15 Years Ago: Allman Brothers Band Roar Back With ‘Hittin’ the Note’
The Allman Brothers Band's 24th album was at once like and unlike anything they had ever done before. While attempting to make their first music without Dickey Betts, they rediscovered something that used to fire the group's earliest successes: Creating together, in a room.
Hittin' the Note arrived in March 2003 as an unlikely return to form, giving the refocused Allman Brothers Band their first Top 40 release since 1980's Reach for the Sky. Gregg Allman struggled to fully explain this sudden bounce-back performance, though he seemed to intimate that Betts' ugly exit had ultimately been a case of addition by subtraction.
"Probably because the vibes were so very good on this record," Allman told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2003. "We were finally into it. And I guess we have had a personnel change lately and that was a major reason."
Once again, they'd come up against their own legend after the departure of a key member. And as before – beginning with Duane Allman's death, and then Berry Oakley's – the Allman Brothers Band somehow summoned the strength to carry on, and then to evolve into something new. Derek Trucks, nephew of co-founding drummer Butch Trucks and a member of the Allmans since 1999, described it as a nothing less than a creative rebirth.
"I definitely think the split they had between the band and Dickey was a big part of it," Trucks told the Oklahoman in 2004. "When you're in a band, it's like being married to five or six people. Sometimes, there's people you're not supposed to be with. It's unhealthy for both parties."
Warren Haynes, then in his second stint after an earlier tenure from 1989–1997, co-produced Hittin' the Note. More than that, he helped Gregg Allman rediscover his muse, beginning with their co-written blues "Desdemona."
"I was pretty much in a slump, but this thing with Warren woke my writing back up," Allman told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in 2003. "I'm not back to where I was. I don't think I'll ever be. I'm pretty thankful for the stuff I've already written. But Warren and I have the exact same taste in music. When I'd get hung up on something, he'd come in and finish it off."
Listen to the Allmans Perform 'High Cost of Low Living'
They mimicked those face-to-face writing sessions, held over a week's time at Allman's home in Savannah, Ga., when it was time to record Hittin' the Note. Songs were demoed in a tight circle; they'd do several takes and then move on to the next one.
"We were set up in a big room, and we recorded live with the exception of a couple of overdubbed slide solos," Haynes told Guitar Player in 2003. "The mics were placed fairly close to the speakers, which gave us the best of both worlds – the ambience of the room, and a close sound with a little more bottom end."
It took just 10 days in December 2001, with a few overdubs the following April, to complete the best Allman Brothers Band in decades. "The band was in a really good head space," Haynes told the Tribune-Review. "Everybody was in a really good place, and you can feel it in the music."
Haynes (a gritty, stilettoed presence) and Trucks (always so jazz-flecked and warm) updated the band's classic twin-guitar sound, while the group also smartly recalled former glories: "High Cost of Low Living" quotes Allman Brothers classics like "Blue Sky" and "Dreams," while "Instrumental Illness" echoed their epic legacy improvisations.
"It was amazing, I'll tell you," Allman said of "Instrumental Illness," which earned a pair of Grammy award nominations. "We had a lot of fun doing it, too. And that, my friend, is the way it's supposed to be. You should love the work you do."
Allman brilliantly tangled with the guitarists on "Woman Across the River," while bassist Oteil Burbridge brought a fiery new propulsion in place of the late Allen Woody. Allman took a long look back on "Old Before My Time," one of five songs he co-wrote with Haynes for Hittin' the Note – including the single "Firing Line," which reached the Top 40 on the Billboard mainstream rock charts. Feeling their oats, the Allman Brothers Band added in a cover of "Heart of Stone" by the Rolling Stones.
Listen to the Allmans Perform 'Old Before My Time'
Gregg Allman said he could tell right away they'd created a rare thing. "There isn't a clunker on the set," he told Relix in 2003. "In the past, our records always had that one track – the one where you just shake your head."
Even the album name spoke to both their visceral new camaraderie and to the Allman Brothers Band's treasured history. "It was an expression of Berry Oakley’s that means in the pocket, on top of it: Everybody’s biorhythms are perfect. Everybody’s hitting the note at the same time," Allman told Relix. "When you went and saw a band and you came back, the rest of the guys would ask if everybody was hitting the note."
They closed out the album with a song that pointed definitively to what looked like a very bright future: "Old Friend," an oaken, stripped-down duet between Haynes and Trucks, became the only Allman Brothers Band song that didn't feature an original member.
"We placed one mic on each guitar, and the two contrasting and complementary sounds are gorgeous – it almost sounds like one big 12-string," Haynes told Guitar Player. "We also put two pieces of plywood across the floor, which made the guitars sound better. We actually miked the plywood, too, so you can hear not only the resonance of the guitars bouncing off the wood, but also my foot stomping throughout the whole thing."
Unfortunately, despite all of the promise that Hittin' the Note seemed to possess, the Allman Brothers Band never recorded another studio album. Derek Trucks called it his biggest regret.
"Hittin' the Note was good, but there was a better record in there," Trucks told Rolling Stone in 2015. "Having a studio in my backyard where we could have easily recorded the band — between me and Warren, we would have crushed an Allman Brothers record ... and it never came to pass."