Gregg Allman is a blessed man. For all of his musical life, he has had the privilege of playing next to some of the greatest guitar players in the history of rock & roll. From his own brother Duane to Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks, Gregg’s bands have been a fertile spawning ground of unbelievable talent. And for the past several years, Scott Sharrard has been standing in the sweet spot of the Gregg Allman Band.
Although his name is not instantly recognizable, when you hear Sharrard light into a sublime solo that is familiar yet just enough different with his own spark, you realize that Gregg Allman has done it once again. Born and raised on the music of artists such as the Allman Brothers Band, Sharrard has taken all his influences of rock, blues and jazz and created a unique sound of his own. His last solo venture called Ante Up from 2009 features an eclectic mix of jazz and soul. With songs such as “Stone”, “In The Right Place”, “Riverside” and the BB King classic “Losing Faith In You”, there is no doubt that Sharrard is an extremely talented vocalist as well as guitarist.
Meeting me at the Starbucks inside the Hard Rock in Biloxi, Mississippi, before the Allman show, Scott talked about his life, his music and what it’s like playing with one of the legends of Southern blues rock.
Thank you, Scott, for taking the time to come talk with me before the show. You walked up here pretty anonymously. Nobody seems to realize who you are. Do you like that you can kind of walk around and see everything without people recognizing you?
Of course, at this point (laughs). Hopefully that will change.
Oh so you want to be famous (laughs)
Well, I don’t have to be famous but I’d like to be known amongst musicians at least, you know. That would be nice.
How do you feel about stepping into some pretty big shoes playing with a legend like Gregg Allman? Duane Allman, Warren Haynes, Derek Trucks. Must be intimidating.
No, you know my Dad took me to see the Brothers every summer when I was a little kid almost, so for me it was kind of the music I grew up with, with those players. I grew up seeing the Allman Brothers with Warren and Dickey. So growing up watching those guys, it was a natural fit for me. I went through a lot of other styles of music first before I came back. You know, coming and doing this gig was almost a homecoming cause I started out imitating the Allman Brothers and Chuck Berry and people like that; like more roots of rock people. As I got older, as a teenager and started to play out more, I was way more into like heavy blues and I went farther back into blues and jazz and started working those circles and moved to New York, a more jazz-oriented town, singer-songwriter-oriented. So when I ended up on Gregg’s gig back in 2008, it was almost like when I was relearning those songs like “Statesboro” and stuff like that, I was relearning stuff that I had learned when I was ten, eleven, twelve years old and I was going to see the band every summer.
So how did you get the gig to become part of the Gregg Allman Band?
Through Jay Collins, actually. I was playing guitar in his band and they decided to make some changes and Jay is the MD, the Music Director for Gregg. We were working together around New York and he brought me in.
You must have made a really good impression.
I think so (laughs).
What is it like touring with Gregg?
You know, this particular group of musicians is really interesting because you have Jay and I, who are a bit younger, and then you have guys like Jerry Jemmott and Gregg and Floyd Miles who are kind of like the previous generation of guys; they’re like the generation we grew up admiring. And then you have people like Steve Potts and Bruce Katz who are kind of like in the middle, sort of like in that middle stage where, in a way, you almost have three generations of musicians on the gig. So that group of people, there is a lot of great energy because we’re all feeding off [each other]; it’s kind of like the older guys are feeding off the youth and we’re feeding off what they can teach us. Also on a personality level, we all really get along and we have a lot of fun together and it just really feels like a band.
I think Gregg is really proud of that and I think he’s also really proud of the new T-Bone record, Low Country Blues. I think that is a really important stepping stone that’s been way too long in the making. And now I think you’re seeing some vitality from him, not only because he’s also resolved his health issues with the new liver and that being a real success, that’s also affected his day-to-day energy; but I think that combined with the feeling of having a band around him that’s there to support him as a singer, as opposed to the Allman Brothers, which the Allman Brothers is more of like a collective, where it’s really a bunch of leaders who all have a say. With this band, obviously Gregg is the singer, the songwriter, the front-man and we’re his backing band. But also he likes us to have our moments on stage. So I think it’s like the best of both worlds for him where he can have us sort of jam and bring our thing to the table when needed but then also it’s understood that we can step in the background and support him as a vocalist and make sure that the show is really about Gregg Allman, the singer and songwriter. I think that gets a little lost when you see him with the Allman Brothers; rightfully because it’s kind of like as I said, a collective. It started as a collective and it continues to be with Warren singing, Derek playing. So that’s the difference between the two bands.
