BLUE SKIES AND TOMBSTONE EYES
Dickey Betts and The Great Southern Reunion
by Michael Buffalo Smith
About two years after we first spoke with him, Dickey Betts found himself reforming Great Southern with former band mate Dan Toler. This following the departure of Mark May, who chose to work on his own solo career. When the time came for GRITZ Magazine to move into print, the timing was perfect for Dickey to announce his new lineup, and be featured as the cover story of GRITZ’s debut print publication.
I know there have been some changes in your band. We heard about Danny Toler coming back in. Who all is in the band now, and how are you enjoying playing with Dan again?
Well, we are doing an acoustic project right now. Danny and I have been doing a little playing, about once a week for the last month or so. Last night, we had Dave Stoltz, the bass player, down. So we had him and Danny and myself. So we are getting a good idea of how it is going to sound. We had a helluva night last night. We played and played and played and played. Dave brought his stand up bass, which really sounds cool. All it is is the neck of a bass on a tripod with a pickup in it. It really has a great sound because of the technique he uses. And playing with Danny- his playing has just gotten better and better. And Frankie Toler was here. Frankie was down. His name is actually David Toler, but we all call him Frankie. It’s a little private joke. You know Frankie played with Gregg Allman, he played with my band and with the Allman Brothers. He is great. Like I say, it’s great playing with Danny. He’s really developed a unique style over the years. That’s not to take anything away from Mark May. he was great, but he had things he had to do. His record company was on his tail and his band was all splitting up, so he kind of bowed out.
Other than Mark, is the band basically the same as it has been?
Oh yeah. It’s all the same except for Danny taking Mark’s place.
And you have started calling it Great Southern Again?
Well, yeah. With Danny back in the band. Plus, I just wanted a more interesting title for the band than The Dickey Betts Band. That was just something I came up with. I just sort of hit the ground running from that Allman Brothers thing. I didn’t take any time to try to name it.
Can you tell us about the new acoustic album.
Yeah, well, I didn’t really plan it, but it’s turning out to be all the influences who have influenced my playing over the years. We’re doing a tune that was written back in the 1940’s by a guy names Horace Silver. He was a jazz piano player. He wrote a song called “The Preacher,” and he featured trombones on it. He did it to a stripper beat. (Hums the melody) And the western swing guys back in the ‘50’s picked it up and put a swing beat to it. So we’re doing that, and it’s got a real nice chord change and a lot of room for melody, so you really have to stay on your toes. And I’m doing “High Falls,” which is nominated for a Grammy tonight from the Peakin’ at the Beacon album. We are also doing “One Stop Be Bop,” which was on the last record, but this will be acoustic. That’s my Charlie Parker influence. I’m playing about ninety percent gut string on this album. Just because it makes me work harder. You can’t bend any strings on a gut string. You can bend maybe a half tone- maybe one fret. You really have to play the lines straighter, which makes me play a whole different way. So that’s going to be interesting to hear. We’re doing a (Bob) Dylan tune, tangled up in Blue;” and a Billy Joe Shaver tune, “Georgia On a Fast Train,” which I do in a kind of Django Rhinehart type beat. Then I’ve written a thing. It’s pre-bluegrass. Like the old European, kind of Ireland sound. Gaelic. Almost like a battle song. I call it “Beyond the Pale.” It really sounds nice. It has kind of a pipes sound in it in places. I’m going to do “Change My Way of Livin’,” and get Matt Zeiner to sing that one. It’s a tune I wrote a few years ago, but I’m going to do it as a slow blues. And then I’ve got a few acoustic slide things I am going to do, so it’s really a lot of the influences that have incorporated into my music. Like I say, I wasn’t really planning it that way, but as I started looking down the list I saw that I had just about covered everything that I had studied.
I love the acoustic sound. I suppose that’s why I liked your Highway Call LP so much.
They just reissued that thing last year for the third time. That’s a nice one. I did that while The Allman Brothers were together. That’s the only one that I did while they were together. I wasn’t trying to do a rock and roll record. I just wanted to do something literally for the enjoyment of it. It really turned out to be a “good morning” type album. This one will be that way too. You can put this one on with your coffee. It’s just easy like that.
I was going to say, if folks haven’t heard Highway Call, they should check it out, especially with all the interest in O Brother, Where Art Thou. There was some good traditional picking on that record.
(Laughing) Oh yeah. There were some good players on there.
What is this I hear about a live album?
We may do a live album, yes. Actually, I have been distributing that first record myself, and I have learned a couple of things. It is harder when you’re bucking the system. I wasn’t expecting that. You know, when you try to wildcat against the system And another thing, it’s a lot of work! So we are shopping for a deal now. We’re going to go ahead and go with a record company. But this one I’m doing now I am really just doing for the internet. And to put for sale at the show. In fact, I am going to call it Collectors Number One. Just a good collection of tunes. And we’ll do a full blown rock and roll album next.
Will you ever play with The Allman Brothers Band again?
Well. I don’t know why I’d want to answer yes or no to that. The truth is, you never know what’s going to happen down the road.
