NASHVILLE, TN — Dickey Betts is sitting on a sofa in the lounge of the elegant Hutton Hotel, wearing a cowboy hat and a necklace made with animal teeth, sipping a glass of white wine. He’s cordial and cheerful on his visit to Nashville to take part in the unveiling of the Gibson Custom Shop’s Southern Rock Tribute 1959 Les Paul , and looking forward to his annual summer tour, which starts on the July 4 weekend in Copiague, New York and Enfield, Connecticut.
“I’m amazing that at my age I’m still effective,” the 70-year-old six-string giant allows. “I have a formidable band together and I write new songs, although mainly we just do renditions of things like ‘Jessica’ and other hits. Those are fun to play and people enjoy those songs. I’ve got a full catalog of instrumentals that I could play all night if I wanted to. A rock ‘n roll career is supposed to last about as long as a professional football player’s — five years and you’re done. But I’m still out there swinging, fillings theaters and playing festivals.”
Since this is the 45th anniversary year of the formation of the Allman Brothers Band, that seemed like a good spark for our conversation:
At the start, it seemed like you really were a band of musical brothers.
We were, and we knew what we had. The band was so good we thought we’d never make it. In the beginning it was so amazing I don’t even know how to put it into words. With Duane, Berry Oakley, Greg and me as the songwriters, with everybody’s musicianship… it developed like a Polaroid picture. Nobody knew what it was going to be. They tried it at first as a trio, with Duane, Berry and Jaimo, and they cut some demos that were okay but they knew it wasn’t the Cream or Jimi Hendrix. And Berry told Duane the magic was happening when Betts was around, jamming, and from there we just grew into a six piece naturally.
We were elated with our sound, but every record company in the country turned us down. “All the songs sound the same.” “They don’t have a frontman”… all this corny junk. So we just started to travel around the country playing for free. In Boston, I remember we moved into a condemned building and ran an extension chord from the next building. We played in the park there — we’d get some hippies together and build a stage.
Then we started getting killed off. There was nothing we could do about that. It was tough times after we lost Duane and then we lost Berry. And then we had our biggest record. We figured. “Why quit when you’re losing?,” and it worked out.
And then, of course, the whole thing came apart about 14 years ago. The Allman Brothers weren’t like the Rolling Stones, where we toured every five years. We were a working band. Thirty years is a long haul — especially when you’re doing something where your emotions are on your shirtsleeve all the time. The social dynamics just blew apart.
The fact that Brothers and Sisters in 1973 was such a big hit with the absence of Duane speaks to your own abilities as a composer, as does its big hits, your songs “Jessica” and “Ramblin’ Man.”
Well, we didn’t have a second guitarist for years after Duane died, but we got Chuck Leavell, so the twin harmony Duane and me had on guitar was played by guitar and keyboards — going on the same model.
What was the biggest influence on you in developing those harmonies?
Western swing. My dad did play fiddle, but we didn’t call it bluegrass. It was called string music and he’d played Irish reels and things. So I think I got my sense of melody from Western swing and my dad. I also got my sense of tone from my dad.
So between you and Duane, you wedded the worlds of Western swing and string music with R&B, blues and soul?
We didn’t do it consciously. We knew that when we started improvising, things fit, and we didn’t analyze it. Duane was more real militaristic into urban blues. And then I had a Western swing lilt to my rock playing and it fit together beautifully. A lot of older folks said they thought we sounded like Benny Goodman, and it made sense to be later on when I listened to Goodman. He was pretty hip for his day, and would interweave his instruments together, too.
Were you guys also inspired by Hendrix and Cream, with their heavy guitar tones?
No, we just liked to play loud. We were all club players and we’d experienced Johnny Winter and Lonnie Mack, and of course we’d studied Albert King and B.B. King. They don’t mess around. They turn their amps up high. Real blues players are loud. They inspired us as rock players. I think Stevie Ray Vaughan really blended being a true blues player and being a rock player together better than anybody. He had almost a religious desire for playing blues, but he played like a rock player.
We you aware that you were building a new style of rock ‘n’ roll?
Yeah. At the start we didn’t have a product out, and we could see that the audience was taken by what we were playing — singing along and getting way into it, and telling us they hadn’t heard anything like what we were playing.
Sadly, Duane didn’t get to see the band’s success. He was only with us two years. At Fillmore East sold okay when it first came out. After Brothers and Sisters came out, everybody went back and bought Fillmore East, and then people really found out about Duane. We were just starting to get our foot in the door when we lost both him and Berry.
