Dreams to remember: The town that produced some music legends stays in the groove

Grant's Lounge, established in 1971, has played host to bands such as Lynyrd Skynyrd and was an early Allman Brothers Band venue. It still welcomes regional bands and living legends such as Robert Lee Coleman, former guitarist for James Brown and Percy Sledge. CREDIT: Photo by Leigh Ann Henion for The Washington Post

MACON, Ga. – It’s Sunday morning at Beulahland Bible Church in Macon, Georgia, and the man in the pulpit is preaching to the choir. With 76 members, it’s larger than some congregations. Finally, he turns to face the rest of us. Theater lights are blazing. Movie-quality cameras glide through the air on mobile cranes.

The choir stands. The crowd stands. Here it comes: The sound of keyboards, drums.

Seventy-six voices, rising. One thousand hands, clapping.

All the singers are good. But one of them is exceptional. He’s hitting highs and lows, chasing notes into places other singers just cannot go.

- FWBP Digital Partners -

The preacher calls out to the soloist: I wanna drink from the cup you’re drinking from!

Macon, population roughly 90,000, was once known as a great music city, like Motown and Memphis. When you ask Maconites how this came to pass, they often say it was something in the water. So, maybe it’s fitting that one of its most famous natives sang about sitting on the dock of a bay.

Otis Reddingwas the son of a preacher man. He sang in his father’s choir before he took to the stage. His industry break came unexpectedly, in 1962, when he attended a local musician’s recording session. When Redding – who would go on to be crowned the King of Soul – asked for a chance to sing, he introduced the world to his first hit single, “These Arms of Mine.”

That day, he gave the studio band one directive: Just gimme those church things! And those church things are here! Today! Almost every hand in this place is raised.

- Advertisement -

I’m in attendance because the church building where Redding got his start no longer stands and, when I told his daughter, Karla Redding-Andrews, that I’d like to witness the spirit of his old choir, she directed me to Beulahland. I’m here because this is the town where the Allman Brothers Band got their start. Where Little Richard was born. Where, once, it was common to see bluesman Willie McTell walking the streets with a placard.

Beulahland is, in Christian tradition, where residents of a destroyed city waited to be called, as pilgrims, to the holy land. But for some music lovers, to be in Macon is to have already arrived.

It was at a concert featuring Otis Redding that Duane Allman turned to his brother, Gregg, and said: We’ve got to be part of this. They were two fatherless boys from Florida, and they were being exposed to a pioneer of soul music, a genre incorporating gospel and rhythm and blues. When Redding died in a plane crash in 1967, Phil Walden, Redding’s manager and co-founder of Macon’s now-defunct Capricorn Records, declared that he would never again become so personally invested in an artist.

But when he heard Duane Allman’s guitar, he changed his mind.

- Advertisement -

Walden – a white promoter who, early on, would have been arrested if he had entered segregated venues to see the black artists he represented – suggested that Duane start a band. Jai “Jaimoe” Johanson, a black drummer who’d backed Redding on tour, was the first person to join. He was an Allman Brother before Dickey Betts, Berry Oakley, Butch Trucks or even Gregg Allman. But they came soon after, bringing bits of blues, jazz, country and rock.

It was in the alchemy of these genres, converging in Macon, that Southern rock was born.

When the band was named one of the top 100 of all time by Rolling Stone, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top wrote: “The Allman Brothers Band was a true brotherhood of players – one that went beyond race and ego.” This brotherhood is what fans have come to adore about the Allman Brothers, in addition to their music.

Some of the band’s most faithful fans have gathered in Macon annually, since the 1990s, for GABBAfest, an event hosted by the Georgia Allman Brothers Band Association (GABBA). When I first got to town, I went to a concert at the historic Douglass Theatre, where festivalgoers had gathered to hear Jaimoe playing with his jazz group.

With sometimes shocking precision, I heard at least a dozen fans recall the first time they heard the opening of an Allman Brothers song. Timo Nieminen, a Finnish optometrist with shaggy blond hair, who has been coming to GABBAfest for 15 years, was one of them.

“I didn’t have a record player,” he recalled. “But I did have a small radio. I used to listen to pirates.” It was 1970, when there was a surge of pirate radio stations in Finland. The song: “Not My Cross to Bear.”

