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Gregg Allman: 20 Essential Songs

Southern rock pioneer fused country blues with San Francisco-style extended improvisation, creating a template for countless jam bands

The question “Can white men sing the blues?” has been debated for decades, especially once earnest white kids began taking a crack at the music in the 1960s. But in the case of Gregg Allman, no one ever raised the question. It wasn’t simply a matter of his husky, often pained voice and the genuine sense of despair, desperation and boastfulness conveyed by it. 

It was also a reflection of the tragedy that haunted Allman’s life, from the murder of his father when Gregg was two years old to the motorcycle accidents that took the lives of his brother Duane and Allman Brothers Band member Berry Oakley a year apart in the 1970s.

Add in the impact of fame, celebrity, chemical temptations and divorces, especially with dealing with a relatively shy person like Allman, and he more than earned his right to sing the blues. “You’ve got to consider why anybody wants to become a musician anyway,” Allman told Rolling Stone in 1973. “I played for peace of mind.” Here are some of those moments, where Allman hopefully did alleviate his inner burdens with song.

Gregg Allman: 20 Essential Songs

“These Days” (1973)

Many had (and have still) tackled Jackson Browne’s prematurely wise ballad, written when he was a teenager. But no one matched the downcast contemplation in Allman’s version from Laid Back, which also brings out a hint of country balladry to his sound.

Gregg Allman: 20 Essential Songs

“Can’t Lose What You Never Had” (1975)

By 1975, the Allmans were on the verge of collapse and Gregg was increasingly alienated from his bandmates and dependent on drugs to get through it all. That lost-soul murk envelopes this version of Muddy Waters’ song from the Allmans’ Win, Lose or Draw album. Gregg had never sounded so weary or burdened.

Gregg Allman: 20 Essential Songs

“Just Ain’t Easy” (1979)

By the time the Allmans reconvened for the reunion album Enlightened Rogues (one of Duane’s favorite expressions about the band), Gregg had been through the ringer of Cher, the L.A. high life, and fan backlash. Those tortured few years are laid out, if not explicitly, in his finest moment from that album. A dose of morning-after despair, it found Gregg reclaiming the vocal subtlety of his early years.

Gregg Allman: 20 Essential Songs

“I’m No Angel” (1987)

By the late 1980s, few were expecting a return to form from Gregg. But this burly track from his 1987 solo album of the same name was the ebullient comeback many never thought would come. Although written by Tony Colton and Phil Palmer, the lyrics may as well have been written by Gregg himself, and the knowing tone in his voice puts the song over the top as much as its radio-friendly arrangement.

Gregg Allman: 20 Essential Songs

“Good Clean Fun” (1990)

After falling apart again in the 1980s, the Allmans re-formed in 1989 to commemorate their Dreams boxed set. The following year, they made one of their strongest later albums, Seven Turns, with Warren Haynes now occupying the Duane guitar slot alongside Betts. Co-written by Betts and Gregg – the first time they’d penned a song together – “Good Clean Fun” returns the stomp and snarl to their music, and to Gregg’s voice.

Gregg Allman: 20 Essential Songs

“Just Another Rider” (2011)

Produced by T-Bone Burnett, Allman’s 2011 solo album Low Country Blues was yet another unexpected return to form, and its sole original – co-written by Gregg and Haynes – captured the way Gregg could summon up the old evocative power. Sung in a voice deeper and more seen-it-all than ever before, and driven by a horn-imbued arrangement that recalled Laid Back, “Just Another Rider” was an apt, age-aware sequel of sorts to “Midnight Rider”: “Remind you to take it slow/One step at a time, baby.” 

Gregg Allman: 20 Essential Songs

“Who to Believe” (2003)

Gregg summons up his lung power – and his self-doubts and isolation – in this barn-burner from the Allmans’ Hittin’ the Note album. Powered by guitarists Haynes (who co-wrote this song) and Derek Trucks, the band raises hell behind Gregg, who reciprocates in one of his best later-day performances.