Allman Brothers

“All this bad news for Allman Brothers fans is probably good news for my book,” Alan Paul jokes when we begin talking about One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band. His new oral history of the group becomes available on Tuesday, February 18, and is racking up preorders on Amazon and other outlets. Paul is referring, of course, to the impending 45th and final year of the band — a finale that refutes the assertion in “Midnight Rider” that the road goes on forever.

For Paul, a senior writer for Guitar World whose work has appeared in many other publications and the author of Big in China, a book about founding a blues band in that Eastern superpower, One Way Out is a labor of love that has its roots in his teenage years. The volume is comprehensive and easily digestible, yet complex enough to cover all kinds of musical and personal details — fuel for both savvy fans and newcomers who want to learn more about what was and is arguably America’s greatest ensemble rock ensemble. Paul himself did nearly all of the interviews during his 25 years of covering the Allman Brothers Band, allowing him to present a unique inside view of all things Allmans from 1969 to the present.

We stared our conversation with the book itself, and then dived deeply into the group’s guitar lore.

Why did you decide to present the story of the Allman Brothers as an oral history?

I’ve been there in person for a lot of stuff since 1989, but with the Allmans there was a lot of important history from when I was a toddler. But it’s not like writing about George Washington. There were still plenty of people who were there and experienced that history first hand, so as much as possible I wanted to let their voices tell the story.

As I did more interviews for the book, I also found that there were widely different versions of some things that happened. As a writer, your job is to decide what’s true. In some cases, it was obvious there was no way to be definitive about it. So I provided the accounts of what different people said, to let the reader decide, which, in a way, seems more honest.

A lot of people think it’s easier to do an oral history — “Oh, he just strung a bunch of quotes together.” — but it’s really not. When you really try to do it right, it is a lot of work. But it was important to me to tell this story.

What does the book say about you and your relationship to the band, since researching and writing it required many years?

The Allman Brothers are one of my favorite bands. Their music has been so important to me in ways a lot of people who frequent Gibson.com would understand and a lot of other people wouldn’t. The Allman Brothers have always hit me in a very profound way. I love jazz, blues and rock, and I don’t know any other bands who satisfy all of that at once for me.

My being a fan goes back to when I was 12- or 13-years-old. I dedicated the book to my brother, David, who, in the tradition of great older siblings, turned me on to a lot of great music. He allowed me to sit for hours in his room listening to Eat a Peach on his stereo.

At various points the band and their music have been there for me — helping me when it was really important. In high school we were asked to write a paper on a great American, and I chose Duane Allman. I got really good feedback on that, and that influenced my decision to become a writer. Fast-forward 12 years to 1990, when the Allman Brothers reformed. I was a struggling freelance writer and thinking very seriously of going to grad school and becoming a teacher, because they writing thing wasn’t working. I was living in Florida and covering high school baseball games for the St. Petersburg Times, and writing music pieces on the side. I got an assignment to write about the Allman Brothers’ Severn Turns, which I had desperately wanted to do… somebody else had been assigned the story and had to turn it down, so it came to me. And it was the biggest thing I had done to that point by far. So I really threw myself into it. I bought Dreams, which was a new box set at the time, and listened to it for hours with a new depth of intensity. I did the same thing with Seven Turns. I really threw myself into that story and it was the best thing I’d ever done to that point. It increased my confidence, it increased by visibility and it indirectly led to being hired by Guitar World. The Allmans had a thriving career then, so I become the Allman Brothers guy at Guitar World.

At the same time Warren Haynes came to live in New York, and we had a lot of things parallel in our lives. We were both young guys who felt like we’d gotten a big break — him with the Allman Brothers and me with Guitar World. So we bonded over that. And on it went. At one point in the ’90s I worried that I was too associated with the Allman Brothers Band; that I would be less relevant as a writer to the rest of the world. But I guess at this point that’s no longer relevant.

Duane is the most iconic figure in the band’s history. I see his ascendance as kind of a “perfect storm” scenario, where his amazing technique, his tone, his orchestration and arranging ideas, and his improvisational and compositional skills all came together with the tragedy of his premature death to build an enduring legend.

That’s all true, but what really came to impress me was his presence and his vision. Talking to people who knew him, it’s not like he died more than 40 years ago. It’s like he was there last week. He had such a profound impact on people. And his vision…

What Duane did is amazing. There is no other lead guitarist who said, “I want to get the best guitarist I can to play lead with me.” Jaimoe [a/k/a drummer Jai Johanny Johanson] says that when Duane first recruited him for the band, he said, “I’m going to have two guitars, two drummers and my brother is going to sing.”

That’s not what lead guitarists do — certainly not what they were doing in 1969. [Capricorn Records’ boss] Phil Walden, who signed Duane, understood Duane was an incredible player, but he was looking at Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton and thinking of some way — maybe a power trio — to feature Duane as a guitar hero. Duane could have done that, but Duane had something different and bigger in mind, so he went and found Dickey Betts. And Dickey is, I think, very responsible for what we think of as the classic Allman Brothers sound.

One of the things the band is known for is guitar harmonies, which they didn’t actually use as much as people think they did, but that 100-percent came from Dickey. Everybody who played with Dickey in previous bands, including Reese Wynans who went on to play with Stevie Ray, says Dickey was always wanting to do harmonies. And Dickey’s harmonies, I believe, came from Western swing. Dickey had taken lessons from a guitarist who’d played in Western swing bands.