When the pirate announced that Timo had just heard the Allman Brothers Band from Macon, Georgia, he immediately bought a record player, ordered the album. It took three months to reach him. “That guitar! The drums!” he said. “I thought: OK, this music is me!”

Timo still lives in small-town Finland, where he and his wife use bicycles to get around. But there’s something magical about the moment he leaves the Atlanta airport, making his way to Macon in a rental car. When he passes all the strip malls and motels, he has a sense of kinship. “The music is home,” he said. “And you have to be here to really feel it.”

Some people fear cemeteries. But for the Allman Brothers, Rose Hill Cemetery, established circa 1840, was a refuge, one of the few places they knew they’d be left alone. They were hippies in the South, at a time when long hair provoked catcalls and being part of an integrated band brought danger.

In Rose Hill, they could let down their guard, play music.

Still, death seemed to be hunting the Allman Brothers in the early years, especially Duane. In 1970, he was almost killed by an opium overdose. As the legend goes, Berry Oakley cried over his body, begging for Duane to be granted just one more year of life.

Duane survived.

Almost a year later, to the date, he was killed in a motorcycle crash.

Duane’s body was left in cold storage. Before he could be buried, Berry was also in a fatal motorcycle accident. The two musicians had been thrown almost the same number of feet. They both collided with large vehicles, as friends watched from behind. The Macon roads they collapsed on ran parallel.

Now, so do their Rose Hill graves.

As I walked among the magnolia trees in the 65-acre cemetery, I searched for the locales made famous by the Allman Brothers Band, which – outside of brief hiatuses and a revolving cast of musicians – didn’t disband until 2014. At first, I found only crumbling masonry and honeysuckle growing wild.

Thirty minutes into my visit, I heard someone call my name. I scanned the landscape, noticed that one of the chiseled birds I’d been admiring wasn’t stone at all. It took flight right over Mark Vormittag’s head.

I’d met Mark, a GABBAfest attendee from Chicago, the night before at Grant’s Lounge, which is known as “The Original Home of Southern Rock.” Mark and his friend Seth Ellerbee invited me to watch them re-create a promo image seen on the Allman Brothers’ debut album: in a tomb alcove, hidden from view, on a hillside.

The men took turns standing in an archway. When they started talking about memorabilia, Mark looked over, studied my face to see if they were boring me with the minutiae of their Allman musings. “We could go on like this for 20 years,” he said. “And we probably will!”

But no one spoke as we made our way up from the tomb, back into the light, on our way to Duane and Berry’s interment site. Dickey Betts is said to have written “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” as an homage to a woman he made love to on Elizabeth Reed’s tombstone (1845-1935). It is one of the closest to where his Allman brothers are buried.

Duane’s tombstone, visible through a locked gate, includes the notes to an instrumental, “Little Martha.” According to fan lore, Jimi Hendrix – another guitarist legendary enough to vie for the best-ever in Rolling Stone – came to Duane in a dream and taught him how to play the song. It has no words. But it communicates emotions that linger long after the music has reached its natural end.

Martha Ellis was a young girl when she died and was buried in Rose Hill. Her marker has become known as Little Martha. She’d been dead 76 years before Duane Allman memorialized her. Or maybe he never did. Maybe the song was, as many suggest, named for an old girlfriend. To the fans who visit, it doesn’t seem to matter much. Duane’s memorial is behind bars, but the statue of Little Martha Ellis is not.

Her memorial gets touched. It gets hugged.

When I found Little Martha, who resembles a hollow-eyed Alice in Wonderland, I noticed that pilgrims had left offerings of pennies and lilies at her feet. They inspired me to lean down to read the message etched below the statue that so many have come to associate with Duane’s lucid dreamtime story. “Her memory is a sweet solace by day,” the lichen-mottled marble read. “And pleasant dreams by night.”

When the Allman Brothers moved to Macon in 1969, they were starving artists. One day, they walked into the H&H Restaurant and ordered a plate to share. Embarrassed at their multitude and the small portion, they didn’t eat until the proprietor – Louise Hudson, who would later be known as Mama Louise – went into the back. But she saw them and took pity, bringing them each a plate. She told them to eat what they wanted and pay her back after a gig.

