With his old man’s surname and a first name taken from a guy considered one of the greatest guitarists of all time, you couldn’t be faulted for thinking that of course Duane Betts is in recovery from addiction.
After all, his father is Dickey Betts — the iconic voice of “Ramblin’ Man” and a founding member of the Allman Brothers Band, which left behind a legacy of iconic music and a reputation as a collective of hard-partying road dogs. Dickey’s old friend and band co-founder, Duane Allman — Duane Betts’ namesake — was known to partake of a great many substances before his death in 1971, as did many of his peers in those halcyon times.
Despite his rock ‘n’ roll lineage, however, Duane Betts wasn’t weaned on Jack Daniels and coke. Even though his father was one of the stewards of the ABB for many years, Betts had a relatively normal childhood, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently.
“I was homeschooled from the eighth grade through high school, and I had a group of close friends, but I wasn’t really involved in the normal social life of a high school teenager — which wasn’t a bad thing,” he said. “It was awesome, because I got to grow up on tour, listening to great music every night and being around great musicians and traveling and learning from that traveling, which was always great. But I think I was always missing out on some of the social situations you would have if you were in a high school setting with girls, etc.
“I smoked pot and got drunk for the first time when I think I was 12, and I just did it to try it. It’s not like I did it and kept doing it; in fact, I never was a big drinker, because I never liked it. But I was probably 18 or 19 when I started hanging out with some friends, and I was just like, ‘This is what the kids are doing.’ And I wanted to have fun and loosen up and get comfortable, and I just kind of started experimenting, and it worked. It kind of got me into that scene and helped me feel like I was a part of the social setting with peers my own age.
“It worked as a social lubricant to kind of get me started on catching up with where I felt like I needed to be,” he added. “But come to find, I really had a liking for the stuff.”
Duane Betts: Finding his lane as a sober musician
Finding his lane as a teetotaler in an industry that sometimes glorifies excess isn’t as difficult as it might seem. He doesn’t campaign against drugs and alcohol, nor does he avoid situations in which they might be partaken. Choosing to do that would likely be a lonely existence, given that recovery is all about personal responsibility, meaning that he understands he has no control over other people, places and situations. He’s not interested in dictating terms to anyone else, he added, and he doesn’t want to be lifted up as any sort of icon of abstinence.
In fact, he hasn’t elaborated in previous interviews on his sobriety, mostly because it’s not the sum total of who he is, as an individual or as a musician. But if his story can serve as a cautionary tale, then he’s fulfilling one of the tenants of the program that’s brought him this measure of peace: carrying a message to those who might suffer as he once did.
“It’s OK to experiment, but it’s really easy to get wrapped up and swept away, and before you know it, your whole life can be turned upside down,” he said. “I think that when you’re a musician, and it seems accessible and that a lot of your heroes did it, at some point it seems like par for the course for being a ‘real’ rock ‘n’ roll musician. You get involved with it, and it feels good, then you kind of lose yourself to it. I think it was Keith Richards who said, ‘It’s a really easy club to join, and a real hard club to get out of.’”
In telling his story, he doesn’t emphasize the pain or glorify the good times, because to be sure, there were plenty of the latter. For those who develop a problem, however, they quickly lose their luster, he pointed out.
“There were always some fun times — I had a lot of fun, but then that kind of fades, and it kind of becomes, ‘Wow; this is a problem,’ and then there were some dark times,” he said.
And recovery, he added, doesn’t absolve him from the pain of navigating life as a flawed and imperfect human being. It does, however, allow him to accept life on life’s terms without the need to amplify triumph or numb tragedy through chemical means. And while emotional pain was certainly a part of the reason he used, so too was social acceptance.
“When I was 19 or 20, I had started playing in bands, and those people were partying, and it seemed like it was par for the course — just kind of natural, and you kind of just go with it,” he said. “There are times when you know, ‘This is wrong,’ or, ‘This doesn’t feel right, because I feel really bad. If it’s going to make me feel like this when I’m done, no wonder they tell you not to do that.’
