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Rocker Devon Allman talks vinyl, vibing and hearing his dad on the radio

When it comes to lineage and Devon Allman, you soon find out the peach fuzz doesn’t fall too far from the peach tree.

Devon’s father is none other than Gregg Allman, legendary vocalist and keyboardist for the now at-rest Allman Brothers Band. And while there’s no doubt DNA has graced Devon with that gravelly, bluesy “Allman voice,” the man has clearly put a personal stamp of soul on what he sings and how he plays on guitar. “You like to think every record you put out is better than the last,” he says. “I’m just trying to keep this genre of music alive and do my part.”

Just bear witness to his second solo album, Ragged & Dirty, out now in various formats via Ruf Records. The album clearly lives up to its name, veering from Allman’s hot wah-wah-infused licks on Traveling to the gritty cover of Otis Taylor’s stark Ten Million Slaves. Then there’s the album’s centerpiece, Midnight Lake Michigan, a mystical, one-take 9-minute journey in B minor that speaks to the very core of the deeply affective power of improv.

“When I first fell in love with music, it was vinyl records.”

Digital Trends gave Allman, 42, a call on his cell to discuss lovin’ vinyl, recording in Chicago, why it took him years to get the courage up to be a lead guitar player, and his favorite album his dad played on — one you might not expect, o brothers and sisters of the road.

Digital Trends: After we hung out at the now defunct J&R Music World in New York earlier last year, I bought your first solo album Turquoise on 180-gram vinyl. Please tell me I can get Ragged & Dirty on wax too. 

Devon Allman: It’s out, man, so you can! It’s like a translucent blue, a real badass-lookin’ thing. 

Cool, I know what I’m going to be ordering later today. Tell me more about how much you love vinyl.

When I first fell in love with music, it was vinyl records. There’s something sexy about the size of the artwork, and how it’s spinning on that turntable. But obviously, as we get older and more refined, it’s the sound. It’s the vibe. It’s warmth. It’s just wider and juicier. So when you become the true music snob (laughs), you kind of realize, man, these MP3s aren’t getting it.

Audiophile-Devon-Allman-Ragged&Dirty

Yeah, MP3s replace so much information, but at least we’re now getting to hear music via higher-res files at 96kHz/24-bit. Is that something that encourages you? 

Yeah, although lately I’ve just been trying to beef up my vinyl collection. But the Neil Young Pono player — I’ll end up getting that, for sure.

I’ve got one. I was a Kickstarter supporter, and I think it’s fantastic. It actually delivers what you hear in the studio — the vibe and feel of what you get when you’re recording, with a clear separation of instruments. 

That’s cool, I can’t wait. I’ll be all over that.

What other vinyl have you been getting lately?

Just a bunch of old jazz and blues. You know, trying to go back. Everything’s being re-released on better vinyl. Coltrane, Miles, B.B. King — anything and everything. Vinyl is up 74 percent from last year. That’s an incredible, incredible spike in sales.

“As for speakers — I like old Bose, the old ones. Or Klipsch from back in the day.”

Yeah, I love seeing it keep going up. What kind of turntable do you have?

Here’s the story. I put the call out on my social media, asking for some good recommendations on a turntable. And this cat hit me up and said, “Man, I got a brand new one in the box and I know I’ll never use it. Do you want it?” I’m like, “Yeah!” He sent it over, and we sent him a nice package with t-shirts and CDs and stuff. I just moved into a new house, so I haven’t taken it out of the box yet, but it’s a nice one.

That’s cool. What about the rest of your system?

I want to get a vintage receiver/tuner/amp, like Sansui or something. As for speakers — I like old Bose, the old ones. Or Klipsch from back in the day. I’ll find some vintage ones.

You pretty much have to make an appointment to sit down and listen to records these days, am I right? 

(laughs) I’m telling you, man. It was so much more innocent back in the day when you had more time on your hands and you’d spin those bastards for hours.

Let’s get into Ragged & Dirty. You must have been happy with the vibe you guys got in Chicago at Joyride Studios. What was it like recording there? I’m guessing that you were all recording in the same room together.

Audiophile DevonAllman Ragged & Dirty

(Image © Joel Kinison | flickr)

Yeah. I was the only one in an iso [isolation] booth. But the whole band was together. It was awesome, man. Tom Hambridge [a producer/drummer who’s worked with the likes of Susan Tedeschi, Buddy Guy, George Thorogood, and Johnny Winter] put the band together, and I just put all my trust in him. I showed up, and I knew right away it was going to be something special. Everybody was vibing really hard, and we knocked that thing out in four days. It was crazy.

So you guys clicked right away when you started jamming?

There wasn’t a tune on the record that we played more than three times. It was instant — instant groove.

These are the kind of songs you don’t want to overplay, because you can play the feel right out of things if you do too many takes.

