Southbound: A Journey to the Allman Brother's Adopted Hometown Macon, Georgia
Allman Brothers. Two words forever linked to Mary Ann, my oldest sister, who opened up my ears to music never heard before or since. Two words synonymous with stepping from my youth into womanhood. The Allman Brothers Band’s first release was my very first album & I cut my teeth on this one, with its mesmerizing vocals, slide guitar, resonating lyrics and fascinating men on the cover and a creek view inside.
So here I am, some 50 years later, 2021, going back to where it all began, and riding shotgun with Jan, one of my dearest friends from those days & beyond. There were 4 of us, still are, who lived in the Age of the Allman Bros, and who were propelled through space, going from Bubble Gum music to Whipping Post in a short few years. Culottes morphed into embroidered jeans. Peace signs and black light posters were the thing. The album came out in 1969 and in 1970, we stepped into the halls of our High School, a place I am still trying to determine if I liked or not. There is a lot that I did not like about growing up, but this band was always a constant for feeding the soul and I came back to it over and over again to do just that. This band and my friends…constants for life.
Duane Allman, Berry Oakley, Gregg Allman and Butch Trucks are now in eternal repose in Rose Hill Cemetery, and we set our sights to honor them. Singing every single word of every single song, we roared towards Macon & our destiny with the past. These songs were engrained in our brains. I bet when I am on my death bed, if I hear Black Hearted Woman, I will sit up & belt out “one of these days, I’m gonna catch you with your back door man” and then lie down to greet my maker.
Rose Hill Cemetery
What a splendidly wild place it was! At first we were dismayed that it was in such disrepair, grass and weeds growing in every crevice and as high as an elephant’s eye. But the views overrode it all. The cemetery undulated under a vivid blue sky, punctuated with clouds that my husband would call Raggedy Ann clouds in his youth – big, puffy clouds akin to those which had graced the cover of his Raggedy Ann book in his Big Burning Elementary School. The sense of serenity was there, too. There were angels watching over their people, regal headstones, and plain headstones, too and headstones that simply read “Mama” and “Papa” from afar. Some in the open, others under trees that pierced the sky with their elegant beauty and some found only by taking steps down towards the bottom land. So much to take in. We had directions, but I rolled down my window instead to talk to a man tending a plot. “Go down along the tracks & look for the nicest graves. You can’t miss them” he pointed down the lane, after talking about the shabby state and his friend having a spy cam to keep folks from watering their dogs on his kempt, grassy plot. What would he do with the video, I wondered. Call the cemetery police? With that, we wound our way down, following the train tracks as we went.
The smell of creosote assailed us as we contemplated graves off in the distance. “Well, look here, wasn’t this some sort of viewing stand for Gregg’s funeral?” We had pulled off & got out to look at a concrete pad with ornate iron fencing on three sides. From this vantage, we could see similar railing surrounding several graves up the hill. “That’s got to be it,’ we agreed and as a train blew its whistle behind us, we knew we were on the right track.
As we walked towards the graves, we eyed the row of Confederate graves above us & to our left. So many perfectly placed white crosses in succession. Later, we would walk among the markers. They represented Georgia, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and a host of other southern states, and had converged in Macon upon this hill, dubbed Soldier’s Square. Lives cut short. they overlooked the Ocmulgee River and the railroad tracks until Kingdom Come.
The dirt lane was dotted with stones & upon stooping down, I unsuccessfully tried to pry one out. “Remind me, when we come back.” I always took stones from my journeys. If one felt reluctant, I threw it back. I was not one to take what was not mine.
We ascended the brick steps to the graves. Fencing had been installed some time ago, as many were apparently drawn there to party, leaving a bit of their party favors behind as dawn broke, most likely. My friend, Lucy, had slept on Duane’s grave when the graves were still open to all. That sounds rather peaceful & in no way disrespectful, in my opinion. Still, the fencing went up, leaving Jan & I to gaze through the bars, trying to read the etchings on the slabs. There they were, the men who made the music that rocked our world, long stem roses adorning each grave. We were both somber. Then Jan pulled out the Almond Joy candy bars she had bought at a gas stop on the outskirts of town. “To the Allman Brothers.” We each offered words from our hearts, and as we ate, tried in vain to staunch the melting chocolate before it hit our mouths. The Georgia heat and humidity offered no help. I often say Augusta is the hottest place on Earth, but I may have to amend that thinking.
We left them to climb the steps and walk among the graves above them, each life recognized as we passed by. As we rambled, I looked back to see that two men showed up at the graves, as did a woman. More people to honor them, I surmised. But then they entered the enclosed area. Ah, privileged few. Relatives, perhaps. We edged back to the site and could see that the woman had gardening gear. Keeper of the Graves. The men took photos, then shortly left her & drove off. We had to take the steps down beside the graves and as we did so, we commented on how serene and peaceful it was. “Would you like to come in?” Would we? Jan & I looked at each other & nodded enthusiastically. We entered hallowed ground. And now we could see the beautiful slabs for Duane, Berry and Gregg. Butch Trucks was to the far left and had an upright tombstone. “Do you know who Brittany and Galadrielle are?” we asked her. These were the two kneeling angels at the foot of Berry and Duane’s graves, respectively, each bowing their heads. “Those are their daughters.” I was to find out later that Duane had named his daughter after the character in the JRR Tolkien novel, Lord of the Rings. On Duane’s slab were the words that I was to see in his room at the Big House, written on New Year’s Day:
“I love being alive and I will be the best man I possibly can. I will take love wherever I find it and offer it to everyone who will take it. . . seek knowledge from those wiser and teach those who wish to learn from me.”
