Dickey Betts leans back and bends a string on his Les Paul goldtop, tattooed arms extending out from an intricately tie-dyed T-shirt. With a trademarked combination of brawn and beauty, the released note soars up to blues heaven, as the mustachioed Betts squints under his cowboy hat. With a subtle &Mac223;ick of his headstock, he leads his band back to the bridge of “Jessica” and the crowd leaps to its feet in a collective cheer.
For decades, this was a sight that could be taken for granted by fans of the longtime Allman Brothers Band guitarist. But now it’s cause for celebration, and maybe even a little bit of awe. In just a year, Betts has gone through the ringer and come out the other side, hale and hearty and arguably better than before. It was May 2000 when he received news via fax that he had been effectively terminated from the Allman Brothers Band, the group he helped form more than 30 years ago. We may never know exactly what happened to end such a long and fruitful relationship, and Betts doesn’t much want to discuss it any more, but the aftermath is clear.
After withstanding a bout of depression, the guitarist put a new group together and took to the clubs last summer. It was immediately and abundantly evident that his muscular, bluesy playing and compellingly melodic phrasing were as strong as ever. That was hardly surprising; he has long been at the forefront of the guitar pantheon. But what Betts has accomplished since is worth marveling at.
A little more than a year since his departure from the ABB, the guitarist has a new band and a new CD, Let’s Get Together, as well as a new management team and his own label, Back Alley Records, custom made to release only Betts’ material. With solid international distribution secured, Betts is hopeful that he can blaze a new path of artistic freedom and profitability, after learning the downside of major labels the hard way.
“I wanted to get that Epic corporate boot off my damn neck and find someone who wants do a label partnership while avoiding this corporate precedent that’s been unfairly set over the years,” Betts says. “Musicians just feel they have to put up with it, but it’s not so. Hopefully, you get to a point where you can finally break that chain, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Let’s Get Together features seven new Betts originals, including three instrumentals, as well as two tunes each by band members Mark May (guitar) and Matt Zeiner (keyboards). It’s an impressive collection, all the more so considering ABB fans have been waiting seven years (and counting) for a new studio release. Betts also has a new endorsement deal with Gibson, which will introduce a signature series Les Paul this summer. No wonder the guitarist is so excited to talk. Relaxing in a New York hotel room hours before taking the stage, Betts leans back and blows a cloud of cigarette smoke toward the ceiling before fixing his interviewer with a steely glaze.
“I’m not mad at anyone and I’m not carrying any kind of grudge,” he says. “I’m not happy with what happened or the way things went down, but I’m also not bitter because I’m moving on. I’m just going with the changes that happened beyond my control and some great things have come about as a result.”
Guitar World It’s very impressive that just a year after having a fallout with the Allman Brothers Band, your home for 30 years, you have a new record with a new band.
Dickey Betts Well, something that I’ve been telling myself is that while we don’t like things to change, they do anyway. We want things to stay more or less how they are, and that’s not the natural way of the world. You just have to be grateful for having 30 years with a band that accomplished all the things the Allman Brothers did, and now it’s over and it’s time to change. I didn’t change it myself, but I’m just going with what is naturally happening.
GW That’s a great approach.
Betts It’s the only approach, but people won’t believe it or understand its sincerity until they hear this new album or see me with my new band. Then they’ll understand why I’m so relaxed and feeling so good. Not that it came easy. Simultaneously putting together a new band and an entirely new business organization was damned hard work, but it was good, wholesome work, and I threw myself into it with all I’ve got.
GW Is this band a long-term commitment for you?
Betts Oh, absolutely. I’ve put too much time and effort in to walk away, and in any case I am really happy with the way things are sounding and the direction we’re headed.
GW You’re 57. You’ve had a great career and I know you have some hobbies you really love. Were you at all tempted last year to say, “Screw this business. It’s time to golf, hunt and fish”?
Betts I briefly considered doing that when this thing with the Brothers came about, but I’m not ready for it. I have too much music left, and I especially feel that way since seeing what came about from putting all the hard work into this project, and all the great new music we came up with. I’ve got a lot more to say before I put my guitar down. I have seven new original compositions on this album. A few are tunes we were working on with the Allman Brothers but were never completed or recorded for one reason or another, in some cases because no one else really showed any enthusiasm to work them up. But I wrote four in the three months before recording. I really got energized and came up with some great new material.