Right. I think that was the secret to nailing it in one or two, maybe three takes at the most. As long as you know the form, don’t overthink it. Just play it and let the feel play itself out.

The best example to me is the magic you got on Midnight Lake Michigan, which is undeniable.

“I actually started on Strat. I was a rhythm guitar player for like forever. I didn’t start playing lead guitar until I was 34.”

Thanks, man. That was the final thing. It wasn’t even planned for the record. I had an idea to do a kind of a mood piece. I asked Tom if it would be cool. I told him it was going to be really, really long, and he was into it. We were gonna cut it three times and edit all the best stuff, but we got done with the first pass, and that was it. We knew we had it.

What you hear on that is totally live. The only overdubs were the percussive-sounding piano wire stuff that Marty [Sammon] came back and did, just to get it a little extra spooky. Everything else was completely live, in one take.

What it reminds me of is Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble’s Riviera Paradise, which was kinda the same thing — he went in there and nailed in pretty much in one take. It has that vibe to me. [Riviera Paradise, from 1989’s In Step, was cut at the end of a recording day when SRV asked producer Jim Gaines to turn the lights down and leave the tape running. He did one pass on his Fender Strat, and the band added its backing track later.]

Yeah, yeah, man; I definitely get that from it. And since it was the final tune being cut, it came out of “Hey, we just spent three days jamming together,” so everybody was firing on all cylinders, vibing with each other.

And unlike most of the rest of the record, you used a Strat on it instead of a Gibson.

I did, yeah. I used a Strat on I’ll Be Around [a Spinners cover] and Midnight Lake Michigan. It was cool. I actually started on Strat. I was a rhythm guitar player for like forever. I didn’t start playing lead guitar until I was 34. When I went to lead, I wanted a thicker lead, so I switched from Strats over to Les Pauls. It was kinda nice to go back “home,” in a way, you know?

Yeah. But it took a while to get you up past the seventh fret, right?

Oh, I was scared to death of it for years.

Why do you think that is, you not wanting to play lead guitar?

I don’t know, man. I really don’t know. But once I started doing it, it was a very quick addiction. I never fancied myself a guitarist when I started. All the way up until age 33, 34, I just viewed myself as a singer/songwriter and a rhythm guitar player. The guitar was just a vehicle to write songs with.

Having that rhythm base and understanding of song structure leads to being a better writer. Inherently, you gotta have that backbone, or the song isn’t going to be there.

Yeah, I would agree with that. I’m glad I took the time to lean on the one, and then kinda catch up to the other.

Speaking of vocals, there are certain effects you have on Blackjack Heartattack — what were you going for there?

I wanted a real Billy Gibbons, 1970s, distorted vibe to it, and Tom dialed it up.

I also like that minimalistic feel on the last track, Leave the City, where it’s just you two guys — that is, you, and then Tom on drums.

Audiophile DevonAllman Ragged & Dirty

(Image © Gerry Hardy | flickr)

That was a real nice number, just a Resonator and drums. And the low thing that almost sounds like a didgeridoo in the background — that’s just my vocal, me going “hmmmm.” (chuckles) It’s a cool vocal quality, even softer than a fretless bass would have been on that one. It was the right thing to float in there to hold down the fort.

It totally fits. It’s that perfect, end-of-Side 2 kind of song.

Yeah, I did share themes with both records. It kind of stayed true — ending with a thoughtful, mellow number, and having an instrumental on it. There’s definitely some consideration for composition from album to album.

Right, and deciding to put Luther Allison’s Ragged & Dirty before Leave the City — and you just totally wail on that one.

That one’s fun, man. I love Luther a lot, and it was great to pay homage to one of the greats. Whenever you hear of the great blues cats, you always hear of B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Robert Johnson, and others — and I think Luther belongs in that circle.

Me too. And I love the way his son Bernard can wind out sometimes, just like Hendrix, but in his own way.

Yeah, man, he’s awesome.

“We used to drive around and listen to the radio, and I’d ask my mom, “Who’s this, who’s that?” And one day she went, ‘Oh, that’s your dad.’”

When you were growing up in the ’70s with your Mom [Shelley] in Texas, she would school you on what you heard whenever the radio was on.

Yeah. She was way into The Beatles. She actually dated a DJ for a while, and he would bring me records. That’s where I got turned onto KISS and Cheap Trick, and then Hendrix, Steely Dan, Zeppelin, and AC/DC. A lot of that mainstay ’70s radio rock was what was happening for me.

And Cheap Trick was your first show.

My first concert, yeah. I was 9. Rick Nielsen is a badass. That dude comes out with a five-neck guitar, and I was like, “Alright, I have to do this.”

