Butch Trucks: The Crankshaft in The Allman Brothers’ Engine

Music Features The Allman Brothers Band, Butch Trucks
Butch Trucks: The Crankshaft in The Allman Brothers’ Engine

The Allman Brothers Band was justly famous for its twin lead guitarists — whether the original duo of Duane Allman and Dickie Betts or the final duo of Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks. But just as important to the band’s sound was the interaction of the band’s two original drummers: Claude “Butch” Trucks and Jai Johanny “Jaimoe” Johanson. Much as Allman and Betts improvised single-note melodies that were markedly different but fit together in a give-and-take dance, Butch Trucks and Johanson did the same with rhythm patterns.

The 69-year-old Trucks died Tuesday evening after apparently shooting himself in the head with a pistol in West Palm Beach, Florida. It was a terrible end to a long life filled with music that will be listened to for decades to come.

Only half of the six musicians who launched The Allman Brothers Band in 1969 were still in the group when it officially retired in 2014: Gregg Allman, Trucks and Johanson. Duane and Berry Oakley had died in eerily similar motorcycle accidents in the same Macon, Georgia, neighborhood 13 months apart in 1971 and 1972, and Betts was fired by the rest of the band in 2000. Except for the nadir years of 1980-82, when Johanson quit, the two percussionists and lead singer/organist Gregg were the only constants in the band’s long history.

It would have made no sense to have two drummers if they played exactly the same or if they played totally different. But Trucks and Johanson, though they came from dissimilar backgrounds and had unlike strengths, found common ground in the new band’s unprecedented blend of Southern blues and country and improvisatory jazz.

“We all had such diverse backgrounds,” Trucks told me in 2001. “My background was classical tympani, and then I was playing folk-rock. Duane and Gregg grew up on R&B and the blues. Jaimoe grew up on R&B and jazz. Dickey grew up playing country and country-rock. But when we put it all together, we came up with something different.”

Each drummer supplied a different part – Trucks emphasized the kick drum and toms in his lower-range power attack, while Johanson emphasized the snare, cymbals and timbales in his higher-range in-the-pocket syncopation. But somehow they locked together in a propulsive momentum that sent the guitars gliding forward. A lot of fans heard only the surging motion of Duane and Dickie, but the fuel for that liftoff came from Trucks and Johanson.

“Those first couple of years, we all got drawn into jazz that Jaimoe brought,” Trucks added. “We made a conscious decision to not listen to our peers like The Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane. Instead we got turned on to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Roland Kirk, Thelonious Monk and Herbie Hancock. We saw how our exposure to that music gave our own music a real jazz looseness and an exploratory attitude.”

Trucks first played with The Allman Brothers after they saw him playing with his college band, Bitter Ind., and recruited him for their early band, The 31st of February. Johanson met Duane when they were both playing R&B sessions in Muscle Shoals, Mississippi. Dickey Betts and Berry Oakley had been bandmates in another Florida band, The Second Coming. Between 1969 and 1971, while Duane was still alive, they redefined what a rock band could do with their improvisatory guitar duets and drum duets.

“The Dead had a similar feel,” Trucks continued, “but because of the way Jerry Garcia played the guitar, they were more attuned to bluegrass. Bluegrass is country jazz, but we were more into urban jazz. On any given night, we never knew where a particular theme was going, but we just hung on for the ride. We used to do a lot of shows with The Eagles, and they played every song the exact same way every night. That’s why Joe Walsh left that band screaming, because they made him play the guitar solos exactly as on the records. We were the complete opposite.”

The lineup that emerged after Oakley’s death is often underrated. Chuck Leavell’s jazzy piano parts took the old songs down a different path from the original Duane Allman versions and led to some fascinating new songs. This version of the group managed one terrific studio album (1973’s Brothers and Sisters) and one terrific live album (1976’s Wipe the Windows, Check the Oil, Dollar Gas).

The band broke over internal dissension in 1976, and when it reunited in 1979 it did so without Leavell or Oakley’s replacement on bass, Lamar Williams. Instead Gregg Allman, Betts, Trucks and Johanson joined guitarist Dan Toler and bassist David Goldflies and tried to reinvent themselves as modern hard-rockers. The three albums this lineup made were the worst of the band’s long career. They broke up again in 1982, and when the four living original members reunited in 1989, it was with guitarist Warren Haynes, bassist Allen Woody and keyboardist Johnny Neel.

By 2000, after Betts had been fired, the band settled into the lineup that it would keep until the end in 2014: Gregg Allman, Butch Trucks, Jaimoe Johanson, Warren Haynes, bassist Oteil Burbridge, third percussionist Marc Quiñones and guitarist Derek Trucks, Butch’s nephew.

“Derek is my brother’s son,” Trucks told me in 2001. “I’ve got a daughter who’s three weeks younger than he is, and he and she would crawl around on the floor together. Years later, I got a call from my brother saying, ‘You should hear this kid.’ So I went over to check him out, and this little kid, about 12, comes out with a guitar that’s bigger than he is.

“I expected a child prodigy who could play all the notes real fast with a lot of manual dexterity, but it wasn’t like that. Derek could take one note on a slow blues tune and hold it and hold it and put the slightest tremolo on it, and when he let loose the roof went off the place. The only other person I’d seen do that was B.B. King. How could a 12-year-old kid know how to do that? Most adults have no idea how to do that. That’s not dexterity; that’s soul.”

Derek would appear on only one Allman Brothers Band studio album, 2003’s Hittin’ the Note, as the group largely gave up the studio (only two non-concert albums after 1991) to focus on being a live band. The repertoire may have gotten a bit stale, but the high standard of the playing never flagged. And crucial to that sound was the drumming of Butch Trucks.

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