Ramblin’ man: A conversation with Butch Trucks
For 45 years, The Allman Brothers Band took rock-n-roll and stretched it into the unlimited possibilities of blues and jazz. They were an empty canvas of melodic influences that encompassed broad, rich paint strokes of English hard rock pioneers Cream, jazz improvisation maestro John Coltrane, and Chicago blues master Muddy Waters.
At their core, the Macon, Georgia, based Allmans represented the “human condition,” the good the bad and the ugly of what America stood for — and also wanted to stray away from as the 1960s and 1970s ticked away — while the layers of an aggressively oppressive country peeled away like an endless onion of change and national dialogue. It was bridging the societal gap between the stifling, racist culture of Jim Crow laws within the southern states and the progressive mindset set forth by those who ventured beyond the Mason-Dixon Line for the better part of a century.
And as the anchor of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame act, drummer Butch Trucks, 68, still tends the fire of political activism, with music as his platform to promote and showcase a better world. It’s not some pie-in-the-sky ideal. Rather, it’s a deeply rooted mission from a man who has seen more than his share of, well, bullshit. It’s about realizing your neighbor isn’t a threat, for what’s truly scary is the mere fact you never engaged with that person two mailboxes away, that you’ve never shaken hands and smiled in the face of the glorious future we all have the potential to seize in the morning dew of an unknown day come to life.
The Smoky Mountain News caught up with Trucks as he ventured from his 12th-century farmhouse in southern France, onward into a current southeast solo tour, one which has him fronting a band that encompasses and pushes forward with the power and majesty of the Allmans’ key elements — love, brotherhood, and the capacity to see the light at the end of the tunnel of tomorrow, and also the day after.
Garret K. Woodward: What’s the legacy of The Allman Brothers?
Butch Trucks: What I’m most proud of is taking the door that Cream opened with rock improvisation and adding John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and jazz into the mixture. That’s our strongest legacy. It’s taking a tune, a melody, and then taking it apart. Charlie Parker is probably the greatest example of this. I mean, listening to Charlie Parker is like reading James Joyce. You’ve got to really dig into it, and if you really climb into what he’s doing, the melody is there, it’s like deep listening. And then the same thing with John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” an album that probably influenced us more than any album did. That, and his record “My Favorite Things.”
GKW: What do you think about that label of “Southern rock”? Do you think it dilutes what you were trying to do?
BT: I don’t know. I don’t particularly like labels at all. If we were anything, we were a loud jazz and blues band. I mean, we picked up where Cream left off and added jazz to the mixture. We’d go back and forth from strictly covering a blues tune to jazz tunes.
GKW: What was it like to play with the late Duane Allman (who passed away in a motorcycle accident in 1971 at age 24)?
BT: I had worked with Duane and [his brother] Gregg [Allman] in a band a year before Duane came to Jacksonville to start the Allman Brothers [in 1969]. And I have a propensity to back off if things weren’t going strong. I’d think it was my fault and I wasn’t playing very well. And Duane knew this. I don’t think he was going to have me in his band with that propensity to back off. We were jamming one day, and I started to back off and he turned around and stared at me and starting playing this lick, as if to say, “Com’on dammit.” My first reaction was, “Oh, damn.” Duane did this a couple more times, and I realized that he was showing me up in front of hundreds of people. So, I threw it back to him, and we got into a musical fight, and when we finished he said, “There yah go.” I realized that my internal rage of being nervous and introverted had now been injected into the music. Duane reached inside of me and flicked on a switch. I realized that I may not be the best drummer in the world, but I could play.
GKW: Have you ever felt that spark playing with somebody like you did with Duane?
BT: Not on a continual basis. Being around Duane was a very special thing. He was, without a doubt, the most powerful and intense personality I’ve ever been around or ever known. It was his vision and leadership that made The Allman Brothers Band possible. After he came back from King Curtis’ funeral, he talked a lot about his death. His laser focus was music, but he also wanted to live life at its fullest. He was either riding a motorcycle without a helmet and tripping on acid at a hundred miles an hour on slippery red brick roads around Macon or sitting and reading a book. He and I used to go fishing all the time, and I turned him on to Tolkien (Lord of the Rings). He dropped out of high school in the 10th grade and yet he was probably more educated than most college graduates. Hell, he taught himself algebra. He was sitting there, listening to these teachers and knew he was smarter, and would just go out and buy the textbooks himself. When we would pull into a town and have a free afternoon, Duane and I would just go buy a couple fishing reels and plastic worms and go bass fishing. And we’d sit on the lake and talk about who we were reading, talk about philosophy. We knew we’d get more out of our readings by discussing it, and we were able to open up some great things.
GKW: You’re a self-proclaimed atheist. Are you optimistic about the world today?
BT: I’m afraid I’ve been an optimist my whole life, but lately I’ve become cynical. About six years ago, I bought a 12th-century farmhouse in the Languedoc region of southern France, way out in the middle of nowhere. The books we were reading when Duane died were by John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. And if you see what’s happening with the American society, and you read Rousseau, it’s following the same pattern of Rome and France and any dominant society that ever was — once so much wealth and power gets in the hands of such few people, then it’s pretty much over.
GKW: But at the same time, you’re a proud grandfather, and that must shift your outlook on the world righting itself?
BT: What I’m really enjoying is that my youngest daughter just had a child, and I’m sitting here [in Florida] with my blood pressure as low as its been in decades because I get to rock him to sleep every night. You know, sometime when he grows up he’s going to wonder why the second movement of Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony resonates so much, and that’s because I sing it to him every night. He goes immediately to sleep and I’ll rock him for an hour — it’s wonderful. I do have so much hope for him, and for my other grandchildren. It’s like Kurt Vonnegut said, “”There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” And I really try to remind myself of that before I get angry about the world today.
Want to go?
Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Butch Trucks (The Allman Brothers Band) will bring his Freight Train Band to the stage at 9 p.m. Friday, April 22, at Isis Music Hall in West Asheville. The Rise Brothers will open. Tickets are $17 in advance, $20 day-of-show. For more information or to purchase tickets, click on www.isisasheville.com or call 828.575.2737.