When Gregg Allman and his brother Duane were growing up in Daytona Beach, Florida, in the 1950s, they'd stay up late listening to WLAC, a legendary Nashville radio station that broadcast blues across the East Coast. "After the other stations shut down, you could get the signal," he recalls. "They'd play Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Lightnin' Hopkins. After hearing Jimmy Smith on their jazz show, I knew I wanted to play Hammond organ."
Fifty years later, Allman is paying tribute to the blues greats that inspired him with a record of covers of tunes by Muddy Waters, Skip James and others. "It's been 14 years since I cut one," he says. "And I was hot to trot." One reason for the long break was that Allman's longtime producer, Tom Dowd, died in 2002. But Allman's manager arranged a meeting with T Bone Burnett in Memphis in 2009. "The first thing out of his mouth was, 'Wasn't Tommy Dowd killer?'" Allman says. "I soon learned that he was real from top to bottom."
Burnett gave him a CD of blues classics to check out, and in January Allman went to L.A. to start recording. "We got a bunch of the songs on the very first take," says Allman. "I was prepared to stay two months, but we cut 15 tracks in 11 days." With acoustic bass and Burnett's rustic sonics, the LP feels far more intimate than a typical Allmans LP. "With the Brothers, there's a groove," Allman says. "Doing it yourself, you got one head chef in the kitchen."
The experience went so well that he hopes Burnett will produce the next Allman Brothers LP, their first since 2003. But before that, the singer will return to the road with the band in November — his first tour since receiving a liver transplant in June. And next March the Allmans will be back at New York's Beacon Theater for their residency, after being kicked out in 2009 for a Cirque du Soleil flop; the band played instead 100 blocks north at the United Palace Theater. "We got something on paper that says they won't do that again," he says. "But after my operation, I'm really just happy to be out playing. I'm going to thank God every night for giving me more years to live."