‘Low Country’ for Old Man
First, there’s the voice. It hits you in the face, vaporously rising from a cup of coffee on a morning hung over. It slinks into your mind, planting itself there as it belts out over the lush simplicity of the instrumentation — a voice disembodied, howling through the canyons one moment and, in the next, settling slowly and mournfully over the swamps.
Since he joined older brother Duane in the Allman Brothers Band in 1969, Gregg Allman’s distinct vocals and legendary Hammond B-3 playing have earned him a reputation as one of the blues’ preeminent practitioners.
Gregg Allman released “Low Country Blues” on Jan. 18, 2011, his first solo album in 14 years. Arriving just seven months after his liver transplant, the album is not only an amazing feat, but is also filled with the soul and emotion that attest to the healing power of music.
“Low Country Blues” is a straight-ahead blues album, featuring 11 covers of blues standards by Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, B.B. King, Bobby Bland and Sleepy John Estes, among others, but the standout track is the album’s sole original song, track six: “Just Another Rider,” written by Allman and Warren Haynes.
The track opens with meaty chords from Allman’s Hammond B-3, a shimmering guitar line. The fat, open tones of the horn section linger on the back end and the bass and drums provide rhythmic counterpoint.
“Daylight again, memories fall like rain,” Allman sings. “Reminds you to take it slow. One step at a time, baby ‘til you find your way … Just another rider on that train to nowhere. Just another fool too far from home. Just another stranger tryin’ to get somewhere. Somewhere, but you’re still all alone.”
On first listen, “Just Another Rider” evokes an unshakeable sense of nostalgia in its truest sense. There is an infectious joy struggling to break free from sorrow. It never quite makes it out and instead lingers over middle ground.
From its first few bars, the track recalls the spirit of Allman’s best songwriting from the heyday of the Allman Brothers Band, before Duane’s death in a motorcycle accident in October 1971. Songs like “Whipping Post,” which Gregg and Duane stretched out into live jam sessions at their concerts, sometimes lasted almost half an hour. Listeners are left helpless, along for the ride and unable to disembark until journey’s end, not that they would want anything else anyway.
But those days are long gone, and rather than give listeners a taste of the southern rock which he played an instrumental role in popularizing, Allman takes the path of pure blues.
The blues is a many-headed creature. Whether it’s the raw acoustic twanging of the delta blues, the growling electric blues of Muddy Waters and B.B. King, the driving piano of Pinetop Perkins or the long illustrious line of saxophone players from Sidney Bechet to Lester Young to Johnny Hodges to Charlie Parker to Michael Brecker, the blues is always deceiving in its simplicity. Countless blues, jazz and pop songs and their variations have sprouted from the basic twelve bar V-IV-I blues progression, one of the foundations of modern American music.
“Low Country Blues” is much more than a simple tribute to the music that Gregg and his brother embraced in their youth; it is a musical journey of rebirth. The release of this record has seen the 63-year-old man’s return to health after years of wrecking himself on drugs and alcohol and fighting Hepatitis C since 2007.
Although “Just Another Rider” stands above the rest of the tracks by virtue of its sheer emotional might, the other 11 are no less of an accomplishment. Each track attests to the infinite musical variety contained within the blues. And yet, whether the track is stripped down to its essentials, or if a lush section of horns backs up a full electric band, it inevitably contains that same spirit, raging and smoldering all at once, that lies at the heart of the blues.
“I’m going away now baby,” Allman sings on his rendition of “I Can’t Be Satisfied.” “I won’t be back no more. Goin’ back down south … Woman I’m troubled, I be all worried in my mind. I can’t be satisfied, but I just can’t keep from cryin’.”