The Allman Betts Band. There’s a lot of history in that name, a lot of assumptions, a lot of expectations.
It’s tempting to connect the dots between the Allman Betts Band’s core trio, Devon Allman (guitar/ vocals), Duane Betts (guitar/ vocals) and Berry Oakley Jr. (bass). Their legendary fathers in the Allman Brothers Band — Greg Allman, Dickey Betts and Berry Oakley, — lead some to believe the current arrangement was some kind of inevitable tie to family band fate. It’s easy to think that, of course, this music would be a natural progression, a direct descendant even, of The Allman Brothers’ influential, Southern fried, country-blues jumbo. It’s easy to let the noise of critics and pundits get in the way of The Allman Betts Band’s music.
So let’s just turn down the shades, turn down the noise and turn up the focus on the music. It is what we’re all here for, right? It’s certainly why Betts, Allman and Oakley joined forces with John Stachela (slide guitar), John Ginty (B3 Hammond), R. Scott Bryan (percussion) and John Lum (drums), in the first place. It’s why all of these musicians have each been playing for more than 20 years in all sorts of bands and musical iterations: they live to make music.
After Betts and Allman toured extensively together in 2018 as a double bill of their respective solo projects, they felt ready and inspired to take the next step of putting together their own band. After getting together with songwriting partner Stoll Vaughn and booking time in Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, the band released its debut in 2019, “Down to the River.” It’s a record made to ride through the country, straight into the sunshine. “Shinin’ ” is full of bright dueling guitars, “All Night” shimmys with country-blues bluster, and standout “Autumn Breeze” is an enriching, jammed-out meditation that is equal parts electrifying and calming.
The chemistry in the band is so potent and easy, the band is already ready to release its follow-up in 2020. That’s good news, for “Down to the River,” while satisfactory, only opens up the desire for more music from this ascendant band. Good thing that’s all The Allman Betts Band wants to do for you: play its music.
Tahoe Onstage caught up with guitarist Duane Betts over the phone to learn more about his musical past, what he’s learned as a lifelong musician and what The Allman Betts Band is all about.
When did you start professionally?
First band was with Berry Oakley Jr. and Waylon Krieger, Robby Krieger’s son. I was 18 or 19 and got a call to come out to California and Los Angeles. I went out there and played in that band and made an EP and that was the first band I was in, The Oakley Krieger Band.
Another early band was Backbone 69, where you saw some success in California. What were you doing musically? What were you learning about? What does that experience mean to you, both at the time and now looking back?
Some of the best times of all of our lives. It was a magical time in Malibu when it was still kind of a Wild West oasis. There’s always been money, but it’s really a beach town and there are people who’ve been there for generations that aren’t these rich, movie star people. It was kind of like the Summer of Love in a way, or the closest thing I can imagine to it (laughs).
I was in that band from 19 to 23, then Chris (Williams) our singer passed away. It was a good band, really solid band. It was a really fun time musically and it was a traveling tribe where we’d lead and everyone would follow (laughs).
How did you link up with Dawes?
I know Taylor and Griffin from Malibu as well and grew up where I had pretty strong roots. They were in a band with Blake Mills — who is another friend of mine and artist himself. They were looking at a second guitar player for touring and we did some playing together and it worked out. It was for the “All Your Favorite Bands” record cycle, which was recorded live with more jamming, so they thought I’d be good for that. We did a year and a half of touring around the world and it was very awesome.
You’ve been in bands as touring partner (Dawes/Dickey Betts), your own bands (Backbone 69/Allman Betts) and as a solo act. What have you learned about yourself as a musician in each of those iterations? What skills do you pick up to add to your musician quiver?
You try and learn something from everything you do. You have to take your role, know what your role is and do what is appropriate for the gig. Playing with my dad was a huge honor and playing those shows there were a lot of great musical moments. With Allman-Betts, it is really cool because it is our thing and we call the shots on it. That is where I want to be, doing my thing in a band environment where everyone has a say. You take each thing for what it is and apply the knowledge of what you’ve known before.
What are one or two principles that you’ve tried to stick to over the course of your career?
Honesty and integrity. Be honest, be authentic and be yourself. I think people know when it’s a facade. I just try and be Duane. Try to do stuff you like. Sometimes you have to take gigs and play on records. We are very fortunate to play music and make a living if you are touring and getting paid for playing music. Maybe it’s not your favorite type of music. You try and stick to your principles and stick to your guns and create art.
When did the musical relationship between each Devon Allman and Berry Oakley begin? What do you value about each of those band member’s musicality?
We all met around the same time on the 20th Anniversary Tour for The Allman Brothers Band. We met then and then sat-in at different times but we never lived in the same city. It was more of a summer reunion type of thing. I was still a drummer at the time and they were a little older than me, I was the younger kid. I switched to guitar a few years later. Once we were in our 20s, I’d sit in with his band and he’d sit in with my dad and we’d always run into each other in different cities.
We never really sat down for weeks at a time playing music because he was doing his records and I was in L.A. playing with Dawes and doing stuff before that with my dad. It got to the point where I wasn’t doing anything and we put it together. We had been talking about it. Let’s hang out and do some touring together and see if we can write some songs. If we like it we’ll keep doing it, if not, fine and we’ll have fun on this tour. It was never we are going to do this regardless of chemistry. If there wasn’t chemistry, it wasn’t going to happen.
Everybody plays their part, which is really cool. It is kind of a big band, there’s enough going on to where you’ll never get sick of somebody. John Stachela is an amazing slide guitar player. Once you want to hear something else, I’ll do my thing. Of course, no one wants to hear me play every solo every night, so we have our amazing keyboardist in John Ginty. Then Devon adds his flavor and flair. There’s no ego, everyone seems to know each other’s strengths. Everybody leaves space for everyone else and it is a cool thing. You want everyone to feel like they’re contributing and I think we do a good job of making that happen.
Devon is a really strong leader, strong singer, gets things done. As a guitar player he gets the point across and knows how to reach across the room and get someone to listen. Berry is a great player, I don’t think anyone is disputing that now.
What is the strong point of the Allman Betts Band? Where do you hope the band will be challenged to help it keep growing and evolving?
We just made another record, so pushing the envelope and going deeper. Taking more chances and taking greater risks with the songs. I think people will be stoked on this next record. I think it is a nice follow-up statement to what we did. Keep getting better and keep listening. Communication is paramount.
— Garrett Bethmann