Devon Allman: Off the Royal Road & Into the Turquoise Water
RR: Had you ever been to Bessie Blue Studio?
DA: I had not. It’s a home. It is a farmhouse. The Amish were going on their horses right on the street that it’s on. It’s a trip. I have nothing against the Amish; it’s just a trip. It’s in the middle of nowhere. When we first pulled up, I looked at my girlfriend and said, “Oh, shit. Really? I mean, like really ? We’re supposed to find vibe in this house?” Again, it was nothing against the area or the house, but it just seemed like your grandmother’s house. I walked in and I picked up a guitar and the first night I got in at 8pm and I sat down with Jim and (laughs) showed him all the songs we were going to do, which is just insane of me. He should have had all those songs a month beforehand. But we sat on the couch and I pulled out an acoustic and played him all 11 tracks. We tweaked some arrangements, and we cut a chorus off this song, and we did a little surgery—we spent about three hours of pre-production right there the night before. And we woke up the next day and started cuttin’.
RR: They are complex tunes without appearing that way. I’m surprised…well, maybe I’m not…it appears that you were in The Zone. The tracks sound produced without having that vibe that a producer was hovering over them.
DA: Yeah. In that pre-production, we did not micro-manage. If a song felt like verse/chorus/verse/chorus, the song was verse/chorus/verse/chorus. We decided on how we were going to end them. We decided if a middle A was strong, if we were going to repeat it. If we were going to do a double-long guitar solo, he wanted to do a short guitar solo on “Homesick.” I said, “Screw that. Everybody does that; it’s so safe. It’s a catchy as hell song, let’s let it have a double-long guitar solo. Nobody does that anymore,” and he was like, “You know what? You’re right. Let’s do it.” It was little moves like that. There was no micro-management over each and every measure at all, so that’s where you are getting that sense of organic arrangements. They are very organic.
RR: I feel the arrangements, as a whole, are very tasteful—percussion is introduced, and then brought down, the vocals are on point, and everything appears complete. No song appears like it needs anything else, so that impresses me. A couple of key songs were recorded with Royal guitarist Mike Zito, as well.
DA: The two co-writes with Mike were totally different animals. The first one being “Don’t Set Me Free,” I told him I really needed a Stones-y, Tom Petty song near the front of the record, and we were sitting in a band condo on tour in Pennsylvania, and we just started dicking with guitars. He came up with a two-chord change, and I said, “That’s it; that’s great,” and, literally, by the fourth pass of him playing this, twenty seconds in, I wrote the little recurring lead that’s over it. [Allman hums the riff.] The country bends in the beginning of that that go in and out of the whole song—I said, “That’s something.” Then, within a month, all the vocals and lyrics and everything found a home. That was a true co-write.
“Strategy” was a totally different thing. I was four days from going in the studio, and [Mike Zito] sent me “Strategy” on an e-mail. He said, “Man, I was cleaning out the garage and I found a CD. It’s five years old; maybe, it works on your record.” I called him up and asked, “What are you talking about?” He said, “Man, the wife made me go out and clean the garage and I found this CD and it’s a demo of this song I wrote called “Strategy.” I said, “O.K.” He said, “Check it out. It’s got a real cool vibe to it.” I played it, and it wasn’t complete by any means, but it was enough of a germination to go like, “All right,” and I called him, and asked, “Hey, man, do I have the liberty to really do surgery and add a chord and add a whole verse and arrange it myself?” And he said, “Man, do whatever you want with it. It’s just sitting there.” It was really wild.
RR: You almost want him to go back to the garage and see what else is in there—for his own sake, at least, as a guitarist.
DA: (laughter) “You know what, Zito, glad you cleaned that garage.”
RR: I noticed that you said in the liner notes regarding “Strategy” that the “moral of the lyrics is…relationships are like plants…water them daily.” Like the rest of the album, it goes back to what I was saying at the beginning of our conversation, this is obviously your most personal work, and that sentiment is matched by the lyrical quality of the songs on Turquoise —the songs hit me in the chest where I live.
DA: Yeah, I think the transparency can kind of hit you. Just being real, man. Here it is—just kind of shooting it out there. I’m glad that it’s hitting you. That makes me feel good because I’m with you—I really have to search out there, man, to find stuff that really hits me, and if that’s doing that, that’s great.
RR: Transparency is a good word. I have to go back to the opening track, “When I Left Home,” where Luther Dickinson guests, and I thought how perfect his guitar sounds with your vocals—right out of the box, there is an honesty, which sounds like something you may have heard before, but you really haven’t quite yet. That’s a great union right there, so I am curious how you got Luther involved.
DA: Well, it’s funny because I knew his father from farting around at Ardent Studio for 20 years, and he knew my father for opening up for him for 20 years, but we never knew each other, which is just a crime. So, the second ever Royal gig was a private party in Colorado, and it was Royal and North Mississippi Allstars. Royal went up there and did its thing and got done and this long-haired freak comes up to me and he’s like, “Dude, I never knew, and now I know. Now, I know. ” And I was like, “Who are you and what are you talkin’ about?” (laughter) He said, “Man, I’m Luther.” I was like, “Oh my God.” It was dark; I didn’t really recognize him. I said, “Dude, why don’t—,” and he said, “Man, you’re a bad ass and the band’s awesome.” I’m a huge fan of Luther’s and I think I was as bold in our first day of knowing each other where I said, “Man, I would love to have you on my solo record, on just _one _cut. Just come, and do your thing, and just rip it up,” and he said, “Man, call me anytime.” He came out to Ardent, and we just had a bromance and talked about all the music we loved and had a bunch of laughs. I just remember that session being like the most fun you could ever have. It was great, and he killed it, and he was humble and sweet and just amazing.
RR: Since we are talking about guitarists, I have to segue into Tyler Stokes, who co-wrote a song with you, “There’s No Time.”
DA: Yeah, “There’s No Time.” I’m actually Tyler’s producer, so I’m producing Tyler’s debut EP this year, and we were going through the tunes and I heard “There’s No Time.”
RR: And you said, “I’m taking that.”
DA: I said, “Hey, man, do you want to be a published writer? This will really fit my record. I don’t want to step on your toes; you can always put this out as you see it, with your vision on it, later, and, heck, that might have more people listen to it because I did it, and we could cross-pollinate here and make a cool little deal.” He said, “Hell, yeah.”
Again, he gave me liberty on it and let me make it my own. He’s a 19-year old virtuoso from Springfield, Missouri, and the only reason he’s not out there playing to a thousand people a night is because he’s in college. So, we’re going to get him through college the next two years while we’re working on everything—the voice and the songs and the recordings. He’s very much under my wing, so I am looking forward to seeing his career blossom. He’s got a band called Delta Sol Revival. He’s great.