The story of the Allman Brothers Band is marked by death and strife--the kinds of memories that many people would rather forget.
But Dickey Betts says the past is seldom out of his mind.
“Anytime I’m playing music or getting ready to record, Duane Allman will enter my thoughts, and so will Berry Oakley,” Betts said. “It’s part of my musical makeup and mental process when it comes to music. We learned to play together and taught each other a lot.”
Duane Allman, who ranks as one of rock’s most outstanding guitar players, was Betts’ partner in the ground-breaking twin-guitar flights of the early Allman Brothers Band albums. Bassist Oakley was Betts’ musical partner even before the Allman Brothers formed in 1969. But by the time the Allman Brothers Band hit its peak of popularity in 1973, Allman and Oakley were dead, the victims of separate motorcycle accidents that occurred in Macon, Ga., about 1 year and a few city blocks apart.
When his son was born 10 years ago, Betts named him Duane. And when he came up with an instrumental song for his recently released album--his first recording since the Allman Brothers Band broke up in 1982--Betts named it “Duane’s Tune,” in honor of both his son and his dead friend. Starting with melancholy guitar groaning, the song quickly takes on an energetic surge, then resolves into stately pomp and circumstance.
While he is touring with his own band, including a show tonight at the Coach House, Betts, 45, has been giving a lot of thought to the possibility of rekindling the past in a way that goes beyond writing songs in memoriam.
It was reported recently that the four surviving members of the original Allman Brothers Band would re-form for a new album and a tour in honor of the band’s 20th anniversary. Betts said that though the report was premature, a reunion is being considered and he would be happy if it comes about.
“There’s talk about it--that’s all I feel safe in saying at the moment,” he said. “No great decisions have been made, no dates have been set. We’re just discussing the possibility.”
Betts said he and the other former Allman Brothers--singer-organ player Gregg Allman and drummers Butch Trucks and Jai Johanny (Jaimoe) Johanson--met about 2 weeks ago at Trucks’ recording studio in Jacksonville, Fla. They didn’t play music together, Betts said, but they did talk about becoming a band once more.
The Allman Brothers went through a bitter breakup in 1976, after Gregg Allman had angered other members by testifying against a member of the band’s road crew in a drug-dealing case. The band overcame that strain and reunited in 1978, but fell apart again in 1982.
“It’s hard for people to understand that when five or six guys are together working intensely, they can really get into some duels,” Betts said in his affable, twangy Southern voice.
“We had our spats and fights and knock-'em-down-drag-outs, and everything’s still OK.”
Betts and Allman toured jointly for about a year in 1986-87. Each would front his own band for a set, then they would play together in an extended encore of Allman Brothers songs.
Betts said he never considered that tour as a trial run for a possible Allman Brothers Band reunion.
“At that time, I wasn’t thinking about it at all, because I was working really hard on trying to put together a record deal for myself,” Betts said. “To put together the Allman Brothers thing when I didn’t even have a deal for myself--I would have felt defeated.”
Betts managed to revive his recording career last year with an Epic Records album, “Pattern Disruptive.”
“I’m real proud of the album and the band,” he said. “I’m very satisfied with what I’ve done now, and I’m ready to do something with the Allman Brothers at this point.”
During his years without a record deal, Betts said, he felt as if the music business had little use for his country and blues-rock inclinations.
“That was a tough time, because music had changed and gone away from players like myself. It had gone so far away from me that I didn’t feel there was any place for what I did. But the last few years, I saw things drifting back toward me.”
“Pattern Disruptive” was geared to fit into the blues-rock resurgence that has been led by players like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray. A good deal of it focuses on polished, big-beat rockers--well-played but tending toward cliche. There also are a handful of grittier, more satisfying roots-oriented songs. Betts displays a husky, toughened voice that may surprise fans of the gently reedy, countrified singing of his best-known Allmans material.
“We made a conscious effort to make this a more hard-edged blues/rock ‘n’ roll album and stay away from the ‘Ramblin’ Man,’ ‘Blue Sky’ thing as much as we could,” Betts said.
Betts said he takes some satisfaction that the twin-guitar sound he forged with Duane Allman in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s has contemporary echoes in the harmony guitar passages of such popular hard rockers as Guns N’ Roses and Metallica. He thinks that some young hard rock fans are going back to those old Allmans albums--the landmark “Live at the Fillmore East” makes a good starting point--to find the source of that double-guitar inventiveness.
Newcomers and longtime fans alike may be interested in “Dreams,” a multiple-record compilation of Allman Brothers material that is being prepared for PolyGram Records by Bill Levenson, who produced last year’s Eric Clapton retrospective, “Crossroads.”
Betts said he hasn’t had a chance to put in his own ideas about what belongs on this documentation of the Allman Brothers, but he is confident it will come out well.
“The producers do try to keep you at arm’s length, because you get the artist in there, and he’s the worst fellow to have critique this stuff. But Butch Trucks has had his nose in the middle of it, and he says, ‘It’s OK, don’t worry.’ ”
The Dickey Betts Band plays tonight at 9 at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano.
Tickets: $19.50. Information: (714) 496-8930.