In 2019, the Allman Betts Band released its vanguard, Down to the River, and hit the highway to hone an ever-evolving sound. The follow-up, Bless Your Heart, finds Devon Allman, Duane Betts, and Berry Oakley Jr. living up to the legacy of their fathers while reveling in their own voices. The band’s latest effort features a stellar lineup that includes guitarist Johnny Stachela, drummers R. Scott Bryan & John Lum, keyboardist John Ginty, and guest shots from Shannon McNally, Art Edmaiston, Susan Marshall, Reba Russell, and the legendary Jimmy Hall. Bless Your Heart is loaded with bluesy bravado, cool California balladry, and classic Southern Rock style. In anticipation of the Allman Betts Band’s return to Macon on November 20th for a special drive-in concert performance at the Macon Coliseum, Duane Betts took the time to talk about his time off during the pandemic, the new album, and possible future projects.
AI- Let’s start with the brand new album, man– Bless Your Heart. You guys were back at Muscle Shoals [Sound Studio] for that one, doin’ that great analog recording. Was there ever any other choice or was it, “We have to go back to Muscle Shoals?”
It felt like a natural choice for it. It was just comfortable and familiar. There’s a familiarity to that place. It feels like places I’ve been before, like my grandma’s house. So for the second record, we just wanted to go back there. We used Matt Ross-Spang again, and we just kinda repeated the same process.
You mention that feeling of places that you’ve been before. I asked Devon this– I spoke to him right before you guys did the big New Year’s Eve show here in Macon in 2018 goin’ into 2019– and I asked him, “Does it ever feel surreal? You’re up there on stage and you look over and there’s Duane Betts and there’s Berry Oakley Jr. How does that feel to you?” And he was like, “Oh yeah, all the time!” But going back to a lot of those rooms and crisscrossing all over the country– do you feel hallmarks of the past at times?
I do! I do. I feel the spirit of the way I grew up on the road traveling and the free-spirited feeling of bein’ in a new town every day and rolling down the highway at night. All of those things make up the whole experience. Traveling and playing music is an amazing thing. It’s an amazing gift that we’re given and then we get to give the gifts to the people– and then they give back to us! It’s just a great process. I kinda grew up on the road in my high school years. I mean, when I was younger not so much, but some of the rooms, when I look over and see Devon and see Berry and think that we were watchin’ our dads do this 20, 25 years ago… It is surreal. I think that spirit flows through what we do and what a lot of other folks are doing as well.
If I’ve got it right, you guys wrote a lot of these songs while you were actually touring for Down to the River. When were you actually able to get into the studio to put the record together?
Yeah, we wrote a lot of the record on the road– much like the first record. It was kind of the same process. We had Stoll Vaughan come out, our buddy who we collaborate with a lot, and I wrote my solo record with. I’ve written a lot with him prior to the Allman Betts Band. Devon liked some of the tunes and asked who that guy was. I introduced them and then we had a nice chemistry, the three of us. We just started writing and then I think we booked the studio time pretty well in advance to just give ourselves some leeway. We knew we were goin’ back in and you just get what you get and if you have it, you have it. If you don’t have it, then you can do it some other time (laughs)!
When were you guys in the studio?
In December. Yeah, I think both records were around that time. So it was just a year later, we went back in. We started writing in the late summer, and we started really writing a lot in the fall.
The pandemic– did that throw off your timeline for the original release of the album?
It just made it to where we didn’t have to really try to get it out in a real hurry. If we would’ve been touring and without the pandemic, we would have wanted to get it out as early as possible. And with the pandemic, we weren’t in a huge rush. We definitely wanted to put it out. We didn’t want to sit on it for a year, but yeah, we weren’t under the gun, so to speak (laughs)!
Stylistically, Bless Your Heart keeps that Southern Rock vibe– but to my ears, there’s a little more attitude, a little more pepper on the songs. I really like “Ashes of My Lovers”. Man, that thing is dark and feels a lot different than anything that had been on Down to the River.
Yeah, man! That’s one of my favorites too. I wrote that one with Stoll. I just remember coming up with that acoustic rhythm style with the chords. It has a very haunting kind of Western feeling to it, but also the rhythmic pattern, the strumming pattern is kind of a Roy Orbison pattern. So I had it and then I heard the way that it would drop and then come out– and I heard this haunting harmonica right away! That’s what I heard right away. I had that for six or seven months and then I started writing lyrics with Stoll. We basically finished that song and really turned it into a song in Columbus, Ohio. I remember it was the day of a gig and we were just sitting in the dressing room in Columbus. Stoll really started goin’ with the words and writing down stuff I was saying. He led the charge on the lyrics on that one. But yeah, it’s a really cool song.
Devon described Stoll Vaughan as a great mediator for you two. How has the dynamic evolved for the Allman Betts Band when it comes to writing songs?
For this record, Berry brought in a really nice tune [“The Doctor’s Daughter”]. Stoll is a great lyricist. He has a lot of really great ideas and I trust him a lot. But he’s also is a mediator and kind of like a social lubricant in between Devon and myself at times. It just makes things flow real easily. If you have three guys, and maybe two of them are like, “No, that’s really good,” then you’re like, “Oh, well, I guess it is good!” When I write by myself, I always play stuff for Stoll. He gives me the real deal and tells me like it is. Stoll is great. He’s a fine gentleman from Kentucky!
