“The road goes on forever,” Gregg Allman sang in one of his most famous songs, the one about evading the soul–snatching midnight rider.
After years of unimaginable highs punctuated by gut–wrenching lows, he finally shook loose that black specter — when the road led him to Richmond Hill.
“I had been through Savannah as a little child,” Allman says, “and I remember going down this two–lane road that was just clustered by these oak trees. It was just like a tube, you know, because the branches met across the road. It was so beautiful, I thought ‘One day I’ll come back here.’”
Allman and his seventh wife, Stacey, left the San Francisco area in 2000 and purchased five acres on the winding Belfast River, just outside of Richmond Hill.
There the legendary blues/rock vocalist, co–founder of the Allman Brothers Band, putters around in his garden, rides his beloved motorcycles, fishes off his private dock and watches the sun go down with Stacey and their menagerie of dogs.
“I’ll tell you what I told the real estate lady,” he explains. “She knew me, and I said ‘Because of the kind of business I’m in, could you find me a place around here that is just the opposite of Times Square?’ And she took me right to it.”
Allman’s well–chronicled dance with drink and drugs ended in the 1990s; he’s been clean and sober every day of his life in Bryan County.
He stops just short of agreeing with the suggestion that he is, in the hard–bitten rock ‘n’ roll sense of the word, a survivor.
“I give thanks every day, man,” Allman explains. “But I don’t like to think of it in those kind of terms. ‘Survivor’ is a little harsh. But I guess we’re all survivors in a way.”
He’s 64 now, 40 years older than his brother Duane was when he died in a motorcycle crash on a Macon highway in 1971, at the peak of his musical powers.
In 2007, Allman was diagnosed with Hepatitis C, and three years later underwent liver transplant surgery in Jacksonville.
The extensive bodily carving left him with several painful hernias, which he says will be taken care of when his current solo tour ends – after the Jan. 21 show in the Johnny Mercer Theatre.
Last August, Allman cancelled six weeks of performances because, he explains, he had lung surgery. “It’s kind of a long, drawn–out thing, man, that I really don’t want to get into. It was like a spin–off from the liver thing.”
His autobiography is scheduled for publication in May by William Morrow. Allman fittingly titled it after his first composition to be recorded by the Allman Brothers Band, on their debut album, back in 1969: My Cross to Bear.
The book is an unflinching look at a remarkable life: The Allman family’s early years in Daytona Beach, Fla.; Gregg’s discovery, as a little boy, of B.B. King and other incendiary blues artists; Duane’s mastery of electric slide guitar; the Allman Joys and the Allman Brothers Band, “Whipping Post,” Live at Fillmore East, “Melissa,” Eat a Peach, I’m No Angel.
Alongside Allman’s chemical dependency, there are other dark chapters, too: Duane’s untimely death; the loss of ABB bassist Berry Oakley in another motorcycle accident just a year later; Allman’s ill–fated marriage to the mainstream entertainer Cher; the court case that nearly cost him every friend he had; the ugly dismissal of founding guitarist Dickey Betts in 2000.
Allman and the rest of the band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. On Feb. 11, the Allman Brothers Band will receive a Lifetime Achievement Grammy.
He’s touring behind the T Bone Burnett–produced Low Country Blues, his first album in 15 years. Recorded over 12 days in Memphis, it includes classic blues tunes by Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, B.B. King, Bobby Bland, Sleepy John Estes and others.
Said Burnett: “The place where we could relate most profoundly was in the blues. I didn’t know how good a blues singer he was. He hasn’t lost a thing — it just gets better with age.”
Allman’s touring band includes singer Floyd Miles, a pal from the Daytona Beach days; guitarist Scott Sharrard; Atlantic Records soul legend Jerry Jammott on bass; keyboard whiz Bruce Katz; drummer Steve Potts; and horn player Jay Collins.
There’ll be another founding Brother on the Johnny Mercer stage, too — drummer Jai Johanny Johnson, aka Jaimoe, is opening Allman’s shows with his Jasssz Band. Jaimoe’s group includes several horn players, all of whom will sit in during Allman’s headlining set.
There is, of course, still an Allman Brothers Band. Gregg, Jaimoe, drummer Butch Trucks, bassist Otiel Burbridge, percussionist Marc Quinones and guitarists Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks will start their annual 10–night residency at New York’s Beacon Theatre on March 9.
Allman looks forward to these celebratory gigs. “It’s like Christmas again,” he enthuses. “It’s like a happening that happens every year. And I don’t know how much longer we’re gonna be able to go on doing it, because we’re at 22 years now.”
As for young Derek, who’s been called the heir apparent to Brother Duane: “He’s one of my favorite people on earth, I tell you,” Allman says with a chuckle. “He’s got a heart of gold; he treats all his people real good and everything.
“And he’s growing a beard — can’t be all bad!”
Otherwise, for Gregg Allman, all roads lead to Richmond Hill. “I’ve lived in so many places, and I felt like I needed to go there,” he says.
Allman doesn’t mind being recognized. He gets just enough of it, and just enough peace and quiet.
“It’s like that in Richmond Hill. Nobody bothers me. It’s real nice like that. I guess in a little country town everybody knows everybody anyway, so what the heck.
“I’ll go to the gas station, and get out to put gas in my car, and probably everybody that pulls up says something to me. Because I’m a neighbor.”
With Jaimoe’s Jasssz Band
Where: Johnny Mercer Theatre, Savannah Civic Center, 301 W. Oglethorpe Ave.
When: At 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 21
Tickets: $25–$49.50 at etix.com