Guitar great Dickey Betts on unretiring, mourning the Allman brothers, and why he'll always be a 'Ramblin' Man'

Dickie Betts in 2012. The longtime Allman Brothers guitarist has come out of retirement and will play the Peach Music Festival at Montage Mountain in Scranton on July 22.

It’s well-documented: Dickey Betts was born a “Ramblin’ Man.”

The Allman Brothers Band guitarist wrote and sang the Southern rock group’s biggest hit, the single inspired by a Hank Williams song of the same name that reached Number 2 on the pop chart in 1973.

“I was born in the back seat of a Greyhound bus,” Betts sang, on perhaps the catchiest road mythologizing rock song of all time. “Rollin’ down Highway 41.”

Lately, however, the 74-year-old guitar hero hadn’t been rollin’ anywhere. Betts left the Allmans in a not-so-amicable split in 2000 but continued to tour as a solo artist. In 2014, he quietly retired from the music business.

And last year, he gave an interview to Rolling Stone that made it sound as if he was entirely at peace with hanging up his rock-and-roll shoes forever.

“It’s a little bit of burnout, a little bit of sour grapes, a little bit like a boxer who gives it up,” he said.

“Everyone wishes they could be young forever. But I feel like I did my work, and I’m not gonna do anything that’s gonna top what I’m known for. So why don’t you just stay home?”

That was in November. Now, he admits those quotes “sound kind of morose.” But this summer, Betts is back in the ring. Next Sunday, he will co-headline the Peach Music Festival at Montage Mountain in Scranton.

The four-day Peach gathering was founded by the Allman Brothers Band in 2012, whose leader, Gregg Allman, and manager, Bert Holman, were eager to establish a Northeastern U.S. companion to the Wanee Festival in Live Oak, Fla. Betts’ set will mark his return to the Allman Brothers fold after more than a decade and a half absence.

The Peach has since grown into its identity as an Allman’s-connected jam fest that will feature more than 50 bands this year, including Phil Lesh & the Terrapin Family Band, and the Chris Robinson Brotherhood.

So why is Betts bucking the calling-it-quits trend of such septuagenarian stars as Elton John, Joan Baez, and Paul Simon? What’s the deal, Dickey?

>>READ MORE: The classic rock generation is getting ready to retire. Who’s going to fill their shoes?

“I unretired,” he says with a laugh, talking from his home in Osprey, Fla., which U.S. Route 41 in fact rolls right through. “I got drafted again.”

“I thought, ‘I’ve done it. I’m 70 years old, I’m just gonna sit back for a while,’” says the axman with the trademark handlebar mustache and low-slung cowboy hat. “Well, I got tired of that pretty quickly.”

The Allmans’ legend has always been about survival and perseverance. The year after Duane Allman’s death in 1971, bassist Berry Oakley met his end in an eerily similar motorcycle accident, also in the band’s home base of Macon, Ga.

The band later thrived with second-generation guitarists Warren Haynes (who is playing the Peach both with Gov’t Mule and under his own name), and also Derek Trucks, nephew of original drummer Butch Trucks.

The itch to unretire hit Betts in 2017. In January, the elder Trucks shot himself to death. And in May, Gregg Allman died from liver cancer. He’s buried in the same Macon cemetery that houses the gravestone that inspired Betts’ much loved Allmans instrumental “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.”

“Greg died, and people started realizing, ‘This is the end of an era,’” Betts says. “There was a clamor for me to put my band back together since I was the only one of the originals who could really play the music.” (The other surviving founder is drummer Jai “Jaimoe” Johanson, who’s also playing the Peach.)

Camera icon Jay Blakesberg
Dickey Betts and Warren Haynes in 1995.

“Promoters started offering me enough money to go out and make a living. And I missed the crowds, too. You get kind of lonesome when you get used to seeing all those people for 40 years, and then they’re not there. I missed playing, and I missed the people.”

And also, the road. “God, I’m just staying in one place all the time. This is no fun,” he remembers thinking. “I was bored.”

Betts would rather not discuss his acrimonious departure from the Allmans in 2000, in which he was fired by fax following a decade in which the band enjoyed renewed popularity.

In his 2012 memoir My Cross to Bear, Gregg Allman said that Betts’ drinking was behind his dismissal. Betts says the split was a business dispute. “I didn’t have anything to do with the breakup. I know that’s kind of vague, but I don’t want to get into it.”

The impression he’d like to correct is that he and the Allmans’ singer were constantly at odds. “I miss Gregg Allman,” he says. “He was a great partner for so many years. People always thought he and I were fighting, but we never were. We got along better than anybody else in the band! … It was losing a lifetime friend. I was in touch with him every now and then, but especially at the end. I started calling him every other day.”

Camera icon Courtesy of the artist
Dickey Betts in 2018.

Betts was raised in Bradenton, just up the road from where he now lives with his fifth wife, Donna. He grew up on the blues, listening to ace soloists such as B.B. King and Freddy King. He also felt the influence of “really funky players” such as Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker. He found a simpatico partner in slide guitar genius Duane Allman.

“We were really open with each other, and we were good friends. We had a telepathy that we felt on stage. Most good musicians will know what I’m talking about. Where you can kind of read the other person’s feelings about what they’re going to do next.

“I’m sure that guys who play sports of a high caliber have that feeling. Married people have that, too: When you’re thinking about something and your wife says exactly what you’re thinking, and you kind of laugh about it. That kind of magic when you’re playing music is wonderful if you can use it, you know?”

Betts never quite found that same connection, though he came close with Oakley. “It was pretty unique. That was a very special band, and [keyboard player] Chuck Leavell and [bassist] Allen Woody [who joined later] were great. All of those guys were just a lot of fun.”

The branches of the Allman family tree continue to intertwine. Betts’ son Duane plays guitar in his band. The younger Betts — his mother Paulette was a personal assistant to Cher, who was married to Gregg Allman in the 1970s — will play at Peach with a band led by Gregg’s son Devon.

Betts was taken aback by the response when he played a show in Macon in May. “Good God, there were people from Europe there,” he says in wonderment.

At the Peach, his set will include Allman Brothers songs he wrote such as “Blue Sky” and “Jessica,” but also “Whipping Post” and “Midnight Rider,” which were sung by Gregg Allman, one of the greatest white blues singers ever.

“I wouldn’t play those songs when the Allmans were still playing, just out of respect,” he says. “But now I’ll do them in tribute to him.”

While retired, Betts didn’t play too much guitar. “Not a whole lot. You can’t really play at home in your living room and to put yourself through the paces of what it’s like to be on stage. It’s not the same. I had to do a lot of work to get back where I need to be.”

It’s starting to pay off.

“It’s coming along pretty good. It’s like Tiger Woods: He can’t take off for four years and come back and win every tournament. It takes a little time. But it’s good, it’s really good. I don’t mean I’m really good. I mean the band. I’ve got a hell of a band. And I’m not playing bad at all.”

MUSIC

Dickey Betts & His Band

Sunday, July 22, Peach Music Festival, 1000 Montage Mountain Road, Scranton, Pa. $165-$340 for a four day pass, $75 for a single day ticket. 570-969-7669. thepeachmusicfestival.com