One True Note Can Slice Every Heart
A Q&A with Scott Sharrard
By Geoff Gehman
Scott Sharrard was sleeping at a friend’s house when he dreamed up a beyond-the-grave message from one Allman brother to another. After waking up, the veteran blues/rock/soul musician rushed downstairs, grabbed a guitar, sat on a picturesque porch, and sketched music to suit the cosmic couplet in his head: “You and I both know this river will surely flow to the end/Keep me in your heart; keep your soul on the mend.”
Sharrard couldn’t wait to share the first verse of his song with Gregg Allman, his host and band boss. Allman enjoyed the material so much, he decided to contribute to it, later adding the pivotal line “Hope you’re haunted by the music of my soul when I’m gone.” He was moved even more when Sharrard eventually told him that the opening rhyme came to him in a dream from Gregg’s hero, his late brother Duane, who died in a 1971 motorcycle accident after making an indelible impact as the lead guitarist and spiritual leader of the Allman Brothers Band.
“My Only True Friend” is a beautifully bittersweet ode to the mortality, and immortality, of the road, music and brotherhood. It anchors Gregg Allman’s last solo album, “Southern Blood,” which was released last month, four months after he died from liver cancer at age 69. It caps a life-changing eight years for Sharrard, who played lead guitar for and served as musical director of the Gregg Allman Band, performing Allman Brothers Band classics that made him want to make music for a living when he was a kid.
Sharrard long ago adopted Gregg Allman’s motto that “one true note can slice every heart.” He will slice hearts on Oct. 6 when he and his Brickyard Band play the Mauch Chunk Opera House in Jim Thorpe, where he stayed a handful of times during gigs with the Gregg Allman Band at nearby Penn’s Peak. His live repertoire includes “Love Like Kerosene,” which he wrote with Allman; Allman’s “Win, Lose or Draw,” which he played live for the first time 13 days after Allman’s death, and his own “Words Can’t Say,” which he recorded for his unreleased album “Saving Grace,” which features renowned session men from the legendary Muscle Shoals studio and Hi Records, the legendary soul label. Equally adept at ballads and boogies, he’s a scintillating, sensitive guitarist and a gritty, graceful singer, with the pure passion of a fan and the encyclopedic knowledge of a musicologist. For proof, check out the YouTube videos of his wounding, healing acoustic guitar duets with Allman on “Sweet Melissa” and “Whipping Post” during the 2016 Laid Back Festival.
Below, during a conversation from the home in Harlem he shares with his wife, Albane, and their two young sons, Sharrard discusses his debts to Allman, his guitarist father and a documentary on the Monterey Pop Festival he saw with his parents when he was a sub-teen who already knew his destiny.
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that turned your world upside down and inside out?
A: I don’t know if it’s one song as much as it was one sound. My dad is a singer, songwriter and guitar player and he used to warm up things by playing Chuck Berry and Jimmy Reed. The very first guitar part he taught me was a Jimmy Reed blues shuffle in A. My education really began when I learned the rhythm guitar parts of Reed and Berry songs, by myself and backing my dad in the living room and listening to the original recordings; that’s where I learned that dominant seventh chord that separates the men from the boys. Even at eight or nine I knew that if you couldn’t play Chuck Berry and Jimmy Reed songs there wasn’t anything worth playing; it was not directly said but understood by osmosis.
I had that Reed and Berry rhythm right away and when I locked into it, it was, okay, this is what I want to do with my life. That probably sounds weird to most people, but most musicians who do it for a living can relate. I’ve never looked back, although I’ve gone down some blind and side alleys.
The next step was seeing the Allman Brothers Band live. That’s when I said: Oh, I get it; these guys look like me and they speak the same language. They just transfixed me and changed my life. Another thing that changed my life, the same year , was seeing Jeff Beck and Stevie Ray Vaughan, the last year of Stevie Ray’s life on earth. Not only that, all those guys had videos on VH1. So I could study them and tap into the whole big bang.
I eventually realized that this music tells a huge story. It is who we are as Americans; it encapsulates so much. These songs cut across race, ethnicity and country when the country was even more divided than it is now. In the ’60s you had so many bands feeding off one another from across the Atlantic. We wouldn’t have had Jimi Hendrix without the Who or Cream; we wouldn’t have had the Allman Brothers Band for that matter. Then you had people like Robert Palmer going to New Orleans and recording with the Meters and Steve Wonder covering Beatles songs. It all became a great cross-over conversation. The same music that knocked me off my feet and changed my life did the same to Duane and Gregg [Allman] as kids. We are truly at our best in this country when we make music because it’s a true melting pot that reveals our soul.
