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Devon Allman: The GRITZ Interview

by Michael Buffalo Smith

Devon Allman is bearing his soul at last. After years of running from his heritage, he is happy and healthy and proud to be the son of Southern Rock legend Gregg Allman. It might not have always been that way, but it certainly is now. We caught up with Devon during his band’s tour out west by way of cell phone to talk about life, music, and legacy.

Devon, tell me about where you were born and raised.
I was born a poor black child...

(Laughing) Right. You and Steve Martin. I may have believed it if you said you were born in the back seat of a Greyhound bus, rolling down Highway 41.
(Laughing) Nah, I was born and raised in Corpus Christi, Texas. About an hour an a half from the Mexican border. It was awesome man. I went to the beach every single weekend. I was a little beach kid. Saw my first concert there. Cheap Trick. Which was pretty impressionable for a nine year old lad, seeing Rick Neilsen bust out the 5-neck. You're nine years old, you’re at your first concert and your rib cage is rattling already. You’re thrilled to be there, but halfway through the show, to upgrade to a 5-neck guitar was just mind blowing. Being a consummate music lover since I was five, I took one look at that and said “that’s what i want to do.” Just to be up there making music seemed like the biggest fantasy.

Who were your earliest influences besides Cheap Trick? People that made you want to play.
The things that got me excited early on were things like The Beatles. My mom had a pretty big vinyl collection, and Rubber Soul was the first one that really hit me. That one still kinda serves as a time machine for me. It really takes me back. And KISS was my first real exposure to guitar dominated rock. And the early Dire Straits stuff, Jimi Hendrix - luckily in Corpus Christi was had a really cool radio station that was broad scoped. They were playing “Sultans of Swing” and Zappa’s “Peaches,” all kinds of cool stuff.


Did being the son of Gregg Allman help or hinder your career? And part two of the question, are you and your dad close?
First off, my dad and I are very close now, We didn’t start to form a relationship until I was about 16 years old. That made it hard sometimes growing up, but it allowed me to have a normal upbringing.

I grew up in the suburbs. My mom remarried, a pilot. I played soccer. I ate at McDonalds. I watched the NFL. I was a typical kid. I didn’t grow up backstage. I didn’t grow up being spoiled. I am really thankful for that now. It has really afforded me the freedom to go after what I’m into. It’s also allowed me to follow an organic path to music, instead of one through my family.

My path to finding music and making music is completely my own. It’s not from being brought up in the eye of the hurricane. The typical preconception is “of course you’re a musician. You grew up the Allman Brothers - no, no, no, that’s not how it was. I was a normal suburb kid. They even changed my last name to that of my step dad for a period of years. I came into adulthood wanting my natural name back, and wanting to make music.

Now, coming out of that and going on tour with The Allman Brothers instead of going to my senior year of high school - that summed it up for me, yeah, this is what I want to do.

Since the first time I ever heard you, it seems you have gone through many varied phases before arriving at Honeytribe. Do you feel you were searching for your inner voice and style?
Looking back, I think it’s the opposite. I think I was running away from my inner voice. Being told that I sounded like an Allman. And for a young, hard headed guy, that made me think “I wanna do my own thing. I don’t wanna sound anything like that.” But I think I was misguided on the inside. It took some maturity and some years to realize it. When you sing as organically as possible and play as raw as possible, it’s going to fit into  that world. Granted, it doesn’t sound exactly like the Allman Brothers, no one does and no one ever will, but it fits under that umbrella. It took me that long to figure out that that was okay. It was more okay. You should be proud of your heritage and help keep it alive to a certain extent. And that’s where we’ve arrived. I used to try to song without soul. How ridiculous is that notion? So for eight years I was running away. At the end of the day, I’m an Allman, and this is how we do it. (Laughs)

When and how was Honeytribe formed?
In the fall of 1999. I basically decided it was time to spread my wings. I had a rock band before that that was already veering into a soulful place. But that group was disbanded. Then I had the vision for Honeytribe. So I basically went through and stole all of the best players in St. Louis. But they were all good friends and we had a mutual vision for something that would be very throwback oriented.

