Gregg Allman has a best-selling autobiography, My Cross to Bear, and a movie based on the book begins filming next month in Savannah with Allman serving as the executive producer. His last solo album, Low Country Blues, was produced by T-Bone Burnett (musical director of O Brother, Where Art Thou) and was a surprise top-of-the-charts hit in 2011. A founding member of the iconic Allman Brothers Band, Allman has enjoyed a career renaissance as he settles into his 60s.
The timing coincides with Allman’s recovery from a liver transplant due to damage from Hepatitis C and years as one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most notorious substance abusers. These days, Allman — considered by many as the greatest white blues singer alive — is sober and reflective, humble and grateful.
The hottest ticket in town this weekend is Friday night’s tribute concert to Allman at the Fox Theatre — All My Friends: Celebrating the Songs & Voice of Gregg Allman — that will feature appearances by the Allman Brothers Band, Dr. John, Taj Mahal, Jackson Browne, Natalie Cole, John Hiatt, Vince Gill, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi and Widespread Panic. In addition, Allman will participate in a celebration of Georgia music January 18 at Symphony Hall that will feature the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
In a wide-ranging interview with ArtsATL, Allman, 66, reflects on his late brother, guitar legend Duane Allman, his recovery from addiction and his secret passion when he’s not making music.
ArtsATL: Other than writing and playing music, what’s something you love to do in your off time, when you’re away from touring?
Gregg Allman: For a long time — probably as long as I’ve been playing music — I’ve deep-sea fished. The last two weeks of August and the first two weeks of September, all the tarpon — which is a big, big 200- to 300-pound fish — come up from Florida and swim right past Savannah and we go out to the flats in chest-deep water to catch them. After you catch the fish, the captain takes the specs on the fish — the weight, length, girth. And the cool thing is, you don’t have to kill him. You cut him loose and they just replicate the fish, so that’s a great set-up. It’s a great conservation thing, and the replicas look amazing. I just caught a 108-pound tarpon. That son-of-a-gun fought me for two hours and 15 minutes. Tarpon are usually caught in a small boat. Anyway, they’re smart fish and they do what’s called “dogging” — they circle around the boat and man, they just put you through a trip. You have to reach out and grab the line — which is already as tight as it’ll go — and pull it over the engine. He ran me around the boat seven times.
Allman: Yeah, it is. I beat him, though. (chuckles) It’s just so much fun.
ArtsATL: Share something with us that you think the general public might be surprised to learn about Gregg Allman.
Allman: I’m a painter. When I built my house, I designed the whole thing myself. I designed this room surrounded by windows and it’s way up amidst these wonderful, huge oak trees, which are 200 to 250 years old. I tucked the whole house up under those trees. So you’re just up there in the trees. You step off the patio to that room and it’s just beautiful, a very romantic place. I go up there to paint sometimes. It gives me a lot of peace of mind.
ArtsATL: Why do you think there is such a resurgence of interest in Gregg Allman right now?
Allman: I don’t know, but I can feel it and I’m grateful for it. If I had to guess, I’d say it might have something to do with what’s happened since I had the transplant. It took the better part of three years to heal. After I had convalesced for about 11 months, it really got next to me and I started thinking, “Man, did I make the wrong decision in having it? It doesn’t look like I’m ever going to play again.”
And then another year passed and I was really starting to sweat it. I didn’t feel well. I had no energy. It was November last year and my tour was starting December 27 — same as it started this year. I was still in a lot of pain. I was doing a lot of praying. Then on the morning of the 23rd of December, something was different. No, a whole lot was different. I came out of bed like there was a spring under me, and I’ve felt the same way every day since.
It’s amazing — my energy rebounded. I really hit the mark of being healed, finally. But this all began with me having been in the depths of hell with drugs and mostly alcohol for years. I had just always figured that was gonna kill me. I didn’t know how to stop. (pauses) And, finally, I did. Then, later, I found out about the liver and I thought, “Well, hell, my number’s up now.” But I still had hope. And, sure enough, here I am. I’ve definitely become more spiritual now. Not only did they save my live, but I feel great every day. I feel so much better every day now than I did for so many years. So, I think people have seen me re-blossom at this age. And them seeing my transformation may be what this resurgence is all about. (chuckles)
ArtsATL: Have any plans to do another solo album?
Allman: I do. As a matter of fact, I’m up for two of them. There will be a second half to Low Country Blues. I was supposed to go in December 9 to do it, but I had so much going on, we postponed it until May 10. And further on down the road, I’m working on one that will be called All Compositions by — and my name. I’ve never had one out where I wrote them all. I’m currently slaving over that. (chuckles)
ArtsATL: The Allman Brothers Band has enjoyed enormous success for several decades.
Allman: Yes! Forty-five years on March 26.
