By Blake Ells
At 30-years-old, Scott Sharrard was playing guitar for Gregg Allman, whom he had idolized growing up. It’s quite a leap when your heroes become your peers, but Sharrard and Allman formed a deep bond over their love of blues music. As their relationship grew late in Gregg’s life, the two wrote together and became close friends. Scott is on his own now, and he recorded much of his new record, Saving Grace, in the same Northwest Alabama room that Gregg spent time much of his career in. Before visiting Birmingham, Scott talked about his FAME sessions, his love of Southern barbecue, co-writing with Gregg and his love of the Magic City.
Birmingham Stages: What first inspired you to pick up a guitar?
Scott Sharrard: That’s an easy answer. My dad was a guitar player and singer, and he had a bunch of acoustic guitars lying around the house. He used to have jam sessions in the living room, and one day when I was about 10, I decided to join in. The first thing I ever learned was the Jimmy Reed shuffle rhythm on “Baby What You Want Me to Do.” I still think that’s the best thing I ever learned to play on the guitar. From there, I went into Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan and the classic Otis Redding stuff my dad was playing around the house. I just got hooked. I guess it was kind of preordained that I was going to pick up the guitar, but I ended up becoming obsessed with it.
Birmingham Stages: Did he ever formally teach you or did you just kind of pick it up yourself?
SS: No, my dad’s an ear player. He’s a blues/rock guy in terms of training, although he plays a lot of folk and bluegrass, too. And he plays all acoustic. He never played any electric around the house. He knew the names of the chords, but he didn’t show me scales or anything like that. I learned all of that on my own.
Birmingham Stages: And this was when you were living in Michigan? Wisconsin?
SS: Well, I’ve got quite a bit of traveling under my belt. I was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan and I was raised in Dearborn, near Detroit, and then I had what I call my “lost period.” There were three or four years where we were in different parts of Pennsylvania; we were in Colorado for a second. So I was 10—we had just moved to Pennsylvania when I had started playing. And in that brief three-year period when we were in PA, that’s when I first saw the Allman Brothers. I put my first band together and I really got serious.
Then we ended up in Milwaukee. I moved to Milwaukee when I was about 15. And I went to high school in Milwaukee.
Birmingham Stages: What was it like playing with the band that kind of made you want to this for a living?
SS: The Allman Brothers were the “Big Bang” moment for me. That’s what started it all. And when I put my first band together, they were the template when I was 13-years-old. And that remains.
Birmingham Stages: You picked up and left the Midwest immediately after high school for New York. Did you feel like you had to do that to be able to make it?
SS: I had really gotten to the top of what was the local blues scene in Milwaukee. I had my own apartment. I had my own car. At the age of 18, I was living like an adult: paying bills, playing gigs four or five nights a week in blues bars all over; playing with guys that were 20 years older than me. It was really an incubator. I definitely had a lot of success there. My friend Sean Dixon and I had a band—he was a high school classmate, a couple of years older than me—and we decided, the two of us, to make a go for New York. We found a rent-controlled apartment and that basically sealed the deal. We said, “Okay, we’re going to move to the East Village, rent-controlled apartment…” I think this was ’97 or ’98. And we just went for it.
To be honest with you, I wanted to move to New Orleans. I had another friend who was going to Loyola and I visited a couple of times as a teenager. I was obsessed with moving there. But just like most things—I always say that most things in New York begin with finding cheap real estate. Once you’ve cracked that code, you just have to follow it at that point. It’s non-negotiable.
Birmingham Stages: Is New York still home today?
SS: It is, and I’m still living that ridiculous gambit of cracking the code. My wife and I bought a place in Harlem about six years ago; we got a ridiculous deal on it. New York City is an intense hustle, man.
Birmingham Stages: It’s certainly fun to visit when you’re from the South, but I don’t know if I can crack that code.
SS: That should be its motto. It’s certainly fun to visit; but I wouldn’t say much else about it.
Birmingham Stages: How did you first meet Gregg [Allman] and how were you invited into the band?
SS: I had been playing guitar with my friend Jay Collins in his band and we were having a heck of a time. It was a lot of fun playing in his group. The whole time I was playing with him, he was saying, “You should be the guitar player in Gregg’s band. The guy we have isn’t working out.” It ended up taking me a couple of years of playing and hanging with Jay to finally get a chance to audition, and that was at an Allman Brothers show in Camden, New Jersey.
