Interview: Butch Trucks.
Butch Trucks is a legend. He is a founding member of the Allman Brothers Band. He will be teaching and performing at the Roots Rock Revival in upstate New York, along with Luther and Cody Dickinson. Butch’s passion for music and life is inspiring. For more information on the Roots Rock Revival, check out http://musicmasterscamp.com/roots_rock_revival.html
How are you?
I’m feeling great today. I went to FSU Florida State. A buddy of mine and I went down to the Orange Bowl last night and watched Florida State just absolutely slaughter Northern Illinois. Are you a football fan?
Who’s your team?
I’m more of a pro guy.
I grew up that way, but since free agency, pro is just no fun. I used to watch the Green Bay Packers and the Redskins. Every year it was the same people. I lived in Macon al those years when the Allman Brothers were up there. I became an Atlanta Falcons fan. From year-to-year, you’re pulling for a whole bunch of guys. Then, the next year, you have a whole bunch of new guys. The guys you liked the year before are playing for the bad guys.
There’s nothing consistent with players.
They are playing for money. They are professionals. They are out to make the most money they can make. In college, there really is a bit of we’re doing it for the team, we’re doing it for the school. They are the same guys that are there. At FSU, we have three really, really good defensive players. They are juniors that are all going to go pro.
It does seem like the college players do have more drive and passion.
They are not doing it for the money, though I’m sure they are getting some. There is some school spirit. Northern Illinois had this quarterback that ran for 1,500 yards and passed for 2,500 yards this season in the Mid-American Conference. Last night, he was 5 of 23 for 120 yards passing. He ran for 22 yards. Florida Sate racked up about 600 yards in total offense, Northern Illinois had about 200.
Laying the beat down.
Yeah, exactly. It was fun. I hadn’t been to a game in years. After the Allman Brother split up in ’76, my wife and I moved to Tallahassee. She got her masters degree n painting. I had flunked out of Florida State back in 1966. I majored in staying out of Vietnam. I didn’t bother to go to class. Even though I’m pretty smart and had really good grades coming out of high school, if you don’t go to class, you tend to fail. I accomplished the very difficult feat of flunking out of Florida State University. It’s not right up there with Harvard or anything. Ten, I went back to school. I got myself back in because I had all these gold and platinum records. When I went back to school in ’76, the Allman Brothers were still the number one band in the country, and I am a freshman at Florida State University. I retook all these classes, like chemistry, creative writing, even meteorology. My first term back in, I made five As and a C. You know what the C was in?
No, what was it?
Are you serious? That’s insane.
I’m not kidding you. I’m one of the best drummers in the world, and this little twerp gives me a C.
That’s the thing, you’ve always thought outside of the box. You’re a very creative drummer. You can switch styles instantly.
That’s the thing, he was trying to teach me orchestral drumming. . I’ve got about as much chance as playing in the New York Philharmonic as a snowball’s chance in hell. I didn’t bother to practice. I spent all my time on the other courses, and he knew it. Getting a percussion thing is just a strictly one-on-one, subjective grade. I’m lucky to get a C, to be honest. The next term, I made five A’s and a B. The only thing I couldn’t ace was drums. I brought a 1.8 GPA up to a 3.8 GPA. Then I figured, okay, I don’t have a need for a college degree. I just wanted to get that flunking out of Florida State off my resume, that bothered me. It seemed to me like Florida State University was as far away from the insanity of rock and roll fantasy that I had got myself stuck in. I quit the stupid drinking. I married, had a couple of kids, and settled down to an absolutely normal life in suburbia.
What first got you interested in music?
I don’t know. It’s just something that’s always been there. My parents raised me in a Southern Baptist church. That means, if the church was open, I was there. As a little kid, a six or seven-year-old kid, you’d have all the little kids all sing together. Out of this mess of little kids trying to sing a song,, one voice just came screeching out. that was mine. I had this beautiful soprano voice. The one good thing about going to a upper middle class baptist church back then is that they had a really well-trained minister of music. He wasn’t just a guy up there leading songs. He knew music. He understood it. He just grabbed me and gave me voice lessons, taught me theory and taught me how to read music. I guess around age 10 or 11, I started taking piano lessons. My big regret is that I didn’t stick with it. My piano teacher smoked like a smokestack. She was butt-ugly with scraggly hair. I just couldn’t stand being around her. I lasted about six months. In those six months, we had one piano recital, where the kids show off for mommy and daddy. A lot of students had been taking lessons for seven or eight years. Within six months, I was, by far, the most advanced student she had. Music has always just come to me. There’s nothing to it. It’s something I was born with. Any great artist, requirement number one is you’ve got to have talent. You have to be born with a predilection to do something other people just can’t do. Then, you take that talent and spend years and years and years developing the skills. If you don’t develop the skills, you may have all the talent in the world, but you’ve got to learn how to do it. You’ve got to learn the skill set. Then, if you’re lucky, you meet someone like Duane Allman. He kind of changes your attitude.