ArtsATL: The Allman Brothers Band has endured many trials and tribulations. Do you feel your deep love and devotion for your brother, Duane, who started the band, has been a driving force behind you keeping it together for so long?
Allman: Of course that’s been a part. I did it for my brother; I did it for everyone in the band. But, I wouldn’t say it was me who did it. We all did it. I don’t feel like I’m the leader. I’ve never felt like I was the leader of Allman Brothers. There’s not a leader. It’s just its own thing.
ArtsATL: Still, some might say you are a key ingredient in the Allman Brothers and that you’d be impossible to replace. Any thoughts on that?
Allman: Well, I wouldn’t say I’m irreplaceable, I think we can all be replaced and that’s a good thing to remember ’cause we’re all just kind of “penciled in,” you know. (laughs)
ArtsATL: Did you ever envision, in your wildest dreams, the level of success you have come to know?
Allman: Not at all. I definitely dreamt of this. I mean, every up and coming musician does, but there’s so much good competition out there. I, of all people, was always the “Doubting Thomas.” We had been playing all around central Florida and we were getting really well-known as the Allman Joys. And my brother said, “Man, we gotta lie down on the road.” He wanted me to quit school then. He had. But, I said, “No.” I wanted to be a dentist. And the Beatles had just come out. I said, “Man, there’re some really good pickers out here. Man, we may be doing ok here, but we’re just a couple of country boys from Florida and we got to take on this whole world.” And he said, “We’ll get ’em, we’ll get ’em. We’re better than all of ’em!” I was like, “Who do think you are, man? You got visions of grandeur!” I told him time and time again, “We will never make enough money to pay the rent.” He said, “No, we’ll make millions.” I said, “You’re nuts.” (laughs)
ArtsATL: What do you think Duane might have to say about the many things his doubting little brother has accomplished in this business?
Allman: He’d have a couple of things to say about the way I went about it, (chuckles) you know, the big brother. All in all, I think he’d say “Bubba, I’m very proud.” At least, I’d really like to think that’s what he’d say.
ArtsATL: Based on that story you just shared, I wonder if he’d also say, “I told you so?”
Allman: (laughs) Oh yes! I’d get an afternoon of that, for sure. (laughs)
ArtsATL: Do you remember the moment the “Doubting Thomas” in you rested, and you thought, “Wow, I’m a star?”
Allman: I’ve never felt like a “star.” I don’t even let anybody use that word around my camp. “Rock star.” I can’t stand the term “rock star.” I can’t even look at the drink when I go into the damn convenience store. It really bothers me, man. (chuckles) It’s like, “Hey man, I am so much fucking better than you.” I don’t know if I’m supposed to, but I just don’t feel it. Like, I can see things going on and I ride in the limousines and all that, but I don’t let them open my door for me — that’s for damn sure.
ArtsATL: What three words come to mind that best describe your recipe for success?
Allman: “Diligence” is the first word. “Passion,” then “perseverance.” You have to really want to do something. But, if you really want to do it bad enough, by God, you’re going to do it — unless you’re just physically incapable — you just persevere and do it.
ArtsATL: Staying on the topic of descriptive words, there was a time you might have been chosen as the poster child for “sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.” What might be a more fitting slogan on a poster beside a picture of Gregg Allman today?
Allman: Fun, music, travel and passion.
ArtsATL: How is it different for you as a performer to be on stage clean and sober?
Allman: I don’t feel like I’m trying to hide anything. I’m more spot-on. I can see, I can feel — all my senses are working perfectly. I’m in the pocket. I feel way more in charge.
ArtsATL: The Allman Brothers Band Museum in Macon is at the “Big House,” where band members lived for a time. What does the museum mean to you?
Allman: Oh, wow, it means a lot to me because I was very instrumental in putting it together — all the band was, all the original members: me, Jaimoe and Butch. And it’s taken a lot of money to get it going. There for a while, it was struggling ’cause it takes a lot of money to keep it going. I sat down and wrote a personal letter asking for support from everyone I didn’t think I’d offend and the money poured in from all but two people I reached out to — that was just amazing. And now, it’s just about self-sustaining. But it’s about the music and music history. We’re all very proud.
ArtsAtl: Regarding women and the saying, “You can’t live with them, you can’t live without them,” would you add anything onto that saying?
Allman: Yes, I’d add, “But I’d rather live with them.” (chuckles)
ArtsAtl: Do you think you’ll ever marry again?
Allman: If I found the right person, I absolutely would.
ArtsAtl: At the tribute concert Friday night, you’ll be joined by a lot of music greats to celebrate your career. How does that make you feel?
Allman: It’s amazing. At first, I was kind of perplexed about it. I thought to myself, “Don’t they just do this for dead people?” (laughs) And then I kind of got over that and now I’m very flattered — to the point of now thinking like, “Maybe I’m not worthy of this.” But, mostly, it’s given me a feeling of belonging — which is one of the best feelings any of us can have.