The Return of Great Southern: An interview with Dickey Betts
Dickey Betts has always had a penchant for exploring a wide range of different music especially outside of the realms of the Allman Brothers. In 1974 he made the classic country rock album Highway Call. Since leaving the Allman Brother Band in 2001 he has been touring quite a bit having played some dates with Phil and Friends as well as many headlining dates throughout the US. In addition, he has released two eclectic albums that show, contrary to rumors, that his playing is as sharp and inventive as ever. The first release was last year’s impressive album Let’s Get Together an electric set in which he was backed by a six-piece band as well as a few guests. The latest album is a superb acoustic-based effort Collectors #1. It features most of the same players as the first but with the addition of guitarist Dan Toler. Betts has also resurrected the Great Southern name which he used when Toler played with him in the 70s and recorded. Dickey Betts & Great Southern and Atlanta’s Burning Down. What follows is an interview with Betts where he talks about the new album and his recent activities as well as few things from his past.
M.S. I’m really enjoying your new acoustic album. It’s really nice. Why don’t you start by telling us a little about that album and what made you decide to make it?
D.B. I decided to do that record just for the collectors. I thought I’m just going to forget about doing a commercially based record. You know I have never been like a commercial hit single writer anyway when I was with the Allman Brothers, but still I just thought I’d like to do some stuff that I would enjoy doing and just see how it came out. That’s why I called it the Collectors and as it turns out the fans are enjoying it more than the electric album that I did, Let’s Get Together.
So, that’s how it started out. It was just something that I thought I would do. You know, just something that I would sell at my shows and over the website. It turns out to one I am really proud of. It turned out really nice. It’s a real uplifting kind of thing and it turns out to be and I didn’t plan it this way but it seems to be all of the influences that have influenced my music over the years, the western swing, the Celtic and old country stuff, that shows up in "Beyond the Pale." There’s the Delta Blues and then we did the one more urban blues thing, "Change My Way of Living." It’s pretty much a view of influences I guess. Overall it turned out to be a real fun project to do.
M.S. How did you hook up with Dan Toler again?
D.T. Danny lives here (in Florida) about 20 miles from me. We run into each other every now and then and I just asked him if he’d like to join the band. We did a benefit for Make A Wish and I asked him to help with it. We played a two hour set for this little benefit and all kinds of light bulbs started going off in my head. I said, "We should be playing together." So, we kind of joined forces again and it is really nice playing with him again. His style has changed. He kind of had some secret years there. He was kind of below radar for a while but obviously he had been working on his playing all the while. He has really developed to where he is really more compatible with me now than in the days when we were together. When we were together with Great Southern back in the 70s and 80s and in the Allman Brothers, we played a lot the same. Now we don’t play so much the same. He has really developed kind of what I would call a Western Swing style. It’s got a lot of chord movements. It’s not New York jazz it’s got more of a Western influence. Anyway, it’s working out nice. We are having a lot of fun and we fit like a glove.
M.S. Have you been playing any of the acoustic stuff in your set?
D.B. With the acoustic stuff we can only do four or five of those. I try and fit it into the set. When I’m headlining I usually play for about three hours, so I try and give at least half an hour or so to that album. We vary them. We’ll play some one night and some the next.
M.S. I like the diversity of the influences of this album. In fact you seem to have a broader sound when you playing as Dickey Betts rather than when you were in the Allman Brothers. As you mentioned, this album has Western Swing and even Celtic tones. How were you exposed to that stuff originally?
D.B. The Celtic thing is from my folks. They are English and Scottish from way the way back, from the 1600’s. They were in the US in 1630 and then they moved to Prince Edward Island in Canada, and everybody on that island is a fiddle player. Everybody plays guitars and fiddles, so all of my uncles played that stuff. It’s not exactly bluegrass and it is not exactly Appalachian, it’s really a lot of those old country tunes that I heard when I was growing up. That’s were I got that influence. It was when I was first learning to play and my uncles would come up, may be once a month we would have a jam session on Saturday night. So that’s where that comes from. My dad was a hell of a fiddle player. He could play guitar, mandolin and just about any stringed instrument, but he was really a fine fiddle player.
M.S. Did you ever dabble with the fiddle?
D.B. I tried to do it but I just could not learn to play it. I am more of a flat picker.
M.S. Well, we can certainly say you are a guitar player.
D.B. Merle Haggard came to one of our recording sessions and it just happened to be the night the band had taken off and the producer was in there. We were doing the Brothers and Sisters and Merle was talking to the producer and listening to some of the playbacks and he said "I bet that guitar player’s daddy is a fiddle player. I’ll guarantee you." So, when I came in the next day Johnny Sandlin said to me, "Does your daddy play fiddle" and I said, "Yeah," he said, "I’ll be damned Merle Haggard was in here and said that." We were sorry that we missed Merle. But Johnny thought it was uncanny and a point of interest that had noticed that the guitar player plays like a fiddle player. You grow up hearing stuff and it’s just absorbed. You know, Jerry Garcia was influenced by all that stuff as well.