On Berry’s headstone were the words: Set Free Nov 11, 1972, with “the road goes on forever” below. The slab read: “Help thy brother’s boat across and lo! Thine own has reached the shore”. I have since found out this is a Hindu Proverb.
Gregg Lenoir Allman held on his slab the lyrics from Melissa. “Again the morning's come, again he's on the run. Sunbeams shining through his hair, appearing not to have a care, well pick up your gear and Gypsy roll on, roll on.”
And Butch, well, his was as plain as the day is long. Birth date, death date. Enough said to be laid to rest.
We talked a bit to the woman, who introduced herself. She was kind and said something told her to come down today. I think it makes her glad to see that folks continue the pilgrimage to honor them. We did not pry to see if she was a friend or relative. It doesn’t matter. She loves them, of that I am certain. Jan asked about the Confederate Jasmine growing on the fence and she took her clippers to it, asking if we would like to take some cuttings with us. “Could we?” Again Jan & I looked at each other & nodded profusely. Had we come another day, or another time, we would have just had to content ourselves with looking through the iron bars, as so many before us had & since will do. But today, the stars aligned for us.
As we walked away, we both felt different. I reached down & picked up a stone farther down the lane and Jan did the same. It felt ok, more that ok, it felt good to do so.
Next stop, the H & H Restaurant. I have taken this from their website to do the restaurant justice.
“Founded in 1959 by Inez Hill and Louise Hudson, H&H Restaurant is a Macon institution – woven into the fabric of Macon’s history. H&H has kept Macon’s most diverse clientele well-fed with delicious, stick-to-ya-ribs soul food and is most famous for its founders’ unique friendship with the Allman Brothers Band. This friendship took Mama Louise on quite a ride that included a seat on the tour bus in 1972 and lifelong friendships with Gregg and the rest of the band, as well as most all of the figures (large and small) of Macon’s southern rock explosion”.
How could we NOT go to this place? We were seated & just stared at all the photographs & memorabilia on the walls. “Good Lord, look at this place!” Besides Allman Bros, there were posters for the Marshall Tucker Band, Molly Hatchet, a young man by the name of Dexter Redding (surely Otis’ son), Sea Level, Jimmy Carter, Capricorn Records & this was just from our vantage point at our table. “Tea, please, half & half and fried Chicken!” It was unanimous. To augment my chicken, I went for mac and cheese, squash casserole and corn bread. We both laughed when my plate came out yellow. One of the things in the world that I am always searching for is the perfect Meat and Three, with the best mac and cheese. I am a connoisseur of this delectable. “That is how I am with biscuits,” Jan said, as she bit into her cathead biscuit. She was not disappointed. We went to it. Afterwards, I declared, “I am serensified.” Mother taught me that word many moons ago & one must use it sparingly to have true meaning. But here, here was an excellent time to use it! Lunch on me & a T-shirt on Jan & away we went, in search of the Big House.
The Big House
The Big House is located at 2321 Vineville Avenue and Jan steered her car in that direction. We passed it once, then went around the block, to enter the imposing gates, with the ubiquitous mushroom split in half. Despite the name, I had no idea that it would be that big, nor that nice, being a Tudor revival built in 1900. Seems a supreme bit of luck that it was available for rent for those guys, but we learned it was in a bit of disrepair at that time, too. So from 1970 -1973, it was home to members of the band, their roadies, friends and families. In my mind’s eye, I could see their comings and goings, at all hours likely.
We came in from the back of the house, gazing up at it. How beautiful it was! We wandered around to the stained glass front doors and entered the world of the Allman Brothers Band. There were instruments of all kinds – guitars, bass guitars, drums, one of Gregg’s organs and amps, too. Clothing worn by the band members hung behind glass, as did lyrics and memorabilia and all things which make a band and a life as a band member. Wandering about downstairs, Jan & I became enveloped in it. Slowly, we were incorporated into that era, when we first heard the music and responded. This was our music played out in our early, soul shaping lives. Each room held treasures, each told a story. Upstairs we entered the inner sanctum, bedrooms where Duane slept and Berry & Candace, too. In Berry’s closet, you could see the embroidered jeans that he wore. And there was the little dress their daughter wore on the back of Brothers and Sisters album. So poignant. The casbah held a hookah and we nodded to each other, acknowledging the likely contents. And there, in Duane’s bedroom on his nightstand, lay the paper that he had written on January 1st, 1969, which now graced his tombstone. We had come full circle.
We weren’t ready to leave Macon, so we utilized a map provided by the Big House Museum and parked the car to walk among the old homes. The sun was beating down as we stood looking at the architecture. We admired one particular grand lady, oozing grace from the chimneys to the grounds. “I could live here. Or that one.” So many to choose from. We turned and looked across the street at 315 College St. “That’s it!” There it stood, the antebellum home where the first album cover was photographed. Back then it was run down, as the band members leaned on the columns and paint chipped away. But not now. Walking up to it, I spied the mushroom on the glass and smiled. “Come see, Jan.” I said, as I practically pressed my nose against the panes. It was now the McDuffie Center for Strings. And so the music continues, just in a different form. Play on….
I don’t think I knew the impact our trip would have on me. I stepped back in time, with my dear friend, transported to a place I had not visited internally in a long time. Music has a way of doing that. For me, the Allman Bros struck that chord of freedom we were all yearning to feel, as we ventured out into the real world from beneath our parent’s wings. Their songs kept us aloft in those years as we grew and expanded. We took those songs and placed them forever in our memory banks. They feel just as good today, as they did 50 years ago. Maybe more so, knowing we have taken those songs and that band with us on our life journey.