Dickey and Duane were a perfect match. Dickey had this perfect melodic sense you hear over and over in his playing… “Melissa,” “Blue Sky.” And Duane had perfect pitch and this ability to dive into a session and lay incredible leads and riffs down on one hearing. A lot of their harmonies were done on the fly. Dickey says somewhere in the book that their harmonies were never letter perfect, and not how you’d play if you sat down and wrote them out. That’s because they were making them up on the fly. They had a thing where, if Dickey played a line twice, on the third time Duane came in on it, and you can hear that over and over.

I felt they were using ideas mapped out by Miles Davis and John Coltrane in their harmonies, with modality and static chords.

Definitely. But I believe the primary thing came from Western swing and maybe even early bluegrass, which Dickey called “string music.” I think the execution of that was tied into Miles and Coltrane, because they were getting deeper and deeper into jazz — mostly through Jaimoe, because he was a jazz guy. Jaimoe had them all listening to Miles’ Kind of Blue a lot. The bass line on “Dreams” is from Kind of Blue, and Jaimoe says he played the drum roll that Jimmy Cobb played on Kind of Blue’s “All Blues.”

Were there any gear or other strategic revelations in terms of the Allman Brothers Band’s guitar approach you learned in the process of researching the book?

Not really on gear. It’s pretty well known. Some of the Duane fanatics on-line are disappointed because I didn’t do more research into whether Duane had two Gold Tops or just one. But gear doesn’t interest me that much.

The guitar revelation for me was the extent to which Dickey would come in with the main melody and riff, and then Duane would come in with the harmony. That was crystallized for me.

The other thing that was really interesting was talking to Warren Haynes about the beginning of his guitar relationship with Dickey, and how much time Dickey spent perfecting little things — playing in hotel rooms and on busses — and how much attention Dickey paid to details like when and where to use vibrato, how long to hold that vibrato, when to let a note ring and when to cut it off. As much as he and Duane originally did a lot of that stuff on the fly, it was important for Dickey when he started his relationship with Warren to have all of those things really nailed down. And once they did that, he didn’t feel the need to continue forcing it. That accounted for a lot of the incredible strength Dickey and Warren had in right out of the gate in the Allman Brother. Of course, they played together for a few years in the Dickey Betts Band before that.

And while Dan Toler, Jack Pearson and Jimmy Herring — all exceptional guitarists — took that second position in the Allman Brothers, wasn’t it Warren who really brought the swagger and daring back into the mix?

I do think that Warren’s ability to stand toe-to-toe with Dickey and shine and establish his own personality while nailing the Duane stuff was really impressive. We’ve gotten so used to Warren at this point and he’s so well established in his own right that it’s easy to forget how challenging what he accomplished was. The band was adamant that Warren was not being brought in to replace Duane, but if you’re on stage playing slide with the Allman Brothers on “Statesboro Blues,” you’re replacing Duane. There’s no way around that. And Jack and the others did great jobs, but Warren paved the way for how to do that.

What makes Warren such an icon today in his own right, besides his visibility in the Allman Brothers, Gov’t Mule and as a solo artist?

He takes risks onstage, and I think a lot of players don’t do that today. In 1969, if Duane got some idea in his head onstage at the Fillmore, he’d just try it and I’m sure it would sound great at the moment and then be gone. Now everything you play is like putting out a recording. It can be on YouTube in 10 minutes. And that makes some people not take chances. Warren has resisted that. His is always creating and always going for it.

Then, of course, there’s Derek Trucks, who can play extended solos that careen between bebop and Eastern microtonality, and in open E tuning no less.

His ability to do that really is phenomenal. Yet another amazing player in the band’s history who has managed to grow into the role over the year.

Did the departure of Dickey seem like a tragedy?

From the time they reformed he really was so clearly the bandleader. It was obvious to anyone who saw them onstage. So it seemed unthinkable that he wouldn’t be in the band. It is very sad, but I think that [drummer] Butch Trucks and Gregg had reached a point where they couldn’t take anymore because of what they considered Dickey’s bullying and drinking. At that point the question became, “Will there be no Allman Brothers or will there be an Allman Brothers without Dickey?” It couldn’t continue as it was. So put in that context, it’s great that we had another 14 years with Derek and Warren. Which doesn’t make the tragedy of what happened any less.

At this point, does it seem like time for the Allman Brothers to give it up anyway? Have the shows become redundant?

Not for me. I’m sure if you go to one Allman Brothers show every couple years and don’t get to hear your favorite Allman Brothers song, it could be frustrating. But I can’t think of any other band that had classic rock radio staples like “Midnight Rider,” “Melissa” and “One Way Out” that doesn’t play them every night. They’ll always play some of them, but I think that’s been a key to them not becoming stale – plus they keep introducing old Allman Brothers songs and songs by Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Van Morrison… And that goes back to Warren not being afraid to fail a bit.

So I don’t think it’s time for them to hang it up, per se… but it is time if Derek and Warren are not going to be fully engaged, and that’s clearly becoming the case. No matter how you shake it, it takes a lot to walk away from an institution.

It’s sad for Allman Brothers fans. You can go see these guys in their own bands, but there’s something that happens when they all get together and play those songs that’s special. And from a guitar perspective, with the whole thing of Duane and Dickey, I’m sure you could have seen either one alone and they would have been great, but, hey, you could see the Allman Brothers Band and see them both. And it’s still sort of that way. We can go see Warren and Derek, and it’s fantastic, but when you see them both together it’s different. You get the mix of them together, and that’s special.

Sure, the Allmans could go out and get two more great guitarists to join the band and interpret things, but the attention to detail, the respect for each other, the fact they’re both world class players in their own right… You need that for the Allman Brothers, because that’s what Duane and Dickey were. That intensity and ability to spark one another is essential to the Allman Brothers.