Music lives on at Allman Brothers Big House
By Jackie Sheckler Finch
As a young musician, Gregg Allman wolfed down collard greens and barbecue to lend “soul” to his voice. The food story may be a tongue-in-cheek tale but Gregg’s earthy tormented growl is not.
At the Allman Brothers Band Museum at the Big House in Macon, Georgia, that is just one of the interesting tidbits about the group credited with developing the soulful sound of Southern rock.
“It’s unbelievable how many people come here. And they come from all over the globe,” says museum director Richard Brent. “This music and this band will always be celebrated.”
Opened as a museum in 2009, the 18-room Tudor Revival was built in 1900. The Allman Brothers Band, girlfriends, roadies and friends called it home from 1970 to 1973.
It’s where “Blue Sky,” “Midnight Rider,” and “Ramblin’ Man” were penned. It’s where the band planned the famed 1971 show at the Fillmore East concert hall in New York City. The live recording was later released as a double album –now considered one of the most influential records in rock history and one of the best live recordings of its time.
It’s where Duane Allman left on his motorcycle and never returned. Just down the street in the soft twilight of Oct. 29, 1971, Duane swerved his Harley Davidson Sportster to avoid a truck that had turned in front of him. The cycle skidded, pinning Duane underneath it, dragging him 50 feet to his death. He was 24 years old.
It’s where bass player Berry Oakley lived with his wife and daughter when he rode his ‘67 Triumph motorcycle through Macon on Nov. 11, 1972. He slammed into a city bus just three blocks from where Duane had died. Within hours, Berry was dead of a brain hemorrhage. He was 24 years old.
Duane and Berry were laid to rest next to one another at Macon’s Rosehill Cemetery, where the band had spent so much of their time getting inspiration for songs like “Elizabeth Reed” and “Little Martha.” When he died May 27, 2017, of liver cancer, Gregg Allman was buried in the space next to his brother and Berry. He was 69 years old.
“This old house has so much history, happy and sad. It’s an amazing place, like a step back in time,” Richard says.
“One of the best compliments we get is people saying that they feel like the band has just gone out on a tour and will be coming back home here,” Richard says. “It’s a place for people who loved the Allman Brothers Band and always will.”
Allman brothers born in Nashville
To start off, the two Allman brothers were born in Nashville – Duane on Nov. 20, 1946, and Gregg on Dec. 8, 1947. Their mother was Geraldine. Their father, Willis Turner Allman, had fought in World War II among the forces that stormed Normandy during D-Day invasions.
After the war, Willis became a recruitment officer and moved his family to near Norfolk, Virginia. On the day after Christmas 1949, Willis drove his new Ford to a tavern with a master-sergeant friend. A stranger at the bar asked if Willis could give him a ride home.
“They got up the highway,” Gregg wrote in his 2012 autobiography, “My Cross to Bear.” “When they got to a place where the corn stopped, the dude pulled out an army .45. He told my daddy to stop and get out, so they did.
The man saw Willis’ new car and thought he was looking at someone with money. Willis told the gunman, “Take the car, take everything.” The man replied, “Oh, you know my name. Now I gotta kill ya.” And he did.
Geraldine moved her sons back to Nashville and later enrolled them in military school. But the boys soon let it be known that they weren’t cut out for military life. Music was more their style. In March 1969, Duane formed the Allman Brothers Band – Duane, Gregg, Dickey Betts, Butch Trucks, Jaimoe Johanson and Berry Oakley.
Fusing a wicked brew of blues, rock, jazz and county, the Allman Brothers Band created a new musical genre known as Southern rock. The band moved to Macon in 1969 after signing with Capricorn Records which was based in Macon.
Berry’s wife Linda went looking for a place for the band to stay when they weren’t touring. She found the 13-room, 4,400-square-foot house to rent and took up residence in January 1970.
“They called it the Big House because it was the biggest house any of them had ever lived in,” Richard said. “For three years, it was a place filled with music.”
However, when Linda went to Florida to be with her family for Christmas 1972 after the death of her husband, she returned in January 1973 to find an eviction notice waiting for her. “Apparently, the publicity surrounding the band led to the eviction,” Richard says.
The band called it quits in 1976 after personality conflicts and drug abuse. They reunited several times with new members and continued playing together until their retirement in 2014. Butch Trucks committed suicide by gunshot in 2017.
Big House becomes popular museum
The Big House changed hands over the years. Beauty parlor for a while. Lawyer’s office. Slowly falling into disrepair. In 1993, Allman Brothers road manager Kirk West and his wife Kirsten bought the Big House dreaming of creating a shrine to the band.
Living there for 15 years, the Wests were accustomed to fans from around the world who would knock on the front door, hoping to get a glimpse of Duane’s bedroom or a look at where the band held jam sessions. “They estimate that more than 20,000 fans came here,” Richard says.
With the help of Linda Oakley, the Wests returned the Big House to its 1970s look when the Allman Brothers called it home. Then the Wests opened it to the public. The museum has more than 300,000 pieces of memorabilia collected by Kirk West.
Mushroom reminders are scattered everywhere. The band ingested such vast quantities of psychedelic mushrooms that the mushroom became a band logo. Each member got one tattooed on his upper calf. Years later when he was diagnosed in 1999, Gregg asserted that he got hepatitis C from a dirty tattoo needle.
The large metal driveway gate boasts a mushroom sculpture with a line from “Midnight Rider” – “And the road goes on forever.”
“When it’s all said and done, I’ll go to my grave and my brother will greet me saying, ‘Nice work, little brother – you did all right,” Gregg wrote in the last lines of “My Cross to Bear.”
“I must have said this a million times, but if I died today, I’ve had me a blast. I wouldn’t trade (my life) for nobody’s, but I don’t know if I’d do it again. If somebody offered me a second round, I think I’d have to pass on it.”
Jackie Sheckler Finch cover photo:
The Big House in Macon is where the Allman Brothers Band lived from 1970 to 1973.