GW Making this album with people with whom you had never recorded must have been a very different experience from working with a band you’ve been in for 30 years.
Betts Very much so, and it was a great experience. It’s almost like good karma from something I did, though I don’t know why I deserve it. [laughs] We have good people in this organization from the top on down, and that’s real important. And everyone is very into the whole thing; it’s more than just a job for everyone, and that sort of enthusiasm is contagious.
GW A lot of people in your position would have recorded with studio musicians, but you used your touring band.
Betts I don’t work that way. Being a bandleader is part of my talent, and I’m really enjoying that aspect of having my own group. None of us would ever take that position in the Allman Brothers Band going back to the very beginning. A lot of bandleaders left their own outfits to come together in that band, and that sort of necessitated a more democratic approach. Whenever we needed a leader, someone would step forward and lead. In fact, that’s a Duane Allman quote.
Duane was definitely the central person, because everyone came together around him, but he wasn’t the bandleader in a traditional sense. He didn’t go out and hire everyone. The band just sort of happened. It was supposed to be a three-piece with him and Berry Oakley and Jaimoe, and then me and Butch [Trucks] and finally Gregg [Allman] came into the picture. As a result of the way that all happened, there was never a real leader.
But in my band, I am the leader and I have a lot of younger, inexperienced guys, and I enjoyed working with them and coaxing out good performances. I’ve learned a lot by studying Tommy Dowd [producer of the Allman Brothers, Cream, Lynyrd Skynyrd and many others] for many years, though I have a more assertive way of doing it.
GW How do you mean?
Betts Well, people definitely know when I’ve made a suggestion or told them to play a certain part. [laughs] Tommy is so easygoing in his approach that when you finish an album with him you wonder what the hell he contributed. That’s because he makes you feel that you did everything yourself. He’s really a genius psychologist, capable of getting you to pull things out of yourself that you didn’t even know were there.
GW One of the tunes that you played but never recorded with the Allman Brothers is the instrumental opener “Rave On,” which I always considered a tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Betts It’s actually modeled on Freddie King’s “Hideaway.” It’s a tribute to both Freddie, who has always been one of my heroes and who I was lucky enough to play with many, many times, and Stevie Ray, who I loved from the minute I heard. “Rave On” is not really in that true Texas style, but it’s as close as I get. My style is just a little too smooth and round to play that stuff straight, because I’m such a melody guy that, even when I’m playing the blues, I go for melody first. But my other guitarist, Mark May, is from Houston, and he’s got that Albert Collins full-treble stinger down cold, which is nice to hear because most blues players go with Albert, B.B. or Freddie King, and Albert Collins was a great player, too, with a very different approach.
GW And you had the opportunity to play with all of those guys.
Betts Yes, I did, and it was an honor each time. Albert Collins did a bunch of shows with the Allman Brothers just before he got real sick, and he played with us each night. I got my vibrato from B.B. and have played with him many times. He is always so gracious to someone on his stage. Freddie was a little rougher. He was going to test you. Albert was famous for being ornery, but he was a real sweetheart; he was just afraid that if he let his guard down, he would be ripped off.
He always called me “Guitar Murphy” for some reason. Luckily, it was, I believe, a term of endearment. [laughs] The first time I met him we were playing the Fillmore West, and we were still pretty young—it was one of our first times through. He came in during our soundcheck and stood there sucking his pipe. He pointed at me and came up and said, “You’re a Guitar Murphy!” I sort of froze because I didn’t know what he meant or if this was good or bad, but he walked right up and sort of slapped me on the back and said, “You’re not supposed to be able to play like that.” After that, I’d see him over the years and he’d always go “Hey there, Guitar Murphy.” [laughs]
GW There is not a lot of slide playing on the album, but there are some nice bits. Is that you?
