Inside Gregg Allman's Musical Farewell

Collaborators recall the emotional sessions for the singer's final LP 'Southern Blood' – and explain how it tells his life story through song

Gregg Allman collaborators including producer Don Was describe how the singer's emotional farewell album, 'Southern Blood,' took shape. Credit: Matt Butler

On the night of May 26th, Gregg Allman listened to his singing voice for the last time. Michael Lehman, Allman's manager, sent completed versions of four new Allman songs to his home in Savannah, Georgia, and Allman was able to hear almost half of his next album. "He was fully lucid and he was excited," recalls Lehman. "He was talking quietly but he wasn't in any pain at all. He loved the tracks and he knew what he'd done."

The next day, Allman succumbed to the liver cancer he'd been fighting for five years. Lehman and Don Was, who produced the sessions, got to work wrapping up what was suddenly Allman's farewell album, which he had himself dubbed Southern Blood. A collection heavy on covers – including songs by Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Tim Buckley and Jackson Browne – the album, cut in Alabama last year, is modeled after the autumnal feel of Allman's' 1973 solo classic Laid Back – but with an even more elegiac mood. "It was kind of unspoken, but it was really clear we were preparing a final statement, in many ways," says Was. "It was so fuckin' heavy, man. We weren't going to a picnic."

By the time Allman began planning the album, he had already defied the odds. He'd endured a liver transplant in 2010, but two years later was diagnosed with liver cancer. According to Lehman, cancer cells that had been in Allman's body prior to the transplant spread to one of Allman's lungs. Given the choice of radiation treatment, Allman passed, fearing the treatment would damage his vocal cords. As Lehman says, "He said, 'I'm going to do what I love to do – be around my house and my family and be on the road with the fans. I'm not going to let something like this stop me.'"

By the time Allman and his road band arrived at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals last year, Allman had already carefully mapped out what was looking to be his final statement. In almost every detail, Southern Blood would eerily reference aspects of Allman's past. Allman chose Fame because he and late brother Duane's pre-Allmans band, Hour Glass, recorded there, and during the same period, Duane cemented his reputation at Fame by backing Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and other R&B heroes. "It was a way to tap into Duane's spirit," says Was. (In an interview to promote his 2014 tribute concert, "All My Friends," Allman mentioned the record was going to be produced by Was – who hadn't yet heard the news but was thrilled. "It was a very Gregg move," says Was. "We'd never talked about it. When I saw him at 'All My Friends' [where Was the musical director], he said, 'You cool with that?' You just chuckle, man.")

Allman had been hoping to write a new batch of original songs for the project, but between his ongoing road work and medical issues, that plan was soon abandoned. "So we came up with the idea of picking a great selection of songs that had deep meaning for Gregg," Lehman says. "The order of the songs tells Gregg's story. When Gregg picked them, he knew where he was in his life's journey. He was already further along with the progression of his disease.'"

As with the recording locale, the songs would echo Allman's life. He chose Johnny Jenkins' swampy funk tune "Blind Bats and Swamp Rats" because Duane had recorded with Jenkins. Circling back to the start of his career, Allman selected Browne's "Song for Adam," since he and Browne had met in L.A. in the late Sixties and remained close friends. When hanging out with his bandleader, guitarist Scott Sharrard, Allman would frequently break into Buckley's "Once I Was," co-written with his frequent lyricist Larry Beckett. "He told me he was a huge Tim Buckley fan and that it was the thrill of his life that he once had a phone conversation with Tim," Sharrard says. "Gregg said they had plans to get together and write songs, but then Tim tragically died." (Sharrard then introduced Allman to the music of Buckley's son Jeff.)

"No one's ever heard Gregg do it," the guitarist says. "He's never played it onstage. He's never recorded it. He's literally just played it for me in his room. I said to Don, 'It was a fucking crime that this hasn't been recorded and we have to get it while we can.' We did it, like, in one take. And that track, man, it just slices my heart open every time I hear it."