“But you kind of dust your shoulders off and try it again. You learn to exist in a pattern, and it obviously gets to a point where you can’t. And then you have to make a decision if you want to let everything completely go by the wayside, or pull everything together.”
The weight of legacy
For his part, Betts had worked too hard to let everything fall by the wayside. It’s hard to say whether rock ‘n’ roll would have found him without his particular pedigree, but when it did, the talent he displayed, even as a younger man, was a credit to his own dedication and innate skill as much as it was genetics.
The Allman Brothers Band, of course, is legendary. Forming in 1969, the group — named after brothers Duane and Gregg and featuring Dickey Betts, Berry Oakley, Jaimoe and Butch Trucks — released a string of records in the early 1970s that were flawless. “The Allman Brothers Band,” “Idlewild South,” “At The Fillmore East” and “Eat a Peach” perfected a sound that effortlessly combined rock, blues, country and jazz on such unforgettable songs as “Dreams,” “Midnight Rider,” “Sweet Melissa” and “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed.”
After the death of Oakley and Duane Allman, the band ground to a halt over the next several years until reforming for good in 1989. It was in the second half of the group‘s arc that Duane Betts found his niche: performing with the Allman Brothers Band a few times in 1994 (including at the 25th anniversary of the Woodstock festival) and meeting his current bandmate: Devon Allman, son of Gregg, with whom he now plays in the Allman Betts Band.
They met for the first time on the “Dreams” tour, when the younger Betts was 12. Over the next several years, they continued to run into one another at festivals and on the road, all while Duane Betts stepped out of his father’s shadow and did his own thing: Forming Backbone69, a band that included future Allman Betts Band member Berry Oakley Jr., in 1998, and the group Whitestarr, which was briefly signed to Atlantic Records, in 2002. In 2005, he joined his father’s band, Great Southern, and played in that group for almost a decade before moving on to other projects: Touring with the Laurel Canyon rock band Dawes for the “All Your Favorite Bands” cycle and dipping in and out of numerous other bands and one-off projects — Jamtown, Bando and his own project. In 2018, he and Devon Allman agreed to go out on tour together in 2018 as the Devon Allman Project featuring Duane Betts.
That same year, Betts released his debut EP, “Sketches of American Music,” which gave him an opportunity to stretch his legs. There are shades of his pop’s playing in Duane’s own style, particularly in the way he’s able to bend notes, but it’s also a richer, more varied collection of sounds, from breezy, Southern California electro-folk to dirty, gritty Southern stomp to some ragged barrelhouse boogie.
The tour with Devon resulted in a permanent partnership, and last year, the Allman Betts Band released “Down to the River,” a tastefully understated affair that opts for nuance over the flashbang approach of guys wanting to cash in on their famous last names.
“Personally, I hate that stuff,” Betts said. “I don’t want to play with anybody because of what their last name is. We’re proud of where we come from, and it goes without saying that we’re proud of the legacy of our fathers’ band, but we just wouldn’t be having a band together if it just sounded cool to put Gregg’s son with Dickey’s son. We’ve known each other a long time, and we’re just having fun making music.
“And yeah, we’ll always play a few Allman Brothers Band covers. I think Devon has a good way of saying it: It would be weird if we went out and played six or seven or eight or nine Allman Brothers songs, but it might also be weird if we didn’t play any. I think it’s like this: If we weren’t making our own music that we were really proud of and thought was awesome, I wouldn’t feel so comfortable playing ‘Blue Sky.’ I feel really comfortable playing it because of what we’ve built.”
Duane Betts: It works because he works it
It’s probably not a stretch to say that some of that comfort — in what he’s built and how he’s carved out his own life and career both because of and in spite of his famous last name — is a credit to the work he’s done on himself in recovery. On the 26th of this month, he’ll have three years and seven months clean — and while he’s of course grateful for the time, he also tries not to put too much stock in it.
