The Allman Betts Band had returned to the road, opening a string of shows for Charlie Daniels Band and scheduling a return visit to Muscle Shoals. In advance of the sessions, Stoll Vaughan—Allman and Betts’ go-to collaborator on Down to the River—joined them on their bus and at soundchecks, stealing a few pre-show moments to hash out new ideas and polish up their latest compositions. Yet, this time around, it was the band’s dynamic performances—particularly one 15-day stretch of concerts—that impressed the Kentucky musician as much as their intimate moments offstage. “Playing together as they had for those many months, they understood, musically, where they could go,” says Vaughan. “I felt like I was inside of what they could do live.”
By the time their recording sessions with River producer Matt Ross-Spang kicked into gear, Allman and Betts had amassed a double-album’s worth of material. “They had a more clear-cut vision before the recording even started,” Ross-Spang says of the weeklong sessions. “They were now a one-minded unit.”
Vaughan—invigorated as he watched the group grow bolder and more confident—ended up working with Allman and Betts on eight of the album’s 13 songs. He also penned a ninth contribution—the biographical, Grateful Dead-inspired jangle “Magnolia Road”—on his own. The lyrics hybridize universal notions of heritage and home with Allman’s own gypsy blood and Texas roots. The tune quickly grew into an instant live favorite that Allman and Betts had already envisioned as a summer festival anthem, before COVID-19 put their touring plans on ice.
“There was a lot more synergy in the songwriting process,” Allman says. “And a lot more trust in our triangle: Stoll, Duane and me.”
A few days before the desert shoot, Betts is hiking in Solstice Canyon a few miles north of his Malibu home. The trail climbs gently, ending at a modest waterfall. Betts sits on the stone steps of the Roberts Ranch House ruins.
“This area means a lot to me in terms of my spirituality, my inner peace, especially when I’m trying to get out of my head,” Betts says. “It helps me stay positive and connect with a higher source and that allows me to do what I’m supposed to do.”
Betts’ father Dickey is responsible for some of rock-and-roll’s most memorable instrumentals, including The Allman Brothers Band’s Grammy-winning “Jessica.” The younger Betts has never denied his family’s influence—even spending years on the road with his old man’s solo projects—and, for the most recent Allman Betts Band sessions, he brought in his own instrumental, “Savannah’s Dream.” He refers to it as a “nephew” of his dad’s “High Falls.”
“There was a new musical highlight every week,” Betts says of Allman Betts Band’s final pre-pandemic shows. “I knew the band could handle this.” They tracked the multi-sectioned epic live in the studio, with Betts and Allman sharing the twin-guitar harmony on the main theme.
“I’m always thinking about being able to channel something that’s worth a crap—getting something that feels good and then moving on. A lot of great records were made that way,” says Betts.
The comfort of that old stone building and the familiarity of having Ross-Spang behind the board helped the ensemble through their nightly 12-hour, 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. recording sessions. Allman says a few area tornado alarms just “added a little excitement.”
“Overall, we took more chances. We felt that we didn’t have to stick to standard-issue arrangements,” he adds. “We let the songs dictate where they wanted to go. The song is always the boss.”
Betts agrees: “We wanted to do something bigger—something that showed off other colors and is true to where we are at this time.”
The duo singles out the slow, plaintive ballad “The Doctor’s Daughter” that bassist Berry Duane Oakley brought to the repertoire as the album’s most melancholic moment. With Oakley providing piano and vocals and Allman on bass, the group eulogizes Jessica Rebennack, who was the daughter of famed musician Dr. John. Oakley and Rebennack grew up together in Los Angeles sharing times of “teenage crazy” and her death by overdose at age 30 was sobering. “It’s a very sad song, for sure,” says Oakley, who describes Jessica as almost like a sister. “I had been working on it through the years, but it never felt right until this project. This is a way to keep her memory alive.”
For Betts, the song is indicative of the band’s progressive character. “There are certainly some Southern-sounding things on there, but we didn’t want to make a Southern-rock record. We love George Harrison. We love Pink Floyd. Why not show that?”
Ross-Spang used a Mellotron on “Rivers Run,” Betts’ paean to his grandmother’s Florida homestead. On “Much Obliged,” Allman winks at the album’s title and evokes the spirit of Johnny Cash with a low-register country croon. When Jimmy Hall added some harmonica to “Ashes of My Lovers,” the iconic Wet Willie frontman called the track, “like The Rolling Stones in Morocco.”
“Everybody’s knowledge of music is exciting,” says Oakley. “Everyone in this band is capable of going in any direction musically.”
After a hasty, drive-thru chicken dinner, Allman and Betts move on to Joshua Tree National Park to film a pivotal campfire scene in their new video. They only have 10 days until “Pale Horse Rider” premieres. It’s the second single that the band’s label, BMG, will drop in advance of Bless Your Heart; “Magnolia Road” and its accompanying animated video were released in late June.
The current creative climate has forced the band to reconsider their promotional approach, but they were still able to make their first national television appearance this summer—a three-song set on CBS This Morning Saturday Sessions in late July. “We have the luxury this time to focus on how we market the records because we are not on tour,” Allman explains. “We thought we’d bring out a few appetizers before the main course.”
Like every touring musician, the members of The Allman Betts Band have spent the past few months trying to connect with their fans. After their final pre-quarantine gig at Los Angeles’ Palace Theatre on March 8, Allman returned home to St. Louis and Betts retreated to Wyoming, in the shadow of the Tetons, with his new bride.
Within weeks, Allman started livestreaming regularly from his billiards room. He performed hour-long sets—sometimes solo, sometimes with in-person visits from bandmates John Lum and R. Scott Bryan or remote appearances by Betts and friends like G. Love. He covered Iron Maiden and Paul McCartney, reunited the Devon Allman Project, and gave away Gibson guitars to the highest donors supporting ABB’s furloughed road crew.
“It was really important that the fans were still able to see and hear us,” Allman says. “We wanted to stay connected.”
Maintaining that connection, especially to a younger generation, is crucial for any classic-rock-oriented band. Betts touts My Morning Jacket and The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach as vanguards bridging the gap. Allman, too, is aware of the need.
“We want younger people to get into the music we dig—the more organic music,” says Allman. “But we didn’t sit down and say we have to write something for the youth. It’s a pretty modern record, but with an old-school vibe all the way.”
One thing that will never change, Allman says, is the band’s commitment to recording analog to two-inch tape, even on a potential live album. “The core of an album is its sound,” he says. “To my ears, the best sound is analog because of the depth. I feel badly that 90 percent of today’s music listeners are listening on crappy earbuds connected to their phones. It’s just the worst iteration of the tonal aesthetic.”
It’s after midnight when filming wraps. Driving back to the hotel, Allman says that his most recent riding experiences have actually been on camels in Africa. He’s planning a return to the continent, possibly in early 2021, to scout a young artist for his Create Records imprint.
In the Best Western parking lot, Betts enjoys the cooling night air. The desk clerk regales him with the hundred-year-old local legends of Willie Boy and his girl Carlota—killed in the Mojave by a sheriff’s posse. Betts can relate to stories of lovers and the damage left behind. “Hopefully, you fix it,” he says.
“We’re not stuck in time,” says Allman. “A lot of what we do— making music or shooting videos—is guided stylistically by the love we have for the art form. It’s a reflection of who we are as a band.”