It was the story of loaves and fishes, retold with macaroni and cheese.

Famously, they gave her credit in the liner notes of their “Idlewild South” album for providing vittles.

The band’s logo, a psychedelic mushroom, is still featured on the sign at H&H. Mama Louise used to wear it on her apron. The mushroom is prolific, all over Macon. When the Big House – a former Allman residence that’s been turned into a museum – was renovated, mushrooms were incorporated into stained-glass windows. And in front of the Big House fireplace, I found Clark Bush holding a metallic one in his hands.

Clark, a lanky guy wearing a hand-knit tam, held up the sculpture so I could get a closer look. Behind me, a television screen running an Allman Brothers documentary kept catching Clark’s eye.

“It’s weird for me to see my dad up there,” he said.

It took me a second to realize that I was talking to Joseph “Red Dog” Campbell’s son. Red Dog was arguably rock’s most famous roadie of all time, and he was one of the only historical figures referred to by name in Cameron Crowe’s 2000 rock-tour movie “Almost Famous.” Red Dog was a disabled Vietnam veteran, and he donated his government checks to the band when it was struggling. He was considered an original member of the Allman family, and he acted as tour support for 30 years.

Red Dog earned a gold record, and it hangs in the house he left to Clark when he died in 2011.

Clark never knew his biological father, who worked sound at Capricorn Records. When his mother and Red Dog divorced during his childhood, it was hard for him to understand. Red Dog was the only man he’d ever called Dad. He was mostly raised by his grandparents, and – in one of the more difficult periods of his turbulent adolescence – he started having strange dreams. In them, molting snakes wrapped themselves around his body. He was forced to navigate towering forests of glowing mushrooms.

They looked like the ones he’d always associated with his dad who, like all original band members, had the Allman mushroom tattooed on his leg.

Those mushroom-infused dreams ultimately inspired him to contact Red Dog, who immediately took him in – or, rather, took him on tour. Clark was 13. “The Brothers’ stage has always been church to me. I call it church because that’s the only language I have,” he said. “We can only go through metaphor.”

It was during his time on the road with the Allman Brothers that he realized he wanted a music-centered life. “My dad always told me, ‘Be part of the music, and the music will give you a family.’ ” And it has.

For Clark, this has meant booking DIY musicians at Fresh Produce Records, a store he runs with a friend. He’s interested in noise music, which uses static and unexpected sounds in place of instruments. Stuff that makes people think: I am not ready for this.

In the Big House back yard, GABBA members had taken to a wooden stage, playing “Blue Sky” and “Ramblin’ Man.” The songs were written in the living room and kitchen, respectively. Clark led me to his favorite place in the house, Duane’s room. One of the closets has been retrofitted into a showcase, with plexiglass where a door once went. It protects a gold mushroom on a slender chain.

Clark has spent a good bit of his life contemplating the logo. To some, it’s an emblem of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll. But for Clark, it’s the ultimate soul metaphor.

“When I look at it, I think of the cross. Eating a [psychedelic] mushroom is that exodus of ego. You’re understanding interconnectedness. It’s a shedding of skin, rebirth,” he said. “We’re all part of the same song. We’re all family. Music is its own religion.”

After our spontaneous tour, Clark joined me for a walk through the city center. Downtown Macon has, like many others, struggled to stay vital over the years. But the town is peppered with signs promising condos, opening soon, in historic buildings. Macon has more listings on the National Register of Historic Places than any other city in Georgia. The 1916-era Cox Capitol Theatre, abandoned for 30 years, now hosts national acts nearly every week. The Big House has been part of this overarching, music-rich revitalization. It recently hosted its first band in residence: Otis, a serendipitously named blues and rock group from Kentucky.

We were closing in on one of the more vibrant areas of town when Clark revealed his part-time job, without a hint of irony. Clark grows mushrooms, supplying Macon’s burgeoning farm-to-table restaurant scene with shiitakes, oysters – all gourmet. He nurtures them in sawdust and wheat bran, and there’s a new place he’s been wanting to try since he delivered a shipment of shiitakes, grown on Allman family land.