We used to drive around and listen to the radio, and I’d ask my mom, “Who’s this, who’s that?” And one day she went, “Oh, that’s your dad.”

Now how did that feel, hearing your dad like that? Did you know who he was at that age?

He was with Cher at the time, very high-profile on the cover of magazines and stuff, so I knew, for sure.

And now it’s come full circle. You went to some of The Allman Brothers Band’s final shows at the Beacon Theatre in New York in October.

Right, I went to the last two [October 27 and 28, 2014]. It was amazing. I think they did right. They did it with class, before they became some nostalgia act not up to snuff. They went out on top. 45 years is a great run. It was like my dad said — he had no idea it would go on that long when they started that thing. It’s a testament to how badass of a Jedi Council they were. (both laugh)

Audiophile DevonAllman Ragged & Dirty

The Allman Brothers Band

Totally badass. You say you never fancied yourself a guitar player, but didn’t your dad once say your voice reminded him of Duane’s?

No, just in the way he sees my mannerisms and stuff like that. Duane was a pretty fiery cat and a natural leader, and my dad was more of the quiet one. He just said at times I reminded him of Duane. It maybe also had something to do with the way I look when I’m playing.

How does that feel? People still revere Duane as one of the top players ever. That’s pretty heady.

Oh yeah, it’s incredible to know that, 40-plus years later, people are still talking about him and putting him in Top 10 lists. His legacy is a really, really good one. It’s amazing. I think people will listen to him even longer than that.

Fifty years down the line, he’ll still be there. Is it possible to say what your favorite Allman Brothers tune or album is?

You know, my favorite one that my Pops did was Laid Back [his first solo album, from 1973]. There’s something so vibe-y about that record. And that’s nothing to take away from what Duane and Dickey [Betts] and The Allmans did, because there’s something special about all those first records. But Laid Back is something that always stands out to me.

“My favorite one that my Pops did was Laid Back. There’s something so vibe-y about that record.”

Yeah, Gregg was able to stretch out a bit more on that album, it felt more like it was all him. The title is perfect too — it’s one of those “sit back and listen” records.

Yeah, that’ a very chill record. It’s one of my favorites.

And now, no pressure on you to take up the mantel of all that they stood for.

I’ll do everything I can. (laughs)

I think Ragged & Dirty is one helluva statement to get out there. It shows very different sides of you.

Well, thank you, man. You like to think every record you put out is better than the last. And I’m just trying to keep this genre of music alive and do my part. I’m really pleased with how Hambridge produced me, and we’ve started a relationship that’s only just scratched the surface.

How did you guys get to know each other?

I think we met at the Blues Music Awards [May 8, 2014 at the Cook Convention Center in Memphis], possibly through either Mike Zito [vocalist/guitarist in Royal Southern Brotherhood] or [manager] Reuben Williams. I remember thinking about wanting to switch things up, and Mike was like, “Hey, you oughtta check out Tom Hambridge.” So I emailed the guy, and he was instantly onboard. It was pretty flattering and cool. We have a great bromance too — we just hit it off and had a really great relationship from the get-go. I look forward to more work with Mr. Hambridge.

Audiophile DevonAllman Ragged & Dirty

Gregg Allman (Image © Michael O’Brien | flickr)

So you think you guys will cut another one?

I’d love to, yeah. We were just on the Simple Man Cruise [VIII; Lynyrd Skynyrd’s cruise, November 16-20, 2014, Miami to Key West and Great Stirrup Cay], and we were at the casino bar talking about the next one. We’re aiming for it.

How do you like playing on those cruises?

It’s great, but some of them are pretty long. I’m good for about 4 days, and then I’m kinda ready for some land. I mean, it’s an honor to play on them, for sure. You’re in good company every time.

And we’re gonna see you get out on the road with this album soon?

Yeah, man. I’m gonna wrap up with Royal [Southern Brotherhood] in April, and then I’m doing nothing but solo. So man, we’re gonna do the whole world.

Sounds like you get a nice closure with Royal. [Allman is leaving the band in early 2015.]

Absolutely. It’s totally sweet. There’s no bad blood. It was a tough decision to make. I love these guys, and I love the music, but I’ve been juggling two bands for four years, and I put my time in. It’s time to get back and concentrate on my material and my show. I’m sure we’ll jam and do stuff in the future.

You’re like a junior Warren Haynes out there, wearing 50 different hats.

Well yeah, for a while, it was a lot. When you love to play and play music with other cats, you end up taking a lot on.

That’s gotta weigh on you. You want to put 100 percent behind Ragged & Dirty and not spilt yourself in different directions.

Yeah, that’s part of the reason. I dropped this record, and I don’t want to do 10 shows for it; I want to do 200.

We’re going to hold you to that, Devon. Let’s say 150 at least.

You got it, buddy. (laughs heartily)