Madness From The South: Butch Trucks and Jaimo Johnson of the Allman Brothers Band
Butch Trucks and Jaimo Johnson have been the foundation of the great Allman Brothers Band since its inception in 1969. They were not the first two drummers to work together in a rock and roll band, yet their styles are definitely unique.
After a concert at the Palladium in New York City, the Allman Brothers Band drove up to J.P.’s to celebrate Jaimo’s birthday. We managed to escape the crowd long enough to begin this interview with Jaimo Johnson and Butch Truck in the basement of the club. “How come,” Bill asked, “after playing together for 10 years and influencing so many drummers—how come an interview like this has never happened before?””Nobody’s asked!” Butch answered. “I believe we’ve been ready, willing and able,” he laughed.
We all sat for a few seconds. Butch said, “I think the best thing to talk about is what our influences were, because that might give you some insight into why it (two drummers) works. I mean,” he smiled, “I wish it’d give me some insight into why it works!
“We both started out the same way,” he began. “High school marching band. And, learned rudimental drumming. Just basic rudimental drumming. Then, I went off in one direction, started playing folk-rock, rock ‘n roll, and I was influenced by such great drummers as Michael Clarke with The Byrds. It’s just the style I got into. I got into The Byrds because I liked their music. We had a three-piece group. We all sang and I just played straight-ahead drums, and my patterns got to be pretty straight-ahead. Just started with “Wipe Out,” added a syncopated bass drum with “Born Under A Bad Sign” from Cream and, developed in that direction. Jaimo took another direction and he can tell you about that.”
Jaimo speaks slowly and softly, weighing each word before speaking. “I did basically the same thing,” he said. “Our band director in high school just gave me guidance. Like, I wanted to learn to read and he just showed me the value of notes and showed me how to count the different notes and stuff. My band director was Willie Farmer. He played clarinet, and alto and, he always talked about Bird (Charlie Parker),” Jaimo laughed. “All he talked about was Bird!
“Before I started playing music or getting interested in it, I listened to the Everly Brothers, Elvis, Bobby Darin, Frank Sinatra and all that stuff. All of those songs. And, my band director used to make me sing! But, the only thing was, I couldn’t sing. I could imitate. It had to be in the same key with who ever did it. This was in 1959. I had all the school’s snare drums. I had the snares turned off of them, and I had the “ching ching” cymbals and a big ol’ bass drum. And, man—I used to have a ball! And Willie Farmer used to let me take them home on weekends when we didn’t have a game or anything. And, man people were glad when the weekend ended and I was back in school! No kidding. I don’t know how they could put up with that shit, man.”
Butch smiled. “I know,” he said. “Any drummer has to give a lot of credit to his folks, for their patience. I gave my four year old a set of drums, my first set, and he drives me crazy! I can’t put up with it!” he laughed.
Jaimo continued. “I wanted to be a piano player,” he said. “I was taking piano lessons and, I saw Mr. Farmer downtown one day, when I was in the eighth grade. I told him, next year I was coming into the junior high school band, and I wanted to play piano in the band. He said ‘Okay. Fine.’ So, I was taking these piano lessons using the John Thompson Elementary Piano Book. I went through that thing and the second one, and I got to thinking, ‘If I can take lessons for free, why should I pay 50 cents a lesson?’ So, me and my smart ass—I get to school and they don’t teach piano! And the choir teacher was very capable of teaching that piano. He taught voice! His glee club ran State-wide, every year, first or second place! They were bad!”
“Did you sing?” Butch asked.
“Oh, man.” Jaimo groaned. “I wish I had. I thought that was silly. I didn’t have time for that. All I wanted to do was play my drums. I didn’t even go to lunch. Shit, I’d miss lunch and be in the band room.”
“I did both. Band and chorus,” said Butch.
“Did either of you study formally?” I asked.
Jaimo answered. “That was about as much formal study as I had. Mr. Farmer just gave me guidance. I’d take the music from school, go to the record store, and find every song that was in the marching books. I’d buy the records, go home, put the records on and set that music up. And I’d look at it and look at it until it made sense. Once I started doing that, it was just a matter of getting these two (gesturing to his hands) to work together. Because I was reading it, but when you read something for a certain effect or feeling that they’re trying to get—it creates a little different style.
