Somebody’s Callin’ Your Name: A Disconnected Reflection on the Death of Greg Allman, and Others We Miss

My son texted me: “Greg Allman passed away.” I responded with something about missing the Midnight Rider to which he replied: “Write a poem. You’ve weaved him in your poetry before.” I thought for a moment, then remembered that it is true. More than once, I had referenced Greg Allman and/or the Allman Brothers band. So I tucked my son’s comment in the back of my mind, feeling something odd, maybe because often when I think of Allman Brothers music, I remember loss.

The truth is, I don’t know much about Greg Allman. I’m just a limited fan. Like other aging dads, I howled an attempted harmony at Ramblin Man standing in line to ride the Himalaya at Bells Amusement Park in Tulsa. I have road-tripped across New Mexico with Mountain Jam. I have (falsely) thought of myself Tied to the Whipping Post. I love Sweet Melissa like a stupid schoolboy. So, the usual jams have informed me in a superficial, sometimes significantly bluesy ways. But something else links me to Greg Allman. With the death of Greg Allman, other deaths come to mind, all linked in my mind, the way our minds splat various blots of color on a seemingly disconnected canvass.

I think of Butch, one of my dearest friends. For the thirteen, or so, years I knew him, our conversations often drifted toward music, and inevitably the Allman Brothers. Butch was a professional musician, on the road for years with various bands, and he had a unique perspective of analysis and admiration for other musicians. More than once he told me the story of his band opening for the Allman Brothers, way back when, somewhere in Mississippi. I think it was his greatest thrill in his music life. On numerous occasions he would talk in adamant detail about the tight connection that the band members exhibited when playing – “didn’t even have to look at each other,” perfect timing, etc. He would rave about their seemingly instinctive awareness of each other’s parts in the production. That opening gig was a defining moment in his life.

My friendship with Butch sort of galvanized my deepening appreciation for Allman Brothers music. We’d often talk about music. Well, he talked. I listened as he expanded on my questions, rewarding my inspired ignorance. So one day, I think it was the same year of Butch’s passing, a campus radio station in Stephenville, Texas interviewed me on a program about poetry and music. Asked for my favorite band, without much thought, I volunteered the Allman Brothers. Truth is, I don’t know if I had/have a favorite band. But Allman Brothers music is always close to me, so that’s how I answered, and it was not a fabricated response. So to color the canvass, DJ Harley Woodstock played Midnight Rider and Statesboro Blues and we had a fun visit.

Another dear friend is closely associated with Statesboro Blues. Raised in rural Georgia, Cooper saw the Allman Brothers at “the county fair” before they were famous, as he likes to tell it, emphasizing, I think, his common home-spun origins that only those who share them could understand. But oh death …

Cooper buried his mother the same week Greg Allman passed. And his brother suffers from terminal cancer. Death is always lurking; it is the eternal enemy whose drooping moods are always eroding. But the great paradox of blues music prevails! How many times have Cooper and I kept the blues away by listening to Allman Brothers cranked, a late spring afternoon, at steamy summer sunset or a chilly evening in December. The music of Greg Allman covers the seasons. A push of a button and we are alive in the momentary attempt to resist mortality.

More death! Several years ago I received an early morning phone call from my dad informing me of a suicide. I was shocked but not surprised, once reflection set in. I wandered numbly for a few days, speaking only occasionally, calling to check on my siblings. In those immediate days following this tragedy, I guess I did not grieve. Or at least I wasn’t aware of myself in a grieving process. But one evening after dinner with my girlfriend, I’m driving slowly around town. Greg Allman’s cd is playing, and Seven Turns captures me. In the quiet interior of my pickup, the haunting lyrics confront: “Sometimes, you feel like you could fly away / Sometimes, you get lost.” The music takes me some place I had never been – and the tears rolled down undammed, a stream releasing my own sense of guilt, inadequacy, fear, weakness. I drove, and I cried, and I embodied (excuse the word, I don’t know how else to say it) the lyrics:

Somebody’s callin’ your name.
Somebody’s waiting for you.
Love is all that remains the same,
That’s what it’s all comin’ to.

I never hear that song (and I play it more often than I realize) without thinking of that night, thinking of my family and our loss. Each time I hear it I know someone is forever calling my name. we are called. We can only avoid it for so long. No matter what diversions we attempt, we always answer the call, don’t we? I remember driving around town crying until finally I felt some sort of goodness filling me. How good it is to know we are not unknown!

“Greg Allman passed away” my son’s text informs me. I know better. Though I don’t know a lot about Greg Allman, I know his music has played so deeply into my psyche, as it has for countless others. But for me, these deaths, these lives, are intricately linked to his passing. Greg Allman has died, but we know better. Every time my son picks up his guitar, every time I relive Butch’s stories, every time Cooper beats percussive time on the steering wheel or the arms of his favorite wooden chair, every time I hear Seven Turns, every time I come to a cross road, every time I feel like “I could fly away but sometimes get lost,” I know better. Every time spring breaks through the grip of winter, I know. I know, even as I am known.

Birth Song

The open road
my nascent mood
between new spring
and old winter.

The early buds
emerge like hope
yet are hesitant –
brightly fixed against
stark branches.

Grass greens beneath
rude stalks – disguised
but arriving.

Uprooted – I
drive slow down
backcountry roads –
Allman Brothers
playing in the
of consciousness.

I pass through haze
that filters new
morning sun –
riffs penetrate
trying to raise,
to engender.

I drive tasting
a flavor that
floats toward my
window, that curls
around my lips.

The Way of the Wind
(Village Books Press, 2008)