And that gives you time to work on music of your own when Gregg is doing the ABB thing.
Yeah, I’ve had a solo career … I was in a band called The Chesterfields that was my first band in the late 90's in New York. And we were like a ten piece band, more like a funk-soul-type thing. I was also working heavily on the blues circuit but the blues circuit in New York has really dried up. It’s basically all jazz and indie rock at this point. I actually moved up to Woodstock about a year ago so now I can kind of keep it at a distance. I’m still doing a lot of producing and writing for other people and stuff but I still have my own solo career and my own band. We’ve done a little touring, some shows around New York this last year, and I’m getting ready to do a new solo album in the fall. Tentatively it’s like we’re going to do it at Royal Studios in Memphis. That’s Willie Mitchell’s old studio where all the Al Green albums were made. I was just there actually in Memphis and Steve Potts works there all the time and he actually introduced me to Boo Mitchell, who is running the place now. I fell in love with the studio and I’ve got a lot of material so I’m going to try to get that together for the fall to go down there to make a record.
So will Gregg be taking a break or jumping into something with the Allman Brothers?
He’ll be with the Allmans. The way the schedule looks now, and it could easily change, it looks like we’re going to get a break at the end of September until the end of December. There’s going to be a gulf there, October and November and beginning of December off, so that’s when I’m going to try and record my record. But the Brothers might be doing some runs there and that’s why. But you never know.
Low Country Blues is really such a fantastic recording. It seems that Gregg has been waiting all these years for these songs to come and they fit his voice so incredibly well. Did you have any input on this?
No, actually the record was produced by T-Bone Burnett and he has a group of session musicians in LA that he uses so nobody from the live band is actually on the record.
Did you wish you could’ve been on the record?
Yeah, of course, I hope that happens next time and I’m at his service whenever he needs me but I think for T-Bone, and I’m also a producer so I really understand what T-Bone is going for, he has this group of people, his recording studio and his sound, and his sound is a very specific thing. It actually has very little to do with what we do with Gregg live. And T-Bone’s credit as a producer, he sticks to his guns and he gets the sound he wants and I totally respect that.
The guitar player he ended up using to do the electric guitar parts is Doyle Bramhall II, who is one of my favorites. I used to see Doyle when I was a kid. I’ve always looked up to him. I saw him with the Arc Angels when I was like thirteen and I have every Doyle Bramhall II record. I’ve been a fan of him my whole life. So to me it’s Ok I didn’t play on the record; but on the other hand, if I could have picked anybody to play on it I would have picked him immediately. Him or Derek really. For my money they are the best guys around right now who have visibility, and I think they are both wonderful.
I’m really happy to be playing simulations of Doyle’s parts because I hear music the way he does. The other guys in the band on the record are fantastic musicians – Jay Bellerose, Dennis Crouch and I believe Colin Linden plays dobro, acoustic guitar, Darrell Leonard did the horns who is a great, great horn arranger. You know T-Bone is a pro.
I really think this is the best album that Gregg has ever put out.
I agree. I would even go as far as to say it might be his best since like Laid Back even or that era in a way. I really think he’s on a great track right now.
He looks good, he sounds good, he appears happy onstage, he’s smiling more. Do you see that change in him since last year?
I think his energy is definitely better now. And like I said, I think it’s definitely because he’s resolved his health issues but I think it also has a lot to do with the momentum of the band and the record. We’re all there for him and hopefully his energy will continue to go up and up. I’m sure it will.
You said when you got here that you were working on tonight’s set list. How are you changing it?
Jay is our MD, so he usually makes the set-list. But sometimes he’ll confer with us about what songs maybe should be in or out based on technical things or just moods, trying to get them to mesh. Sometimes he’ll sound out the band on it. But mainly, usually, it’s between Jay and Gregg that that gets negotiated. But you know, Jay and I, I’ve played in his band for years and he’s played on a lot of my records, we’re good friends, we’re neighbors, we both live in Woodstock, so we’re always collaborating and working on stuff and hanging out.
How long have you known each other?
I want to say about six years probably. He’s amazing. I think he’s been with Gregg about ten years, maybe eleven years.
What was it like playing with Charlie Musselwhite in New Orleans last month?