“I was taking drum lessons last year after we got off. My teacher said, ‘You’re just wasting your time, because you haven’t got your mind on this stuff.’ And my mind was not on it. although I wanted to do it.”
“What kind of stuff were you studying?” I asked.
“I was into learning concert snare drum.” Jaimo looked up. “The Goodman Book and Podemski Book. I wanted to know how to do that, because there are a lot of things, symphonic things, man, that have great swinging parts to them.” As Jaimo explained it, the only difference is that drummers think differently today than they did in the days when the classics were written. “It’s just feelings,” he said. “It took me a long time to realize about feelings. Once I realized about feelings, I didn’t have trouble with tempos and all kinds of little things, man.”
“You don’t think about the theory,” Butch added. “Just like, when the Allman Brothers split up, I went back to Florida State to take a couple of courses and they had me teaching. I got to be good friends with the Dean, and somewhere along the line he realized how much money you could make writing a song on an Allman Brothers album. So, he started coming over every Tuesday night and we tried to co-write an instrumental for our album. To give him some background, I gave him some tapes of all our instrumental and he just fell in love with Dicky’s writing style. And the one thing he asked me was, ‘Has he ever wanted to study theory?’ And I said, “Yeah, he’s mentioned it a couple of times.” And the Dean said, Tell him don’t ever do it! Never. He has such a natural feel for melody and harmony that if he learns theory, tries to learn theory, it’s not gonna do anything but mess him up.’ Butch turned and spoke to Jaimo. “And it’s just what you’re talking about. You know how to play as well as you play, and to learn how to read and to play concert snare drum, you gotta go back to ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’, and. I mean, it’s boring as hell.”
I threw out the next question from my notebook. “Just before turning professional, who or what were you influenced by, or listening to?”
Butch grabbed it. “When I was a kid, I had a really good voice. A really strong soprano voice. I was raised a Southern Baptist. I mean, every time the church doors were open I was there,” he smiled. “And the church choir director was a very knowledgeable musician. When I was around 7 years old he realized I could sing better than most folks. So. he started teaching me theory and voice. He taught me until was about 12 years of age. Right around the time I was 10 or 11, I started catching the Leonard Bernstein Young People’s Concerts on Saturday afternoon, and, I swear. I’m still upset at that man for retiring. Bernstein has a way of explaining music to children, without talking down to them. And he just completely captured my imagination. So, I got into classical music by the time I was about 10 or 11 years old. I started with Gershwin’s American In Paris and Rhapsody in Blue.
“Were there any.” I interrupted, “Southern influences that you wouldn’t
find if you came from for instance, New England?”
“Church,” Butch said.
“How about radio programs? Local musicians?”
“Oh yeah.” Jaimo piped in. “All that kind of stuff influences you. The more of it that you are exposed to, the better you can develop, and play things at a young age. If a kid learns the basic things to play and when to play them, then his imagination can just do incredible things. Even though I listened to all sorts of music coming up—when I started to play I only listened to jazz. James Brown and John Coltrane . . . more so ‘Trane.”
“Every young kid,” said Butch, “say between 10 and 16 years old, when they really start playing, should experience every type of music they can. The one thing I tried to do, after I started playing professionally, was avoid listening to people who play in the same idiom I do. And Jaimo’s the same way. I don’t listen to rock music at all. Right now, I’m rediscovering Mozart! The 21st Piano Concerto in C Major. I listen to that about once a day at least.”
“When did you get involved with classical percussion?” Billy asked Butch.