How did he shift that for you? How did he shift your outlook?
In a moment, it was absolutely in a moment. I had played with Duane in a band about a year before he started the Allman Brothers. Back then, I wasn’t the most confident of drummers. I got into drums in the 8th grade, in the marching band. Then, I started playing in high school rock and roll bands, teen bands. You don’t remember the Ventures, do you?
No, I don’t. I’m a bit younger.
You’ve heard them. “Wipeout,” you remember “Wipeout?”
Well, “Wipeout” wasn’t the Ventures, but it was that kind of music. I was the only teen drummer in Jacksonville that could play “Wipeout.” I could also afford my own car, so I got all the girls, even way back then. It was cool. I really wasn’t the most confident. I had all the skills, the chops and everything else. If the music wasn’t going anywhere, I tended to think, Uh oh. Everyone is looking at me, and I’d kind of pull back. Duane knew this, and when he came to Jacksonville to form the band he brought Jaimoe with him. Duane was talking about having two drummers. He said, “If James Brown can do it, I can do it.” Jamoie kept telling him, “Butch is the guy you want,” but Duane knew that flaw in me. I don’t think he wanted to get onstage with somebody that wasn’t going to be kicking his butt. He was going to put together a band of guys that could really play and really play well under any circumstances, especially with the drummers. The way we are set up, Jaimoe is more of a jazz drummer. He play fills around what I do. I’m the guy that has to drive it. I cannot be pulling back. So, we’re jamming one day. We’re doing this shuffle that’s not going anywhere, and I start backing off. I think Duane decided, I’m going to see what this guy is made out of. He turned around and looked me dead in the eye, and played this lick way up on the guitar like, “Come on, damn it! Let’s go!” I went and pulled back. He did it again. The third time that he did it, I realize that there are all these people out there watching us, and he’s making me look like a fool. I start hitting my drums like I was hitting him upside the head. We were locked eye-to-eye. If we hadn’t had instruments, we would’ve been punching each other out. He’s just playing his guitar directly at me. It’s like, “Come on, damn it!” I’m hitting him like saying, “Alright, take this!” I’d slam a cymbal or beat a snare drum, and without realizing it, the music just took off. I quit worrying about what people were thinking of me and I started actually playing. It would just soar. Duane just backed up at that moment, and smiled and pointed at me and said, “There you go.” It was like he reached inside and flipped a switch. The light came on, and from that day to this, I am one cocky son of a bitch when I get onstage.
He helped you find that power within yourself, because you start hitting and you guys take off. It’s on. You hit it so hard. Finding that momentum, it changed you forever.
Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s a mindset. You get rid of your self doubt, just have confidence that you can play and give it all you’ve got. You just don’t ever, ever hold back. You don’t. It’s one of the problems I have with so many of these jam bands. They get up and noodle around and wait for something to happen. Those people that pay money to come see you don’t give a damn if you don’t feel like getting off that night. You’ve got to give it everything you have. So, I actually developed some mental tricks. There were nights when we would get up, and some nights it’s just not there. It’s really difficult. It’s like anything else in life. Some days, whatever you do, you can do it without even thinking about it. Then there are other days when you can’t hit the broad side of the bull with a bass fiddle. I learned tricks. When we’re having a night when there is not a lot of power coming out of it, I’ll just think of something, usually, I’d look at the back of our guitar player and think about how much I hated his guts. I’d get mad and start pounding the drums. With the drums, people can’t tell if you’re mad or not. They just feel the power. It gets the band going and it gets it moving. It’s fun. It’s really fun. to segue way to the point of why you called. These are the kind of things that I’m going to talk about in things like seminars at Roots Rock Revival. That’s really my style. Up until the Allman Brothers started, I used to sit in my garage and practice paradilles and all the technical stuff. Then, once the Allman Brothers started, that stopped. I quit sitting by myself, just practicing technique, and I started playing music with five other guys that could really play. My whole style just became totally organic, rather than focusing on the licks. They were already there. I spent years learning them. I took that and started making it blend with the guitars and with Berry Oakley, our bass player, and whatever Gregg was singing and started trying to play music rather than just showing off on the drums.
