Sorry I Slept: Gregg Allman’s Low Country Blues
Greg Allman’s Low Country Blues
Not being an original fan of the Allman Brothers, I’m not going to start this review by talking about Gregg Allman’s early career in that seminal band. Instead, I’d just like to say that Allman’s new solo album, Low Country Blues, cuts through all the bad 80s haircuts and 70s psychedelia of the Allman Brothers to plunge a knife straight into the heart of the deep blues that have always inspired him. Gregg Allman is dead serious in his new album, his first since 1997, and it’s likely to be considered a masterpiece in his long career.
There’s no guarantee that any artist can pull off a twilight-of-their-career album just because their early albums were so influential. To pull off a twilight career album, the artist has to be totally driven to succeed and to communicate the music. They have to be able to shout over the ear-splitting noise of a younger generation, communicating both new sounds we haven’t heard from them, and the hard-earned wisdom we’d expect from a long career. Johnny Cash nailed it with his American Recordings. Sure, he had help from legendary producer Rick Rubin–just as Allman is hugely helped here by legendary producer T-Bone Burnett–but Cash clearly wanted to nail these late-life recordings. He poured himself into the music, perhaps looking for some kind of absolution or redemption, and the result was a series of powerful and classic albums. Hopefully, Allman is on a similar path, and we can look forward to more new albums from him, because judging from Low Country Blues, he’s got a serious drive for making music today.
Themes of salvation and redemption run high through the album. The opening song, Sleepy John Estes’ ‘Floating Bridge’ is a quick example of this. Based on a true story from Estes’ life, the story of a drowning man saved by a makeshift bridge is an easy allegory for Allman’s hard living. “When I was going down, I throwed up my hands. / Please, take me on dry land.” As the album progresses, redemption comes again with “I believe I’ll go back home/Acknowledge that I done wrong.” Powerful words from an ex-addict, but words from a man on a new path in life.
Most of the album is devoted to the electric Chicago-style blues that first inspired Allman as a young man. As an older man, Allman finally has enough life under his belt to actually attain the world-weary sounds of the Chicago bluesmen. Muddy Waters and BB King songs like “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and “Please Accept My Love” are full of the wall-bouncing sounds that originally shook the urban Chicago dancehalls. You know Allman’s nailed the album, though, when he goes after the Skip James classic, “Devil Got My Woman”. You don’t fuck around with Skip James. Period.
The aura of that man lives on decades after his death, and his music will always be drenched in a sticky, Southern poison that eats at you inside. He’s like the rusty nail in the eternal blues juke joint of the soul, the little thing that cuts into you and drops you dead after a lifetime of abuse. James cut a small number of 78s back in the late 1920s and dropped out of sight, retiring into the South to become a preacher. His songs became the stuff of legend; no one could figure out where his eerie, hellish voice came from, and his guitar playing was so hot that even Eric Clapton couldn’t approach it (listen to Clapton’s version of ‘I’m So Glad’ with Cream, then listen to the scratchy original).
Even Skip James himself couldn’t approach his original recordings, instead settling into a slower, grumpier version of himself in his later years. There’s an amazing recording from Newport in the early 1960s, the first time Skip played outside of the South. Evidently, he’d forgotten his original tunes, and had to relearn the music. But that voice was still there. He hit the stage, and as his voice went straight up into falsetto for the keaning wail of the first note of “I’d Rather Be the Devil”, an audible gasp spreads through the audience. That gasp, which you can hear faintly in the recording of this song at Newport, is the sound of a generation losing its innocence. So when I say that it’s a big deal that Allman nails Skip James’ classic song, bringing an even harder edge to it than James himself, you can tell I’m serious.
The focus of the album throughout is Allman’s stunning voice. Hardened by a lifetime of addiction and excess, he somehow retains a musicality that transforms each song. And he has an edge born of desperation that pushes his voice into overdrive. He sings with so much focus that the album is captivating throughout. Whether or not you like the blues, this album will reach out and grab hold of you. Hats off, Mr. Allman, let’s hope for more great albums from you in the coming years.
A new column for ace blog American Standard Time, “Sorry I Slept” is my way to catch up to the awesome music flying by every day. And also my way to atone for missing some of the key albums of the year. My bad!
This article originally appeared in American Standard Time, the blog of KEXP DJ Greg Vandy. You can read it there and listen to the audio, including audio of that famous Skip James performance at Newport.