“In high school,” he answered. “I just took to drums. They came naturally. As a freshman, I came into the big Varsity Marching Band, and I was this little five foot two kid with pants pulled all the way up because they couldn’t get a pair small enough to fit me. And I was section leader, played the tympani, and made All-State Orchestra playing tympani with them also,” he beamed. “Then, with the high school band, I tried out as student conductor. My church choir director had also taught me conducting, and I got the position immediately. When I made the All-State Symphony, they had auditions for a student conductor and the piece was Dvorak’s Symphony for the New World. I was supposed to do just the first movement, and I got up and conducted it and did one thing differently. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the piece or not,” Butch looked at Billy and I, “but it starts off real nice. Real mellow, and then the French Horn section comes in soft. That’s the way most people conduct it. But, about 16 bars later all hell breaks loose. So, I figured to set up all that intensity with the French Horns, instead of going bamp bah, I’d go BAH DAHM! And then back down. And it just impressed the guy who was conducting the All-State Symphony so much, he asked me if I wanted to do all four movements. I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ And to this day that’s one of the highest points of my life.”
Jaimo suggested, “Tell them about your experience with Frank Arsenault.” “Oooooh!” Butch laughed. He looked at us and asked. “You’re familiar with Frank Arsenault?”
“No.” I answered.
“No?” Butch couldn’t believe it.
Jaimo said, “He was NARD (National Association of Rudimental Drummers) champion for years.”
“Frank Arsenault was a National Rudimental Drummer,” Butch told us. “He was the champion for years. He came around our school, and he was this big old fat dude with a big gut and double chin. Our particular band wasn’t one of the best in the state and I controlled the drum section. I kept two snare drummers and any other drummers who came into the band played tenor drums, cymbal, bass drum—whatever! If I had to have five bass drummers, I wanted my two snare drummers. That way we could jam! We were lazy. We didn’t want to learn street beats. So we learned two and we jammed. You play 16 bars, and I play 16 bars and we’d do our parades that way.” He and Jaimo chuckled. “But anyhow, Frank Arsenault came around, and they called us out of class to come and listen to him. We took one look at him and said, ‘What is this guy gonna do?’ First thing he did was open, closed, open double stroke rolls. Then immediately we knew,” Butch slowed down. “It just blew us away! Completely. Really impressed me. It made me think better of fat people,” he laughed.
Butch began playing in bands while still in high school. “I made $15 every week, and in high school that was enough. When I went to college I gave it up. Then the Byrds came out with their first album and I said, ‘That’s worth playing.’ Got back into it.”
Billy asked, “So in college, you just cut loose from the orchestral kind of thing? You didn’t play any of that at all?”
“No,” Butch said. “My major was mathematics.”
“When did you and Jaimo first get together?”
Butch grinned. “This is a funny story and I don’t even know if I ever told Jaimo about it. But, Duane (Allman) came to my house, April ’69, after he left Muscle Shoals. He was coming to Jacksonville to put together a band. There was a knock on the door and I opened it and there was Duane! I had worked with him in another band and I said, ‘Duane, how ya doin?’ He said, ‘Hey Butch. This is my new drummer, Jaimo. Jaimo, this is my old drummer, Butch.’ They came in and Jaimo’s got on this tank top, all his muscles showing and sharks teeth around his neck. I thought, ‘Oh, my God. A militant n****r. He’s gonna kill me.’ He came in and sat down, head hanging and I figured he was trying to figure a way to tear up the place. But he didn’t leave for two weeks! We played there for two solid weeks, and within two days, it was just instant communication.”
Jaimo had first run into Duane Allman when Duane was doing session work in Muscle Shoals. Phil Walden, later producer for the Allman Brothers, called Duane one day. Jaimo tells the rest of the story. “Walden told Duane, ‘We got this drummer down here. He was playing with Johnny Jenkins but that didn’t happen.’ Duane asked, ‘Is he any good?’ Walden said, ‘I don’t know. He plays so weird we don’t know whether he’s good or whether he’s just bullshitting.’
