Dickey Betts is surprisingly calm as he discusses his new solo set, “Let’s Get Together,” due out July 31 via Back Alley/FreeFalls Entertainment. Though the album arrives at a pivotal point in his career — it’s his first release since he was booted out of the Allman Brothers Band just 14 months ago for alleged substance abuse and sloppy performances — the renowned guitarist says the pressure’s off.
“The real pressure came right after that thing happened,” he explains. “I knew that I had to go right back out on the road with a dynamite band or people might start believing what was being told to them in the press. So that’s what I did. I put a band together as quickly as I could. I rehearsed it for a month and I got it on the road and we managed to do a five-week tour before the summer was over.”
“And, indeed, people saw, and said, ‘Well, wait a minute. This doesn’t make sense. This guy’s playing great and is full of energy and everybody is happy. And, so, what’s the problem here?’ I think if I hadn’t done that, people would of started to believe the drug tales. That [tour] was a statement I was forced to make. And it was imperative that I do that. If I had waited until this year to even get a band together, it may have been too long.”
The 57-year-old Betts, who was fired from the band via fax, is doing his best to cope with the divorce, be it on the road, in the studio, or during conversation (“It’s a wonderful period of my life that is now behind me. And I appreciate and cherish them.”). And he and his six-piece band have taken great strides in doing just that over the past year, with “Let’s Get Together” and the dozens of shows they’ve played. But it’s clear his wounds are still quite fresh.
“They [Gregg Allman, Butch Trucks, and Jaimoe Johanson, the remaining original members in the Allman Brothers] are speaking out of both sides of their mouth,” Betts says of conflicting statements he’s read in the press, statements that originally had him only excluded from an Allmans Band summer tour, and now have him permanently fired from the hard-touring act. “They’re saying one thing to the press and another thing to me. And, then, they turn around and say yet another thing to the press.”
A founding member of the Allman Brothers who wrote many of the group’s best-known songs — including “Blue Sky” “Jessica,” and “Ramblin’ Man” — Betts is trying to sue the band, claiming that he is due an undisclosed sum for his dismissal. “What would you do, what would anybody else do?” he says. “We had a meeting and I asked them, I said, ‘Well, at least we should put together a farewell tour and the band should go out gracefully. And, then, everybody can do what they want to do.’ But they didn’t want to do that. But, the only thing I think they need to realize is that they can’t push a partner out of an organization like that without compensating them. Ya know, my input, the value I brought to that band was 30 years of my life. This isn’t a teen/club band. If you’ve got a corporation and you throw out one of the founding partners that is responsible in-part for making the organization what it is today, you have to compensate that person. You have to come to a settlement. These are not punitive damages.”
Allman Brothers Band manager Bert Holman declined to comment on the band and Betts’ legal affairs. And as far as Betts and the band working together in the future, he says, “Never say never. Never is a long time. It appears to me that he has chosen to go in his direction and the other three have decided to go in their direction. But, years ago, [before the Allman Brothers Band reunited in the late ’80s], I remember [Dickey] saying he’d never work with Gregg Allman again. People say a lot of things in the heat of the moment. But in the entertainment business, ya never say never.”
The split has certainly proved to have its advantages, as Betts says he’s inspired by the cooperation and enthusiasm he’s enjoyed thus far with his new group.
“I’ll tell ya, the dynamics were so pressurized in [the Allman Brothers Band] that you could hardly move in it, musically,” Betts says. “So, that’s one thing that feels so good about playing with these guys. They’re all enthusiastic, they’re happy to be where they’re at. They like me, they like my music. They’re actually enthused when I come in with a new song and they want to do their best to make the most out of it. So, that kind of atmosphere lends itself to creativity and inspiration. And that’s what happened on this album.”
“Also, the tenor horn [played by Kris Jensen] with the two lead guitars is just a gas to work with, you can make it a soft sound and it blends with the two guitars beautifully. Plus, it frees the keyboard player up to play chord work, which he should be playing instead of having to play the third part in the harmony, along with us.”
Betts wrote seven of the 11 songs on the album, with vocalist/keyboardist Matt Zeiner and guitarist Mark May writing or co-writing the remainder.
Also joining Betts is bassist David Stoltz, who had auditioned for the Allmans about four years ago (when guitarist Warren Haynes and bassist Allen Woody left to devote their full-attention to their one-time side project, Gov’t Mule), drummer Mark Greenberg, and fellow drummer/percussionist/vocalist Frank Lombardi, Betts’ former guitar technician.
The album kicks off with a shortened version of the band’s live opener, the instrumental “Rave On.” “It’s a little firecracker, a nice little burst of energy that sets the tone and gets things ready to go,” Betts says.
All the songs are new compositions, with the exception of “Tombstone Eyes,” a songs Betts wrote about four years ago about the return in popularity of heroin use in America.
“It’s kind of a wake-up call to this mess,” he says. “I saw it happen when we were young and I see it happening now again with the next generation. With this epidemic going on, I just thought it was worth saying something about. See, the thing is, death is final. You don’t get two chances to die.
Betts says he tried to avoid mentioning his split with the Allmans on the record. Just one verse, in the song “Here Comes the Blues Again,” refers to the divorce: “Thirty years of heart and soul/We took it further than rock’n’roll/We stuck together through thick and thin/Hey, we made the best of it all back then/Then, I guess time finally took its toll/Ya cut me deep, ya cut me cold/Brother against brother, one against the other/Looks like the end, here come the blues again.”
“Let’s Get Together,” is the first album issued by Back Alley Records, a joint-venture owned by Betts and Bob Freese, owner of Chagrin Falls, Ohio-based FreeFalls Entertainment, which has inked such a pact with Willie Nelson, to whom Betts turned to for advice. “We played a game of golf together and Willie just sang Bob’s praises very highly. He said, ‘Well, I can tell ya, he’s one of the good guys.'”
Through the partnership, Betts retains the album’s master, which he licenses to Freese, who contracts promotion and publicity firms to work each of his records on a month-to-month basis. “Dickey wanted to have control of his record, and I said, ‘You’ve come to the right place,'” says Freese, currently acting as Betts’ manager. “I think a lot of artists want to do this, they just don’t know how.”
The album should get a nudge from the recent launch of dickeybetts.com, which includes video footage of the band recording the album, links to Allman Brothers Band and Gibson Guitar sites, and contests through which fans can win on-stage seats. Also, while the band is on tour, Betts plans to keep an online diary in which the guitarist will critique each night’s performance.
Betts says he’s considering cutting a delta blues-type acoustic album later this year. The album, he says, will probably include some instrumentals and feature a couple of his band members, Nelson, and probably Haynes and Derek Trucks, both of whom are current, but not original members of the Allman Brothers. The album could be released by this winter. “I think it’ll be a nice, cozy record. And maybe we’ll do some college dates with that same kind of idea this winter.”
On his split with the Allmans, he warns, “I really don’t want to spread ill will and bad feelings. I mean, I’m very disappointed in the guys — But, ya know, life goes on.”