In my short lifetime I’ve liked some pretty good singers – Paul Rodgers, John Lennon, David Gilmour and Ronnie James Dio just to name a few. But by far my favorite vocalist of all-time is Gregg Allman. Between the Allman Brothers Band and his own Gregg Allman & Friends, I’ve seen him in concert nine times. The first time I had the pleasure of seeing him live was the day after Carol and I got married in 1987. We saw him open for Stevie Ray Vaughan [RIP] & Double Trouble. I first got hooked on Gregg Allman’s voice when I first heard the Allman Brothers’ version of One Way Out. I’m usually pretty skeptical about white guys trying to sing the blues, but Gregg Allman has earned that right. He’s had his share of trials and tribulations, some of them of his own doing [five or six wives, drugs, booze], some of them not [brother Duane killed in a motorcycle accident in 1971, his own father murdered by a hitchhiker when he was two]. He recently had a liver transplant [due to liver cancer and Hepatitis C], from which he is slowly recovering. He’s been sober since 1996, but he still has a feel for the blues. For proof, listen to him on the Allman Brothers’ Hittin’the Note. That album found Gregg Allman in perhaps the finest voice of his career. Since that release we Allman Brothers fans have been craving another release of any kind from Gregg Allman. Our hopes were answered with Low Country Blues.
Low Country Blues finds Gregg in as fine a voice as he was with Hittin’ the Note. The big difference is he doesn’t have the big seven-piece band on Low Country Blues. The music of the Allman Brothers is firmly in the blues-rock category, with the soul, R&B and jazz influences to the fore. In the Allman Brothers, the guitar is king. How could it not since the likes of Duane Allman, Dickey Betts, Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks have all passed through its ranks? What has made the Allman Brothers stand out is their inventive blend of traditional formats (Chicago, Delta, Country, Swamp, Appalachian) that reinvented the contours of the blues song. Low Country Blues is pure blues. Doyle Bramhall and T-Bone Burnett provide the sympathetic guitar work, but they don’t overpower the arrangements like Warren Haynes or Dickey Betts could. Gregg’s Hammond B-3 is mixed just high enough to let you know it’s there. Colin Linden’s Dobro adds just enough coloring to make the arrangements that much more exotic. The production emphasis is where it should be on a Gregg Allman solo release – that voice. He is sounding better now than in the Allman Brothers’ Fillmore East/Eat a Peach heyday. After those two seminal albums, you could hear how the drugs and booze affected Gregg’s voice. His voice was good then – it’s great now. It rasps, it sweeps, it snarls, it bites, and it does it even more effectively today than back in his younger days. T-Bone Burnett did an excellent job in capturing the rawness of Gregg Allman’s voice. He let Gregg do only one or two vocal takes of each song. That’s another endearing quality of Low Country Blues – a slickly-produced album it is not.
I haven’t heard the Sleepy John Estes original Floating Bridge. I heard Eric Clapton cover it on Another Ticket. Gregg’s version sounds nothing like that. With his own acoustic guitar, Dr John’s piano, a few electric guitars wailing in the background and a rubbery upright bass, the song is “bouncy.” Of the twelve songs on the album, there is one Gregg Allman original. He wrote Just Another Rider with Allman Brothers/Gov’t Mule guitarist Warren Haynes. Just Another Rider fits snugly amongst the other songs created by blues legends. Am I implying Gregg Allman is also a blues legend? Yes! When he sings I feel like snappin’ my pistol in your face/the stone cold graveyard gonna be your restin’ place on Muddy Waters’ I Can’t Be Satisfied, you get the feeling he means it. I’ve heard Muddy’s original, and I’ve also heard BB King’s Please Accept My Love. Gregg does both songs justice. Otis Rush’s Checking On My Baby reminds one of Gregg’s performance of Stormy Monday from the Fillmore East album. The traditional Rolling Stone is transformed by Gregg, T-Bone Burnett and Dr John into a 7-minute trance blues with a hypnotic percussion, a piano that doubles the upright bass lines, a dobro that gives the song a swampy feel, and a stark vocal. It just oozes atmosphere. This is the one that always makes me reach for the “repeat” button on my iPod. I won’t go so far as to mimic Paula Abdul [her oft-repeated “you took the song and made it your own” cliché], but Gregg sings all of these blues nuggets very well.
T-Bone Burnett, the producer of choice these days, produced this disc as he did for BB King’s latest, One Kind Favor . I mention One Kind Favor because both it and Low Country Blues have the same sound. It’s almost like T-Bone Burnett cuts records and saves a place to “insert vocalist here.” Both albums were made the same way. Both were cut without the artists’ own bands. Dr John’s piano and Jay Bellrose’s calf-skin drums grace both records, as does the acoustic upright bass. The horns on both are arranged by Darrell Leonard, he of several albums from Taj Mahal. Both albums have that 1950s throwback feel. T-Bone Burnett gathered hundreds of songs for Gregg Allman and BB King to listen to, from which they chose which songs they were going to record. And both singers got to chose from songs from the early blues era. In BB King’s case it was the likes Blind Lemon Jefferson, Howlin’ Wolf, Lonnie Johnson, T-Bone Walker and Big Bill Broonzy. With Gregg Allman it was Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, Bobby Blue Bland, Skip James, Junior Wells, and [ironically] BB King. Both men covered the “Who’s Who” of American blues.
The thing with both records is that both harken back to an earlier and simpler blues era. If you like Low Country Blues, do yourself and pick up a copy of One Kind Favor while you’re at it. Gregg Allman has said he can’t wait to do another record with T-Bone Burnett. As much as I like Low Country Blues, I hope Gregg has more of his own tunes to offer the next time around.
Recommended songs: Just Another Rider, Rolling Stone, Devil Got My Woman, I Can't Be Satisfied, Floating Bridge
Just Another Rider
I Can't Be Satisfied
Devil Got My Woman