“I started playing this circuit, from 1960 to ’65, with a guy named Ted Taylor. I met Albert King (blues musician) while patching retreads on an Arkansas highway. He was going to a gig. Ted would not buy new tires, he’d buy recaps and he’d be patching them every 20 miles.” We all started laughing. “I played with him for about six months and got tired of it. So, I went back home and just practiced. I’d buy records and duplicate everything that I heard the drummer doing. I learned to play everything that they were playing note for note. After awhile I started hearing things that were not there but would have sounded good! The reason it wasn’t there had to do with the one style of playing that a lot of jazz drummers basically do. Like Jack DeJohnette! He and Charles Lloyd were playing that stuff like they try to play now. Tony Williams was doing it long before that. But, Charles Lloyd had more of a unit that was booked as a ‘jazz’ band and it was just blues and stuff. It reminds me a lot of what we do.” Jaimo went on. “Like our song “Mountain Jam?” That reminds me so much of Charles Lloyd at Monterey.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve heard that album.”
“Man, that’s what “Mountain Jam” reminds me of. In a way, not to be prejudiced or anything, what we do is a little more exciting. There’s also the sustain effects.”
“The electricity,” clarified Butch.
Jaimo went on to speak about the difficulties he experienced when he tried to incorporate his jazz background with the R & B, and the rock drumming that he was playing on the road.
“I played with Otis Redding after I left Ted Taylor,” he said. “It’s so funny. I went out there and it was great while we were jammin’. But, when we got on a gig, I was so much into that jazz thing. I had practiced playing fast and with as much feeling as I could, and it became a. . . what would you call it?” Jaimo asked.
“A stumbling block?” I suggested. “Right.”
“Trying to go from complex to simple?”
“Right. Because I didn’t understand ‘timing.’ Not until I understood timing did it begin to happen, where I could go from something that was completely out of order and play it in a way that would make it in order. Like, when you see music on paper—you say ‘It’s a square note.’ Even before you play it your mind is moving so fast. You know exactly what to play that’s relative—that’ll make it ‘sound’ the way it’s supposed to sound instead of just straight. No feeling in a sense.”
“Give it character,” Butch added, “instead of sounding like everything else. Like the first time we played.”
Jaimo put on a mock-serious face. “People ask us, ‘How long did it take you to learn to play like that?’ I answer, About 2 hours.”
Butch disagreed. “It didn’t take no time. It started like that,” he snapped his fingers.
Bill Grillo asked, “The first measure you guys started playing, what happened?”
“It just clicked,” Butch grinned. “We went from like a shuffle, to a slow blues, to a funk, to a this, to a that, to the other.”
“Who was playing at that jam?” I asked.
“It was me,” said Butch. “And Jaimo, Dicky, Duane, Berry and a guy named Reese Weinan playing the keyboards. Gregg was still in California. When we finished the jam, I looked over at Jaimo. He had a grin from here to here,” Butch motioned from ear to ear. “I said, ‘Did you get off on that?’ He said, ‘Are you kiddin?’ Duane went to the door and said, ‘Anybody in this room ain’t gonna play in my band, you’ll have to fight your way out the door.’ From beat one, what we played, worked. And we didn’t have to think about it and we never have. Just get up and play. Occasionally, we’ll structure fours and that kind of thing, within the context of a song or an instrumental. We don’t talk about what we’re gonna play. We just play. The last instrumental from The Madness of the West is the only thing we’ve worked out. It’s the only thing, and there’s only four bars of that.”
Butch had spoken with Bill and I at some length about his dream to record a “written” percussion piece, and how From the Madness of the West fulfilled the greater portion of that dream. Butch credited much of the success of the piece to percussionist Mark Morris. On the previous Allman Brothers records, Jaimo usually played congas, and Butch would add in tympani, or conga and the two of them would track on other percussion instruments. But, the beauty of the album, and of “Madness” in particular is that it captures Butch and Jaimo on drum kits and Mark on timbales live.
Another significant factor concerning the Allman Brother’s instrumental songs is that the writer of the songs, guitarist Dicky Betts, also plays drums.
“The melodys are so open, that they leave so much room for the percussion,” Butch said.
Jaimo started laughing about the new album. “I can’t wait until that thing comes out and they hear three drummers on that. Two drummers mess them up so bad. One guy will say, ‘He’s playing this.’ And another guy will say, ‘No. He’s playing that.’ They forget about the fact that they are listening to two sets of drums. And the two sets of drums are not thought of as drums. They’re thought of as musical instruments.
