The Return of Great Southern: An interview with Dickey Betts (From The Archives)
In honor of Dickey Betts’ 70th birthday, today we revisit this interview with Betts, which first appeared on the site back in November 2002.
Photo by Norman Sands
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.B. 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.