|Dickey Betts 1971|
Now we’re getting somewhere. Way down south, in West Palm Beach, Florida, Dickey Betts was born and raised. By far one of my favorite guitarists, he exemplified how you can take country and bluegrass roots into directions that only his humble genius could envision. As important as the Allman Brothers were to jam or blues music, they wouldn’t be as important to rock music at large without Mr. Betts in the mix. My two picks of the day, one the expansive driver “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” and the other its majestic homecoming song “Bougainvillea” showcase Dickey’s unique influence in music. What’s astounding to me, is that for a kid who grew up in the South, Dickey displayed influences that you wouldn’t think he had, all rooted in jazz, folk, and classical music. Sometimes, we don’t give enough credit to musician’s who earned it the most, and Dickey is by far one unsung great. Some guys you can just picture stroking their beards, and waxing snobbishly attempting to get that type of sound, Dickey you can just picture rolling up his sleeves and simply doing it.
The Allman Brothers, for all intents and purposes is a tiring blues band. When Gregg and Duane Allman start to play their most academic of blues jams nothing makes me want to press “skip” more than that. However, when I hear a Dickey Betts composition like “Les Brers in A Minor” I can’t help but stick around because I know something refreshing to my ears will be heard. Dickey came about towards his own distinctive guitar tone by trying to mimic the interplay of banjo and fiddle players. Working with Duane Allman he managed to finagle him out of his blues enough to take him on the open road, for this new type of southern rock music. Now it was able to share some roots with the improvisation feel of Jazz musicians and display the memorable conciseness of country music. Its a reason most people’s, and my own, favorite Allman Brothers album is a Dickey-led one, Brothers and Sisters. Dickey just knows country music inside and out, completely enough to know when to stress melodicism in a track, or when to press for more air in an open-road type of arrangement. Its this sound best exemplified in early Allman Brothers Dickey-led tracks like “Blue Sky” from Eat a Peach, “Jessica/Ramblin Man” from Brothers and Sisters and better yet my pick of the day the modal southern rock of “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed”.
“In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” is just a brilliant composition, its roots are in the music of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, trying to fuse ambient sound spaces with expansive improvisation. As Dickey comes in playing his seagull-like guitar slide melodies you know you’re going to be taken into somewhere the conservative type of blues people wanted the Allmans to play couldn’t go. As Greg fully kick into harmony with Dickey around the 2:30 minute mark, together they start to chase that same voodoo Miles was after. Dickey wrote this track as a remembrance of the place where he and the rest of the Allman Brothers would meet to get high, hang around, and jam as younger men. There was no actual Elizabeth Reed they ever met, just a cemetery’s gravesite where they hung around. The area around her grave which formed a down-bowing concave allowed them to practice freely and hide from most anyone that would bother them as they grew up learning their craft together. In honor of Ms. Reed, Dickey saw that the best way to state the importance of her sacrifice to their cause was to present one of their most free-spirited brotherly jams ever to her.
“Bougainvillea” from 1977’s Dickey Betts & the Great Southern is quite positively one of the most beautiful improvisations laid by mere mortals. I don’t say this lightly, speaking as a man who has heard 1000s upon 1000s of albums, you’ll rarely hear as heartfelt “jamming” as heard as here. By the time Dickey recorded this album he had split with the Allman Brothers, due to money and intellectual issues, he wanted to turn the band more into a country leaning outfit, the Allmans wanted to ride that blues donkey even further (all the while keeping nearly all of the credit and money). Dickey wanted none of that. His response was to form his own band called “The Great Southern” and release his first true solo album with them in 1977, showcasing a non-distilled version of the sound he was after. This new Southern sound was mesmerizing, it was the culmination of that romantic tone Dickey always had. “Bougainvillea” was its crowning jewel. Sonically, he wanted it to branch forth like the flower itself, the track would start with a simple melody that he could then use to expand from the top down. Harmonies kick in and out, guitars slide to and fro, melodies get tangled and untangled, but then he makes you step back when his plaintive vocals kick in again and, like a Monet, you forget the brushstrokes to take in the vivid softness of it all. This idea, of unpretentious experimentation, is the type of music other southern bands would aim for, and other southern rock bands I’ll highlight will share a sound of, and more importantly a Southern sound we all dream exists, more of that tomorrow…