I witnessed Butch Trucks' magic in the first person more than 50 times between 1990 and 2014, and can attest to its power and to the soulful vibe it spread.
Trucks, who committed suicide on Tuesday evening at the age of 69, changed the shape of rock music in his role as one of the Allman Brothers Band’s twin drummers. He brought a jazz-man’s dynamics, a rock drummer’s heaviness, and a blues aficionado’s sense of the groove to one of the most important bands to ever emerge from the American South.
Doing so was never easy.
When the Allman Brothers Band moved from Jacksonville, Fla., to Macon, Ga., and started getting serious about crafting one of the most indelible cross-pollinations in the history of American music, the South was not quite ready for them. The Brothers – Duane and Gregg Allman, Berry Oakley, Dickey Betts, Trucks and co-drummer Jai Johanney Johanson, known to all as Jaimoe – shared a house in Macon, played together constantly, and could be seen around town, flagrantly embracing their status as a racially integrated band amidst a still racist culture. (Jaimoe is an African American born in Mississippi, who already had served a tenure with Otis Redding’s band by the time he hooked up with the Brothers.)
This might sound absurd now – or perhaps not – but at the time, the commingling of long-haired hippie types and black men raised more than a few eyebrows in Macon. In fact, it did so wherever the band toured in the southern states.
Tellingly, it is this very racial integration that sits at the heart of the ABB sound. Jaimoe’s roots in R&B and jazz, Trucks rock 'n' roll heart and jazzer’s sense of swing, and the jazz-blues, Jimmy Smith/Brother Jack McDuff lineage apparent in Gregg Allman’s Hammond organ playing commingled to form a new hybrid of American music. When this was coupled with the interlocking guitar harmonies and searing soloing of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts, the ABB settled on a sound that offered a Southern corollary to the psychedelic stylings of West Coast jam bands like the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service.
The Allman Brothers Band played the blues as if the form was a mere springboard for jazz-inspired collective improvisation, but unlike the Dead, the Brothers had a strong, learned foundation in the work of their Southern R&B forebears.
At the heart of what would come to be one of the most influential sounds to emerge from the late '60s and early '70s sat the interwoven grooves of Trucks and Jaimoe. You can hear it in the band’s earliest works – the torrid, Miles Davis-inspired version of the epic “Whipping Post” on the self-titled 1969 debut, along with its album-mates “It’s Not My Cross to Bear” and “Trouble No More,” reveal a young band that sounds like a fully seasoned and actualized one. Trucks and Jaimoe managed to create a propulsive drive completely devoid of bombast, favoring a painterly sense of space and a tendency to under-play and focus on listening. AllMusic.com nails the essence of that sound, calling it “a bold, powerful, hard-edged, soulful essay in electric blues with a native Southern ambience."
To hear this understated virtuosity in all its glory, one need look no further than the ABB’s 1971 double live effort “At Fillmore East,” one of the greatest live albums ever made, and a record that routinely makes lists of the most important recordings in rock history. Rolling Stone’s claim that, at the time, “At Fillmore East” was the work of “"the best damn rock and roll band this country has produced in the past five years" turned out to be a prescient one.
Today, Trucks’ influence can be heard throughout the contemporary musical landscape, not least in the work of the Tedeschi Trucks Band, the ensemble founded by the drummer’s nephew, the revered, groundbreaking guitarist Derek Trucks.
Whenever a rock drummer listens closely, pauses to offer commentary on one of his fellow musicians’ phrasing, reacts in real time to the unuttered demands of the music, or steers the ship through a heady, adventurous jam, and lands it safely on the shore – Trucks’ body of work will be celebrated.
"I’m heartbroken,” reads a statement on Facebook from Trucks' band-mate Gregg Allman. “I’ve lost another brother and it hurts beyond words. Butch and I knew each other since we were teenagers and we were band-mates for over 45 years. He was a great man and a great drummer and I’m going to miss him forever.”
Another band-mate, guitarist Warrem Haynes, referred to Trucks as "the Lou Gehrig of rock drummers," a man who left everything he had on the bandstand each night.
Members of the ABB's extended musical family also offered tributes. Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio, writing on Phish.com, recalled Trucks as "an incredible drummer and a really kind person."
"For me, Butch’s voice was as integral a part of the Allman Brother’s sound as Gregg’s, Duane’s, or any of the other great musicians that played over the years," Anastasio wrote. "He had a unique way of leaning hard into the bell of the cymbal and his own identifiable attack on the snare. He had an angular aggressive lope that was really unique. No one sounded like him."
A statement issued by the Trucks family - his wife, four children, four grandchildren and all of the Allman Brothers Band – speaks for all of those who have been touched by the man’s music over the years.
“Butch will play on in our hearts forever”.