Betts No, it’s Mark. I stay away from it. I kind of burnt my slide playing when I was forced to play Duane’s parts in the Brothers after he died. I always felt comfortable playing it before that but I totally lost my comfort zone once I had to play things like “Statesboro Blues” in his style. I couldn’t find my own voice because I had to copy his licks, which I hated doing, and it really kind of spoiled electric slide playing for me, though I love hearing someone else do it and I love playing acoustic slide. Mark May doesn’t claim to be a slide player, but he can do it nicely when we need it. We all aspire to be better, but his focus is not on becoming a slide virtuoso. People have certain expectations when they hear someone playing slide with me, and I’m very respectful of that and just try to let him avoid the situation.
GW The album has three instrumentals, including the very Latin-sounding “Dona Maria.”
Betts I consider that the album’s centerpiece. In many ways, it is reminiscent of “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” though I actually think it’s a better-sounding tune. It’s certainly more complex, with four moving parts.
I wrote that for my wife. Her name is Donna Marie and I call her “Señora Dona Maria” as an endearing term, which I think started because we live in a Mexican-style Mission house. I started with the title and the inspiration to write something for my wife and came up with something I’m really proud of. I really have to have an image in my head before I can start writing an instrumental, because otherwise it’s too vague. I get an emotion or an idea I want to express and see what I can come up with. When you do it successfully, it is enormously satisfying, because you have transcended words and communicated with music.
GW It’s interesting that you start with a concept.
Betts To tell a story well, you have to know what you are trying to say. That’s how I’ve always done it. “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” was written for a woman I was having an affair with who was Boz Scaggs’ girlfriend. She was Hispanic and somewhat dark and mysterious—and she really used it to her advantage and played it to the hilt. [laughs] Due to the cloak-and-dagger nature of our affair, I couldn’t name the song after her, so I named it “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” which is what it said on a tombstone in Rose Hill Cemetery in Macon, Georgia, where I used to write a lot.
And “Jessica” was just a bunch of notes going nowhere until my baby daughter Jessica came crawling into the room, and I started playing along, trying to capture musically the way she looked smiling and bouncing around the room.
GW You mentioned earlier that you had to put a whole new label together. Tell me a little bit about it.
Betts I have to call it a label, but it’s just for my stuff. I have put a pretty interesting business organization together, which was difficult but really quite fun and satisfying. I’m working with Bob Freese, who has been an executive at four major labels, including Epic. We’ve struck a nice partnership, securing good distribution in both the U.S. and Europe, and now we’re building our own web site [dickeybettsband.com] to help promote the album online. It’s been a long journey, but everything is coming into place.
GW I’m sure putting together a national tour also took a lot of work. You could take the organization for granted in the Allman Brothers, where all you had to do was show up at the gig on time.
Betts That’s right. It was so well oiled that there wasn’t much you had to worry about. That’s good in some ways but it has its downside. You get a little cushy and tend to be less creative than you are when you really have to do it yourself. Special things happen when you find yourself needing a knockout punch in the 15th round. That’s when you have to dig down deep and see what you’ve got. That’s when you can surprise yourself.
GW You toured early this summer with Charlie Daniels’ Volunteer Jam. How did that come about?
Betts It’s as simple as this: Charlie called me up and asked me, and I was very happy to say yes. It was a great tour. Hell, I’m not happy about why I’m on it, and I’d prefer to be the headliner, but it’s great fun. The opportunity to play with other bands and old friends is something I really missed in the Allman Brothers; when everyone’s a headliner it doesn’t happen. I also want to do something with Lynyrd Skynyrd, actually.
GW That’s somewhat ironic because you never wanted the Allman Brothers Band to be identified as southern rock.
Betts I don’t think any of us like the southern rock thing. It was an easy way to write and categorize what bands were doing, but we always thought the only things the southern rock bands had in common is they were from the South. A lot of people jammed, and I always thought you could compare the Brothers to the Grateful Dead just as easily as to Lynyrd Skynyrd and easier than to some of the others. I’ve always preferred to just be thought of as a progressive rock band from the South, but I guess “southern rock” is a legitimate term and certainly a lot of people think of it as such. I’m not offended by it after all these years. The important thing is, thanks for listening to the music. You can call it whatever you want.