What was your reaction to the Allmans letting Red Dog go?
I was pretty much shocked. A band has a right to let go anyone they want. But the way they did it with Red Dog, as well as with me, was - well, inconsiderate doesn’t quite cover it. It was kind of like they blind sided both of us. And Red Dog, they said they retired him, which to me was - you know- I wouldn’t want anybody to say to me , ‘we put him out o pasture.’ (Laughs) I mean, Red Dog’s still got a lot of piss and vinegar in him. It just seems there are a lot of things being done that aren’t well thought out. I noticed on the internet the fans are up in arms about Red Dog. And what that does to the Allman Brothers name and the image and the truth of what the band was is just undermining and tearing all of that to shreads. I mean, they’ve walked through that band with a chainsaw lately. And people are saying, “That band ain’t what it was.” Well, it was all that for thirty years. It just in the past two or three years someone has started throwing hand granades without thinking.
Well, in Red Dog’s book...
(Laughing) Now I can’t be held responsible for what’s in Red Dog’s book!
(Laughs) Noted. But what he kept saying over and over again in the book was “We are a family,” and “We are brothers.”
The thing is, nowadays people are thinking that it never was that way, but it always was a family. And when we say family, we aren’t trying to just make up some kind of imagery or something. When someone was down, the rest of us would pull them up, maybe even be mad about it, but we’s stick together and pull him up. That’s what we meant by family. That’s what the band was for 30 years, and that’s what seems to have gotten lost along the wayside here.
We had a great time at Charlie Daniels’ Angelus Benefit last month. It was great seeing you again at the pairing party in your suit.
(Laughing) Yeah. People were calling me Carlos Escabon.
I wondered how you enjoyed singing again with Bonnie Bramlett.
Oh, you know anytime we’re around each other we just wail it up. She and I have created more good music when we get together. It’s like lightning between us, you know? In a good way. I knew her and Delaney. I can’t sing like Delaney and I don’t pretend to, but when I get around her I always try to. I get my gospel voice out. (Laughs) She gets a kick out of that and it fires her up. We got a kick out of that whole thing.
How did you enjoy playing “Elizabeth Reed” with Charlie’s band during the finale? It was a lot like the old Volunteer Jams of days gone by.
You know, Charlie always says to me, “People just don’t jam any more like they used to. They have you come out and play a little part in a song and call it a jam.” You know how Charlie is, he’s pretty outspoken. He said, “Let’s show ‘em how to jam.” You know, I’ve always gotten a kick out of Charlie Daniels. He’s just a good person. Of course I enjoyed playing it. And we go out on a limb out there and fall on our ass, but that’s what a jam is. And you get it going again.
But those special moments when it clicks is the payoff.
Right! That’s the idea!
I want to ask you some questions about your songwriting. We’ve spoken a lot in the past about you as a great guitarist, and I think one of the best singers...
Well, thank you, Michael.
But I want to talk a little about your songs. We’ve all read about how you wrote “Elizabeth Reed” and “Jessica”...
Well, that wasn’t necesarily how I wrote it, it was more of an anecdote about what was going on at the time I wrote it. There was a lot of inspiration from Django Rhinehart. If you’ll notice, on the melody, you can play that thing with two fingers. And I was trying to get that Django Rhinehart kind of bounce. So that was the imagery I had in my mind, and when Jessica came into the room, I tried to capture that feeling, and it gave it that happy feeling, you know. And the thing with “Elizabeth Reed,” I was writing it for this beautiful Spanish Italian girl named Carmella. I didn’t want to call it Carmella because - she wasn’t married, but she was going with a guy. It was a cloak and dagger love triangle. (Laughs) So I called it “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” because of that tomb stone.
Some other songs I wanted to ask about- I noticed, coming into Macon, a sign that says “High Falls.”
Yeah. The song “High Falls” was written at High Falls. I was there with Nick Nolte and Don Johnson, and they were doing a movie called Return to Macon County. I was hanging out with them, and I had my guitar of course, and Don had his. But anyway, there was a lot of time that i wasn’t doing anything, so I just sat down there beside that falls and wrote “High Falls.” If you drive way bck in there, there’s a beautiful waterfall back in there.
I knew you were friends with Don Johnson, (the actor; perhaps best known for Miami Vice) but didn’t you write some songs together?
Yes. I can’t recall all of the ones we wrote together, but “You Can’t Take it With You,” was one. And “Bouganvillia.” There were quite a few, actually.
So is Don a guitar player?
He’s not a guitar player, like a lead player, but he’s real adept with his chords, and with writing. He’s a good, what we used to call second guitar. He’s good with his chord work.
How did you two meet?
