As the nephew of Allman Brothers Band drummer Butch Trucks, Derek Trucks entered the Allmans' world from an early age. By his teen years, he'd already sat in with the band and, at 19, joined the group full-time in 1999. Along with fellow guitarist Warren Haynes, Trucks, who currently fronts the Tedeschi Trucks Band with his wife, singer-guitarist Susan Tedeschi, was a mainstay of the Allmans until their final show in 2014.
Trucks is the first to admit it's been a rough year for him. In January, Butch Trucks died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. On May 1st, Trucks was onstage in Atlanta with jam-band mentor Colonel Bruce Hampton when Hampton lay down onstage — and didn't get up. "[That night] he had just looked up and smiled, and he was so happy that day," Trucks tells Rolling Stone. "Then it got uncomfortable and there was a tipping point where you realize that something's not right. It goes from this total exalted moment on a man's 70th birthday to one of the shocks of your life."
But the shocks didn't end. About three weeks later, on May 27th, Gregg Allman died of complications from liver cancer at 69. "It's been a lot to process," Trucks says. "There's some people that are just irreplaceable. With Gregg, there's not another one. It was a bumpy life. It was a lot of ups and downs. But what those guys did, and the way the Allman Brothers went out musically, is a pretty powerful thing." Trucks spoke with Rolling Stone about his history with Allman and the iconic band.
When did you hear the news of Gregg's death?
We were pulling up to the gig here in Jacksonville and I got the call from Bert Holman, the Allmans' manager, telling me. We knew Gregg was sick. You just go into self-preservation mode and try to block it out a little bit. You've got a few gigs to do. But I remember sitting backstage trying to think through it and I put on "Ain't Wastin' Time No More," and that was when it hit home. You hear that voice; you think about what he was thinking about right then. That's when the emotions take over.
Then you get home and start dealing. There was a CBS Sunday Morning clip they had done a few years ago when he was really healthy and happy. I'd forgotten real clearly about that Gregg. Just seeing that; seeing him interviewed at his home when he was healthy and happy and telling stories, and that smile and that laugh. That helped. It reminded me that the bulk of the time I spent with him was like that. Him on the bus, in that mood, going to the show. Sits up front, has a meal, shoots the shit for an hour. Then he disappears to the back of the bus. There was always a lot of mystery with him. He was a very guarded guy.
What's your earliest memory of Gregg?
My dad took me to a show when I was about four. But the first one I really remember was when they reformed in 1989. They were playing in Jacksonville. I thought that music was gone and the Allman Brothers were not a band anymore, and that sound was this mythological thing but I'd never see it. And when the band reformed, they certainly had that fire and that swagger.
There's a famous story that your uncle Butch took Gregg and some of the other band members to see you play at a club when you were young.
I think I was nine at the time. It was a club in South Beach called Tropics International, and the stage was above the bar. Gregg, Butch, [Allmans guitarist] Warren Haynes and [Allmans bassist] Allen Woody were there. They got up and sat in. I remember after we played, Gregg and [Allmans roadie] Red Dog taking me to a swimming pool behind the bar. They had one of Duane's slides and gave it to me.
What did you make of Gregg at the time?
He was very sweet, but just his persona was intimidating. He was Gregg Allman. I think a lot of people had that feeling when they met him. The way he walked and talked and acted. He had whatever the "it" thing is. It was like meeting Willie Mays or something. It's like, "Holy shit, they exist!" Even when Dickey [Betts] was leading the band, Gregg was the focal point at all times. He just had that magnetism, and that fucking voice. They don't hand those out often. He was the keeper of the mojo. It was just effortless for him, that part of it. He was just a bona fide fucking badass. There's a lot of pretenders and a lot of people who think that those torches get passed, but there's not another Gregg. It feels like this fictional, amazing, Southern gothic epic. It's un-fucking-believable. From childhood on, at every turn, something major and traumatic and awful was happening.
What's the best piece of life advice Gregg ever gave you?
It's pretty seared in my head. I was probably 14, and I was playing in Gregg's solo band and living at his place out in Novato, California. He had this Corvette with a vanity plate that said "Baby Bro." He took me for a spin. He asked if I wanted to drive and I was like, "Fuck yeah, I wanna drive!" I drove on this abandoned road, and then he got back behind the wheel and told me, "Look, you can do a lot of shit. But do not mess around..." He was specifically talking about heroin. He was like, "Do not do it." And he showed me his arms, and he said, "If any of the potholes I've hit are to not be in vain, people have to learn from it."
It was out of the blue. I think he just had a moment of, "You know what? I'm gonna fix this bastard right now." That's one of the few pieces of advice I remember getting from anybody, and it sure as hell stuck. It was very direct.
He went sober right around the time you joined the band. Was it a struggle for him to stay clean?
He always seemed to hold it together pretty well. He definitely stayed away from the stuff he wanted to stay away from. There was never alcohol on the bus; never anything heavy. He got into a good place. Sometimes my kids or wife would be out, and he was always so sweet to them. Even to allow them to be on the bus was something I was always grateful for. He had seen and done everything more than twice, but he was such a gentleman.
"There's a lot of pretenders and a lot of people who think that those torches get passed, but there's not another Gregg."
After you joined the band, how did it feel playing some of Duane's parts as Gregg sat at his keyboard near you?
What made it the most comfortable was when I was playing those parts and you felt like you were really locked in, then looking over and seeing Gregg just soaking it up and loving it. That's when I knew, "All right, we're in a good spot." I think he always heard Duane in those moments. I don't think that ever left him. I think there were times onstage where he was back in that place. When it would get there, in one way or another, he'd let you know. You saw it by the way he would look at you. He didn't throw out compliments often, but when he did, you knew it meant something.