“I got sober for a while several years ago, and then I relapsed for like a year or a year and a half, so it’s always just a daily reprieve for me,” he said. “I don’t work a perfect program, and I still have many shortcomings. If things are bothering me, and I’m in my head about a lot of stuff or coming up with different scenarios in my head that may not even exist, it can be difficult. But if you can get through that day and wake up the next morning, you’ve always got that to be grateful for.
“Even if nothing else is working, I can at least be grateful that I’m not going through withdrawal along with all of that other stuff. And that’s always something to remember to be grateful for and fall back on, even if everything else is bothering you.”
His routine is one that thousands of recovering addicts and alcoholics credit for their success: Attending recovery meetings when he can, even though it can be difficult to do so on tour, and remaining connected to a network of other guys who are somewhere along the same path. (And, he added, physical exercise, which occupies body and mind while nourishing his spirit: “Without that, I think I would go crazy,” he said. “I like to get high, and those are free, natural, healthy highs.”)
“A lot of my friends have been through this same thing, and some of that are very successful now,” he said. “I’d like to think they’re proud of me for pulling out of it, because that’s not an easy thing to do for someone. It’s a win if you can get that part done, and now I find myself in a position where we’re doing some really great music. I’m healthy, we’re creating, and I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing rather than chasing my tail around.”
And while everything is on hold at the moment because of COVID-19, the Allman Betts Band has one in the chamber: The next record is complete, and Betts describes it as an “awesome, awesome follow-up.”
“We laid a really nice foundation of what we can follow the first record with, and this one is the perfect sequel,” he said. “It’s a step or two up as far as the growth and the diversity of influences on the record, and it’s a wider scope, really. It’s something we worked hard on and that we’re really proud of.”
The collaboration, in fact, is what motivates him. It’s why he continues to explore new territory with Devon Allman, and why he’s always looking to contribute to records by others. (“And I’m free for work right now!” he said with a chuckle.)
“I’m always ready to play a solo on somebody’s record, if it’s an artist I respect, or even if it’s someone I’ve never heard of,” he said. “There are a lot of people I would love to play with. Right now, the focus is on the Allman Betts Band, and at a certain point, I would love to do another solo record — maybe a full-length record of my own.”
A focus on the greater good
There’s no timeline on any of those projects at the moment. Given the constraints imposed on everyone by the coronavirus pandemic, Betts is, like the rest of the world, getting by a day and a time. He and his wife recently left Los Angeles and drove to Wyoming, where they own a home, for a change of scenery, and to get closer to nature. It is, in a way, how he stays connected to the spiritual principles of recovery.
“My mom always said something to me that her father would always tell her: that heaven and hell are really here, in this life, and you make a choice whether you want to live a heavenly existence or a hellish existence,” he said. “If you’re one with nature, if you’re enjoying what this world has to offer, then you’re living in heaven, is the way she explains it.”
He misses his recovery meetings — a great many recovery programs have moved to the digital space and are meeting through apps like Zoom, but the personal connection, he added, leaves something to be desired. He’s grateful the opportunity exists, and any time he can hit the pause button, get out of his own head and be of service — to his brothers in recovery, to rock ‘n’ roll, to the wider world around him — is always a rewarding thing.
“It feels really good to offer your time,” he said. “That’s why I love doing gigs for charities. I love being involved in anything for the greater good of humanity, or in helping spread good energy and love. It’s really all about love, and spreading love instead of fear. I want to try to kind of diminish the fear and spread the love.”
When the world will begin to open back up — and especially when the venues in which he feels most at home get to reopen — is anyone’s guess. He enjoys life on the road, and being quarantined leaves him feeling a bit restless, as it does many of his fellow countrymen and women. Fortunately, he has a new way to live. Recovery isn’t the sum total of his identity, but it’s an important part of it, and if putting that part of himself out there might help others, then it’s the right thing to do, he believes.
“I guess I don’t think of myself as somebody who can really help, because I don’t think I know anything — but I really do, I guess, and I can help,” he said. “I think I’m in a position, because of the experiences I’ve been through, to let others know that there’s hope. I’m a really strong, authentic person because of the experiences I’ve been through, and part of my story is that I became addicted to drugs, and that I got into recovery.”