Q: You had a seminal, semi-religious experience when your parents took you to a theater to see the documentary on the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. How did it worm itself into your soul and rearrange your vital organs?
A: For me the Monterey Pop documentary is the gold standard. Watching Otis Redding with Booker T. & the MGs and Jimi Hendrix with the Experience—it’s still the apex of musical expression in America. Booker T. & the MGs and the Experience were both inter-racial bands; that meant a lot to me even as a kid. Then you have Otis making the Stones’ “Satisfaction” completely his own and making a heartfelt speech to the hippies from the Georgia woods of racial oppression and insanity; that was truly liberating. And then you have Hendrix, who completely steals “Like a Rolling Stone” from Dylan and completely destroys “Killing Floor.” He plays beautiful ballads and English-style rave-ups and soul and funk—it’s all there. He smashes his guitar and sets it on fire and gets down on his knees and prays—and he does all of this onstage in 45 minutes. That to me is when Jimi rose to the level of performance artist, making sounds that had never been heard.
I forgot every other act besides Jimi and Otis and Booker T. & the MGs: I remember not even being able to sleep after seeing them, that’s how keyed up I was.
I grew up playing with musicians older than I was and they’d say that if you don’t have the passion for music, if you’re not a fan first, you won’t be able to play it really, truly well. If you play music from the heart and soul, it changes your cellular structure. All you can do is try to recreate that feeling while also telling your own story. It’s not about getting up there and being famous and having a press conference. It’s all about releasing and escaping, for you and your audience.
Q: You auditioned for Gregg Allman’s group by doing a cameo with the Allman Brothers Band during a 2008 concert in Camden, N.J. Were you unusually nervous about finally being inside the Allman Brothers mix after spending so many years imagining you were in the thick of things?
A: Oh, I was shaking. I remember calling my wife before I went on and telling her that I can’t believe I’m going to be playing with the favorite band of my youth, with my heroes. After she calmed me down and I hung up the phone, I remembered something else that calmed me down—when I was 15 and getting onstage to play with masters like [blues guitarist/vocalist] Hubert Sumlin and knowing that was the life I was preparing to lead. Trust me, you learn to think on your feet real quickly when you’re a kid playing the blues with master musicians at the Checkerboard Lounge, and you’re the only white guy besides 10 German tourists, and the guys onstage are basically saying: You better bring it, dude, or you’re done—we’re going to throw you off the stage.
It also helped that I had a wonderful conversation with Gregg before going onstage. [Sharrard and Allman admitted they were both influenced by the call-and-responses of blues guitarist Wayne Bennett and singer Bobby “Blue” Bland] And it helped that the members of the Allman Brothers Band are the nicest people you can imagine. So, when it was my time to perform, I just took a deep breath and had a good time. At one point I looked over at Gregg and he was smiling real wide and I said to myself: Oh, this is okay. It must have been OK, because I was invited back for two more tunes.
Q: You’ve said that “My Only True Friend” came to you in a dream as a conversation between Duane and Gregg Allman. How did you end up shaping the song with Gregg? And how long did you wait until you told him that the first voice in the song is actually his brother’s?
A: I dreamed that conversation at Gregg’s house in Savannah. It was so vivid, it was almost like a movie. I got out of bed, rushed downstairs, grabbed my guitar, sat on the porch with the sun coming up over the boat slip, and formed the introduction and first verse exactly as you hear them on the recording. Gregg usually woke up late so I waited a few hours to show him what I had written. I was so excited, I wouldn’t let him have breakfast. He immediately loved it. And then I thought: Am I going to tell him how this all started, with the dream about him and Duane talking, or let it go? Gregg had such love and reverence for Duane; he constantly spoke about him, about how important a figure he was, as a musician and a human being. I didn’t want to freak Gregg out or offend him or fuck up the song by telling him.
When I told him, he was perfectly fine. He even added the key line: “Hope you’re haunted by the music of my soul when I’m gone.” That’s when I thought: OK, this is where the music is going.