“If you think about them as drums, then Butchy might as well play two big ol’ bass drums and get himself a 7” snare drum. Because that’s just what it basically amounts to. It seems ridiculous to have two drummers play the same thing! If it involved playing just drums, you’d have maybe a bass drum, a snare drum and a cymbal. That’s basically playing drums. But, when you start getting all the different tones—that’s percussion‘.”
“Exactly.” Butch leaned closer. “And when you get two drummers trying to play the same thing, all you’re doing is restricting both of them. No two drummers in the world play the same thing.”
To which Billy concluded, “Not only are you restricting the drums, you’re also restricting the whole band, because nobody can go in any direction. It’s too solid.”
The heads nodded up and down in agreement. Then, there was a frantic knock at the door. It was Candy Johnson, Jaimo’s wife. She apologetically informed us that Jaimo had a whole group of friends and a birthday cake waiting for him upstairs. So, we agreed to continue the interview later on and made our way back upstairs. Dicky was playing a borrowed guitar, and was jamming with Henry Paul, and Danny (a keyboard player who was touring with the ABB). Butch sat down at a conga drum we found in the basement and Jaimo grabbed two Roto-Toms and started playing them with sticks. They kicked into a totally unique version of “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.” It featured a drum solo with Butch and Jaimo on their apparatus and it cooked. Which proves—a good workman never complains about his tools.
When it was time to leave, Billy, Butch, Melinda Trucks and I hopped into the back of a Lincoln limousine and sped past Central Park to the hotel where the band was staying. We rode the elevator up, walked down the corridor and into the hotel room. There were stainless steel trays covered with all kinds of food. “Help yourself,” said Melinda. Billy grabbed a shrimp. I settled for a can of soda, kicked off my shoes and set up the tape machine. The phone rang. It was from Jaimo’s room where the celebration was continuing and they wanted us to come up. Butch went up and in a few minutes returned with Jaimo who had a piece of cake in one hand and a glass of champagne in the other. By now it was after 5:00 a.m.
“Let’s go back and talk about how the Allman Brothers Band came to be,” I suggested.
“Well,” began Butch,” I already told you about the jam. Then after that we knew that’s what we wanted to do. We’d all been in bands trying for hit records. That wasn’t any fun, and this was fun.”
“How long did you rehearse before taking it on the road?”
“We’d rehearse during the week. We moved into a one room apartment. Eleven people living in it. One big room and one little bedroom with about four mattresses thrown around. One piece of furniture and that was a Coca Cola machine full of beer. And after we’d finish rehearsal we’d play court ball in the big room and the beer machine was third base. Anyhow,” Butch went on, “we’d be in there at 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning screaming. Instead of calling the police, everybody moved out! We emptied out that whole apartment complex. Anyhow, we’d rehearse all week and go to Piedmont Park in Atlanta and play on Sunday. Everybody wrote. As soon as somebody wrote a song, we’d work it up.”
Billy pointed out that, it was as if the Allman Brothers decided to work and stay together because the music felt good. Finally, the rest of the country picked up on that feeling.
Butch agreed. “Apparently that’s what happened,” he told Billy. “Because that’s what we did. Record companies told us to get Gregg out from behind the organ, and basically they said a white group from the South didn’t stand a chance just standing up there playing music. We’re not playing r&b we’re playing rock’n roll. They said we had to be more like Led Zeppelin or the English groups or we didn’t stand a chance. We just told ’em we didn’t care. It was fun.”
The first years of the Allman Brothers existence is an incredible story of perseverance and belief. “We averaged 265 days a year the first two years on the road,” Butch remembered. “Played for everybody whether they wanted to hear it or not, and just had a good time. We lived off $3 a day apiece. That was our allowance. Jaimo’s the only one that saved any money.”
“Well, I didn’t have an old lady,” Jaimo smiled.
I asked Butch to talk about those first years. “Well, we traveled. How many of us were in that Ford Econoline?” he asked Jaimo.
“There were six in the band and two roadies. That’s the way we traveled coast to coast. Two sitting up front and six of us in the back of the van. We made one drive from San Diego to New York and got to Chicago in a blizzard.”
