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Duane Betts On His Family’s Formidable Legacy and the New ‘Ramblin’ Man: Live at The St. George Theatre’ Album
Duane Betts has a lot to live up to. So it’s no surprise that the son of Allman Brothers Band guitar legend Dickey Betts, who was named for one of the greatest guitar players of all-time, Duane Allman, started out his musical life as a drummer.
“I took interest in the drums at a pretty early age,” Betts tells Rock Cellar. “Drums and guitars were around, but I remember picking up the guitar and it just seemed really too difficult for me at the time. So I wanted to play the drums, and my dad got me a drum set.”
After growing up in Florida, and some fits and starts in bands on the Southern California music scene in the 2000s, Betts cut his teeth sitting in with the Allmans in the bands later years, released an excellent EP and teamed up with fellow progeny Devon Allman to form the excellent Allman Betts Band, whose Down To The River, released last June, hinted at the tremendous potential the sons of some of the greatest southern rockers ever have in joining forces.
After touring with his dad, — we met to discuss the intimate and rocking new live album and concert video Ramblin’ Man Live at the St. George Theatrr – Betts is getting ready to hit the road again with the Allman Betts Band, and is already writing songs for the band’s sophomore release.
Rock Cellar caught up with Betts on a rare hiatus, where he reflected on life as the son of a true rock legend, and his own trajectory as a budding, gifted rocker in his own right.
Rock Cellar: You grew up in Sarasota, but really you grew up on the road, ending up settling in Malibu. But, from what I know, you were always playing. Did you always want to pursue a life in music, or did you fall into it?
Duane Betts: Yeah, I did. I grew up in Sarasota, but I moved to Malibu with my mom when I was 12, and then through my high school years I was home-schooled. And then I moved back with my dad and was home-schooled on the road quite a bit. So I kind of had roots in both places from a fairly young age.
Rock Cellar: At what point did you pick up the drums and and when did you start playing guitar? Because, if you were home-schooled, it must have been hard to find other kids to jam with and form bands.
Duane Betts: Well, I was in school till I was like 14, and I wasn’t home-schooled the whole time. But from about 1991 through ‘97, I was home-schooled. More or less for my high school years. But, no, I played drums and I got really good. I don’t know what age I was, but it was a really young age.
I mean, if I had to guess, I would say, I don’t know, six or seven. I was maybe a little older than that, but I was pretty young. I was definitely in the single digits. I know that for a fact. By the time I was in fourth, fifth grade, and then, sixth grade and then seventh grade, I switched to guitar.
Rock Cellar: Music had to be all around you your whole life, but I’ve got to imagine it was kind of intimidating to pick up the guitar.
Duane Betts: When I took interest in it, I didn’t really care about any of that. I was just excited to learn, and that stuff wasn’t even in my head. I didn’t think of my dad as anything but my dad. I definitely didn’t think of him as some icon that I had to live up to. That stuff can creep in, but it kind of creeps in later, when you realize the scope of things.
Then you have to just accept the reality of what it is and just do your own thing.
Rock Cellar: What was it you loved about the guitar and how did you find your own sound?
Duane Betts: Just listening to records and picking up different things off the records and training my ear. I mean, I spent hours a day listening to everything from, you know, Nirvana to B.B. King to whatever. The guitar is obviously a melodic instrument, so it’s a little bit more expressive than the drums.
You can play melody on it. And once I got the hang of it, I really took to it and made the decision to switch over, to switch teams. [Laughter.]
Rock Cellar: Tell me about your first professional bands.
Duane Betts: My first professional band was with Berry Oakley Jr. and Waylon Krieger, Robby Krieger’s son. They had a band that they had put together called the Oakley Krieger Band. And I was about 18, 19 at the time.
I’d been going back and forth between L.A. and Florida, and they were out in L.A., and they asked me if I wanted to join up and do some gigs with them. So I took the offer and I did that for about a year. And then I met up with Alex Orbison and Chris Williams and some people out in Malibu, and we formed a band called Backbone69 and we made a record in Nashville.
Rock Cellar: There was a happening Malibu scene around that time, wasn’t there?
Duane Betts: Yeah, there actually was. There was some good organic music. It was kind of the end of a different time there. It was more like the wild West. It was a fun time.
Rock Cellar: It wasn’t what people would associate maybe with Malibu; it was a little more …
Duane Betts: Earthy? Yeah, it was earthy. The kids are earthy. It’s all about surfing and the ocean and people growing weed, though now it’s legal. I mean,
Malibu has always kind of had a wild West thing. Like, Beverly Hills is a place that’s built on money. Malibu wasn’t built on money. There’s a lot of wealth there, obviously, but there’s also the people that have lived there for generations that are just real, authentic, salt-of-the-earth folks that have horses and stuff.
Rock Cellar: Jumping ahead just a bit, pretty soon you hooked up with Dawes, and toured with them.
Duane Betts: Yeah, that was fun. And by then I’d been playing with my dad’s band for quite a while. Then, after Dawes, I put out my solo EP, and then went on tour with Devon as a special guest on his tour. And I would sit in with him at the end of the night.
From that, we started writing and formulating what became the Allman Betts Band, which is the band that we have now.
Rock Cellar: Tell me a little bit about the EP, because it’s maybe not exactly what people would expect. Were you trying to strike out on your own, or was that just where you were at artistically at that time?
