[Cover photo credit to Gilbert Lee]
In 2019, The Allman Betts Band released their debut album, Down to the River, having recorded it live at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and they followed this by going on the road together on their first real tour. They went straight from touring into the same studio again to record what would turn out to be a double album, Bless Your Heart, set for release on August 28th. That choice was fortuitous, since it meant that all 13 tracks got recorded before the pandemic, though it did slow down The Allman Betts Band's West Coast Tour.
Undeterred, the band have decided to release Bless Your Heart, and in the run up to release have made public the rather hilarious animated video for "Magnolia Road" off the new album. We've gotten an early listen to the new album and can only say that it gives a solid impression of a band blasting off to explore their own potential in different stylistic ways, all building on the kind of sounds you hear getting started in Down to the River.
For those who may not know, three of the members of The Allman Betts Band are the sons of founding members of The Allman Brothers Band, including Devon Allman, Duane Betts, and Berry Duane Oakley. Other members include John Ginty, Johnny Stachela, R. Scott Bryan, and John Lum.
Duane Betts kindly got on the phone to talk to us here at Tower's PULSE about Bless Your Heart and the band's journey so far.
Hannah Means-Shannon: Has Malibu been somewhere that’s been good to be during quarantine, versus somewhere a little closer to LA?
Duane Betts: Yeah, I would say that it’s better than being in LA. It basically is LA without having to be in the middle of it. It’s a world moved away from Los Angeles, but you’re still connected. Though it’s more connected now than 20 or 30 years ago.
But I’ve actually been in Wyoming, too. I live in Jackson Hole, and that’s way less people, big wide-open spaces. So that was really awesome, and we’re going to head back there in a week or two.
HMS: Are both of these places where you feel you can still make music, or are you dealing with limitations due to lockdowns?
DB: I’m always making music. If you’re playing guitar in your living room, you’re making music. But I’m not playing gigs. I suppose you could go jam with people at their houses, but I’ve been keeping to myself, writing, getting in touch with nature, hiking, stuff like that. I’ve kind of taken it as a sign that if things like this are happening, maybe stay to yourself and work on some songs. Connect with your family. That kind of thing.
HMS: Absolutely. I’m glad if you can take something positive out of this time. I know everyone responds differently in terms of creativity. Some find it focusing, and some people, understandably, can’t stop watching the news.
DB: I try to strike a balance. Some days, depending on how I’m feeling, there are times when the news is the last thing I want to watch or hear, but then there are other parts of the same day when I want to watch the news. It’s definitely hit and miss.
HMS: When I got in touch to talk to you guys, I was actually excited about two things that are happening for the band. For the first time, Down to the River, is finally on vinyl.
DB: Yes. It’ll be officially be out soon. We’ve been selling some copies on our website with a pre-release date, but it’ll be the middle of July officially. It took a while. There were some distribution backups.
HMS: And the second thing is the new album.
DB: The new album is killer. I’m excited to talk about that.
HMS: The new record, Bless Your Heart, is giant physically and conceptually. 13 tracks.
DB: Yes, 13 tracks. I don’t know how many minutes it is, but quite a bit more than Down to the River. It’s a lot of music. Not every song is 8 minutes but there is some stretched out, expansive stuff on it. It takes you on a ride. It’s a listening experience, definitely.
HMS: As far as I can tell, putting together Down to the River as your first album together seemed to be about laying down the groundwork and finding the things that you all had in common, musically. Then after touring together, putting together Bless Your Heart seems like an explosive, expansive reaction to that time and development of working much more together.
DB: Have you heard it?
HMS: Yes, I have.
DB: I think we definitely took more chances with this one. We wanted to do something that was a little more vast in terms of our influences. On the first one, we showed that we were true to our roots and our heritage. It was a good, solid record that was made from the heart with good intentions, and it turned out really well.
But I think this one is the next step, or maybe even two steps. I think this one is really a nice body of work. Hopefully people enjoy it. You make something and put it out there, and you hope people connect to it in some way. If they don’t, then that’s okay too, because we like it.
[Photo credit to Gilbert Lee]
HMS: Is the reason that there are so many tracks that you all generated a lot of material in that early time together? Does some of it come from before touring?
DB: These tunes are pretty much all after. After the session that generated Down to the River, there was definitely some left over from it, but we didn’t really have to dig back into any of those. Sometimes there’s a song that’s so great that doesn’t make it into something, but you know you’re going to use it on the next one. The stuff that we had left over from the first session, that wasn’t the case. They were good songs, but we felt like maybe they were left off of the first record for a reason.
And frankly, we didn’t really have to go to try to shape any of those into what they would need to be to make the record. The sessions for the second record turned out really well. As far as the amount of songs, we pretty much had it, and it just worked out that way. We didn’t say we had to have that many. There were a couple that came in at the last moment and kind of got in by the skin of their teeth, but with good reason. Devon connected to the song that Cisco Adler wrote, “Congratulations”. It really reminded him of growing up in Corpus Christi and the friends he had there.