During several meetings with Allman to map out the project, Was suggested melancholic songs like Dylan's "Going Going Gone," and Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter's "Black Muddy River." Sharrard says Allman was initially unsure about the latter: "He loved the guys in the Dead and had some great friendships, but I don't know if that writing style was his bag in general," he says. "But he warmed up to the tune, and in the end he thought, 'Man, I kinda love this song.' We watched him evolve through that tune." (Of the Dylan song, a little-known dirge from Planet Waves, Allman cracked to Sharrard, "Song's kind of dark, isn't it?") Was also chose Lowell George's trucker anthem "Willin'." Says Was, "He's like the truck driver in that song: 'Show me a sign, I'm willin to keep on movin'.' Keep on playing. Just get me to the show. I thought of that guy, and Gregg got it immediately."

Allman and Sharrard co-wrote "My Only True Friend," itself infused with Allman's mythic past. Inspired by Allman's stories about his late brother, Sharrard began writing the song in the voice of Duane talking to Gregg. "I never told him because I didn't want to spook him, since his brother was such an important figure in his life," says Sharrard. Without knowing Sharrard's inspiration, Allman responded with a verse as if he were talking back to Duane. "It's not an album about dying," says Was. "Gregg was explaining his life and making sense of it, both for the fans who stood with him for decades, and for himself."

Once the sessions began, in March 2016, Allman's health set the pace for the schedule. Since he tired easily, work was limited to about four hours a day – cutting two songs a day – for the nine days of studio time. "At that point, you could see his health wasn't 100 percent," says Was. "But he and I never talked about it, once. I don't think he really wanted to accept the finality of his situation until he was physically unable to go on. He just wanted to keep playing." Adds Sharrard, "Everything was sort of running against the clock the past two or three years. That was weighing on us every day."

Since Allman and the band had rehearsed some of the material beforehand, work progressed efficiently – yet wasn't without its intense surprises. For Was, the most powerful moment arrived when they tackled "Song for Adam." Allman told Was that the song, about a friend who is suddenly gone, made him think of Duane. With the tape rolling and the band playing, Allman arrived at the line "Still it seems he stopped singing in the middle of his song" and choked up. "He wasn't able to finish the verse," Was says, gathering himself as he recalled that moment. "He never got the last two lines. I know he was thinking about his brother. We all decided, 'Let's not fix it." (Browne himself added a harmony part to the song later.)

According to Lehman, the initial plan for finalizing Southern Blood called for making a few tweaks (like having Allman add his own harmony vocals, as he did on his Laid Back version of Browne's "These Days") and releasing the record in January 2017. But after Allman's condition began to worsen in late 2016, Allman wasn't able to return to a studio and his singing voice grew weaker. Plans to add his voice to two completed backing tracks – Freddie King's "Pack It Up" and Leon Russell's "Hummingbird" – were never finalized, so those two songs didn't make the album.

Listening back to the tapes, Was and Lehman realized the power of Allman's voice and the recordings. After some judicious post-production overdubs (like having Buddy Miller sing harmonies instead), Southern Blood was in its final stages of completion when Allman's health took a fatal turn. To Was, Allman would say, "You know what to do here. You got it. I know you've got it. I like what's happening. Just do it."

During their last conversations, Lehman says Allman gave him strict guidelines about launching the album. Allman wanted it out in early September to avoid the glut of big-name releases that would rain down later in the fall. (True to Allman's wishes, it will be released September 8th.) Allman hadn't talked much about his condition during the last few years of his life – "he was a proud man and didn't want people feeling sorry for him," says Lehman – but he gave permission to those around him to talk about his worsening health over the last five years.

Starting with 2011's T Bone Burnett–produced Low Country Blues, Southern Blood was intended as part of a personal postscript Allman was undertaking after the Allman Brothers Band played their last show in 2014. As it stands, the legacy will end with Southern Blood. "We wanted to create a body of work like what Johnny Cash did at the end of his life," Lehman says. "We thought we'd do four or five studio albums. Unfortunately, we only got two."