Things hit him musically in an emotional way. In some ways, Gregg wanted it to be the Bobby "Blue" Bland or Little Milton's band. Tight arrangements; no need for two guitar solos. That just wasn't his musical aesthetic. For me, these arrangements were here before I was born: "I'm just trying to honor the music, man." [Laughs] I think he understood that. But there were definitely times where you could tell he wanted it to go in a different direction.
It's unfortunate that the latter lineup, with you and Warren Haynes, only made one studio album, 2003's Hittin' the Note, with Gregg.
I'm with you. I always felt like there should've been more studio output of that version of the band. But Butch didn't enjoy recording as much at that point. I remember when Gregg and Warren brought in "Desdemona." I was like, "That tune could have been on almost any Allmans record." That one had the stuff. When Gregg first sang it at rehearsal, that was one of those times where it hits you, "Oh yeah, that's that guy. One of the best singers on Earth." That tune felt like him more than anything else.
After the Allmans disbanded three years ago, you played with Gregg onstage a few more times.
Last summer, he came out to one of our band's shows in Charlotte and played "One Way Out" with us. It was right towards the end. I didn't fully know it at the time, but he was very sick. He really went past the point of when he could physically do it. But I think he loved being out there and doing it. He wasn't in his best place physically. But the fact that he came out — you could feel this wave from the audience, just seeing him there. It makes you realize how fucking important that guy was to so many people.
When was the last time you saw him?
We saw him up in Savannah two or three weeks ago. Warren was in town playing the Wanee Festival. I picked up Warren from the airport and we went by and spent the day with Gregg. Just shot the shit. He looked good. But he was hurting. It was hard for him to communicate and speak. He could speak, but it was very quiet. He was very brave about the whole thing.
Did you know he had liver cancer?
Yeah. At that point, you knew what was going on. Everybody knew it was imminent.
Did you have the sense that he also knew?
Yeah. It was one of those things, you didn't have to speak about it. It was in the room. You're just kind of there to see somebody smile for a minute. It's funny, sometimes life just comes down to bringing a little bit of light to somebody when you can. But he was in a beautiful place. It was fun just watching him laugh and telling fucked-up road stories. I'm grateful that was able to happen. We didn't get that with Butch. It would have been a much more conflicted thing if we hadn't had that with Gregg. I think he was able to have those conversations with a lot of people, which is the way you hope it would be.
I just remember leaving there thinking about that Cowboy song, "All My Friends," that Gregg would do from time to time. That was the soundtrack in my head on the whole drive home. You could feel it in the air. Those are fortunate moments to have. You don't always get to have those.
Did you think he could survive anything, like Keith Richards?
I think until that day, that was how I felt about it all along. I was like, "Oh yeah, I know he's going through some stuff, but shit, he'll be fine. That dude is invincible." Then you realize that there's some things you can't just walk through.
What was it like to attend Gregg's funeral?
It was just so intense, and so final. So much history there, man. It was an open casket at Snow's [funeral home] where they had one for Duane way back when. You look across the room and you see Duane's widow and his daughter, and Berry Oakley's son and widow. Even seeing Jimmy Carter there, you realize how fucking powerful that whole thing was. I don't know Cher, but she was very sweet.
Then the procession all the way through Macon, down to Rose Hill [Cemetery]. You're sitting there at that gravesite, and seeing Duane and Berry's headstones and watching Berry Jr. looking across Gregg's casket at his dad's gravesite. It was just too much. Duane and Berry's [graves] are right next to each other. Gregg's grave was on the other side of this little walkway. So they're all there. Gregg's mother, Mama A [Geraldine Alice Allman], they put her ashes in when they interred Gregg.
There were thousands and thousands of people lining the street in Macon, Georgia, and the looks on their faces – they were like, "Holy shit." You grow up with somebody, and you think of them one way, and you forget that, in a lot of ways, he was everybody's. He was that way to a lot of people. That was a powerful moment, leaving that place and seeing how much he and that band affected people. We were sitting in the car with Dickey, just watching him watch it. Everybody was going in and out of holding it together. Getting to see Dickey and Jaimoe back together, and speaking, and even playing afterwards – those were monumental moments.
"Sometimes life just comes down to bringing a little bit of light to somebody when you can."
Has anybody reached out to you to say, "We're going to put the Allmans back together in some form"?
I've heard rumors about a show or something. If it's a show for Gregg and his legacy, that's a different thing. If it's anything beyond a show, I would think the intention would be wrong. You can't have the Allman Brothers without Butch Trucks and Gregg Allman. Those are just irreplaceable spirits. And you can't have an Allman Brothers gig without an Allman brother. I've heard people try to argue that you can, but I'm not buying it. If Duane's not there, Gregg certainly better be there. There are a few bands out there right now that are using names that maybe shouldn't be. That's another discussion.
How would you describe Gregg's legacy?
I don't think there's a singer, especially in the South, that's not directly influenced by him. Some of those songs, man – you try to find a contemporary of his where the music is comparable, and most of it just doesn't hold up. You stack a few of those tunes, whether it's "Please Call Home" or "Dreams" or "Ain't Wasting Time No More." That's about as good as it gets.
I've heard all these tributes to Gregg, and people singing "Midnight Rider" and some of these other tunes, but every time I hear it, I'm like, "Yep, next!" I appreciate the sentiment, but you just can't top that shit. They really don't make that version of human beings very often any more.
Gregg Allman fused country blues with San Francisco-style improvisation, creating a template for countless jam bands to come. Here are his 20 essential songs.