Whilst it may not have been the beginning of southern rock, the self titled debut album from The Allman Brothers released in 1969 was a definitive work in the history of southern rock. I've been watching a BBC documentary on Southern rock and The Allman Brothers quite rightly feature prominently. I've previously written about their landmark live album At The Fillmore which saw them reach a broader audience, I decided to go back to their debut album to hear the genesis of the sound that would continue to develop in the lead up to their breakthrough album. It's a compelling album in terms of defining what southern rock is, it's also an album that stands apart from other releases of that year, there were certainly some great rock albums released in the late 60's but this album has a different set of elements that makes it stand apart from the rest. Each member of the group were veterans of the road, Gregg and Duane Allman had cut their teeth on the southern road circuit as part of The Allman Joys, bassist Berry Oakley had spent some time on the road as part of Tommy Roe's backing group the Roeman's, drummer Jaimoe had been on the road with Otis Redding and Sam and Dave. Dickie Betts and Butch Trucks had played in local bands around Florida for a number of years so the musicianship of the band was solid, right from the first note each groove is tight, the musical chemistry was evident.
Unlike many albums from the period this doesn't sound dated, it's freshness and vibrancy is well and truly evident. From the first song you know there is something different about this group and their approach to music. Don't Want You Know More starts off on all four cylinders a mixture of blues and the harder dynamic pioneered by Cream, then it takes a distinct turn Gregg Allman takes the reins and we are treated to a jazz workout along the lines of Jimmy Smith. Then the guitars take over against a tight relaxed swinging groove, this is a band that has jazz chops. Duane Allman and Dickie Betts establish a formidable partnership often playing in unison to create a blaring wall of sound.
It's Not My Cross To Bear is a lowdown slow blues, Gregg Allman delivers a sanctified holler adding a primal gospel drenched influence to the music. It would also become the title of Gregg Allman's autobiography and he is a man who has had to carry quite a few burdens in his life. Black Hearted Woman adds a further musical dimension the start is a real southern boogie with some Claptonesque style lead runs, but they add little twists and accents to the song so it's not a straight ahead down and out boogie. Trouble No More was a song that would become a live favourite, in the studio version it's more subdued, the spark is kept alight by the amazing slide work of Duane Allman whose mastery of the technique still stands as a benchmark. The rhythm section of Trucks and Jaimoe on drums and Berry Oakley on bass knows how to keep that groove locked in, in a live setting there was room for more improvisation, all three guys had a really busy style on stage with jazz fills and lengthy runs. Every Hungry Woman has a nice percussive feel and Gregg's keyboard takes on a greater emphasis, this was a band that cared more for the sound of the song than the sound of the solo.
Dreams which was one of the first songs Allman wrote for the band has an opening that conjures up plenty of space, stretching out like a long road ahead. Duane punctuates the space with throbbing notes, Oakley on bass keeps things shuffling along. Dickie Betts sometimes gets lost in the shuffle but he was an amazing guitarist, lighting fast runs but also capable of really stretching and bending each note, he bought a country picking sensibility to his playing but also deeply admired the jazz work of Charlie Parker. The Allman Brothers were deeply influenced by jazz, Miles Davis and John Coltrane in particular had a pronounced influence especially on Duane who took it as his cue to push the boundaries of his playing. Whipping Post which closes the album opens with an ominous bass line from Berry before the dual guitars paint an even bleaker sky, Allman is impassioned in his feeling of being tied to the Whipping Post.
Southern Rock was a genre that took a lot of twists and turns, every artist interviewed agreed that blues and gospel music were the cornerstones of the sound, then it became a melting pot, some threw in country others played with a more open feel. One element that was vital was the idea of the rebirth of the south, a new generation of musicians coming through that were determined to fly the southern flag. They were united in their desire to promote a new south far removed from it's blood stained history, they based it on their love of black music and the ideals of the south, a lot of fun and a blue collar work ethic.