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How Gregg Allman sobered up, quit smoking and got his groove back

Editor's note: Lead singer Gregg Allman died Saturday after battling a variety of health issues. He was 69. The following is a story chronicling the transformation of the band and the man himself as they celebrated 30 years together.

The Allman Brothers Band once titled a best-of collection "The Road Goes on Forever."

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Well, it hasn't been forever, but the group that set the standards for Southern rock with such long, virtuoso blues-based jams as "Whipping Post" and "Mountain Jam" and even hit the Top 10 with "Ramblin' Man" is celebrating its 30-year anniversary with a tour that comes to the Bakersfield Centennial Garden on Friday and to the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles on Saturday.

That's time enough for its share of tragedy--founding guitarist Duane Allman and bassist Berry Oakley died in eerily similar motorcycle accidents almost exactly a year and less than a mile apart in 1971 and 1972, respectively.

But three decades is also long enough for renewal, which has become the theme for the band, which was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995.

Gregg Allman, who started the band in Macon, Ga., with older brother Duane in 1969, eagerly holds himself up as Exhibit No. 1.

"I'm sober, and I quit smoking, too!" the 51-year-old Marin County resident says with gusto.

He quit drugs and alcohol three years ago after spending much of his adult life under the influence, with such notorious troubles as in exchange for immunity testifying in a drug case against one of the band's roadies in the mid-'70s. That act split the band apart and estranged him from the rest of the members for years.

Quitting smoking, he says, was a "bonus" that came in February when, prompted by having a cold, he finally took that big step. The result of all this is that Allman, whose soulful voice and blues-informed organ playing once made him sound like someone twice his age, now sounds like a wide-eyed 20-year-old when he talks about being on the road.

"I can breathe and I'm singing better than ever," he says. "And now I can take it all in and remember it. It's really a gas doing that. It always was good--just that I got interfered with by the demons of the day. But all that's over and, yes, it's real fun. Back to playing again."

The irony is that next to him on stage these days is a real 20-year-old. In addition to the figurative rejuvenation of Allman, the band has undergone a literal one with the recent tapping of its next generation in the form of Derek Trucks, the nephew of drummer Butch Trucks, who has officially signed on as co-lead guitarist alongside founding member Dickie Betts. The further twist is that the newcomer has stepped in with the poise of a seasoned veteran.

"The kid is playing his butt off," says Allman of young Trucks, who filled in on three shows last year when guitarist Jack Pearson was ill and was asked to join full time when Pearson departed in the spring. "He stands next to me on stage and the crowd doesn't scare him at all. Had I been that far along when I was that age . . . shoot! I still got more stage fright than that guy."

Actually, being on stage is nothing new for young Trucks. He's been playing with his own band since he was 11, and has made two albums, with a third to be recorded when the Allmans tour is over. He also had played on Gregg Allman's 1998 solo album, "Searching for Simplicity."

"It felt amazingly natural," Trucks, in a separate interview, says of playing with the Allmans. "It feels real good standing next to those guys and playing music. I wasn't sure how it would work out."

As for filling Duane's shoes, he shrugs off the very notion.

"When I first got the call, I tried not to think about it in those terms," he says. "If you think you have to fill the shoes of Duane Allman and everyone who came after him in the band, you'd go insane."

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The fact is that Trucks is not the only second-generation member of the ABB family to go into music. Betts' son Duane is the guitarist in Backbone, which also features Roy Orbison's son Alex on drums and is opening some shows on this tour, including at the Greek. And Berry Oakley Jr., the son of the late bassist, is himself playing bass in L.A., where among other things he plays and sings in the band fronted by the Doors guitarist Robby Krieger.

And Elijah Blue Allman, the product of the late-'70s marriage of Gregg and Cher, is also a musician--though his style is a world away from both his dad's and his mom's. Fronting the band Deadsy, whose debut album for Sire Records was held up from its planned release last year by corporate shifts, is full of murky Goth-rock.

"If I was Glenn Miller's kid, I'd want my music to sound anything but like his," says Gregg of his son's sound. "But the very fact that he wants to play music makes me happy."

The youth movement isn't just on stage, though. The Allmans are riding a wave of new blood in their audience as well, having become an icon for a new generation of fans attracted to the free-flowing excursions and earthy blues. With the death of Jerry Garcia and end of his Grateful Dead, the Allmans are arguably the top surviving veteran jam band--it even headlined shows on the 1994 edition of the jam revivalist H.O.R.D.E. tour.

"It's amazing to all of us that at least half the crowd at most of our shows is not even as old as [the song] 'Midnight Rider,' " Allman says. "I wrote that in 1972! Talk about feeling old."

The fact remains, though, that Allman is feeling anything but old--there are certainly no thoughts of pulling off the road.

"[Touring every year] is exactly what I plan on doing," he says. "I don't think I'll be going into any other kind of business any time soon."

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