The idea of the Allman Betts Band was always more of an Allman Brothers Band fan fantasy scenario than it was a real-life idea for sons of that iconic act.
Yet 30 years after Devon Allman, Duane Betts and Berry Oakley Jr. met while on tour with their fathers’ band, they are releasing an album of their own music. That record, “Down to the River,” drops Friday, two days after they play Rocky Mount’s Harvester Performance Center.
What started as a way for Allman to process personal grief has resulted in a songwriting partnership with Betts and a “modern vintage” record to be proud of, Allman said in a recent phone call.
“The fans have been screaming for this for years,” Allman said. “But you don’t do it because it looks good on paper. You don’t do it because some fans want the poignant angle of the next generation. You do it because you’re two musicians who click together and write well together, play well together. And it turns out that that’s exactly what we had with Duane and I, and Berry included. We all play really well together. We know how to play for the song. We write songs well together.
“Essentially we got really lucky that there was that much organic chemistry, and that’s why there is an Allman Betts Band today. It’s not just because we’re the sons of. It’s because we’ve got our own thing going, and it’s really cool.”
The Allman Brothers Band reunited in 1989 for a 20th-anniversary reunion tour that would result in a resurgence of several more years, with keyboardist/singer Gregg Allman and guitarist/singer Dickey Betts back in their familiar roles. Devon Allman and Berry Oakley Jr. were just out of high school, while Duane Betts — named after the group’s late guitarist Duane Allman — was about 12. Though Berry Oakley had died in 1972, his namesake son was still part of the family. The rock scions met and struck up friendships.
“It wasn’t like we were out there nonstop on tour together,” Devon Allman said. “But certainly in those first few years, there was a lot of time spent.”
After all, he was developing his own growing blues-rock career, leading bands and touring as part of Royal Southern Brotherhood. Betts would go on to play guitar for years with his father, and also hit the road as a touring guitarist with folk-rockers Dawes in 2015 and 2016. Oakley has recorded and toured with acts including Doors drummer Robby Krieger, Joe Bonamassa (in their band, Bloodline) and Allmans’ drummer Butch Trucks’ Freight Train Band.
The three would run into each other occasionally in far-flung places.
“But it was fleeting,” he said. “We’d go years without seeing each other.”
Then a string of losses hit the younger Allman. His mother, Shelly Jefts, died in 2016. In May 2017, Gregg Allman died. Devon Allman had taken a couple of months off the road to grieve his mother’s passing, but when his father died, he took a year.
“I know that if I just go right back out on tour, the energy in the room is going to be about his passing, and not about let’s have a fun two hours together,” he said.
He hung out with his siblings. They grieved, and they dealt with estate matters. Devon Allman, who had spent so much of the previous 15 years on tour somewhere, was grateful for the time off. As the first wave of grief subsided, he began to think about the healing power of music.
“So I started plotting my moves, and I was like, I want to come back bigger than before,” he said. “I want a bigger band. I want it to be a bigger deal. We ought to celebrate what would have been my dad’s 70th anniversary. We ought to get Duane and I together. His dad’s retired, and now my dad’s passed away. Who’s gonna play this music? And we certainly don’t need to play all of their music. But it would be nice to play a few of them and then play our own music. So I just got the idea that joining forces, the timing was right.”
He set off on tour as the Devon Allman Project, featuring Duane Betts. As they spent the better part of a year on the road, they called in a songwriter named Stoll Vaughan, who had written with Betts on the latter’s 2018 EP, “Sketches of American Music.” Vaughan, who opens Wednesday’s show, was their “mediator, Svengali and head coach,” Allman said.
“He made it really easy,” Allman said. “All we had to do was sit and create, and he would document everything and kind of push us in the right direction. ... It was really a collaborative, fun effort.”
By Thanksgiving 2018, they had announced that they were now the Allman Betts Band, and they were at Alabama’s Muscle Shoals Sound Studios with Oakley, using 2-inch recording tape, vintage microphones, a vintage board and a vintage tape machine. There was no digital aspect to the recording, Allman said. The studio band — including Allmans Brothers’ keyboardist Chuck Leavell and Gregg Allman keyboardist Peter Levin — joined an Allman Betts lineup that featured slide guitar man Johnny Stachela. The album was done in five-and-a-half days, Allman said.
“This was literally done like it was done in the ‘60s,” he said. “The main thing there is you have to have your [act] together. You gotta be able to play those tunes. Luckily, we’ve got a world-class band. And every song on this record was either a second or a third take. The record was done 90 percent live. And it sounds like 1976. It sounds vintage, because it is. It’s modern vintage.”
Expect music from the new disc, from Devon Allman’s extensive repertoire, from Betts’ “Sketches ...” EP, from the Allman Brothers’ oeuvre and from Gregg Allman’s solo career.
“That’s a lot of healthy bags of music, and we will definitely be pulling from all of them,” he said. “If you dip too much into our dads’ repertoire, it becomes campy and like a tribute act. If you don’t dip into it at all, it’s kind of a slap in the face to those people who love that music. So we have to tip our hats, but we also have to push ourselves forward and make a name for ourselves.”