Oh that was fun, unexpected. Steve Potts brought him along cause they’re working with Cyndi Lauper right now together. I know that Charlie and Gregg have played together before but Charlie was there to just kind of say hi and drop through and then found out he had his harmonica so it was kind of a last minute thing and got him up there. It was nice.
What about Devon coming in sometimes?
Its fun, its fun to have him out there opening for us and hanging out. It’s nice to see the father-son relationship, you know.
What do you think about Duane and his incredible legacy?
You know, Duane was a great sideman to start in the beginning of his career. But at his heart, he had a great concept of the history of music, up to that point, and he loved the blues and he had experience in R&B and I think he came from a real multi-cultural vantage point. The guy was almost like Orson Welles or something. He was like a conceptual guy. The whole thing about, “ I’m going to have two drummers and two guitar players”, the twin lead guitar thing that he got from listening to Miles and Coltrane to his playing on Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett records and even on that Herbie Mann record “Push Push”. He’s a real kind of renaissance man of music, a real music lover. You can feel that in his playing and in his approach and his concept and I feel a real kinship with that cause I look at myself also as someone who doesn’t have any boundaries and styles and I like to try things and I like to experiment. And he was a genius with it.
And you know, it’s incredible how young he died. He was twenty-four or twenty-five. But that’s how old Otis was when he died; Jimi Hendrix was twenty-seven, you know what I mean? All those guys were really the best of that generation and unfortunately died in their 20's. And I think Duane is on the level with all of those guys, especially since all those guys had that thing in common where if you think about Duane, Otis, Jimi, just take those as examples, their music is without definition stylistically and that’s what we’re really missing now in music, that attitude where when you listen to Otis Redding you don’t really hear black or white; when you listen to Hendrix or the Allman Brothers you don’t hear demographics, marketing, you don’t hear race, it transcends all that. Just from hanging out with Floyd and Gregg and Chank, who is Gregg’s friend and assistant now, I’ve gotten so many stories about Duane from them that I almost feel like I know him a tiny bit. I feel like if I’d had a chance to hang with him he would have been like an incredible person. So intelligent and very learned and had such a visceral emotional style; but I think as a person he was very much of an intellect. He really had a great concept, a great respect for music as a tradition and a craft. And that’s what we’re really missing now. So he is definitely missed.
So what do you think about the music world being overcome by pop?
I don’t have any problem with pop music. The only problem I have is that in the 90's the record companies, and the record companies are pretty much dead at this point, and the way they killed themselves was they stopped siphoning off for artists from those budgets. They made piles of money off Britney Spears and NSYNCH in the 90's and instead of taking ten percent of that and signing a Miles Davis or a Joni Mitchell or an Allman Brothers, they just bought a second house, put in an in-ground pool and kept all the money. And that’s what happened to the music business. That’s exactly what happened. I was there for it. My band had label people coming out to see us all the time and I was getting these stories firsthand from A&R people, assistants for people who wanted to sign me but couldn’t cause they had to keep their jobs. It’s coming back now, this kind of underground, and I saw it on this tour in New Orleans and Memphis and Columbus, Ohio. People are starting to lay vinyl on their own, they’re starting to start their own record labels, record stores are becoming Mom and Pop again. There’s a regional scene starting to happen. The backbone of it, I got to tell you, stylistically is soul and blues; that’s the backbone. Whether it’s the Black Keys, who obviously have a lot of visibility now, there are bands kind of in that genre who are even more soul and R&B oriented but they have that kind of garage band feel.
Who were your main influences? Who made you want to pick up that guitar? Or was it already in your family?
My father is a musician, a guitar player and singer, and he’s been in and out of the business his whole life. He’s actually back in the business now and he plays great acoustic guitar and sings. He’s more of a singer-songwriter now. When I was growing up he was playing a lot of old like blues standards and rock standards but also like folk-blues.
I was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and I was raised near Detroit, Dearborn, you know, Detroit area. Then we kind of moved all over for awhile and then I went to high school in Milwaukee at the High School Of The Arts. And that’s where I started. I started playing professionally when I was about fifteen or sixteen. I started playing in clubs regularly, touring in bands, mostly blues, Chicago Blues artists, R&B, some rock bands, and then when I was nineteen I moved to New York City. So I’ve been there almost fourteen years.
Is this the only thing you do? I assume you don’t have to have a day job like me.