M.S. One of the things that I notice that on most of the new album is that you play gut-string guitar. Does that affect your style of playing much?
D.B. Yes, what a challenge. I mean it is a totally different style and I did it just to make a difference between one guitar and the other. Danny is playing steel string and I am playing gut string. I was really only going to do it on a few tunes but it was such a nice blend that I pretty much stuck with it for everything except when we did the Delta stuff. Then I play acoustic slide which of course is steel stringed.
M.S. I think the gut string sound gives the music a nice warm ambience.
D.B. Yes, it really worked out nice. I am having a lot of fun developing a style on the thing. In fact, I just set it down before you called. What you give up is you don’t bend any strings on gut string. You can bend maybe a half-tone and you don’t get a whole lot of vibrato like you do with a steel string. It’s pretty much straight notes. You can just flat pick it out. You don’t get a lot of tremolo and string bending. It was kind of a nice challenge. I got a kick out of doing some of those tunes without being able to do a lot of things that I would normally do especially that slow blues tune, playing that on gut-string. I wanted to bend strings and let the thing sing a bit but you can’t do that on a gut string.
M.S. I like the way you use the other instruments like the horns.
D.B. There’s actually only one horn on there and we didn’t really overdub anything. If you listen, it is only one saxophone, fiddle and guitars blending together. We thought about overdubbing the horns so that it sounded like a whole section but I didn’t want to do that I said let’s just do it with what we got. What you hear is the way we played it.
M.S. So was the recording pretty much live in the studio?
D.B. Pretty much live. We went back and we had several chances at playing some solos. What I am saying is that we didn’t stack things up that aren’t really there. You can do all kinds of tricks in a studio and then if you went to play it live you couldn’t repeat it. I’ve never liked to get into that kind of thing.
M.S. I think one of the most obvious questions that most people will ask about the album when they see that it says Collector’s #1 is when number two coming out?
D.B., Yeah (laughs). We had such a nice time doing that I wanted to infer that we’ll do it again sometime.
M.S. Do you have stuff left over from the session?
D.B. Not really. It’s just that it was a fun thing to do and people enjoy it and we didn’t know how it would be received at the time we titled it number one, but I knew I wanted to do another one like that. The material is unlimited because really if you notice I did a lot of covers. I did a Bob Dylan song ("Tangled Up In Blue") I did Horace Silver, the old jazz pianist from the late 50s, "The Preacher." So, if you are not going to write everything there’s unlimited material. Probably the most primitive thing on the record is "Beyond the Pale" When it comes to this writing thing. It comes and goes. I hit my high points but I haven’t written anything in the last couple of weeks, but two months ago I was writing everything down that I was thinking. In fact, one of the tunes that we are doing onstage is a kind of Appalachian thing. It is called "Keep On Rolling." I was on that bus and we had a long ride and I watched that O’ Brother Where Art Thou? and I said I grew up with that music. When I got to the hotel I got some stationary out and wrote this tune. I mean I wrote it so fast it was like writing a letter to your girlfriend. I wrote the tune. I got the guys over to the room with acoustic stuff and we banged it out and started doing it on stage the next night. So that writing is doing well. I am not hitting any major writing blocks.
M.S. Since you have brought back the Great Southern name is there archive material from the original incarnation of the band that might get released?
D.B. There probably is but I’m not really into it. I’m writing so much new stuff and we have so much going on that I would just as soon keep doing new stuff. The one thing I have influenced to do, and I think it is a good idea I’ve got so many instrumental pieces I could do a quadruple album of just instrumentals, a compilation kind of thing. I must have 20 or 30 instrumentals that I have written. I didn’t realize that I had that many. But as far as archive stuff, the stuff that I am doing now is so much better than what I was doing 20 years ago.
M.S. What kind of dates have you been playing?
D.B. We are doing a little bit of everything. I’m really not enough theaters. That’s what I really love to do, but we are opening a lot of shows for other people. I did some shows with Lynyrd Skynrd. I opened up for them; I opened some shows for Charlie Daniels and did some shows with Phil Lesh and Bob Weir. Those kinds of things are big shed, amphitheater kind of things.
M.S. I take it you prefer the more intimate two to three thousand set theaters?
D.B. Yes. What I want to do is get with Susan Tedeschi or Derek Trucks or Warren Haynes. There are a number of people, Jimmy Vaughan for instance and go into those theaters where it is not just me doing a glorified night club kind of thing. That’s what we hope to do next year. I have been doing a lot of college bars, show clubs I guess you would call them. I’d to do dates at say the Beacon Theater in New York or the Orpheum in Boston for a couple of nights with another band. Derek Trucks and I could tear the Orpheum up for two or three nights. As far as my show goes when I have the time to do the two and three hour sets I do quite a few of the older tunes that people want to hear like "Jessica" "Elizabeth Reed" "Blue Sky" "Rambling Man" that kind of thing. I split it about half and half with new stuff. I don’t like to just do just old stuff all the time. If somebody is going to come and hear me play there going to hear new stuff as well. It’s a pretty well rounded view of where we are at musically.