At the last moment, when we were in Muscle Shoals to do the recording, that one was sent our way and he really connected with it. It would have been 12 if it wasn’t for that. It could’ve been less, but it turned out the way it was supposed to turn out.
HMS: It’s great to be able to decide on the number of tracks that you feel work for an album rather than to feel limited. It’s kind of like TV shows now, where a lot more showrunners are able to make the episodes unusual lengths if they need to. Just based on what feels right.
DB: Yeah, it was just what felt right. You don’t necessarily want six ballads in a row on a Rock ‘n Roll record. We knew we had a nice variety of material and it really takes you on a nice ride. There’s a little bit of everything, and it takes you on a ride, and it puts you out in a nice place, having had a nice journey. I’m excited for people to hear it and hear what they think.
I’ve played it for some pretty critical people that are my friends, and the results were good. I was pleased with the listening party. Hopefully people will recognize the growth.
HMS: Oh, that’s the number one thing that’s obvious, in my opinion. It makes you think, “Wow, this combination of band members really got it together and figured this out fast!” There’s a nice emotional development in the album for audiences. It feels like a higher ratio of Rock than the previous album, but not a departure in that way, just a development. The album makes a strong statement, for sure.
HMS: Do you have particular feelings about the fact that you’re releasing the album during this time, when it can’t be supported by a tour, which seems to be the normal operation for album releases?
[Photo credit to Kaelan Barowsky]
DB: Yeah, that helps usually. It’s odd not to be able to release the record and tour, but the last thing I want to do is tour before it’s appropriate to tour.
It’s kind of a cliché, but music is medicine, and if people can get something out of this music, and it makes them feel good, that’s all I need to hear. It’s everything to me. If I hear that they really connected to something that we wrote. That’s the best feeling as a song writer.
As far as the touring goes, a lot of people are going to have to do that. They might put a record out and play their first show several months later to support the record. It’s not ideal, but there are a lot of people going through rough times.
I’m very fortunate. We’ve worked really hard over the past couple years, and now I can wait it out. But there are a lot of people going through rough times, and if any music we make can help people get through that, that’s the best feeling in the world.
HMS: A number of people I’ve spoken to have definitely felt the same way. Though some have also said that they’ve been told it isn’t a good idea and they’ve decided to it anyway. Music is playing a very interesting role in peoples’ lives right now.
DB: Yeah. I don’t know why people wouldn’t want artists to put out music. Like it’s insensitive about what people are going through if they are trying to profit? I think, first of all, that it’s not really up to us, since our record company isn’t going to hold the record for six months. But also, you put the work in, and you put it out in the world, and you go play for folks and spread the Gospel, and then you do it again. Then you take a break, and then you do it again, you know?
Right now, we’re taking a break from touring under unique circumstances, but it looks like 2021 is when people will play live shows again. Actually, by the time this comes out, we’re actually doing a livestream on Sunday from The Belly Up. Our friend started a company, No Cap Shows, so we’re doing it in affiliation with them. And we’re actually playing together for the first time in four months, so we’re excited.
HMS: That’s wonderful! I was going to ask if you had anything like that planned.
When did you all manage to finish recording the new album in Muscle Shoals? How down to the wire were you before lockdowns started?
DB: We were in there December, so it was a good while before everything really started coming down. We were on tour on the West Coast when it really started to get serious. We had started a tour in Colorado, and then worked our way through Santa Fe, Phoenix, and Southern California. Then Washington got shut down, and then Oregon got shut down.
We were up in the Bay Area, doing a show at Terrapin Crossroads in Marin, and we drove up there, and then California was shut down. We didn’t even get to play the next show. It all happened pretty fast. But it had to be done. People can wait a little bit to see live shows. It’s not going to kill anyone to wait.
HMS: [Laughs] Even if it feels like it.
DB: Yeah, exactly!
HMS: Thank you for explaining what happened to the band on tour.
When you recorded Bless Your Heart at Muscle Shoals, which is the same studio where you recorded the first album, did you take a similar approach to the recording process? I know a lot of Down to the River was recorded live and very analog.
DB: Very similar. Pretty much the same approach. Some of the songs called for different textures because the material had grown. There’s some trippy kind of stuff, Mellotron. It’s really cool, but the approach was the same. We got a lot of it live to two-inch tape.
DB: I can say that I did go back and re-cut some of my solos more on this one than the last one. Which I’m happy about because sometimes you get a live solo and it’s awesome. But sometimes you know you can do better. It depends on the tune.
You might think, “Okay I could do something that might be more ‘impressive’ than that, but what I did was perfect because there’s no need to fix anything on that.” If it’s a song like “King Crawler”, for instance, on the record, there’s no need to fix any of that. But some of the other tunes, I went back and did another take. “Savannah’s Dream” is completely live, and that’s a long one.
Same approach, but different styles of Rock ‘n Roll coming in, I’d say. Some Pink Floyd, some Beatles, some George Harrison on “Doctor’s Daughter”. We didn’t have anything like that on the previous album.