Gregg didn’t want to record [“My Only True Friend”] when we were cutting “Southern Blood” at Muscle Shoals. Marc Quinones, Gregg’s percussionist and a 25-year Allman Brothers Band member, told me: You’ve got to write a third verse. So I went back to my hotel room that night and worked hard to carve out another verse. In the fog of war you don’t think about it much but I started to realize: Wow, this third verse is all about me being alone in my hotel room, and I only have so much time left and, shit, if I don’t get this verse done, the song is not going to make the record. I was also thinking about mortality; I wanted to write the third verse in Gregg’s voice because I didn’t know how long we would have him on this planet. Mortality was hanging in the air, just as his story was hanging in the air.
Most of what a songwriter writes are transmissions. Most of these transmissions are pretty oblique. This one was direct. I’m only spiritual when it comes to art and mother nature; I’m totally skeptical about the rest of it. Hey, I’ve been living for 25 years in New York, where most days feel like a Darwinian cesspool [laughs].
I feel very honored that Gregg trusted me to share his special relationship with Duane and then let me ride that wave with him. Trust me, it was a life-changing experience.
Q: Let’s talk about another one of your dream projects: your unreleased album “Saving Grace.” You cut it at Muscle Shoals, the legendary studio in Alabama, with such renowned Shoals fixtures as bassist David Hood and organist Spooner Oldham, and in Memphis with drummer Howard Grimes and bassist Leroy Hodges, members of the Hi Rhythm Section, the Hi Records sidemen who helped make Al Green’s hits so groove-a-licious. So how was it working with your heroes? Did you have any out-of-body experiences, any out-of-this-world episodes?
A: I knew I was going to work with the guys who helped shape the sound of my songs. So I decided to go back through my entire recording catalog and cherry pick the tunes I had written specifically because of those cats at Muscle Shoals and Hi Records. I chose “Tell the Truth,” “Words Can’t Say,” “She Can’t Wait” and “Sweet Compromise”; the last one was a demo I cut with my old band, the Chesterfields, when I was a kid.
I felt so lucky spending a couple of days with those guys in Memphis. They’re used to people coming to record with them, but we got BBQ from Cozy Corner catering and a case of beer to make them feel even more comfortable. I made it abundantly clear from the beginning that it was a privilege to record with them, let alone record material I had essentially written for them. Within 10 minutes it was like a love feast. We were just having fun and cutting up and making music. There were no attitudes, no BS, just pure music making. My co-producer, Scott Bomar, who leads the great band the Bo-Keys, told me he had never seen these guys so animated. Leroy [Hodges] is this very unassuming cat who is a monster on the bass and has an absolutely beautiful vibe. He said: “Man, this was just like back in the day.”
[“Saving Grace”] is mixed and finished and I’m still trying to find a home for it. Unfortunately, the corporate music business doesn’t know how to work with real musicians anymore. So we’re working on putting it out by ourselves. Luckily, there are still a lot of musicians who have the means to love and support a special project. This album is a rite of passage for me, my graduation from working with my heroes. Now it’s time for me to see if I can hit at least one of their heights.
Q: So, Scott, what tops your Bucket List? I’ve had musicians tell me that they’re yearning to do everything from tour the world to promote world peace.
A: I want to go on a world peace tour with my band and my family [laughs].
Q: And what tops your Fuck It List?
A: I gotta be honest with you, my buddy, if you want to hear everything on my Fuck It List, we’re going to be busy for quite a while. I’d say Donald Trump, parking tickets, and Trump again.
Scott Sharrard: The Scoop
He joined the Gregg Allman Band on the recommendation of band member Jay Collins, who also played saxophone in the Allman Brothers Band.
He named his Brickyard Band after the Allen Toussaint song “Brickyard Blues.”
He taught guitar with G.E. Smith and Larry Campbell at Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch.
One of his favorite musicians is Jack Pearson, a master of guitars ranging from slide to resonator, a former member of the Allman Brothers Band and a musical partner of everyone from Taj Mahal to Faith Hill.
His tips to young musicians include learn from bad players as well as good and turn your mistakes into ideas.
“Saving Grace,” his unreleased new album, contains a song by Terry Reid, who famously passed on the chance to be Led Zeppelin’s first lead singer partly because he didn’t want to give up a tour with the Rolling Stones.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He shares Scott Sharrard’s affection for the Otis Redding and Sam & Dave glory days of Stax Records. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.