You guys play with understanding and purpose. You’re not out there there noodling. You’re driving the engine, you’re making it happen. You want to teach that to other people. You want to spread your passion for that to other people.
Yeah, that is my style. Every drummer has their own style, but that’s mine. It does make it kind of difficult to teach, because it is so organic. Everyone that takes on that mindset and starts playing that way, they are going to go in a different direction. Everyone’s got their own unique style. When you start really becoming a great player or a good musician is when you let your own style come out and quit trying to copy what someone else has already done. It’s what too many drummers do. They’ll sit there and watch Billy Cobham all day long and learn how to play just like him. When I met Jaimoe, he had listened so much to Max Roach that there were times you couldn’t tell the difference. He started listening to our early recordings, he started going, “My God! That sounds like Max Roach!” I said, “Yeah.” He was like, “I’ve got to stop that!” He quit listening to Max Roach and started listening to the Allman Brothers Band, and his style started doing the same thing. It took on his personality. It had a lot of Max Roach in it. It had a lot of Elvin Bishop in it. It had a lot of the jazz cats that he grew up listening to in it, but it was uniquely his style. He took those and made it his own. Like I said, that’s what I’ll be teaching along with everything else. We do want to talk about Roots Rock Revival, right?
Yeah, absolutely. How did the opportunity happen for you to teach at Roots Rock Revival?
I’ve got a buddy down here who has decided to be my personal manager. He’s really got me doing a lot of things. I’ve got a blog, that I’ve written a lot of articles on. I’ve been kind of lackadaisical on it. Since a couple of months before the election, I just got sick and tired of arguing with people.
There are a lot of idiots out there on the Internet.
After watching what the G.O.P. did to Obama’s first four years, I’m just so irate. When you point it out, you’ve always got some jerk that comes in. Rather than having a productive conversation, which is what used to go on. I remember as a kid, Republicans and Democrats could talk to each other. There used to be an exchange of ideas. You may feel like, that if you’re a progressive, liberal, Republican that the government should be there to help out the people that are really in bad shape, or you could be a conservative and think that the government should be small. It doesn’t matter if you are poor and unlucky enough to lose your job or a leg or something like that, it’s tough, that’s just the way life goes. It’s not the government’s job to take care of you. There are valid points on both sides. Nobody is right, nobody is wrong. There used to be the ability to compromise. Now, we’ve got what we’ve got and it’s just pathetic. It’s idiotic, to the point I’m moving to France. It’s absurd. We’re only about six weeks away from another debit ceiling crisis, and God knows what is going to happen then. These idiots up there, especially the Republican Party. You look at this last House of Representatives, they passed fewer bills than any in the history of the United States. They just did nothing. No matter what Obama sent them, if Obama wanted it, they wouldn’t pass it. They make no qualms about it. The day he was elected, they all got together and said, “We’re going to stop anything he wants.” It’s hurting the country and it’s hurting their constituents. They may be helping the few very, very rich people, but that’s about it. It’s just so frustrating. I just got so angry about it, I just couldn’t write. It just didn’t seem appropriate to go on and just write anger, that’s what I was feeling. I kind of backed off. It’s called The World According to Butch Trucks. It’s a combination of war stories from the band. There’s a story in there about the deaths of Duane and Berry Oakley, how absolutely weird it was. It’s worth reading. There’s an article in there about Tom Dowd, who was our producer, the world’s greatest producer. There is also philosophical stuff. These are the kinds of things that I’ll be getting into at the camp. I guess you know that it’s myself and Oteil from the Allman Brothers. Marc Quinones, our percussion player, is going to come jam with us at night. He’s really shy and he doesn’t like to give seminars, so he’s just going to play with us. And then Luther and Cody Dickinson, from the North Mississippi Allstars. These guys are really, really well trained too. We got to talking about what we wanted to do. I’m actually a little intimidated by how well Cody is trained. Cody is going to give some seminars on doing double drums and that kind of thing. He knows his stuff. He really does.
That’s so cool to be able to share so much about who you are and what you’re about with people.
We’ve never played in a band together, so we’ve got to learn a lot of material. We’re going to play a concert every night we are there. We thought what would be really fun is to have an hour or two rehearsal every day and have the rehearsal open to the whole audience. If everyone wants to see how a major band learns songs, they can come to our rehearsal. Then they can come to the concert that night and hear the end product. There will also be things like me talking, like I’m talking to you now. We’re working up a powerpoint production with some very, very rare film footage that no one has ever seen, as well as pictures of the band. I’m going to put together a two to three hour talk. I think I’m going to call it fishing with Duane Allman, because that’s what Duane and I used to do all the time. We go fishing, talk about life, philosophy, music, stuff like that. He was an avid reader. There’s a very famous picture of Duane fishing. It’s on the cover of one of his anthology albums. I was right behind the photographer, fishing. It’s what he and I used to do all the time. That will be one of the things I’ll do. If anybody is an Allman Brothers fan and wants to hear those stories, then they can come and listen to them and see these films no one has ever seen.