And “Pale Horse Rider”, we had nothing close to that. That’s a very cool kind of Crazy Horse, My Morning Jacket kind of vintage vibe on it.
HMS: That’s a very eerie song, I think.
DB: Yeah! Then you have your good, nasty Rock ‘n Roll Stonesy kind of songs, too, like “Airboats and Cocaine” and “King Crawler”.
HMS: I definitely noticed that. I’m a huge Stones fan, so that was cool to hear.
DB: Yeah, we are too. But even if there are people who are not necessarily fans of them, like my Dad, if you ask him, “Who’s the best Rock ‘n Roll band in the world?”, he’d say, “Oh, the Rolling Stones.” Right?
HMS: Yes, you can’t really get out from under that shadow.
Well, the band has released of a couple of videos, too, which is great for fans to give them something to think about right now.
I first became aware of the video for “Long Gone”, which was shot in quarantine.
DB: Off the last record, sure.
HMS: That has got video footage shot by different members of the band, right?
DB: Yes, everyone from their home location. No one was together on that one. I was at home in Wyoming, in Jackson, and there’s plenty of scenery there, so I just went outside. We knew there would be some locations that would photograph well.
HMS: With the crazy, ethereal landscape?
DB: The mountain ones, that’s me. That’s Grand Teton National Park. My wife and I just went out, shooting all on cellphone, of course. It was a really cool video, I thought.
HMS: It’s really emotive! It couldn’t be more different from the video for “Magnolia Road” which has come out, and is a cartoon, basically.
What was it like becoming a cartoon character?
DB: Funny! I laughed. Devon had a great idea when it came to the hippie festival vibe, since we’re all missing that. Our friend Steve, “Scuba Steve”, as he’s known, is the animator. He did a great job nailing everyone in the band, even the crew, our lighting guy, our sound guy. I really dug it. I thought it was awesome.
HMS: Did you get to influence Cartoon Duane’s wardrobe?
DB: No, I didn’t! I like that he used my P35 on it, and he put on my red cowboy shirt. I know the shirt he was going for. I actually lost it, I left it in a hotel. I thought it was cool, fun, light, and it just put a smile on my face.
HMS: Absolutely. Were the psychedelic backgrounds in the animation a reference to the fact that the band works with the Brotherhood of Light on your shows?
DB: Yeah, they are part of our crew, pretty much. They do everything unless it’s a one-off and we can’t fly them in. If we’re on tour, Chris Samartzis is there. It was as spot-on as it could be to our actual set up.
HMS: That song seems like a good choice anyway to release ahead of the album because it’s quite an anthem, a heartfelt song, with the idea of bringing people together.
DB: It’s a feel-good summer song.
HMS: Do you think of it as one of the leading songs on the album?
DB: I do. I think it’s a great song, though several others on the album might be right up there with it. It’s one you can sing and dance to.
HMS: Did you get to play any of the new songs live before recording?
DB: We did. Live, in front of people, we played “Airboats and Cocaine”. A good number of them we were playing at soundchecks, since we didn’t want to play them as part of the set yet. For voice memos to send to the producer, that sort of thing. To let them take shape to where we could go in there and play them. Some of the other tunes, we didn’t get to do that.
It depends on how you really want to do it. Sometimes you want to lock in rehearsals in the studio if you’re not on tour. But for the way that we were rolling, we were on tour right up until the studio, and we just had a day or two to rehearse the ones that we hadn’t played in soundcheck along the way.
HMS: Something about the band that’s different from a lot of bands is to have so many band members. I think you have about seven active members. What do you think that brings to the band?
DB: Well, that’s just a big sound. We have two drummers, keyboards, bass. You can get a lot done with just a few parts, like a trio, but it’s nice to have all the different textures and levels of sound. With a bigger band, it becomes more of a moving, living organism, I guess you could say. For the subtlety, you want two drummers.
It’s hard to get with one drummer what you could get with two when they are playing that kind of bouncy style like The Allman Brothers, or even The Grateful Dead style. Our drummers work really well together and have cool styles. There are three guitar players. We don’t always need to have three guitar players, but we have Johnny [Stachela], who is by far the best slide guitar player in the band. Devon doesn’t play any slide and I can play a little bit, but I certainly don’t play like Johnny. It just fits, and as long as people know how to play in a band that big, I think it works great.
HMS: It must take a lot of organization.
DB: It’s all about listening. You have to listen.
HMS: The fact that you then decide to do your albums live is something even harder, but you do it anyway! Impressive.
Well, we like to ask people to tell us what they think of our Tower Records motto, “No Music, No Life”. What does that mean to you in your life?
DB: My life has revolved around music as far back as I can remember. It rings true for me. I have always had a love for music and it’s gotten me through a lot of hard times. It’s made me feel good during good times. It’s something that you can share with other people. When you write a song and it connects to somebody, there’s no better feeling than that. It’s kind of my take on it, but I feel like I was put on this earth to make and play music.