Music

Coulda Been Country: The Allman Brothers Dickey Betts' Great Southern Songs

Image from the cover of Atlanta's Burning Down

The Allman Brothers band receives attention for its southern rock tendencies, but its secret weapon was, for a time, the country inflections brought forth by guitarist Dickey Betts.


Allman Brothers Band: After The Crash

Distributor: Sexy Intellectual
Cast: Duane Allman, Dickey Betts, Gregg Allman
US Release Date: 2016-02-16
UK Release Date: 2016-02-16

Richard Betts

Highway Call

Label: Polydor/Universal
US Release Date: 1974
UK Release Date: 1974
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A recent unauthorized documentary about the Allman Brothers Band lays out a point that many of us have considered but maybe few of us have said out loud: For a moment in time, the Macon, Georgia collective had in its ranks one of the greatest country songwriters in America. His rural tendencies and compositional genius were instrumental in the band’s ability to survive its darkest hours.

For a moment in time, Dickey Betts could have been one of the great voices of new country music in the '70s.
When Duane Allman died in late 1971, the Allman Brothers Band stood at a crossroads. Duane had been the driving force of the group, the one that brought together the disparate forces that created the group’s unusual mix of blues, modal jazz and even classical riffs. His brother Gregg gave the band its literal voice and penned some of the unit’s most enduring early material, including “Whipping Post”, which may very well be the best rock song recorded after 1960. But Gregg never settled comfortably into the leadership role that a group demands and the grief of losing one of the guiding lights of his life stunned him. More than one critic has argued that the Allmans never fully recovered from Duane’s loss despite a legacy that stretched decades beyond his passing.

But one member would step forward with the classics that would momentarily propel the band into the future. If that future wasn’t as bright as some of the music would imply, it hardly mattered. For a moment in time, Dickey Betts saved the Allmans. During the early albums his country-inflected leads would serve as a perfect foil to Duane’s swampy, soul-slathered lines. His writing would prove some of the most diverse within the band and provide the group with some of its most commercially successful material.

Betts’ “Les Brers in A Minor” can be seen as a perfect amalgamation of the early Allman’s aesthetic. Its chordal structure, melody and timbre recall the intersection of jazz and classical music heard in John Coltrane’s rendering of pieces such as “Greensleeves”. It’s evidence of a writer with knowledge of classical motifs, with greater compositional acumen than many of his contemporaries. The juxtaposition of these ideas alongside the “low” nature of the music appearing in a rock setting makes the tune all the more a triumph.

That something so tidily structured arrives on an album that stretches the boundaries of eclecticism is yet another twist in the long saga of the Allman Brothers Band. Released in early 1972, the album Eat a Peach features live performances culled from dates at the Fillmore East a year earlier that spotlight the group’s jazzier proclivities. There are blues covers soaked in Gregg-style grit and surprises such as Dickey Betts’ gorgeous “Blue Sky”. A rare expression of unbridled joy within the Allman’s oeuvre, the song is one of the last to feature Duane on guitar. Betts sells the song, written for his then-wife, with an innocence in his voice and a melody that lifts skyward in all the right places.

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