That will be really nice to be able to share that with people. Everyone is so empowered by what you guys have done and also what you’re doing now. I think it’s amazing. I think a lot of bands, they look just towards the past. It’s about the past. The Allmans, you guys are vital now.
If we weren’t, I wouldn’t be doing it. People like the Stones and this garbage. I’m sorry, I never did like the Stones. Everyone has their opinion about music. Duane had a great saying, “opinions are like assholes. Everybody’s got one and everyone else’s stinks. I like to listen to musicians. I’m not much of a vocal guy. I like instrumental stuff. I grew up on classical music, so Beethoven, Mozart, especially the impressionists Revel and Debussy. If I’m listening to music, it’s usually going to be classical or early Miles, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock or some of the fusion bands, like Return to Forever and Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Those guys are great.
“Inner Mounting Flame” just intimidates the hell out of me every time I listen to it. I don’t know how the hell anybody plays like that.
What is it about that song that intimidates you?
No, no. It’s not intimidating, it’s inspiring. It’s really inspiring. I will say that when they came out on the road, their management thought that our audience would be the best audience to get what they are doing. They put them on the road with us for about two years. It was hard going onstage after they got through. John McLaughlin and Billy Cobham, they’d write these really long songs based on Indian ragas with these crazy time signatures. They’d play them just as easily as I would play 4/4. They are doing like 21/17 and just smoking it. I’d get mad because it was just too complicated for most of the crowd. They are up there just blowing the roof off the place and the crowd is going “Allman Brothers! Allman Brothers!” It kind of made me want to go home.
It’s this insanely complex music.
You pretty much have to be a musician to understand what they are doing. It’s kind of what I’ll do in my drum scenarios. You have to think about what you want to do. If you want to be a great technician, then fine. There is room for that, but if you want to play music you get with other guys. Billy Cobham has kind of gotten his way. He was really playing great music at the beginning of Mahavishnu. Then he got more and more into showing off what a great drummer he was. The more he did that, the less music was coming out of Mahavishnu. I could see it, by us touring with them. It started out with Billy and McLaughlin just locked right in, hand-in-hand. They were just kicking each other’s butt. Billy is playing a little four piece drum set. Every time we would see him after that, his set would get bigger and bigger and bigger. He and John went from playing together to trying to one-up each other. It was like, “I’m the actual star of this band. I’m going to show you. You could kind of feel them going from communicating with each other to actually trying to compete with each other. To me, music is not a competitive sport. It’s not. If you’re going to play, it’s the ultimate form of communication. You play with other people, you listen. You listen and you say what you have to say, but you listen to what everybody else is saying too. When everyone is listening to each other, everyone has the capability of talking, in other word, playing their instruments. Some amazing things can happen. Things can happen that you just had no idea that you were capable of doing.
It’s all about how you each fit in together.
Yeah, exactly. When that spark hits and you turn loose, you just let it go and get right in the moment. When everybody locks in and it’s really smoking, you’re not thinking about tomorrow, you’re not thinking about yesterday. You’re just right there in the moment and your body is just going in. You get in this state where you can’t make a mistake. You just can’t. Whatever you do is right, because your body is just going. You come out of it and it’s almost like, “My God. Where have I been?” It’s a glorious feeling. It really is. The band that we have now is doing it as much or more than at anytime. It’s fun. It’s just so much fun. The whole point of this camp is to show everyone as much of that as we can possibly do. It’ll be seminars, talks, concerts. We’re going to be there with the 100 or so that come. We’re going to be interacting with them all day long, just on a personal level. We’ll all be eating three gourmet meals a day together. We’re going to sit around with people and just chew the fat, tell stories, and answer questions. We’re going to have seminars, discussions and we’re going to play a concert every night. I think the last night, we’ll go into Woodstock. There is a beautiful club in Woodstock. Our last night is the first night of Warren Haynes’ Mountain Jam. It’s only about 15 to 20 miles away from where we are. I figure there’s going to be a whole lot of musicians in that area. That night, there will be a major, major jam going on.