I met him back when I was living back on the Allman Brothers farm. I needed some milk and some eggs from the store. And you know, we were way, way back in the woods. And they had picked our driveway to film a scene in Return to Macon County. (Laughs) So they came in there about daylight to start shooting, and I didn’t even know they was making a movie. So I’m heading down the driveway. The damn driveway was a mile long. They had two cars there, and he and Nick Nolte were in a fist fight over the hood of a car. Now I know enough about movies to know when they say ‘cut,’ they aren’t filming. So as soon as they hit the clacker, i drove my car around through the ditch, and got through the cameras and got to the store. On the way back, Don stopped me and said ‘you ain’t too impressed with us movie stars, are you?’ (Laughs) He said most people stop and start asking questions. I told him it wasn’t that I was not impressed, but that I lived back up in there and just had to go to the store. So he started talking and asked me who I was, and I told him and he said , “No way.” But that’s how we met. He said, “You’re kiddin’ me. I heard the Allman Brothers had a farm around here.” But we’be been friends ever since then.
What was your inspiration for the song “Blue Sky?”
I was married to an Ojibwa indian at the time. Let’s see, Ojibwa in Canadian is what we call Chippewa. It’s a different pronunciation, but it’s the same thing. Her name was Sandy Blue Sky, and I started out writing the song for her, but then I realized it was a nicer song if I wrote it for the audience, so I decided to keep the “he” and “she” out of it. So now it’s almost gospel in a spiritual sort of way. It’s ambiguous, sort of like nature and the sky, and it kind of gave it a nice innocent character about it. I wrote that in the Big House there in Macon, in the living room one night at about four o’clock, and I wrote “Ramblin’ Man” in the kitchen. I got a bunch of good songs out of that house.
We were visiting the Big House a couple of years ago, and Kirk West showed us the table you sat at in the kitchen to write “Ramblin’ Man.” I said, let me sit there for a few minutes and see what happens! (Laughs)
(Laughs) Yeah! I think I also wrote “Pony Boy” in that house, I’m not sure.
Oh, I always loved that song, especially the knee slapping at the end, what do you call that?
Hand bone. (Laughs) That’s an interesting story. That’s a song about my uncle. Way, way back when I was a little boy, like second or third grade, I remember my uncle, he always had a good horse, you know. This one particular horse that he had, her name was Peggy. He would come home, and on the way through town he would stop at a place called Bullard’s, which was a bar, on Fridays and he’d sit there and drink. Well, the town was so small that the police were always looking for revenue. They knew there were a lot of Friday afternooners there who’s just gotten their pay check. (Laughs) So when my uncle Harry would leave at about dusk, he’d be pretty well cranked. And they’d get him for DUI and charge him $150. Back then it wasn’t like a DUI is now. Cars were slower, the roads were smaller, you know. He lived about five miles from the bar, but they’d get him. So what he did was, he’d drive home and then ride Peggy back to the bar and tie her up out there. (Laughing) When he’d get loaded he’d just crawl up on Peggy, and she knew the way home.
(Laughing) What a great story. Another song I really like is “Tombstone Eyes.”
I don’t really like to tell people what songs are about, but that one’s been around a while so... That one was written about my experiences during the Piedmont Park days, when we were first putting the band together. Everyone was smoking some nice hemp, and doing some acid, and getting a fresh look at our place in the world. Then the heroin and that stuff started creeping into the whole scene, and we lost quite a few people to that stuff. The song was about how the times changed into something that wasn’t very good at all. There is one person in particular that the song was about, but I think it would be very cheap to mention her name. She didn’t make it through those times. I try not to say anything about heroin or nothing. I try to keep them to where when you hear them they will mean something to you. You don’t have to go by exactly what I was thinking. Like “Seven Turns” doesn’t tell you exactly what it is. What I try to do is stir your imagination up.
Keep it a little ambiguous.
Yeah, that’s why I’m kind of reluctant to tell what a song’s about when I first write it. It’s interesting about that song, it’s really beautiful, then when you start listening to the lyrics, it’s really heavy. I’m sure you went through that period yourself, when you saw the grifters creep in and start selling heroin in the street. It used to be just mind expanding substances, then it turned into a desperate thing. You see that happening with a lot of youngsters today. My son has seen a lot of that around his group. We give it cute names, we used to call it “duji,” but it’s still heroin. I’m not standing on the stump preaching the gospel here, but I will say that heroin will kill your ass. It will ruin you.
Since the last time I spoke with you, the entire world has changed. I wanted to ask you where you were on September 11, 2001, and get your thoughts on the tragedy.
Well, I was in Colorado, and I don’t want to sound flaky or something, but I was having real bad nightmares, and I woke up just as it was happening. I couldn’t go back to sleep, so I turned the TV on, and all of that was just happening. So I think I must have been feeling what everyone else was feeling that was awake and watching it.
An empathic thing.
Yeah. The nightmares and the feelings were so scary, I didn’t want to go back to sleep. I was afraid the nightmares would come back. But I felt like everybody else did. Your mind kind of protects you at first when those kinds of things happen, and it takes it a while to sink in. I mean, I was in shock when I was first seeing it. It hit me again after I got home. I had three more dates to do, and we delayed them a day. We had that one in Telluride where everybody had already been waiting there for three days. We didn’t have anywhere to go anyhow, so we finished up those dates and went back home. Then it hit me again, hard. I started really realizing how devastating it was. I know a lot of New Yorkers, and I tell them I hope they don’t think they were the only ones in shock and in tears. People all across the country were. People were in tears all across the country.