M.S. Do you listen to much new music?
D.B. I don’t listen to a lot of contemporary stuff. I love listening to Django Reinhardt and my favorite is Charlie Parker. I can sit and listen to Charlie Parker all afternoon. I really enjoy a lot of Steve Earle’s things that he has done. He is phenomenal.
M.S. Tell us a little about the band?
D.B. Well, we don’t have anyone leaving our shows disappointed. Chris Jensen is such an incredible horn player. He adds such a nice color with the two guitars. We use the twin guitars and blend the tenor horn with it more or less like three horn players. Chris was so funny because he said he was not used to working without two other horn players, so I said me and Danny are your two horn players. We have a seven-piece band in all.
M.S. Have you thought about maybe recording a live show?
D.B. Yes. I think I’ll do that next, probably in the spring of next year because I do have a bunch of new stuff that I’ve written that I haven’t recorded yet. That would be a good chance to do that and we could do some versions of tunes that people have before but they haven’t heard them the way we play them now.
M.S. Have you come across any of the current jambands, and have any impressed you?
D.B. The one that impressed me mostly is a group called moe. I did a show or two with those guys and they are like Dave Matthews in that they do a lot of jamming but there is a structure there.
M.S. Yes, they actually have some really good songs.
D.B. I really enjoyed them. I sat in with them and played with them. I can’t recall the names of many of the other groups I’ve come across because like I said I don’t listen to a lot of contemporary music, but there is some nice stuff happening out there but moe. does come to mind immediately. They were really impressive to me and great folks too. I sat in with them, and I felt like I belong in this band. It was so comfortable playing with them. They can really play. We’ll probably do some more shows with those guys this coming season because we got along pretty well. I like to think of it as impressionism. They can make different colors and shades and atmospheres with their music and I really enjoy that kind of stuff.
M.S. I know over the years that you have played with a lot of people but is there anyone that you would really love to play with?
D.B. God, I have played with just about everybody. Not that really comes to mind. I think my favorite player right now that is not in my band is Jimmy Herring. He is just a beautiful cat. I have jammed with him several times in the last few months. God is he a beautiful player. I just sit and listen to him and I have had a chance to play with him sitting in with Phil. It was just a wonderful experience.
M.S. What was it that you enjoyed so much playing with Phil, was it the spontaneity of what they do?
D.B. With me it brought back a lot of the old days of when I played with those guys with the Dead. That part of it was great and being able to look over at Phil and kind of wink and nod his head and kind of the two older cats that have been around for w while. The other thing was being with Warren and especially Jimmy Herring. I’m so used to Warren so it is not so new but it was good to see him again after a year or so. With Jimmy I had never really had a chance to play with him. I went to see Phil at the Beacon and sat in with them there and then we did three shows together and I sat in with them every night. What made it kind of special was just the fact that it brought up a lot of memories from the Dead days being that Phil Lesh was there and then I just enjoy Herring’s playing so much. He and I had a lot of fun.
M.S. Do you have an event or special moment in your long career that stands out?
D.B. I do. Overall I think the most beautiful thing that I saw put together and was a really good piece of work that took a lot of effort and foresight and imagination was the Fillmore East. What Bill Graham did with he did with that little theater was just a wonderful experience. To be able to remember those days and as I get older I realize just how much work went into making something like that happen. The single event was Watkins Glen with the Dead, The Band and the Allman Brothers. There was just so many people there you couldn’t believe it, there was 600,000.
M.S. What kind of feeling is it looking out at 600,000 people, is it intimidating?
D.B. Well, yes. I have a feeling about it and every time I tell someone about it they kind of look at me like I’m kind of nuts. You could see people over the hill and down and then you couldn’t see people and then you could see people on the next hill. It was like a field of corn when it is in yellow bloom. It was just like this wonderful sea of faces out there. It was the biggest crowd I ever saw in my life. I think at that time it was the biggest crowd that ever gathered. Since then there has been some giant shows but at that time it was just unbelievable. We had no trouble, no violence. The difference in that festival and a lot of the others is that the music was the same from one band to the other. You know it wasn’t like the absurd like a rap band to the Allman Brothers and then to a heavy metal band to the Grateful Dead. The music wasn’t jumping all over the place. It was one kind of vibe. Everything was just smooth. For that many people to be together and not have any trouble is amazing. It was just beautiful. It was really a two day show. The sound check was just like a show. Nobody just got up and checked mikes we got up and played for three or four hours.
M.S. Well, Dickey thanks so much, I hope to see you up in this area soon.
D.B. It was good. I don’t think I have any Boston dates for a while but I want to get up there. I’ll be there next summer for sure. I want to get in there with Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes or Susan Tedeschi you know she had the baby, little Charlie, is the new addition. That’s taken her off the road for a while, but I think by next season she’ll be ready to go out on the road and maybe she’ll have a nanny or something. I’d love to do some shows with her. The Orpheum looks like a good place for that. It was nice talking with you Mick.