Greg Allman

Greg Allman
Low Country Blues

Rounder (B004AHNIGM)

By David Hayward
July 2011

There are few things more poignant than seeing your heroes age. That’s what strikes you when Gregg Allman’s “Low Country Blues” opens. This is Mr. Allman. The grayness of his voice and the unadorned songs conjure weathered images of an older bluesman and his band.

This album is another “historically inspired” collaboration of a great artist and roots producer extraordinaire T-Bone Burnett. This is the niche that Burnett has commanded since 2000 with his Grammy Award-winning Oh Brother Where Art Though soundtrack and with his recent production of John Mellencamp’s No Better Than This in 2010. Likewise, Allman’s new collection is orchestrated and recorded with a last-century sound of big bass drum, boomy acoustic bass, upright piano and naturally cracked guitar amps.

Allman’s 12 songs take you on nostalgic ride of through the songbooks of Muddy Waters, Skip James, B.B. King, Otis Rush and other blues masters -- including one song penned by Allman himself and Allman Brothers Band buddy Warren Haynes. The rhythm and hollow boom of the first cut, Sleepy John Estes' “Floating Bridge,” evokes the steady clip clop of a horse-drawn wagon through some nameless country hollow, with Allman at the reins sharing his story with you, his passenger on the buckboard.

The second cut, Junior Wells’ “Little by Little,” takes a sharp turn off the road and into the roadhouse. With his hands on the Hammond B3 and echo on his voice, Allman kicks into a set list of sexy, slow tempo grooves that draw you into an imaginary night in some nameless, shadowy dive. He paints a layer of cigarette smoke drifting above the couples as they move together embraced in a shuffle; others entwined in dark corners; others like him on the edge of the crowd, jilted and alone.

Allman punches out the blues with his signature growl as he guides you on this intimate trip way back. Along for the ride are some able journeymen: most notably Mac Rebennack (Dr. John), guitarist Doyle Bramhall II (wunderkind collaborator of Eric Clapton’s), along with T-Bone Burnett himself on guitar. The arrangements are tasteful, simple and delivered by a no-frills homogenous ensemble, punctuated with the occasional 50s/early 60s guitar lick, staccato chords on piano, a small horn section with old-timey drum and acoustic bass holding it down.

The album’s deliberate and understated approach is both its best asset as well as its drawback. Producer T-Bone Burnett’s approach to instrumentation and audio recording give it an austere sound, but tentativeness and a lack of instrumental passion pervades. It’s as if the players were never allowed to let loose, to express. A live recording in a real roadhouse might have brought out the sweat and grind that these well-orchestrated songs deserve.

Still, this is a warm and beguiling recording; a great artist’s personal homage to an era that has passed. When Gregg Allman comes to the Lowell Music Festival this summer, I’ll be there to hear him perform these soulful tunes live. And my best guess is that outside of the studio, he’ll spur his bandmates to match his grit and burn down the house.

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