“What kept you going?”
“The music! Definitely.” Trucks emphasized.
I took a sip of soda. “Let’s talk about equipment just a little bit. Sometimes I hear drummers say, ‘I have to play on this or that.’ Others say, ‘It doesn’t matter.’
Butch answered. “Personally, I think it helps to have a set you’re comfortable with, but that’s not the prerequisite. The main thing is having the people that you’re comfortable playing with. Obviously, the more comfortable you are with what you’re doing, the easier it will be.”
“You used to play Gretsch drums. Now you’ve switched to Pearl. Why?” asked Billy.
“The Pearl set is 9-ply wood coated with fiberglass. I wanted that warm woody sound but I wanted the projection of fiberglass. Let me put it this way,” laughed Trucks, “I liked it until I heard Jaimo’s Camcos.”
Jaimo was a Gretsch player who recently switched to Camco, and he explained why. “I don’t know what the hell they put on those Camco drums that they don’t put on the Gretsch drums. I was told that the people who make Gretsch shells, also make the Camco shells. These are 9-ply shells. What can they be doing to that drum that Gretsch isn’t doing?”
Billy interrupted. “Maybe the 9-ply shells have something to do with it, as opposed to Gretsch’s 6-ply.”
“Yeah. That’s right.” said Butch.
“I’ve got a 1955 Radio King Slingerland one-ply,” Jaimo told us. “After playing that Radio King I didn’t play my Gretsch snare drum for I don’t know how long, after we cut our Enlightened Rogues album. I took that Gretsch and sent it on home. Man, that Radio King is something else.”
Billy turned to Butch. “I remember an old photo where you were playing your Gretsch set, but the snare drum was an old white pearl Slingerland.”
Butch responded. “Hell, I had four or five of them at one time. Loved those things. That one finally fell apart. What I did was take a Gretsch snare and put the Radio King strainer on it. I think that’s the secret. It gets the metal that holds the snare together off the side of the head. I think when they’re laying on the head it dulls the snare sound. The way the Radio King is set up, they’re off, away from the snare head and you get a much better snare sound. Crisper.”
“Are your drums set up differently for the studio than in concert?” I asked.
Butch said, “Mine are.” Jaimo told us, “They’re mostly pitched to the room or the song.” (Referring to his own set) And by doing that you put them in tune with the other instruments without even bothering to get certain notes.”
“Yeah,” Trucks continued. “We have to do something when we tune, with the two bass drums. Jaimo’s bass drum has got two heads and he muffles it a little bit, but not much. Mine is really dead. One head. I’ve got it muffled heavily. I try to get that “thump” with my bass drum, while Jaimo’s is somewhere between a bass drum and a tom-tom. When you get two muffled bass drums, you’re gonna have 16th note bass drums all the way through every song. So, it wouldn’t work. Plus, I loosen and muffle mine more than Jaimo does when we get in the studio. On stage, wide open, loud and tight,” Butch explained. “But in the studio I try to get more of the old classical studio sound. More muffled except on the tom-toms. Basically, I loosen them just a little bit, I tighten the muffle that’s built into the drum, a little bit, just till it barely touches the head. Just to take a little ring out, but not much. I like tone. And Jaimo won’t settle for anything less than all the tone he can get.”
Jaimo picked it up from there, telling us that in the studio as well as on stage he plays his drums wide open. “I just use a little muffler on the snare drum.”
“I put my wallet on it,” Trucks continued. “If somebody’s around I let them sit on it. Get that old fatback, good dead snare drum sound. But, you know we have to think that way just to get some differentiation on the sets. We have to do something to make them sound different.
“So,” Grillo asked, “is that a conscious effort or is that due to personal taste?”
Jaimo said, “It’s both and it’s just great.”
Butch explained that “Jaimo has always played a double-headed bass drum. And I’ve always played single-headed.”