That’s so nice to get out there and meet people. You seem so passionate about what you do. You’re not cocky at all. It’s so great to be able to see your outlook on things.
It’s my life, you know. I don’t know if you’ve been luck enough to hear my nephew play guitar, pretty damn good.
How did that come about, with Derek joining the band?
We had a guy named Jack Pearson playing with us. Warren and Allan Woody had left the Allman Brothers to do the Gov’t Mule thing. It was starting to really get some traction. They wanted to commit more time to that. We replaced Allan Woody with Oteil and replaced Warren with a guy named Jack Pearson. Jack has pretty severe advance
tinnitus and Dickey Betts is probably one of the loudest guitar players in the world. It got to the point where it was just too painful for Jack. He just wasn’t having any fun. I remember, one year at the Beacon Theater, we were getting toward the end of the run. I was in the van on the way to the Beacon with Dickey. Back, before we had hired Jack Pearson, Dickey had asked me if Derek was ready. As far as playing slide guitar, I didn’t think there was anybody as good. Even though he was about 16 years old. His hands had just gotten big enough to where he could really start focusing on playing the regular guitar. When he asked me the first time, I wasn’t sure if Derek was ready to play all of the complicated, regular guitar lines that were needed to be the Allman Brothers guitar player. Then, while Jack Pearson was in the band, Derek and I played together in this little group I put together called Frogwings. It was me, Derek, Jimmy Herring, Oteil, Marc Quinones, John Popper, and Oteil’s brother Kofi. I had a chance to go out and play with Derek. Anyway, we are on the way to the Beacon, I said to Dickey, “You know, Jack Pearson just isn’t having any fun.” He said, “I know. I just don’t know what to do about it.” I said, “You remember a couple of years ago when you asked me if Derek was ready and I said no. Well, he is now.” After the show that night, we sat down with Jack. Jack agreed, he said, “It’s just too painful. The band just plays too loud.” We have come down a lot since Dickey left, but it’s still too loud for a guy so worried about his ears. We called Derek in, I guess he was about 19 at the time. He just blew the roof off the place and he continues to do that. Dickey left and Warren came back. Now, we’ve got these two young kids out there, compared to us. Warren is almost 50, so I guess you can’t call him young. Derek is 32. We can definitely call him young.
It’s amazing the way you guys have remained true to your sound and style, but you’re always trying different sounds and mixtures of music.
That’s what it’s all about. That’s what we discovered when we started playing together in 1969. You take a silly little melody, like that Donavon thing, “First there is no mountain, then there is.” You turn it into an hour long epic, and it’s never the same night after night. It’s always different. You go with it wherever you feel like going that night. Some nights, it may be mellow. Some nights it may be like a damn thunderstorm. You just never really know what is going to happen. People ask, “How in the world can you be playing the same song 45 years later?” I said, “Well, it’s not the same song. Not at all. You find me two copies that sound the same and I’ll kiss your ass.
It’ll never happen. That’s what keeps you invested in the music, because every night is different.
You’re always learning something new. The structure will take off, a lot of things might be similar, but there’s always something different that will pop in that you’ve never heard before. Always, always. As long as that keeps happening, we’re going to keep doing it. We discovered this place up in the Catskills, the Full Moon Resort. It is absolutely beautiful. That time of year, in June, it’s just lovely days and cool nights. It’s beautiful and wonderful. The way this guy makes his living is that he does music camps during the week and weddings on the weekend. He makes his money off the weddings, that’s why he has a gourmet chef there for the weddings. You’ve got these rock and roll camps with three gourmet meals a day. Obviously, there are going to be people that show up that want munchies late at night. There will be plenty of that. You get my drift. This is something kind of new. The guy that runs the camp calls it beyond backstage. It’s like having access to what we are doing that would be way beyond a backstage pass. It’s more than just watching guys before a show that are all too excited or guys after the show that are about to fall on their face. Trust me, when we do the Beacon, whew! I’m 65 now, by the third or fourth show, I get to the gig. I have these three steps I have to climb to get to my drum riser. I look at them and it’s like Mount Everest. I say, “I can’t make it up those damn things. I’m an old man. What am I doing up here?” We get about halfway through the first song, and somehow I become an 18 year-old superman. For the next three hours, I’m just pulling everything I have. That carries on a for awhile, then an hour or two hours after the show, I just collapse. I’m 99 years old again. Then the next night, I go do it again. It’s so much fun.
You guys are playing these epic sets. I saw you a few years ago, at Jazz Fest in New Orleans, with 100,000 people. It’s so epic and you’re the guy driving everything.
Yeah, well, the nickname is Freight Train.