Fillmore East is truly a live album. There is nothing redone on that. Not like some live records… where the only thing live on there is the audience. Duane and me really respected one another. We didn’t hot dog or play over each other.
What do you think of the Southern Rock bands that came in the Allman Brothers’ wake?
There were some good ones. I really like the original version of Lynyrd Skynyrd, before the plane crash. God bless ’em for still writing new songs and touring, but they were in their magical form in the original line-up. Marshall Tucker was a great band. Toy Caldwell had the fastest thumb in the south!
What did you think about being labeled Southern Rock?
We didn’t like it at first. It was kind of a reckless business label put on us by record companies. We thought of ourselves as progressive rock. We wanted to be more sophisticated than “Southern Rock.” We also didn’t think the Southern bands sound that much alike, so why categorize them that way? As I get older I understand it was about record company marketing, but the difference between Marshall Tucker and the Allman Brothers Band is vast. They were more Western and we had a lot more jazz and blues, and improvising. My favorite was Molly Hachet — that little Southern Rock band… from Michigan. [laughs]
You’ve had a string of formidable musicians in your own bands, including Dan Toler and Warren Haynes.
Danny was the other guitarist in the Allman Brothers when we finally replaced Duane on guitar, but that was in the disco period and the Allman Brothers couldn’t get arrested, let alone get a record deal. Danny was one of the greats. He rejoined my band about 11 years ago and he was better than then when he was with the Allman Brothers. He had developed a more original style and he was amazing. I even had people close to me say, “Are you sure you want this guy in your band? He’s so good!” Man, he was great.
And Warren came to my band from David Allen Coe and from then he went with me to the Allman Brothers. I always loved his playing. He over played some, so we’d have to rein him in a little bit, but he had a lot of bandleader in him. He really needed his own band. He always had a good tone and a million licks.
Derek Trucks is probably the favorite guitarist I’ve worked with. He’s a great player with a lot of imagination. He and Susan Tedeschi are fantastic together.
Let’s focus back on your playing. How did you develop your sound? You have a signature that’s recognizable from the first note?
I guess it goes back to when I was a kid. I saw how my dad would pay attention to his fiddle sound. He knew how to tune a fiddle by putting a tone post in, to push the top of the fiddle up. He would move that post around until he had just the right tone. So I think that search for tone is just in my disposition. I always wanted my guitar to have a little edge on it, but with a clear sound. I experimented with different speaker combinations until I found it. Part of your tone is in your hand, too.
What are you playing these days?
I’ve been playing an SG, because Gibson put out the "From One Brother To Another" 1962 SG with my name on it, like the one I gave to Duane. What happened back then was I had this SG when we started the band, and then I got a Les Paul, my ’57, and when Duane wanted to play slide he would have to retune his one guitar every f**** time. And I got tired of it and said, “Here, take this guitar and tune it, and leave it tuned!” and gave him my SG. He loved that guitar.
After Duane was killed, Graham Nash ended up with that guitar. It was sold to Graham by one of Duane’s protégées. Gibson did such a great job making that guitar. They even recreated the belt buckle marks and where every hole was on it. Gibson made 80 and wanted me to sign them all, and I picked up about every fifth one I would sign and I would play it — and I was amazed at how good it felt and played. Every one sounded exactly the same. It’s a hell of a nice guitar. I fell in love with it and have been playing it for the last year and a half, but now I think I’m going to get back to my Les Paul. The Gibson Custom Shop is making Les Paul that sound exactly like my ’57. It’s amazing.
Are you working on any new recordings?
Well, I’m writing a lot, but I’m being careful. At this point, as an elder of this music, if I make a recording it’s got to be a damn good one. I’ve got some live recordings coming out. We’ve got three guitar players in my band now, with my son, Duane, playing lead guitar. That’s real dangerous unless everybody is real tasty players. It’s a powerful band. Two drummers, keys and a bass player. Once you get used to two drummers you get spoiled.
What do you do for fun when you’re at home?
I like fishing. We live on the water and I’ve got a boat. I’m an archer. I can shoot stuff out of the air. We hunt wild hogs on the islands. It’s good to have something to do when you go home besides take dope. [laughs] I’d always get in trouble. On the road you’re busy; you go home and your don’t know what to do. Now I have some other good ways to apply myself.