The songs on Bless Your Heart also appear to be a lot more character-driven, more narrative– like with “Ashes of My Lovers”, “Airboats & Cocaine”, several others. Was that a conscious effort? Were you aware that they were shapin’ up that way as you were writin’ ’em?
It wasn’t that conscious, but I think it’s conscious that, “Let’s do some stuff we didn’t do on the first record, and let’s take it out. Like, we’re not going to do another highway song! We touched on that. Let’s touch on some other stuff.” It’s just that natural expanding. We had a few sessions and we wrote some cool stuff. We had some really great ideas, but they weren’t turning out like gold, you know? Then the last few we had really is where a lot of the record came from. It’s just one of those things– you get on something and you see where it goes!
Tell me about your pandemic. When did you guys get off the road and how long were you down for?
We were in California when we got pulled off the road. We had just played Los Angeles. Our last show was was March 9th or 10th, and it was in San Luis Obispo, California. We actually were planning on playing at Terrapin Crossroads up in Marin County, which is Phil Lesh’s spot. A couple of days earlier, Washington had been shut down and then the night after our last show, Oregon got shut down. So we were kind of expecting it, but we expected to at least get our next show done in the nick of time. I remember waking up and being there for like five minutes and having my coffee in the front of the bus– and in walked somebody and our road manager and said, “The show’s done. We’re not doing the show tonight.” So it really happened very quickly. I had a great summer. I mean, I spent most of the summer in Jackson, Wyoming, which is where I live part-time. I met my wife there and I just did a lot of hiking and connecting with nature and wrote a bunch of songs. I traveled a little bit but for the most part, I was in Wyoming.
You wrote a bunch of songs? Are those gonna be Allman Betts Band songs or are those gonna be Duane Betts songs?
I don’t know! You’ll have to wait and see! I think they kind of fit together as a solo record, but I don’t want to say. I’m open to either– but they kind of sound like a solo record to me. If I had to say.
Well, I thoroughly enjoyed Sketches of American Music. If you have designs on doin’ somethin’ like that again, I think it will be a lot of fun.
Yeah! I have some cool ideas up my sleeve! The focus right now is the Allman Betts Band. I think we will do another record. And then sometime after that, I might do a solo thing.
You’ve mentioned that you wanted to do more studio work too. Did you line anything up while you were off the road? Or have you got anything comin’?
No, I really haven’t. I really haven’t tried. I haven’t been in L.A. The last really cool thing I played on– that I was really honored to be on, by the way– was the North Mississippi Allstars tune [“Mean Old World”]. And Jason Isbell was featured on it too, which obviously, he’s pretty good (laughs)! That was one of the cool things. I don’t really try to. Normally, people just reach out. I’m not really like a session guy, never have been.
One of the big things here in Macon this last year has been the reopening of Capricorn Studios. Actually, I’m not sure the last time you were in Macon…
I was there for the Capricorn Revival! And I went to the party they had there, the opening.
Then you’ve seen everything that they’ve done.
Yeah, it looks beautiful! Gorgeous!
I would be remiss if I did not ask what the chances are of having the Allman Betts Band come in and do a session at Capricorn Studios. Have there been overtures made?
Oh, man, I’m sure we’ll do something there. I don’t know when, but I’m sure we’ll do something there. Even if we just do a couple songs or a song for like a feature– or a record! I don’t know exactly what the future holds.
Let’s talk about this drive-in experience. You’ve done a few of these already– the show that you’re bringin’ to Macon. What’s it been like doin’ these drive-in shows? Are there any special challenges to performing in that capacity?
The first one we did was a little challenging because (laughs) it was up in Cape Cod and there were houses right on the fence line of the property, like on the other side of some trees. And so everybody was complaining– had been complaining– about the previous shows. They didn’t even have a PA, it was all radio. Obviously, we were more than happy to do whatever to make it happen but that one was probably the most challenging. We just turned way down, no PA– ’cause you don’t want to ruin it for all the acts that are booked after you. That one was challenging, but I really like the outdoor stuff that’s spread out. I don’t want to see a bunch of people bunched up to the front like nothing is happening at all. That’s all of our concern. We want there to be an effort made by the venue, by the promoter to take some responsibility for keeping it safe for folks. I think that’s an important thing.
Do you worry about travelin’? About touring? About bein’ back out there?
Well, we keep to ourselves. Without getting way into it, I worry about it. I’m a pretty healthy guy, so I don’t feel like I’m gonna get super sick, but I take it very seriously. You wear your mask on a plane and you just be safe. Of course, I don’t wanna get sick out on the road because then you have to rent a car to get home. And that wouldn’t be fun (laughs)!
You’ve done Down to the River in one December and then the follow-up, Bless Your Heart, in another December. Am I led to believe that this Christmas, the end of this year, you’ll be going back in to make that next Allman Betts record?
You’ll have to wait and see! I think we might take a little more time on this one because we want to change it up a little bit. We don’t want to rush back in and do the same thing that we’ve done on the first two, which I think is really great. So I think it’s good for the third one to take a little more time and kind of re-affirm our position. Plus, I think [Bless Your Heart] has legs on it. It’s a lot more music. I think it can carry through a little longer. Now we have two records (laughs)! It’s a big deal!