Author Discusses New Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band Book
Paul's 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?
Paul: 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.
Gibson: What does the book say about you and your relationship to the band, since researching and writing it required many years?
Paul: 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.
Gibson: 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.
Paul: 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 Dicky Betts. And Dicky 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 Dicky. Everybody who played with Dicky in previous bands, including Reese Wynans who went on to play with Stevie Ray, says Dicky was always wanting to do harmonies. And Dicky's harmonies, I believe, came from Western swing. Dicky had taken lessons from a guitarist who'd played in Western swing bands.
Dicky and Duane were a perfect match. Dicky 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. Dicky 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 Dicky played a line twice, on the third time Duane came in on it, and you can hear that over and over. Read the rest of the interview here.
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