Southern rocker Gregg Allman‘s final album Southern Blood (Rounder Records) may not be the bluesiest he’s done (which would have been a difficult undertaking following his 2011 solo studio offering Low Country Blues), but will certainly be remembered as his most personal and evocative, featuring 10 carefully chosen tracks that reflected the Rock Hall of Famer’s mindset during the waning months of his life, from the opening, autobiograhical “My Only True Friend” that Allman co-wrote with his band’s guitarist and musical director Scott Sharrard about life on the road — with such chilling lyrics as “I hope you’re haunted by the music of my soul when I’m gone” and “Still on and on I roam, it feels like home is just around the bend/ I’ve got so much left to give, but I’m running out of time, my friend” — to the soulful country folk sound of Bob Dylan’s “Going Going Gone” (“I’m closing the book on pages and text, and I don’t really care what happens next/ I’m goin’, yes I’m goin’, I’m gone”) — one of several songs to feature Greg Leisz on pedal steel, Buddy Miller on harmony vocals, and The McCrary Sisters on powerful backing vocals — to the tender closing cover of Jackson Browne’s “Song for Adam” on which Browne himself joins Allman on vocals, with Leisz contributing on both pedal steel and mandolin.
Album producer Don Was writes in the liner notes: “The choice of songs for this record said everything that needed to be said…it’s the musical last testament of one of the greatest artists of our time. Everything you need to know about Gregg and how he felt at the end of his life is contained in the lyrics to these 10 songs and in the raw and expressive approach he brings to these last performances.”
As touching as much of the album can be, including that bittersweet terrific opening track, it’s probably “Song for Adam” that strikes the most poignant chord, about which Was observed: “Gregg always loved this song because it reminded him of his brother Duane. When he gets to the line ‘still it seems that he stopped singing in the middle of his song’, you can hear him choke up and falter. We decided to stop for the day, and Gregg never got the chance to actually sing those next two lines.”
With much more of an Americana than blues or rock sound overall, Southern Blood has Allman offering unique, often countryish (at times even tending towards the likes of Willie Nelson or John Denver), interpretations of songs from Tim Buckley (“Once I Was”), Little Feat (“Willin'”), the Grateful Dead (“Black Muddy River”), and Percy Sledge (the soulful Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham ballad “Out of Left Field”). But don’t think that this is all a laidback affair, with Allman stepping a bit more into blues and rock territory with an edgy, creeping Southern rock take on the New Orleans-flavored “Blind Bats and Swamp Rats” — a song off blues guitarist Johnny Jenkins’ Ton-Ton Macoute! album produced by Duane — and a stellar, gritty cover of the Willie Dixon blues classic “I Love the Life I Live” (the official video of which you can watch below, featuring Allman playing with both the Allman Brothers and his own band, including footage with brother Duane, son Devon, blues great Taj Mahal, Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks, and others) as well as the shuffling, slightly rocking Sharrard-written “Love Like Kerosene” with its boogie-woogie-style piano.
Recorded at Muscle Shoals’ FAME Studios where the Allman Brothers Band had some of its first rehearsals, the album is filled with rich horns, guitar, and other instrumentation and lush backing harmony vocals, with still mostly impressive vocals from Allman that alternate between smooth and gruff, a point echoed by Was: “He didn’t have all the lungpower of his younger self, but we felt that these raw, weathered performances were honest and compelling. We all agreed to leave them as they were on the day they were recorded. In the spirit of Laid Back, Gregg wanted to hear things like background harmony vocals and reverb on his voice but this album is essentially a documentary of our two weeks in the studio.”
Indeed, the music here reflects every bit as much of Allman as the blood portrait (left, a rendering by artist Vincent Castiglia painted partly from Allman’s own blood) of the musician that accompanies the deluxe edition and initial vinyl copies of the album, with the deluxe edition also including two bonus tracks: cooking, live versions of “I Love the Life I Live” and “Love Like Kerosene” recorded in spring 2016 during Allman’s time with his only true friend.
Allman’s son Devon, himself a successful solo blues-rock musician and former member of the supergroup Royal Southern Brotherhood, offers these words on Southern Blood, with which we of course couldn’t agree more: “Our father truly lived and breathed music. His entire essence, being and life were centered around it. He took exceptional joy in knowing his music was the soundtrack to your good times and the medicine for your bad times. So please, celebrate him, continue to play his music, and turn it up… because the road goes on forever.”