Coulda Been Country: The Allman Brothers Dickey Betts' Great Southern Songs
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 CrashDistributor: Sexy Intellectual
Cast: Duane Allman, Dickey Betts, Gregg Allman
US Release Date: 2016-02-16
UK Release Date: 2016-02-16
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.
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.
That it would be country colored is hardly a surprise. Country music emanates from the South as surely as its cousin the blues. Other long-haired acts such as the Grateful Dead were dabbling in the rural arts at the same time. But Outlaw Country hadn’t yet broken through. Willie Nelson released an album titled The Words Don’t Fit the Picture in 1972, which hinted at the problems his image presented in Nashville and predicted his eventual retreat to Austin in 1974. Although Asleep at the Wheel would walk comfortably on both sides of the country and rock aisles, the day when that’d happen was yet to come.
In many ways this places Betts at the forefront of a coming tide that would transform American music, though no one could have known that just yet. The release and commercial success of the song (it would become a radio staple in its initial release and can be heard hourly on radio stations to this day) could have also given us one of the biggest stars of country music during the '70s, had he not been promised to another band.
Betts was now the main guitarist with the Allmans and his writing would single-handedly shape the group’s next studio effort, Brothers and Sisters. Sessions for the record began in October of 1972, were interrupted by the death of bassist Berry Oakley in November, and concluded a month later. By all accounts Oakley was in dire straits the entire time as the entire group grieved. Gregg Allman slid further into the background while Betts strode to the front with a series of originals that would form the core of the new record. Three of his tunes would take up the entirety of the second side and one of them, “Jessica”, written for his infant daughter would become another all-time classic from the group as well as providing further indication of Betts’ abilities as a country writer.
The tune’s sunny, lead guitar lines provide another one of those moments of remarkable brightness in the Allman canon. Pianist Chuck Leavell dishes out his own lead runs that come directly from the honky tonk but also hint at classical music and, of course, jazz. Taken with Les Dudek’s acoustic flourishes and Gregg’s organ lines, what we hear is a remarkably cohesive ensemble performing a piece written by a master composer.
But it’s Betts’ other major contribution to the record that sealed his reputation as a writer and makes the case for him being a major force in country music. That song? “Ramblin’ Man”. Once more, Betts employs major pentatonic scales at the start, providing a sense of joy to lyrics that are often anything but. Within the first verse Betts chronicles a man born in the back of Greyhound bus and whose father, a gambler, has “wound up on the wrong end of a gun”. Like many of the characters we meet in country songs, our narrator knows he’s doomed for a life of traveling and poverty but wouldn’t have it any other way.
The story goes that the track was met with a tepid reception by most of the others in the group because it leaned too heavily on those country idioms. Regardless, it nearly topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart and helped Brothers and Sisters become one of the quintessential Allman Brothers Band recordings.
It would also be the last great studio album from the group and, unfortunately, a premature peak of Betts’ powers. Still, he would find the time and creative energy to write and record one of the great lost country albums of the '70s, 1974’s Highway Call. Issued in September of that year (under the name Richard Betts), the album features just six compositions, five of them originals, but the quality of the output is not diminished by the comparatively few compositions found on the record.
Filled with songs that told of life in the south, the record opens with “Long Time Gone” which could have sat as comfortably on country radio as it could have on rock shows from the era including the legendary Midnight Special. Betts’ playing shines on that number, though there are moments when it feels tentative, as though he’s not quite sure that he can break free from the shackles of the rock leanings of the Allmans. “Rain”, the record’s second cut, remedies that problem with Betts sounding confident and assured that he’s making the right music at the right time. His soloing is pure countrified glory and fellow Allman Chuck Leavell’s piano figures add an extra touch that’s unmistakably southern in nature.
Betts had assembled an impressive cast for the recording, including legendary fiddle player Vassar Clements and steel guitar ace John Hughey. This would prove especially handy on the record’s epic 14-minute country ramble “Hand Picked”, which took the compositional genius Betts had displayed on his best Allman numbers and turned it loose in the barn. With Hughey’s deft runs and Clements’ expert fiddlin’ the number could have been destined to become a hit if only it had been kept to a more radio-friendly length. It also features some of the best playing Leavell has ever committed to tape, no small feat given his impressive track record to that point and beyond. If the band wasn’t fired up enough after that run, the closing Clements composition “Kissimmee Kid" seals the deal further affirming the arrival of a new presence in country music.
The songs evoke images and memories of rural life in the years after World War II while a still segregated country grappled with how to reconcile its past with the insistent beat of progress. This is a South in which electricity was still a recent phenomenon and where the scars of both its past and present were constant reminders. Betts isn’t cloyingly sentimental about the past, but he does recognize the grounding that that simple life has given him. In 1974 there would have been fewer records poised to capture the hearts of a record-buying public than one that recognized that important crossroads in American life. But Highway Song tragically never found its public.
Betts toured behind the record and, according to accounts in After the Crash, found himself playing to audiences that were slenderer in number than perhaps he anticipated. It couldn’t have helped that Gregg Allman was touring behind his own solo release at the time and that a loyal fan base couldn’t quite figure out how to split its dollars. Though the bandmates took great pains to show that they were not in competition with each other they of course were and one of them held the name of the famous band that birthed his career while the other held only the reputation.
It’s difficult to say if Betts found himself reeling from the failure of that record or if the collective mind of the group had become irrevocably scarred but when both he and Gregg Alllman returned to the greater fold the following year for the disappointing Win, Lose or Draw it was clear that neither would be the same. The material found on the record wasn’t given the same time and attention as the songs found on Eat a Peach or Brothers and Sisters and the brotherhood was long gone.
Betts’ far-reaching, imaginative compositions were mostly behind him. He’d deliver a 1977 self-titled record with Great Southern that leaned heavier on southern rock than country and suffered for it. At times he seemed intent on trying to sound more like Gregg Allman than himself and although the grooves were filled with good singin’ and good playin’ the innocence from Highway Call was gone. Ironically, as Betts became more confident he also lost spark.
Some of that was remedied in 1978 with Atlanta’s Burning Down. There, he found some of the swing and playfulness missing from the previous record via “Good Time Feeling” and the more heartfelt elements of his debut with the Civil War narrative found in the title tune. But most of the songs lacked the verve and innocence of his earlier pieces and the attempts at sounding happy ring hollow. Perhaps it was fitting that the country traces became muted then disappeared as that rural way of life receded further in the distance.
A different side of Betts emerged as time went on, one that was sometimes more sophisticated and more bent on jazz and rock and his latter-day efforts with Allman’s latecomer Warren Haynes are superior entries into the band’s oeuvre from the ‘80s and ‘90s. His dalliance with country crossover in the late ‘80s, “Seven Roads,” was a sizeable hit that perhaps leaned a little too heavily on the rock tendencies. The exuberance heard on those early Allman Brothers Band recordings was gone, probably lost for good even if his abilities as a soloist and performer remained strong.
For all the talk about what didn’t happen in the second and third act of his career, Betts had a remarkable opening, one filled with songs that have brought generations of music lovers great comfort and joy and stand to bring both those emotions to an untold number of listeners in the future. Few artists get that much but if one were to ask what more Betts should have, perhaps it would be greater consideration for those overlooked moments in his output, like that great record Highway Call, one that could have and still could change as many lives as Eat a Peach.