Text and photo by Dawoud Kringle
The southern part of the United States gave birth to many rock & roll pioneers such as Bo Diddley, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis; all of whom defined rock & roll. When one thinks of Southern Rock, the works of groups such as the Outlaws, Ozark Mountain Daredevils, ZZ Top, Elvin Bishop, 38 Special, Molly Hatchet, Blackfoot, and others inevitably come to mind. But the genre of Southern Rock owes its existence to the Allman Brothers Band. Since their debut in 1969, the group’s work single handedly defined a distinctively American music.
Their original line up consisted of Duane Allman (guitar), Greg Allman (keyboards), Barry Oakley (bass), Butch Trucks (drums), Jai Johanson (drums), and Dickie Betts (guitar). They gained national notoriety with the 1971 release of their live album At the Fillmore. The album and the live performance it documented became legendary. Their effortless blend of rock, blues, and country with jazz inspired extended improvisation forged the group’s sound and legacy.
Shortly afterward, tragedy struck the group when, a few months after the release of At the Fillmore, Duane Allan died in a motorcycle accident, and a year later Barry Oakley was also killed in a motorcycle accident. From there, the band took a slightly different path. Their 1972 release Eat a Peach featured guitarist Dickie Betts in the role of not only the band’s sole guitarist, but also as its major songwriter. From that point, Betts became the group’s musical architect; compositions ranging from the soulful Melissa to the joyful Rambling Man and Jessica built on the foundation he helped lay with earlier works such as the epic In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.
As time went on, dissolution arose in the group, and Betts left to pursue a solo career. Betts performed with the group on and off, but eventually, owing to creative differences, and oppressive problems resulting from drug and alcohol abuse on both sides of the disputes, the split became permanent (Betts’ otherwise marvelous career stained by times he’d appeared on stage too intoxicated to function). Betts concentrated on his group, Dickie Betts and Great Southern, releasing several CDs, and despite his stated intention to stop touring in 2009, continues to tour.
In recent years, I had the opportunity to attend two performances of his groups Dickie Betts and Great Southern. The group mirrored the Allman Brothers line up; except with the addition of a third guitarist.
They played all the hits that were expected of them – Betts knows his audience, and the crowd responded to each enthusiastically. Most of the people attending were older people who’d grown up listening to the Allman Brothers, and, like dead-heads, wished to relive their glory days for a moment. But his new material, although largely unfamiliar to the audience, proved as powerful as his classics. From the release of Betts’ first solo album Highway Call to the present, Betts’ work as a brilliant songwriter continues to uphold the standards he’d set for himself in his youth.
Betts’ guitar work had never taken a back seat to his songwriting; combining an astonishing lyricism and sense of melody with a powerful clear tone and the peculiar confidence that can only come from decades of experience. One is left with the impression of deep musical and cultural roots. His melodies evoke imagery both personal and communal. One feels the years of triumphs savored and tragedies endured, and feels the connection with his community in the south, the unique mix of cultures and people, and his ancestral linage in every note. One may listen to some of the songs and wonder “Who was Jessica? Melissa? Elizabeth Reed?” Searching online for biographies and anecdotes is surely a viable solution. But if you want to know who they really were, if you want to know what it’s really like to be a “rambling man,” listen to Betts’ guitar. It’s all there. It’s more than just hearing a story; you are actually experiencing this on a visceral level. This is Betts’ greatest strength as a musician; and what made him one of the greatest voices of a music that could only have come from America as it continues to struggle with its own triumphs and tragedies as a nation. An America where men live their lives on their own terms, and which, despite the horrors and bizarre contours of our times, is, thankfully, not extinct.
It would be remiss of me if I failed to mention that the band includes the great Andy Aledort, who during the performance I attended played some great guitar, including slide. His solo on In Memory of Elizabeth Reed was the highlight of the night.
There is also the inclusion of Betts’ son Duane (named after Duane Allman) who is proving himself an accomplished guitarist in his own right, and is taking his family legacy into the future. He’s someone to look out for, a promising young musician.