Getting to Know Dickey Betts
Maybe the best news of 2018, at least if you’re a Southern Rock fan, is that Dickey Betts is back. In 2014, he retired, and there were reports of lawsuits and counter-suits between him and the Allman Brothers Band. But serious illness has a way of making everything else look less consequential, and Dickey and Gregg Allman said their goodbyes before Gregg’s death in May 2017. Now Dickey is back out doing what he feels he was placed here to do. His first “comeback” show was in Macon, Georgia, where he and the Allman Brothers Band lived for several years. Photos from the concert reveal that Dickey’s trademark handlebar mustache has filled out into a beard. Fan audio reveals that his guitar playing still rings clear and true.
When Dickey joins us on the Southern Rock Cruise next year, it will be fifty years since the release of the Allman Brothers Band’s debut album. But, as he tells us in this exclusive conversation, the Allmans were not an overnight success.
But we begin with Dickey talking about his recent return to the stage.
How does it feel to be back in the saddle after a few years of kicking back?
Man, it feels great. A little scary before I got started, but once I got cranked up, it was no problem. We played a warm-up show in some little place that seats one thousand. Filled it up. Macon was a blow-out. People from everywhere, even Europe. The whole weekend was all music. Gregg’s son, Devon, played with me. So did my son, Duane. They played their own show. It was a big ol’ music homecoming.
Had you eased back on playing the guitar when you thought you wouldn’t do any more shows?
I guess. I was kinda burned out. Tired of playing gigs that weren’t so hot. I thought, “Hell, I’m seventy years old. I’m gonna kick back. Fish. Play golf.” Found out I needed to play some music. I practiced a couple of weeks. Put a hell of a band together. Damon Fowler on guitar, my son Duane on guitar, two drummers, keyboard, and bass. Hell of a band.
What was the impetus to get back into the game?
The Allman Brothers Band broke up, then Gregg died. There was a clamor for me to come back ‘cause I was the only one left to carry it on. I’m the only one that gives those songs legitimacy. My manager, bunch of booking agents, my family, they all talked me into going back out. I was bored anyway.
Going back in time, was there a record, a special show, or another musician that made you think, when you were a kid, “Man, I wanna do this!”?
It was my family. They all played music. We all sat and listened to the Grand Ole Opry every week. I was gonna be a guitar player on the Opry. I had it all figured out. I was always kinda set on that. You know the way family will humor you. “Oh yeah, we’ll be listenin’ for you.” I started out playing proms, teen clubs, that kinda thing. My dad was in construction, but he was a real good fiddle player. His big ambition was to have a tent show that he’d take from town to town. Set up and play, y’know. That was his big dream. Still sounds like a cool idea to me.
Did your folks get to see you become a star with the Allman Brothers Band?
Yeah, they did. They came and saw us a bunch of times.
Two lead guitars didn’t really have any kind of precedent back when you started with the Allmans, did it? Since then, it has become one of the signature sounds of Southern Rock.
I was always adept at playing with another guitarist. We were talking just now about country music, and twin leads was always a part of Western Swing. You know, Bob Wills and those kinda guys. I had a buddy who mentored me. Learned a lot from him. He wouldn’t show me stuff so much as let me watch him. He’d play twin guitars with Roy Clark. That’s where it came from. Country music. We just took it into another dimension. I had another buddy, Larry Reinhardt, who later played with Iron Butterfly. He was in a band called Second Coming with me and Berry Oakley. Him and me used to play twin leads.
The first Allman Brothers Band LP was a groundbreaking album and you must have known it was a great record, but it didn’t sell too well at first. How did you guys deal with the initial lack of success?
That album sold fifty thousand copies or less when it first came out. We were on a tiny label, Capricorn, that had just started, but they worked it, man. They were on the phone pitching it. Can’t fault them for that. The next one, Idlewild South, did maybe one hundred thousand copies. Then the Fillmore East album broke wide open. Then Duane died when we were working on Eat a Peach. The next album, Brothers and Sisters, sold millions. We were one song short on it, and I said, “Well, I got this country song, ‘Ramblin’ Man.’ I thought it was too country, but our producer, Johnny Sandlin, was jumping up and down saying we had to cut it.
Many artists have covered “Ramblin’ Man.” Is there one version you
I was kinda partial to our version! Another one I liked was by a Florida country singer, Gary Stewart.
The Allman Brothers Band was identified with the South, but you actually got some of your first breaks in the northeast, correct?
Yeah, all of us—the band and the road crew—started out living on forty-five bucks a week. We took that money, bought chicken or whatever, and ate off it the whole week. Chicken today and feathers tomorrow, y’know. We had an Econoline van with no heat. There was ice on the INSIDE of that thing. We just headed out to find jobs, even play for free just to be heard. We played a place in Boston called the Tea Party, and the owner, a guy called Don Law, really liked us and put us on again and again. Let us stay at his house. We opened for Dr. John, Velvet Underground, maybe a couple of others. Maybe even Led Zeppelin. Those guys were actually getting paid. That was an eye-opener.
Was there a moment when you realized that you and the others in the Allman Brothers Band had actually created a style, a category, Southern Rock?
Weird thing about the Allman Brothers Band was that half of us were natural band leaders. We were only together six, seven years, but it seemed like a whole career. Our sound was the sound that most of us imagined when we imagined the perfect sound. And the band was what we imagined a perfect band to be. We weren’t gonna change. We really didn’t care if people didn’t like it. We were a bunch of punks in that way. Pretty headstrong. People said we needed a front man or uniforms. They said all our songs sounded alike. Then it took off, and everyone began calling it Southern Rock.
You and Gregg had a long and sometimes fractious relationship. Did you make peace at the end?
There’s a lot of stuff published that’s not true. Gregg and I got along great. Maybe some other guys in the band didn’t like me too much, but Gregg and I always loved each other. We’d get mad at each other every now and again. That’ll happen when you spend half the year cooped up together.
Any plans for a new record?
Maybe a live album. I’m not a big studio guy. I like doing shows.
Speaking of that, we’re really looking forward to seeing you on the Southern Rock Cruise.
I’m looking forward to seeing everyone.
Colin Escott © 2018