“It comes from like those parades and stuff in New Orleans,” Jaimo said. “Man, those bass drums would sound so good. They had leather heads on them. And that’s what I try to play on the stage. Man, those cats, they played marches and I mean it would swing.” Jaimo paused and thought for a minute, and then referred back to what Butch was saying about his studying concert snare drum earlier. The thought of the New Orleans marching bands brought up a point. “I wanted to play “The Downfall of Paris,” “The Connecticut Half Time,” and all the other stuff, but the other kids couldn’t play it because they just didn’t understand how to close a rudiment. To just let the stick bounce. To just slowly control it. That’s the reason why a lot of kids can’t play double drum sets, because they think in terms of drums. And the musician who’s aware of melodies needs to be able to think in terms of drums. Because guys who play other instruments and all of a sudden switch over to playing drums, have a lot missing in their playing because they have not had enough time in on drums. As much as they know about music and how to express themselves, there’s always some kind of bottom or something with the bass drum that is not there. You just don’t learn it unless you play.”
“Butch nodded his head in agreement. “You’ve got to go back and pay your dues. About a year or two of hard beat sessions. That’s the way to learn that bass drum.”
I asked if either Butch or Jaimo had considered doing clinics.
“Man,” Jaimo said, “I wish we knew somebody who would ask us. I called up a friend last year when we were going to be in Chicago. He said that Pearl would put up the money for Butch to do it, but I didn’t endorse any drums so they didn’t have enough money to do it.”
“What would you do at a clinic?”
“Go out there and play and just let ’em ask questions,” Jaimo said, “because the best thing I know how to do is play.”
Butch added, “Deal with the people in a clinic just like you deal with an audience. Go in and get a feel for what they want. And then approach it from that standpoint. If you go in with an academic approach you’ll bore the hell out of everybody.
“Do you have people coming up after gigs with drumming questions?” I asked.
“The one I always hear is, ‘How do you do it? How do you guys play together like that?’ And all I’ll tell them is I don’t know. It just works,” Butch answered.
“What amazes me is the flow that’s kept going between you for 10 years. I can’t understand why, after that amount of time, you haven’t influenced each other to the point where you’re doing each other’s licks,” Grillo commented.
“We do,” answered Butch.
“Do you ever clash at all or get in each others way?”
“Well,” Jaimo replied, “At times Butch will be playing and I’ll be sitting there thinking about it. All of a sudden, when it’s time for me to play, I ‘ l l play the exact same thing if I can remember it. But the drums are pitched so high and so low that a lot of people don’t know how much we play alike. Even though we play differently.”
Butch said, “I think the thing we do, is that we phrase differently too. Even when I play a lick that Jaimo played it doesn’t sound the same because I phrase it differently. Jaimo plays a lick I played, and he phrases it differently. Everytime we talk about this we come up with all kinds of theories. I don’t think I can explain it. It works! We seem to be growing and getting better,” concluded Butch.
We spoke some about the various bands that Jaimo and Butch were involved in during the breakup of the Allman Brothers. Butch had a band called Trucks and Jaimo toured and recorded with Sea Level. Although there were both good and bad things to say about those bands, the overall attitudes were that it was good to be back together in the Allman Brothers Band.
“Probably the main reason we split up as the Allman Brothers,” said Butch, “was because of the difference in directions in the band. Chuck Leavell wanted to play more in a jazz idiom. It just wasn’t the Allman Brothers. The Allman Brothers don’t play like Herbie or Chick or whatever. But, that’s what Chuck wanted to do. I’ll tell you, for myself I’m glad I had that experience. Just about every one of us got into trouble. You come in an idealistic kid and turn around one day and everybody’s glad handing you. And money’s pouring in, at least more than you ever thought you’d see and, you kinda lose perspective.”
I had a lot of respect for Butch Trucks shedding some light on this all too common aspect of “stardom.” He went on to say, “I got to drinking too much. Getting completely irresponsible. Getting on stage drunk. I did that club circuit with my own band and it was rough. I had to keep my wits about me just to get through it. I don’t know. The same thing happened to Dicky and everybody else— just getting their feet back on the ground again. I think probably the hardest thing for anybody to contend with is, playing with a group, becoming successful and keeping your perspective. Keeping your own sense of self-worth. Because people just come out of the woodwork and gladhand you and I don’t care how bad you mess up it’s, ‘Hey, you’re cool man.’ And you start believing that. You start believing you can do anything and it’s cool. And Jaimo’s probably the only one who didn’t. He kept his head on his shoulders. But, for me, that time that we split was the best thing that ever happened.”