Duane Betts: It was just that I wanted to put something out, and I had a bunch of songs, but I didn’t really have a lot of money at the time to put into something. I had some demos that were recorded at different places at different times, and I just was like, “Man, every time I play this for people, they like it.”
And I think it’s cool. I could have tried to make it perfect, but I wanted to just put something out, like everyone else does, and then let it be. So I just put together something that I was proud of and it’s done well for me. You know, it’s been well received by people.
Rock Cellar: You were starting to talk about the Allman Betts Band. Tell me a little bit about that.
Duane Betts: It’s a band formed by myself and Devon Allman, and then we kind of used some of the players that we had been playing with on the tour, the 2018 tour before we actually formed the Allman Betts Band. We talked about what we wanted in the band, and who we thought would be best for the band, and we grabbed some of the players from the ensemble and musicians that we had been touring with.
And then we brought in Berry Oakley Jr. on bass, and we brought in John Gaines on keyboards, though he’s not on the record. We have Peter Levin who played with Gregg Allman and and a bunch of other folks, on the record on keyboards. And then we also have as a special guest Chuck Leavell, from the Rolling Stones, as well as the Allman Brothers, obviously, on a tune. And Johnny Stachela plays a lot of the slide guitar. He’s the other guitar player in the band, and he was a guitar player that I was playing with in California.
When I joined up on Devon’s tour, I said to Devon, “I really want to bring my guitar player out and I’ll use your rhythm session.” So Johnny came into the fold, and then when we formed the band, we just decided we wanted him. But more than anything, obviously we had to write some great tunes. Because, if we couldn’t write together, or we weren’t on the same vibe, if it didn’t feel right, we wouldn’t have done it. So we started talking about it about a couple months into the tour, and then we started writing, and the first couple of things that came out were really cool.
We were on the same page, as far as the aesthetic and the whole idea of what we want to do. So we did it.
Rock Cellar: Was there any moment where you felt pushed creatively, or even intimidated creatively, by the legacy that you guys share?
Duane Betts: I think it’s fair to say that it can be intimidating at certain times, but you really have to disregard it. It’s something that’s bigger than all of them, and you just have to accept that and do your own thing and do good work and put out stuff that you’re proud of and that’s got to be good enough.
It doesn’t have to be better than anything the Allmans did, and there’s no point in comparing it. It just has to be what it is.
Rock Cellar: Well, that sounds like you’re turning it around as a positive.
Duane Betts: Yeah. I mean, we’re not trying to be the Allman Brothers. We’re not trying to outdo the Allman Brothers. Because that would be kind of silly. We’re just trying to do our own thing and, you know, if some of the same influences are there — or their influence, even — well, that’s fine and dandy. [Laughter.]
Rock Cellar: Let’s about Ramblin’ Man Live at the St. George Theatre. I saw the Allmans many times at the Beacon. And I saw your dad way back at B.B. Kings in New York City, a while back. So this is now many years later. But it’s a great live video in a great theater. That’s a nice room to film something in, so the video’s got a cool vibe to it, as does the record.
Duane Betts: Yeah. It does have a cool vibe. It was a fun night. It was a little loose, too. It wasn’t so high pressure, like a Beacon show. I think it benefited us that it wasn’t, and I remember it was really fun. It wasn’t perfect or anything like that, but the authenticity was there, and it’s a good representation of where we were. And the crowd loved it, so there was just a real positive flow of energy throughout the night.
Rock Cellar: There are two or three songs in there that are like 10, 15, 20 minutes long. These sort of epic jams that certainly are not surprising, but they’re really great and they really show off the band. Do you have memories of those moments on stage, or were you just lost in the moment?
Duane Betts: There are long jams in that band, for sure. And yeah, you try to get into a zone where it’s just flowing and you kind of forget that there’s cameras and there’s a recording on. And I think I got to that point that night. At first I was like, “Oh, there’s cameras.” [Laughter.] And then I just kind of didn’t really care anymore, because I was just so happy to be on stage with my dad.
Rock Cellar: And you’re getting ready to go back out on the road with the Allman Betts Band, and make another album?
Duane Betts: Well, we’re on a little bit of a break because we had to postpone 35 shows, because Devon has been under the weather. But he’s going to be fine, and he’ll be back for our next scheduled show in mid-October. So until then, I’m just relaxing.
But I went last night to Warren Haynes and Gov’t Mule, and I just went to LOCKN’ festival this weekend, this event with Oteil & Friends featuring Bob Weir. I’m really excited about that. Other than that, I’m just writing for the new record, because we’re going to record a new record in December.
So, that’s exciting. But I to make sure to get back out on tour to finish pushing our record and keep playing our songs for the people, because we are really hitting our stride.
Rock Cellar: Is there anything different about the songs you’re writing for the next record? Do you feel a little more confident as a songwriter, now that you’ve got one under your belt, so to speak, and has that allowed you to stretch a little bit?
Duane Betts: I think the first record was a really good record. And that did give us confidence. So I think on the next one we can expand on that and kind of grow some new branches on the tree; kind of diversify a little bit. But I think that’s what a first record is good for: you set a foundation, and then you can expand on that. So, yeah.
But I don’t want to give away too many surprises. Let’s just say we’ve got some goodies in the cookie jar.