Basically Jay—who played saxophone for the Gregg Allman Band—called me up and said, “Come meet me. We’re going to go to Jersey. I’m going to have you sit in with The Allman Brothers.” This was August of 2008. I was about 30-years-old. I’ve played with a lot of legends; when I was a kid, I got to play with Hubert Sumlin and Buddy Miles. In my time in New York, I got to work with Levon Helm through Jay, also. I’d been around a lot of bad, legendary cats, but I was not prepared to meet all of The Allman Brothers guys at once and then go sit in with Gregg and have it all be about me getting the job. It was a lot of pressure.
I went straight to Gregg’s dressing room, I met him and we bonded right away on the blues, basically. The second question out of his mouth was if I knew who Wayne Bennett was—the guitar player from Bobby Bland—and luckily, being raised on the Midwest blues scene, Wayne Bennett was one of the guys. You had to learn all his licks from Bobby Bland records if you wanted to play with the singers I used to play with. So I immediately knew what he was talking about and when I went and sat in, we played a blues tune together—I think it was “You Don’t Love Me”—and I immediately started quoting Wayne Bennett on stage and stuff, and he just got a kick out of that.
We just really hit it off, man. I think he could tell that I was really serious about the craft of making rock and roll that’s based in the blues and soul music and jazz and all of the tributaries of American music that we loved. And that was a bond that deepened and deepened. It was always based on the music—our bond—and it was pretty deep. He recorded a lot in Muscle Shoals, including some of the final record.
Birmingham Stages: Did you spend some time in Muscle Shoals with him?
SS: In 2016, I made two records there. I made Gregg Allman’s Southern Blood first, and I then I came back in December of that year and made half of my new solo album, Saving Grace. We did about six tracks there, and when I was there doing my record, we used Spooner Oldham and David Hood from the Swampers—the legendary rhythm section that played on everything: Staple Singers – “I’ll Take You There,” Wilson Pickett – “Midnight Hour.” And they’re still playing great, man. Unbelievable.
And then we got Chad Gamble to come play drums from Jason Isbell’s band, who’s a wonderful musician and I’d always wanted to work with him. We also got Duane Allman’s ’57 [Les Paul] Goldtop that he used on the first two Allman Brothers records and on the “Layla” record and on a lot of session work—we had that brought from the Big House Museum in Macon to Muscle Shoals, and I actually used that guitar on, like, five tracks on the record as well. I was told that my record was the first time that guitar had been used on recording sessions in Muscle Shoals.
Birmingham Stages: What’s still bringing people back to Muscle Shoals in 2018? Is it the people? Is it the seclusion?
The white sauce barbecue [laughs]. The Hall family. It’s a tradition. I’ve spent a lot of time down South throughout my life—particularly the decade I spent with Gregg—and obviously, going around the South with Gregg is like going around Italy with the Pope. It’s a whole other level of seeing the South.
It was an incredible honor to get to play with this man and know him, but it was also an incredible honor to get to know all of the musicians, all of the people, the friends and fans of his, that are in the Southern region and understand on a deeper level.
All of the music that comes from America—every last scrap of it—comes from the South. Gregg hated the term “Southern Rock.” He’d say, “There is no such thing as ‘Southern Rock’ – All rock is Southern.” And when you’re talking about some place like Muscle Shoals, you’ve got the Hall family—you’ve got Rodney Hall driving the ship now, but when I made Gregg’s record there and my record there, Rick was still around—his father. It’s a family business and it’s a tradition; the music, the music making, the recording style. You will not get that anywhere else in the world. That’s the beauty of going down South. My two favorite things to do are to eat and to play music. And there’s nowhere better in America that you’re going to find for those two things.
I’m in heaven every time I’m down there working in general. You add that beautiful room they have at FAME where so many of these legendary records that changed all of our lives were created—the vibe is very heavy in that room. And the white sauce barbecue. It’s killer.
Birmingham Stages: What was your favorite? Did you try Whitt’s? Big Bob Gibson’s? What did you hit up?
SS: All of them. There were three or four places. Plus, there was a meat-and-three next door [Garden Gate Café] that we used to go to every day for lunch.
Birmingham Stages: You co-wrote the lead single on Gregg’s final record, “My Only True Friend,” and you took an interesting approach to it. Can you tell me about that songwriting process?
