Don Was discovered he was hired as the producer for the final Gregg Allman studio album the same way many of us did — he found out about it in the news.
“Right before we had gotten together for the tribute show in Atlanta we recorded for All My Friends live album, Gregg was doing some interviews leading up to the event,” the legendary producer and Blue Note Records president explains. “And I was reading one of these articles and he had said, ‘My next record is going to be called Southern Blood, and Don Was is going to produce it and we’re going to cut it in Muscle Shoals.’ So that’s how I found out I was producing Gregg Allman [Laughs]. I saw him a week later at the show and he was like, ‘Oh yeah, man, I hope that was cool.’ Of course it’s cool! It was a trip.”
Produced by Was with the help of Allman’s longtime manager Michael Lehman, Southern Blood — out Friday, Sept. 8 on Rounder Records — is the first studio LP from the former Allman Brothers Band frontman since his 2011 Grammy-nominated Low Country Blues. The 10-track set, cut with his beloved touring band at the legendary FAME Studios, is also the singer’s last work. Following a valiant battle with liver cancer on May 27th at the age of 69, Gregory Lenoir Allman died during the album’s final stages.
Was, the man behind such acclaimed titles as Bonnie Raitt’s Grammy-winning 1989 album Nick of Time and the Rolling Stones’ recent Blue & Lonesome, who also served as the musical director for Allman’s aforementioned 2014 CD/DVD set, was a natural choice. He began the seeding process for the LP by sending Allman and his guitarist Scott Sharrard a collection of mixtapes containing songs he had selected for the former Allman Brothers Band frontman to sing on the album. Among the litany of material presented on the CD-R’s was tunes touching upon the singer’s roots in country, folk, blues and R&B — [including “Song For Adam” off the 1972 eponymous debut of Jackson Browne (who appears on the final track as well), the 1970 Jack Avery-penned single for former Otis Redding bandleader Johnny Jenkins “Blind Bats and Swamp Rats” and the deep cut off Bob Dylan’s 1974 LP Planet Waves “Going Going Gone,” among others.
For Was, it was a matter of selecting the right songs the producer personally felt Allman could translate into his own natural voice, such as the Jerry Garcia-Robert Hunter composition “Black Muddy River”, originally featured on the Grateful Dead’s 1987 LP In The Dark.
“I always thought it was one of the best Garcia-Hunter songs,” he proclaims. “It reminded me of Gregg going back to his place in Savannah, GA, and trying to get himself together. There’s a certain solitude to his life, except for when he was playing. The character in that song very much reminded me of him.”
Another tune featured on Southern Blood uncovers Allman’s love for art-folk hero Tim Buckley, a revelation that has certainly come as a surprise to many fans. But it also holds a special place in the heart of Sharrard, who has been playing with the Gregg Allman Band since 2008 and was one of the singer’s closest collaborators in the conception of this new album.
“He would play the Tim song for me during our songwriting sessions,” the guitarist admits. “And the second time he did it I asked him, ‘Greg, is that a song of yours?’ And he goes, ‘No, Tim Buckley wrote that. He’s one of my favorite songwriters.’ [Then he told me a story about he had once reached out to Tim and they had a phone conversation shortly before Tim tragically died. And they talked about hanging out, writing songs and collaborating. For me, that’s the moment on the record I can’t get through, because it was like a private concert I used to get…. It was really emotional for me to be a part of him recording it and now hearing it.”
Sharrard also co-wrote the only song penned by Allman on Southern Blood, the gorgeous, soulful opener “My Only True Friend”, as autobiographical a composition as anything Gregg had written in his 50 years on the road and in the studio. For the Wisconsin-born guitarist, the development of this road-weary track carried an extra sense of gravitas when he had first brought the tune to his boss.
“I went to his hotel room when he was playing the Beacon with some songs I had written, including ‘My Only True Friend’,” he explains. “And that was the day, about two or three years ago, he told me about his terminal diagnosis. I think in that hotel room he revealed a level of vulnerability he never had before, and that’s when he changed the words of the pre-chorus to ‘I hope you’re haunted by the music of my soul when I’m gone.’ It was when he shared that information with me.”
“My Only True Friend” is one of two songs written by Sharrard on Southern Blood, the other being the chooglin’ “Love Like Kerosene”, which initially debuted on 2015’s Gregg Allman LIVE – Back to Macon, GA. And this pair of originals is perhaps the most indicative of the modern country feel that permeates throughout the record — so much so, in fact, that you can’t exactly figure out if it’s the influence of such acolytes as Eric Church and Jamey Johnson on Allman, or the other way around.
“Today’s country music [acts] for the most part are big fans of the Allman Brothers and Gregg,” states Lehman. “So many of them that I met have told me how they were raised on those albums. And Gregg was a fan of theirs as well. We had gone to the CMAs a number of times, and he loved the music. He’d talk about anything from Mel Tillis to Taylor Swift. We actually had a thing in Nashville about a year ago where he did duets with Little Big Town and Chris Stapleton.”
Yet at the root of Southern Blood, it was Allman’s 1973 solo debut Laid Back which served as the primary sonic template for the finished product.
“Laid Back had that great pedal steel on it and incorporates a little more of Gregg’s roots than maybe what you heard from just the Allman Brothers,” Was explains. “One of the things Gregg and I did speak about was making the texture of this record something along the lines of what Laid Back would have sounded like if it were recorded at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals in 2017.”
According to those close to him, it was a special experience for Gregg to cut Southern Blood at FAME, the legendary Alabama studio where Allman first recorded in 1968 with his Los Angeles-based band Hour Glass alongside his brother Duane and where Duane had played guitar on such soul masterpieces as Wilson Pickett’s Hey Jude and Aretha Franklin’s Spirit in the Dark. But having been able to make the album with this final incarnation of his long-running Gregg Allman Band (along with such great auxiliary players as Buddy Miller and longtime Allman Brothers percussionist Marc Quinones) was perhaps the most satisfying aspect of its creation upon his passing.
“Gregg was so proud of his solo band over the last five or ten years,” Lehman smiles. “He really pruned it to become—in his mind—the best solo group he had ever put together. He would look over at this band during performances and just smile, because he had created this great combo in his own vision.
“His one regret in making [2011’s] Low Country Blues was that he wished he could‘ve used his own band in the studio,” Lehman continues. “So when we got around to having a conversation about a follow-up, he basically gave me a mandate on two things: One was that he wasn’t going back into the studio unless it was with his own band, and two he was doing it at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals. So that’s what we did, and Don did an incredible job in capturing the essence of Gregg Allman and creating nothing short of a masterpiece for him.”