“I don’t know if it’s possible to answer this,” I said, “but, why do you think that after 10 years the Allman Brothers Band has worked out, when all of the other bands, Great Southern, Trucks and Sea Level didn’t?”
“It’s just like me and Jaimo,” Butch cited as an example. “I worked with another drummer. He was excellent and we played some nice things, but we could just not play the music that Jaimo and I played. No way. I had a good guitar player. Dicky came and sat in one night and I just went, ‘My god, that’s what’s been missing. It’s just a combination that works and we’ve been very lucky. Like with the Rook (bassist Dan Goldflies); he came in and he’s working. But, I think the basic combination: myself, Jaimo, Dicky and Gregg, there’s just a communication that works and I haven’t run into anybody else that I can communicate with like that on a musical level.
“You know, I was friends with the people I was playing with, but still, the communication, the musical communication just wasn’t like it is with the Allman Brothers. You really can’t explain it. You just have to experience it. It’s just like that first day. We knew it. It was there. And there was no doubt about it. It’s been there in one form or another ever since. And the only time we lost it was when we lost our own identities for awhile. At least some of us did. I mean, we took our sabbatical and right now I feel like we’re playing better than we ever have.”
“What happens,” said Jaimo “is that guys like Butch start a band, Dicky started a band, Gregg started a band, I couldn’t start a band because I’m not even a bandleader. But what happens is the guys they hire, unless they are very accomplished musicians, try to live up to what Butch is used to doing instead of letting what influenced them come through! Playing what they feel! When you try to duplicate what other people are doing, you don’t play music. The kind of music that we talked about. I’ve got so many damn records, it’s ridiculous. A lot of them are good records but they’re not bands. They’re by people who got together and cut an album. They’re good players, good music, they’ve got a good record. But as far as bands—it’s ridiculous.”
I asked Jaimo, “Would you recommend that people get back to forming bands, or staying with the current trend of many soloists who only get together to cut records’?”
“Both,” Jaimo answered. “Because you have to work at something in order for it to work. The only way it’s going to get better is by continually doing it. And you just can’t do it all the time because you become stagnant. I like Top 40 music,” Jaimo confessed. “The reason I like it is because it constantly reminds me of things that I forget to play because of the type of high quality musicians that I listen to. You don’t find Max Roach or Buddy Rich playing some funky line like the drummers play in Top 40 Music. You do have to listen to stuff like that to get feelings in. It might sound out of perspective. But, if you listen to it you can take it and put it into perspective. That Top 40 thing, man, seems to make you keep your flavor regardless of how much you’re influenced by that other stuff.”
In answer to my “band” question, Butch replied, “What I see going on now I don’t like. Because the groups that are forming contain too few kids who want to take the time to learn how to play. Y’know this punk, new wave—they ain’t playin’. It’s what I call a sad statement on our society right now. Kids now are not committed enough to take the time to sit down, and learn how to play an instrument. Instead they buy a guitar, learn four chords, get cocky, learn how to talk dirty, and form a punk group. And music is disappearing. Can you think of one group that’s come out in the past 3 or 4 years that’s playing? Society is in trouble, and it’s always reflected in the arts. It’s happening in music and I just hope it turns around.”
By now it was after 7:00 in the morning. Not to end on a pessimistic note, Butch Trucks and Jaimo Johnny Lee Johnson are excited about the new band, and the new album Reach For The Sky. When people weigh music as good or bad, they always say, “Time will tell.” It is very telling that the Allman Brothers Band is still playing fresh music, going into their 11th year, reaching for the sky and making it!
Editor’s note: Several months after this interview was completed, Jaimo left the Allman Brothers Band. Although the teamwork of Jaimo and Butch will he missed, their contribution to drumming will he with us always, and we should he thankful that they can continue to grow as individuals.