Dickey Betts says it’s been “a little scary” returning to the stage this year after a four-and-a-half-year retirement/hiatus. But it’s certainly better than the alternative.
“When I turned 70 years old I just figured I wanted to go fishing and play golf and mess around and stuff, so I decided I would retire,” the Allman Brothers Band co-founder, now 74, tells Billboard. “Well, I got bored as hell sitting around here. Then I do this Rolling Stone interview — just to be friendly, I wasn’t really working on a career or nothing — and when it came out the promoters starting calling me, offering me good money to go out and play again. I was bored, and they wanted me back. That’s the way it happened.”
The new Dickey Betts Band, a septet which includes his son Duane, also on guitar, played two shows during May, including one in the Allmans’ ground zero of Macon, Ga., and has another nine shows booked in the coming months, starting July 15 at the Great South Bay Music Festival in Patchogue, N.Y.
Here are nine things to know about Betts and his return to active duty:
1. Betts was overwhelmed by not only the turnout but also by the enthusiasm and love he’s gotten from fans so far for his return. “I’m really flattered. I know it’s unfortunately because Gregg (Allman) and the band have, you know, gone away. It’s just me and Jaimoe left, and I know that’s part of it, which is the sad part. But it’s reality, and the good part is I’m still here and I can still play and I know how to put a good band together and play the music.”
2. Betts admits his playing is “a little rusty, a little unimaginative right now, but it won’t take long, I’ll work my way back out there. It’s sort of like Tiger Woods; You can’t just come back and start winning golf tournaments again.”
3. Betts is keenly aware that as one of the last two original Allman Brothers Band members standing he’s carrying a torch for the group’s legacy. “The people are making me feel that way. I never felt that way at all, but when you get out there and you hear all these things from the fans, it’s amazing. And then just to see how the shows are selling out, it’s kind of amazing to me. The fans are telling me how much interest there is, and I am the guy now who can produce this music because I wrote half of it and participated in all of it.”
4. Betts has picked up the mantle to play some of Allmans songs the late Gregg Allman sang, which he says “brought back a lot of great memories. I didn’t remember some of ’em — I could play ‘Midnight Rider,’ but ‘Whipping Post’ I forgot. It’s been 20 years since I’d played it. My son kind of had to show me what I used to do and I had to re-learn it, but it was a cool process. It’s fun to play it, too. It’s a powerful song.”
5. Despite some acrimony over the course of Allmans’ history — including his 2000 ouster from the band that led to a lawsuit — Betts was on good terms with Gregg Allman before he died last year. “I talked to Gregg several times in the last four years or so, before he passed away. We knew he was sick. We had hopes he would get over it. Most of us knew he had cancer, but we didn’t let that get out because he didn’t want the public to know that. But we knew. In the end, when he got really sick, of course I called him about every other day. The ironic thing is here’s a guy who’s got the greatest voice I’ve ever worked with, one of the greatest blues singers of all time, and he couldn’t talk on the phone. He had to whisper. It was really sad. He enjoyed talking when I called him and when we got together, so that’s what counts.”
6. Betts feels the Allmans’ sense of brotherhood always won out over any disputes between the band members. “It was a feud in the band over business is what it was. I don’t want to get into it, and it didn’t have anything to do with Gregg, it was people trying to influence him. But even when that was going on, I said, ‘I think you’re making a mistake, Gregg. I’m your buddy, and I don’t hold anything against you, I just think you’re misjudging this thing.’ We never were at each other’s throats. It’s a very awkward thing. Unfortunately a lot of bands go through that kind of crap, you know, get jealous of the other people, or get more attention. There you go.”
7. Betts’ favorite songs to play are also some of the fans’ favorites to hear. “You know, when you write songs they’re like kids. It’s hard to pick a favorite. But ‘Jessica’ and ‘Ramblin’ Man,’ ‘Blue Sky’ — ones that are the crowd’s favorites I guess are my favorites. That’s kinda what makes them your favorites, how effective they are, and how the crowd receives them.”
8. Betts reports that his own health is good these days. “I had a little trouble, but it was brief and not that serious. I have a little carpal tunnel in my right hand and I have to go get therapy for once or twice a week. But I’m in good shape.”
9. Besides getting back on the road Betts hopes that his path will lead back into the studio again. “Now that I’m playing again my mind is starting to think more and more. I was just lazy and thinking about going fishing and stuff the last four years, but now a few songs have come to mind. I was telling my wife that this morning about a phrase that I heard. That would be the trigger about whether I would record or not, if I write some songs that I think are interesting. If some songs happen, you know, I’ll definitely get in and record them. I know there’s people who would like to hear them, and I appreciate that.”