STAYING ON THE BEAT

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Butch Trucks arguably had the best seat in the house. Along with fellow drummer Jai Johanny “Jaimoe” Johanson, Trucks held down the blues-driven beat and rhythmic pulse for The Allman Brothers Band. On the front line of the stage were Gregg Allman (vocals/keyboards), bassist Berry Oakley, and guitarists Dickey Betts and Duane Allman, who collectively unfurled a potent blend of blues, jazz, and rock onto the forefront of the international music scene. Yet almost as quickly as the group attained early commercial success, the Allmans were hit by heavyweight tragedies when Duane Allman, and then Oakley, were each killed in two separate motorcycle crashes that nearly derailed the band. The group survived, though, and over the course of the next 40-plus years, The Allman Brothers Band, with a few breaks in between, would become a touring juggernaut. While tunes like “Midnight Rider,” “Whipping Post,” and “Ramblin Man” had become rock standards, the band was well-known for an undeniable first-rate proficiency at opening their music into extended, jazz-like improvisations. Twenty years ago, TABB was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but rather than rest on their laurels, the band members spent the next two decades hitting the road with even greater intensity. A series of changing lineups featured some of the fiercest players around (including Butch’s nephew Derek Trucks on guitar).

Last October, after 45 years, the band reluctantly called it quits. After a very short break, Butch Trucks has seemingly chosen the road over retirement. The now-68-year-old Jacksonville native has been splitting his time between South Florida and the south of France, where he lives with his wife, the artist Melinda Trucks. But he’s taken a short time out from this break to assemble a new group, the Freight Train Band, featuring vocalist-bassist Berry Duane Oakley (son of the late Berry Oakley), keyboardist Bruce Katz, vocalist-guitarist Damon Fowler, and Butch’s oldest son, Vaylor Trucks, on guitar. The band performs with locals Bonnie Blue on Dec. 27 at Ponte Vedra Concert Hall.

Folio Weekly spoke to Trucks at his home in France; we talked about his new band, life as an expatriate, and his not-so-pretty memories of an early local gig.

Folio Weekly: Are you now in the south of France year round?
Butch Trucks: Well, I’ve been here this year since May with my wife. With this being the first year in 25 years that I’m not out playing, I wanted to just get away and take a break, you know? It’s a very peaceful, very pleasant place. There are always plenty of chores to be done. I mean, we are way out in the country. People always ask me, “What are you doing in France?” And I tell them, “Peace and quiet and getting away from all of the BS that’s going on in the States right now.” And they say, “France has got its own problems,” but where I am, I’m not involved. I’m not a French citizen, I don’t have to pay French taxes … the worst thing I have to do is go and sit in a French consulate in Miami for several hours to get a visa for a year.

Since you have a long distance view of what’s happening here politically, what’s your take on America?
It’s the reason that about 20 years ago I decided to find a place like this because I saw it coming. Once Ronald Reagan got into office and all of the keys to the Unites States of America were given to the rich and powerful, it’s been going steadily downhill. We had a brief respite during the Clinton years and luckily Obama has been able to try and work through it. I do look at Facebook a lot — the good thing about Facebook is that if someone gets so radically right, I can just go right in and unfriend them. [Laughs.]

The Allman Brothers Band played their last show just under a year ago and now you’ve already got this new band fired up. That was a brief retirement. Did you get restless and want to get back out there?
Well, I wouldn’t call six months a brief retirement. When you play music, it’s an addiction. Once you really get into it, it’s something you have to keep doing; you don’t have a choice. So about six months ago, I was contacted by Berry and we decided to put together a band. He brought in this guitarist he worked with named Damon Fowler and we pulled out a couple other people and played some shows. And while we were doing that, we picked up a manager, Doug Isaac. Doug picked up another run of shows and on that run, I was able to get my son Vaylor onboard. I’ve always wanted to play with him. He’s that cute little kid of the cover of [the album] Brothers and Sisters. Well, he’s not so cute anymore, but well, you know [laughs] but he is one hell of a guitar player. Eventually I called up my friend Bruce Katz, who’s played with Gregg Allman and the Allman Brothers many, many times and who’s one of the best keyboard players I’ve ever played with. The band just grew over time. So now we have Berry, Vaylor, Bruce, and Damon.

What kind of stuff are you all going to play on this tour?
Well, we’ll open with the “Hot ’Lanta” every single night, one of the few Allman Brothers’ tunes I actually got writers’ credits for. But all of the gigs are going to be music from that place. We’re kind of rehearsing through long distance, so everybody’s over there and I’m over here. But I have an iTunes list that I just put up every afternoon and just go down it. I’m looking at 12 songs right now that, through emails, we all agreed upon and are going to add to the set list. We’re doing a tune that Katz wrote called “Just an Expression” and it’s killer. The next one is an old Les McCann and Eddie Harris song, a John Scofield tune, and old Delaney & Bonnie tune, Jeff Beck, Taj Mahal, a really old Billy Preston tune … and a couple of Bob Dylan songs. In fact, I’m going to do something I haven’t done since my old days in Jacksonville, Florida. I’m going to sing “Highway 61 Revisited.” No pun intended, but it might be a train wreck. [Laughs.] If it is a train wreck, it’ll be a fun one. This gig will be like coming full circle for me. You know, Ponte Vedra is where I first cut my teeth in high school. I played with a band called The Jacksonville Beach Boys down at the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club and it was horrible, man. We’d get up there every night and these spoiled little rich kids would come up to the stage and they wouldn’t request a song; they would tell us what to play. [Laughs.] And if we didn’t play it, they’d go and get their mommies. Luckily, I’ve grown up since then. I’m not bitter. [Laughs.]

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