Gregg Allman had to know. He had to know that opening his final album with “My Only True Friend” was going to be a crusher. Riding on a metaphoric river flowing to an end symbolic of a relationship’s conclusion, the lead track, co-written by Allman and his longtime guitarist and music director Scott Sharrard, can’t help but be heard as foreshadowing Allman’s own passing four months ago. But, it’s just the start of the rivers, highways, and goodbyes on Southern Blood.
Allman next takes on a personal favorite in Tim Buckley’s “Once I Was,” and its slowly strummed acoustic guitar and gorgeous saxophone solo, into a rendition of Bob Dylan’s blues “Going, Going, Gone” highlighted by the ace pedal steel of Greg Leisz and bottleneck wails of Sharrard. There is a brightness, too, throughout the set helmed by producer Don Was and tracked at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals. An Americana slant colors the Grateful Dead’s “Black Muddy River,” with mandolin flourishes and Leisz’s steel, here more Nashville than Northern California. And there is a nod to the classic blues of Willie Dixon, but it’s with a smile, as Allman, in possibly the lowest vocal register he’s ever been recorded, testifies on “I Love the Life I Live.”
The second half starts with Little Feat’s “Willin’,” though this version feels somewhat country-clean rather than ragged Feat, but things get appropriately dark and murky on the slinky ode to New Orleans, “Blind Bats and Swamp Rats.” Even big, sweeping blues with touches of gospel come home, as the singer pairs with the McCrary Sisters harmonies on “Out of Left Field.” There have been standout interpreters of song over the past half-century and Allman shows himself to be equal to Sinatra; able to find and mine the deepest blues, the most vulnerable soul, in these compositions from a variety of brilliant songwriters.
A staple of his band’s live repertoire, Allman belts over the brassy stomp of Sharrard’s “Love Like Kerosene,” turning in a fiery vintage performance before the closing “A Song for Adam.” The finale is a reunion with his old Hollywood roommate Jackson Browne on Browne’s somber eulogy. Late in the song, Allman’s voice breaks in mid-verse, the emotion of the moment overtaking him, and leaves the rest of a line unsung. It is impromptu, honest, and heartbreaking, capturing an artist in the midst of an overwhelming crossroads of art and life, which could be said for the album in its entirety.
Southern Blood will be seen as Gregg Allman’s swansong, but it can just as easily be considered of a piece with any of the best work in his catalog, both solo and with The Allman Brothers Band. This is greatness saying good-bye. It’s also, simply, greatness.