Only a tight circle of family and friends knew Gregg Allman had been diagnosed with liver cancer a second time and wouldn’t survive it.
With limited time, the beloved musician and co-founder of the Allman Brothers Band set a course: He would return to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where his band began, and make a musical statement that would, according to those intimately involved in his final studio album, reach back, resolve past with present and reveal his essence.
“It really captures who Gregg is,” said Don Was, producer of the “Southern Blood” album that is set for release on Sept. 8. “I think there was a tacit understanding that this album was an attempt to tie up the loose ends of his life.”
Allman, who died May 27 at age 69, spent a dozen days in March 2016 in the legendary Fame Studios recording the 10 songs that would comprise “Southern Blood.” Allman and his solo band cut two songs daily, but because of his health, sessions lasted only a few hours, Was said.
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While the sessions were quick – recorded live, often in a take or two – Was said Allman was “fully present” and “at the peak of his interpretive powers.” He co-wrote one song, the aching lead-off track titled, “My Only True Friend,” but spent years deciding what to record.
The choices were no accident: There’s Bob Dylan’s “Going, Going, Gone,” Tim Buckley’s “Once I Was” and Jackson Browne’s “Song for Adam.” The latter features the songwriter and Allman’s old friend on harmony vocal. Was said the song, about a friend of Browne’s who died while mountain climbing, “struck a nerve with Gregg.”
“I know it always reminded him of Duane,” said Was, referring to Allman’s guitar-playing brother, who died in a motorcycle crash in 1971 as the Allmans were reaching stardom.
When it came to recording the third verse, Allman choked up at the lyric, “It seems he stopped singing in the middle of the song.”
“You can hear his voice crack … he never got the last two lines out,” Was said. There was talk of fixing it somehow, possibly having Browne deliver the line, but the song was among the mixes Allman approved the night before he died.
“To me, it’s the linchpin emotional moment of the album – that’s his exit,” said Was, who first saw the Allman Brothers in his native Detroit in 1971 and wondered, “How does this blond kid sound like a 60-year-old blues guy?”
The elder Allman loomed large in other ways. Choosing to record at Fame Studios, where Duane Allman first gained notice playing guitar for Wilson Pickett, “was a way of incorporating Duane’s spirit into the record,” Was said.
The high point for Scott Sharrard, Allman’s music director and guitarist, was co-writing “My Only True Friend.” Sharrard said he was staying at Allman’s home and working on songs a few years ago when he “had a vivid dream where Gregg was talking to Duane.” The guitarist remembered the words and started working on a song he envisioned “as a conversation across the universe between Duane and Gregg.”
“It’s an obvious farewell to the world,” said Sharrard. “I never told Gregg the story … but he realized in the back of his mind what the song was about.”
Michael Lehman, Allman’s manager, said the musician had a recurrence of the cancer in 2012 that first had been diagnosed before his 2010 liver transplant. Allman was given 12 to 18 months to live at the time of the second diagnosis, and he declined radiation treatment for fear of what it might do to his vocal cords, Lehman said.
“He wanted to live his life feeling good for as long as that was going to be,” Lehman said.
Even with extra time, Lehman said Allman was well aware of his mortality. He was clear about his mission, which included making music that was by turns “life-affirming” and “heavy.” “My Only True Friend” evokes both: “I’ve got so much left to give but I’m running out of time, my friend.”
Allman’s niece, Galadrielle Allman, said she holds onto the music of her father, Duane, “as way to reach him.” Her uncle’s music, including “Southern Blood,” will be no different.
“I think this album is … a way to keep him with us and be able to tap into this pure, unvarnished look at his life,” she said.