Scott Sharrard, the longtime musical director and guitarist for Gregg Allman, is a Midwest native and New York City transplant, but hearing him speak about his new solo album, Saving Grace, suggests a deeper emotional connection to the South. Sharrard grew up on the blues, toured extensively through the region with Allman, and recorded Allman’s farewell record, Southern Blood, at the historic Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Inspired, Sharrard returned to Muscle Shoals, and to Memphis, for his own project, cutting tracks with the legendary Hi Rhythm section, as well the iconic ‘Swampers,’ including bassist David Hood and keyboardist Spooner Oldham. Yet, perhaps the most poignant song from Saving Grace arrived last- from a New York City session with blues master Taj Mahal and session king Bernard Purdie on drums, on one of Allman’s final tunes. From Manhattan to Memphis to Muscle Shoals and back again, Sharrard has stamped his ticket and his mark on the past, present, and future of record-making in rock-and-roll.
How hard is it to put out a record these days?
I’m sure you’ve heard the music business ain’t what it used to be. These days you’ve got to beg, borrow, and steal your way to making a record. Record sales don’t generate any revenue. The best you can hope for is to break even. Once you go through the recording, production, and publicity/marketing budget behind it, you’re looking at something that’s a ridiculous amount of cost. It’s all about driving fans into the concerts. That’s really where everyone makes their money; everyone from your legendary acts like Paul McCartney all the way down to me. We all make the majority of our money from the live shows and the merchandise we sell at those shows. So just making a record to begin with is kind of an indulgence.
This was a big project to be relying upon funding from your fans.
We were traveling to both Muscle Shoals and Memphis and working in these legendary studios and working with these legendary musicians, the Hi Rhythm section and the Swampers. It was a big concept. And thanks to my co-producers, Scott Bomar and Charlie Martinez, we managed to get the whole thing planned out. My manager and business partner, Jesse G. (Guglielmo), he really kicked it in the clutch with funding, doing an amazing campaign. Our fans were extremely generous. We got the record paid off, through our fans and crowdfunding.
Is that how you see funding for your albums going forward?
At some point with the record business we’re going to have to choose a way. For recording studio owners, sidemen, producers, managers- the people who make albums- at some point something has to give. Nobody can afford to do these things anymore unless they can sell 500 tickets, minimum, a show, in terms of doing a big production like we just did. In the end, a lot of artists are going to have their own recording studios at home more and more and you’re going to see these big studios as places to make albums die off. The big studios will make their money with soundtracks and things for television and film where they need a full orchestra. Records? I don’t think there’s a chance they’ll ever be profitable again. It’s like trying to power a whole city with whale oil or something. It’s outmoded. The delivery system has been destroyed.
There aren’t any less fans of music, though. What’s happening?
The record industry has recently posted their biggest profits in history because of the side deals with Spotify. The brilliance for them, in screwing all of us, is they completely removed the patronage system of developing artists. They said they’re only going to sign people that sell 1,000 tickets a night, and work the back catalog. You’re all on your own. Good luck. We’ll see you when you’re successful. They won on all levels. They’re basically a contracted service; they’ll take you over the finish line, but they want you to run the whole marathon. They’ll step-up at the end with a water bottle.
Can you talk about the motivation behind the album?
This record, consciously, is an homage to these musicians, these sounds, and to the American South and all it’s given me my entire life as a musician. These guys who played on my record, they are all in their 70s. David Hood just turned 75. It’s very sad to face the fact that time marches on and who knows how much longer these guys will be playing. This was my last chance to work with these guys that I’ve met over the last few years. I had already fallen in love with them as players from when I was a kid. To get to know them and fall in love with them as people- I knew I needed to do this now when I had the opportunity to work with them in these locations.
That’s key, isn’t it: to work with these guys, but also at these locations?
Gregg Allman used to have a great saying: ‘There is no such thing as Southern Rock. All rock is Southern.’ I have been dreaming about recording in Memphis and Muscle Shoals since I was a little kid because I was raised on this music. Southern music is American music. All of it is from the South. There is something about the south of a country, where it’s a little bit hotter, it’s a little more humid, people walk around a little slower. There’s a certain vibe. There’s a certain depth to the culture, particularly in the American South. The Mississippi River is a cultural tributary. When you think of traveling from New Orleans up to Chicago and all the points in between, that’s the entire history of American music right there.
You’re a Midwest guy, and now a New Yorker. How did you connect with the region?
I’ve been in the South a lot in my career, particularly with Gregg. At his house in Savannah, Georgia, we were writing. And, we’d rehearse the band in the South. Obviously his biggest following was down there and in the Northeast. I felt that vibe really deeply when I started working regularly with him. Gregg Allman embodied the cultural aesthetic of the South. There’s a reason he named his first solo album Laid Back. For Saving Grace it was time for me to get out of New York and go back to the motherland where all this music came from.
And not only the birthplace, but the creative basis of the music, itself.
All this great American music is from the blues. The blues is the roux in the gumbo. Maybe you make a seafood gumbo and that’s jazz. Maybe you make a meat gumbo and that’s rock. But blues is at the base of all of it.
When did you know where and how you were going to do this?
When I really started to conceptualize the record was in the spring of 2016 when I was making Southern Blood with Gregg at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals. I knew, by the second day of recording that album, that I was coming back to make this solo album in that place. That was the first place Gregg and Duane Allman ever demoed. It was where Duane started his career as a session artist. You have all those historic records (made there) that are so essential; from Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Etta James, Bobby Womack, Clarence Carter, and the list goes on and on and on. The key thing to me, and I’ve done this on my last two albums, is to sing the vocals and play the rhythm guitar totally live with the band on the floor. I got that when I was working with Gregg. He cut all his vocals live in the booth.
What was it like to put yourself in that space?
In December of 2016 I had the knowledge that he was terminally ill and was never going to perform live again. When I walked into that vocal booth with my guitar, I was giving my vocal performances in the same spot that I watched him give his. Trust me, there was a lot going through my head. Plus, the Big House Museum in Macon brought Duane’s ’57 Goldtop Les Paul guitar to that session. So, on my record, I was able to play Duane’s guitar in the studio where he first recorded with it. And, I’m looking at one of my heroes, David Hood, playing the bass. And Spooner Oldham is playing the Wurlitzer; the same Wurlitzer he played on Aretha Franklin’s record. It’s spine-tingling when I think about that.
Some would find that overwhelming.
It was a lot of fun. A lot of barbeque. A lot of laughs. Not too many takes; maybe one or two for every song. A lot of hanging out. A lot of storytelling. Just a really, really good time.