SS: It was a three year process, almost, finishing writing the song and recording the song took about three years.
I was at Gregg’s house writing and I had a dream where Duane was speaking to Gregg. And that’s basically the first line of the song, “You and I both know the road’s my only true friend.” I ran out of bed at the crack of dawn, grabbed a guitar, wrote down the words and chords; it was a complete blind inspiration out of nowhere. And when Gregg woke up, I showed it to him—I was staying at his house while we were doing this writing session—and he loved it right away.
We had already finished writing one other song together, but then this one became the priority. Fast forward a year later, I went to his hotel room and they were doing the last run of shows—or maybe it was the second to last run of shows—at the Beacon. I went to Gregg’s hotel and he disclosed his terminal illness to me, which was a really intense moment for us, because I think it was the first time that I crossed into his inner circle. It was me and a handful of people that knew he was terminally ill and that he wanted to go out performing and recording. It was entrusted to me to not share that.
We were writing that day and that’s when he scratched out the pre-chorus, “I hope you’re haunted by the music of my soul when I’m gone.” That was the second crucible.
The third and final crucible was—we were in Muscle Shoals at FAME Studios cutting Southern Blood in, I guess, the early spring of 2016. We had been rehearsing the song and rehearsing the song, but Gregg kept saying, “It’s not done. It’s not done. But I need to get this on the record.” So we’re early in the week of recording and I’m realizing that I don’t see the song on the docket of songs to record. Finally, I went to Gregg and I said, “Dude, we’re in Muscle Shoals at FAME. We have a few days left with Don Was. We need to record this song.” And he was like, “Man, it’s missing something.”
Mark Quinones—a 25-year ABB member and good friend of mine and a good friend of Gregg’s—always had a lot of brilliant ideas for the band. He came to me and he was like, “Man you should write a third verse for this song.”
So I went back to my hotel that night and I wrote that third verse. I brought it in the next day, Gregg read it and he said, “Okay, let’s cut it.” That’s the vocal that’s on the record—right after I handed him the third verse. We got it just in. Then we went on the road a bunch, then he lost the ability to sing and then he passed away. It was right down to the wire, getting that done.
Birmingham Stages: What’s the wildest night that you had with or without Gregg in Birmingham, Alabama?
SS: [laughs] You know, there are better band members to ask that question to than me [laughs]. Food and music, man. I’m happily married.
But look, Birmingham is an incredible town, man. It gets better and better every year that I’ve gone back. People love music in that town that come to the shows. That crowd—we played—Gregg and I used to talk about it, we’d look at the tour book, “Aw, man! I can’t wait to get to Birmingham and play for those people because they’re maniacs!” It’s a great feeling to play there and to feel the love and the attention to the music—people really care about the music on a deeper level in that town.
What do I do there? White sauce barbecue. Homewood, Alabama! Saw’s barbecue is the business. That’s my spot! I got all the merch, got the hat and the shirt. We had Art Edmaiston playing sax in [Gregg Allman Band], and he could tell you about his nights out in Birmingham, I think [laughs]. Art is in Memphis, and Art introduced me to Chad [Fisher], the bone player for St. Paul & the Broken Bones, and Chad took us to Saw’s the last time I went a few years back. My God, man, I’ve already got that on my tour schedule. It’s already booked. When I had the tour booked, I told them we were going to Saw’s.
Birmingham Stages: What does the current touring band look like that you’ll bring to Birmingham?
SS: It’s lean and mean. We’ve got Brett Bass on the bass from Lubbock, Texas. He’s also a New York City transplant like me. Brett was actually playing bass in the Gregg Allman Band at the end. He came in on our last couple of tours; I actually had gotten him in the band. Gregg really loved him; he was the missing link to the Gregg Allman Band that we never had.
Our drummer is Eric Kalb, that you may remember from Deep Banana Blackout. They were a really popular jam band in the ‘90s and early 2000s that he was a founding member of; he also played drums for Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings. And he also played drums for Eric Krasno’s solo band. And it’s just the three of us. It’s a power trio this time.
Scott Sharrard comes to The Nick on Saturday, April 7. Birmingham’s own Heath Green and the Makeshifters open. Doors open at 9 p.m., and the show begins at 10 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 at the door – advance tickets can be purchased at www.thenickrocks.com.