It was pretty natural and organic. Then we started gigging. And then my son was born. I decided then and there that I was going to stay home with him. I was going to spend five years with him. I put my career on hold because I wanted a foundation with him. I wanted him to know me. It was awesome. With me playing little solo acoustic gigs at night, I had him all day. So I spent every day with that kid. So then when he turned five, I felt he could reason a bit and understand when daddy goes away for two weeks and comes back. My son is almost ten now, and he knows what’s up. In 2005 I put Honeytribe back together.

And not long after that came the Torch album. Are you guys working on a follow up album?
Yeah man. We actually started writing it several months ago. From 2005 to the present we’ve worked damn near 300 shows a year. Part of it is making up for the time I took off. The other part is, that’s how they used to do it. Back in the day when you were a new band, you got in the van and hit the road. I say all of that to say that keeping that schedule has made it hard to go in and record the follow up album. But it’s official now, we go in January 2nd to Ardent Studios in Memphis.

I really enjoyed your appearance with The Brothers during this years Beacon run. What is it like for you to take the stage with them?
You know I’ve always considered them The Jedi Council. (Laughs) And I mean that from a musicians standpoint. What they give to music every time they step onstage is a pretty massive offering. It’s just a pleasure. It’s like being home. It’s like going to Grandma’s house and grabbing a fresh cookie. Just a warm feeling. And to look over and see my dad is pretty amazing.

No doubt. Any thoughts on the hardest working man in show business, Warren Haynes?
Man, Warren Haynes made a really large impression on me during that first tour I was on with the Allmans. We were in Philadelphia on the bus and we were ready for some munchies. So me and Warren and Allen Woody got off the bus and walked to a 7-11 about a block away. Along the way there were about five homeless people, a real bummer scene. So we went into the store and everybody got a little somethin’ somethin.’ And this guy in there took this huge tray of donuts, bagels and pastries, and was just about to tilt it into a huge garbage tub. Warren says “Stop, stop! What are you doin’?” The guys says “These are old, we’re throwing them out.” So Warren asked him to put them in a bag. The guy made 3-4 big bags.

Warren handed one to Allen and one to me and he took a couple and he says “Come on guys.” We were walking back to the bus and he stopped and gave every homeless person 5-6 of these pastries. And it hit me like a freight train. This guy is a rock star, and most people would not even think to do it. But Warren did. And that stuck with me forever. You’re never too cool or too important to just be a human being.

To care for other people. That’s what it’s all about anyway.
Exactly. That right there, whether Warren realizes it or not, that coming from someone I look up to like an uncle, that helped to mold my consciousness. I owe him a lot for that. He’s just a great cat. We caught up for a bit at the 40th Anniversary. It had been a while since we had been able to sit and just talk shop and talk guitars. It was great.

I know you were too young to have met your uncle Duane Allman, but I’d like to hear your thoughts on him.
Man, you know, I think if you ever read his journal entry about love, “I’m happy to be alive and I will give love wherever I can and take it when it is given,” something like that, that sums it up - he hit a point where his soul was so pure they had to take him. He had a much bigger job somewhere else. That’s the only way i can justify taking someone so young.

Obviously he will live forever in the body of work he left, which was huge for someone of 24. I think the fact that Rolling Stone ranked him number two after all these years is an amazing testament to what he did for music as a whole.

You know, I’ve only been playing lead guitar for five years. I never sat down and learned his licks. I never picked up a slide because of him. I thought it would be a little too much.  Not to say I never will, but I wanted to be respectful, you know?  I went to his grave once and I just sat there and lost it. There’s some kind of ribbon of connectivity. Not so much about music but about family. And I think there were multifaceted reasons behind those tears. For him not being on the planet anymore. For my dad not having him anymore. For my grandmother not having him anymore. For music as a whole not having him anymore. But he will live forever through his great music.


 

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