It is. Well, I multi-task. I had a day job when I moved to New York for four or five years. Its funny, I could have stayed in Milwaukee. When I graduated from high school I was making a great living playing music in that area, that tri-state area, and I could have stayed there but I wanted to challenge myself, I wanted to grow as a musician and human being. If I lived here I would just continue to do this for the rest of my life, always wondering.
Do you have a favorite Blues artist?
In the Blues genre it would be impossible. I have a million favorite artists in every genre. If I had to pick in Blues, I would have to start with the guitar players, the three Kings – Albert, Freddie and BB, Albert Collins, Johnny “Guitar” Watson. I also love a lot of those Folk-Blues guys like Son House, Lil’ Son Jackson, Blind Willie McTell, Robert Johnson of course. The Chicago Blues guys were really big for me growing up in Milwaukee and playing in Chicago. I was hearing about guys like Earl Hooker and Robert Nighthawk really early. And they are two of my biggest influences on slide guitar especially. A lot of people haven’t heard of them but they were the guys who were really huge influences on Muddy Waters and BB King and guys like that. They were the real kind of virtuosos of slide guitar. They were sort of the pre-Duane. Like Duane was a real virtuoso of the slide and before him there was like Robert Nighthawk and Earl Hooker, who were guys that could play finger-style and slide, they could play a lot of complex phrases and stuff. I consider myself lucky to have grown up in the mid-west for that, just to have exposure to players and learn how to at a really early age how to play like Magic Sam and stuff like that.
Do you have a favorite go-to album or artist? One that helps you to re-energize or rejuvenate?
Well, I grew up loving blues and soul music, especially the music of Stax Records. That’s my touchstone, especially Stax Records. Booker T & The MGs, Johnnie Taylor, Otis Redding, Albert King on Stax. That’s my concept of music I played being at its best. But that said, when you say refresh or rejuvenate, I mean, I play that kind of music all the time. Sort of that genre where soul, blues, R&B and rock meet. That’s sort of my life. That’s my day job, if you will. And that’s where my heart really lives for music. Like when I want to express music and I sing and I play and I write, that is where that is coming out, some kind of amalgamation of that. But when I listen to music, these days especially as I’ve gotten older and more experienced, even though I’ve always listened to the classical and jazz, now I listen to that and world music more than anything when I’m trying to chill out. If I was going to refresh, yeah, Miles Davis, Sketches of Spain. I listen to Glenn Gould constantly. He’s a classical pianist, big Bach interpreter; I love the music of Eric Satie, I love Lee “Scratch” Perry and Doug Reggae.
When I hear a song and they say it’s an old blues song, I like to go and find the original and hear it that way and discover new music that is really old music.
That is the way to do it. You’re describing how I learned about music. I remember the first cassettes I bought were like Prince’s Purple Rain and what else did I get? Michael Jackson’s Thriller and I think I had a Van Halen tape. Those were my first tapes. Led Zeppelin. But then, very shortly after, my Dad was telling me to check out the roots and then it was Chuck Berry and from Chuck Berry it was Muddy Waters and from Muddy Waters it was Robert Johnson. And I’ve done that with so many artists, that’s how I managed to come up with my influences and what I like. It was that constant process of, kind of like how I was saying earlier about Duane, he was like an historian and an intellect so that he could understand music so that he could figure out how he wanted to do it. And that’s why I was saying earlier that eventually you check out all this music, you learn all this music. When I came to New York I was playing a lot of jazz too, a lot of straight-ahead jazz, and I’ve done that a lot over the years. But no matter what I always come back to that style of soulful R&B and blues. That’s where my heart lives. And even when I play jazz, I play it from that perspective.
So you never get tired of playing music.
Oh no. Especially with Gregg’s gig, I never get tired of this. There is so much happening that is good on the gig. Besides, the material is amazing and Gregg as a vocalist is so amazing. When I play with Gregg, I mean I have a solo career and I produce people and I write for people, but when I play with Gregg I’m a sideman and as a sideman to have such a great book of material, a great rhythm section to play with, and a great singer, every gig is like gold. Every gig is like a phenomenal learning experience, a lot of fun, you have enough room to challenge yourself but you also have enough room to kind of lay back and listen and you can’t ask for anything more than that. That’s as good as it gets.
For more information on Scott Sharrard and his music, visit his website at www.scottsharrard.com