Dovetail is above a pub, where it’s possible to order pints of beer called Macon Music. Clark smiled when our waitress disclosed the evening special: wild-caught salmon with shiitakes. And that’s how, with atwist on an old form of communion, Red Dog’s son and I ended up eating mushrooms together.

The next day, I was standing outside the Otis Redding Foundationon Cotton Avenue when a muscular man walked by, headphones on. When he saw me, he took them off and said, “You want in?”

I did. So Otis Redding’s grandson opened the door.

Justin Andrews – who inherited his grandfather’s chin and business savvy – helps his mom, Karla Redding-Andrews, run the foundation. I’d heard about the organization the night before, at a Fresh Produce Records show. The headlining act, Failing Acts of Society – composed of local high school students – had mentioned Justin by name, with gratitude. One of the foundation’s greatest successes has been Otis Music Camp, where young musicians have access to music industry giants and local counselors who, on their own time, often become mentors.

“These kids!” Justin said. “At camp, you’ll see a classical pianist get together with a kid who’s into pop, and they’ll create a rock song. I’m always like, How did that happen? We pull from hip-hop and gospel. You can see kids pulling from everything: punk, alternative. First off, all this was church music. Everybody – Otis Redding, Little Richard – they all started in church. It’s part of what made Macon a cornerstone.”

Sometimes, people wander into the foundation office and spend hours quietly sitting as if they’re praying. Often, visitors weep, telling Justin how Redding changed, or even saved, their lives without knowing they’re talking to his grandson.

Otis Redding was 26 years old when he died. He’d been in the industry for only six years. In that time, he recorded about 120 songs. “How did he do that?” Karla said, shaking her head.

She sees music as a force for good, and not just because arts education improves student performance in math and science. “Music,” she said, “is the one key component that unites all races of people, rich or poor. You can learn a lot by listening. Some people might just say, ‘Oh, that’s just pop or rap or whatever,’ but every song has a story. Every song has a message.”

She has been asked if Otis Music Camp might be used as a model for programs outside of Macon. But for now, Karla isn’t interested. “I want to perfect things here before I go anywhere else,” she said. “Until then, I say: Come on down. We’ll make room for you!”

This preacher is really preaching. Get-outta-your-seat-and-don’t-go-back preaching. Don’t let them call you by your past, he shouts. Introduce them to who you are today!

Macon stays the same. Macon changes.

History gets carried into the future by new generations.

The oil of anointment is flowing through these aisles, he calls. Put out your hand, pull from it what you need.

The audience doesn’t just listen, they engage. Open hands go out toward the music, gathering invisible oil for anointing. Pulling, as Macon has done, continues to do, from traditions of all sorts.

The preacher reiterates: Pull from it what you need!

Congregation members are eventually called to greet their neighbors. One woman, with a short Afro, is at least 20 feet from me when the call goes out. She makes her way over with curious speed. She is nearly running.

Soon, she is in front of me, so close I can smell her lilac perfume. She does not ask me what I am doing here. For a second or two, she doesn’t say anything at all – and the sound of musicians doing that church thing fills the space between us.

I know from conversations around town that there are locals who’ve never heard of this place, much less visited to listen. Near or far, if you want to hear the sweet music of Beulahland, you have to seek it out.

In time, the woman standing before me opens her arms, wide, until her body is a living, breathing representation of the gold cross around her neck.

A symbol of ego transcendence, a shedding of skin. “I’m going in for a hug,” she says. “New family!”

Henion is the author of “Phenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer’s Search for Wonder in the Natural World.”


–The Allman Brothers Band lived in a grand Tudor, called the Big House, during their early years. Now it’s a museum where you can view concert memorabilia and walk through rooms where some of your favorite songs were penned. 2321 Vineville Ave., Macon, Georgia. (478) 741-5551. thebighousemuseum.com.

–Mama Louise, proprietor of H&H, fed members of the Allman Brothers Band when they were starving artists. Stop by to get your fill of soul food. 807 Forsyth St., Macon, Georgia. (478) 621-7044. handhsoulfood.com.

–In recognition of Otis Redding’s 75th birthday, the Otis Redding Estate and the Otis Redding Foundation will host “Celebrating 75 Years of Otis Redding,” Sept. 9 -11. otisreddingfoundation.org.