“Playing Bass for Gregg Allman was all about listening to his voice, staying out of the way, and filling in holes where you found them,” says Ron Johnson, who started touring with Allman’s band in 2013, and played on his final live and studio albums. Southern Blood earned a Grammy nomination for Best Americana Album, and it features mostly covers handpicked by Allman, producer Don Was, and a few bandmembers, including Johnson. They tracked on sacred ground at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Allman’s voice drips with emotion, aware it’s his farewell studio recording. Johnson chooses foundation and counterpoint notes judiciously, allowing ample space for his hearty tone to underlie the entire affair with subsonic soul shine. He sent a photo of the Southern Blood bass ahead of being interviewed—it was a character with a backstory.
That bass looks like it’s traveled the road to Mordor and back. What the hell happened to it?
I’m a dedicated Moollon player because the basses are so beautifully crafted by Young Joon Park, who treats each component like a little piece of art. But the guitar tech for the Gregg Allman Band was a huge fan of classic American Fenders, and so was Gregg, so I couldn’t show up with a shiny new Korean instrument. I decided to distress the bass myself. The Moollon P Classic is essentially a reverse-engineered version of a vintage Fender Precision Bass, so it’s coated in nitrocellulose, which is highly flammable. I held a lighter near it, and the finish started to bubble, so I held it a little closer and—poof—the whole bass ignited! There was already a big black spot happening, so I rotated it to get the flames swirling around just right. After putting out the fire, I rubbed all the black ashes from my weed ashtray into the exposed wood. Every day for the next week I rubbed roasted chicken skin all over the bass, so what you see in the photo is chicken fat and marijuana ashes [laughs]. I put a sticker of the Black Power girl on there because I wanted it to look like a bass you’d find in somebody’s closet in Oakland. I even sanded down the little nubs on the Moollon’s headstock so no one could tell it wasn’t an old Fender.
What did Allman think of it?
He didn’t say anything until the last tour, when I came clean about it. He said, “What, that’s not a Fender bass?” I told him that modern Fenders are covered in a polyurethane finish, which is like putting a condom on the wood. He understood that, and was like, “Oh wow, okay.”
How much bass input did he offer?
I always made sure to be super-prepared, so, not too much—but he did buy me a fretless Fender Road Worn [Jazz Bass] because he wanted fretless bass on some tunes in the live set. I used it live for “Melissa” and a few other songs, but I wound up using the Moollon P Classic with a foam muff at the bridge under flatwound strings on every track of Southern Blood. I was amazed by the massive bass sound Don Was got at FAME, and apparently, so was he. When I tried a take of “Song for Adam” using the fretless Fender, Don said, “We’ve already got the best bass tone I’ve ever heard. I’ve been searching for that my whole life. Why would you want to do away with it?”
Did you have a big rig going in a big room?
No. We tracked live as a band in the studio, but Don had my little Aguilar head miked up in an isolation booth that was only slightly larger than my cabinet. There was simply some kind of magic happening down there in Muscle Shoals.
What were you listening for mostly—the key to making the whole Gregg Allman Band tick?
The sound of Gregg’s voice would tell me when to attack, how long to sustain the note, and when to release it. There are several slow songs on Southern Blood, and each note carries such weight when you play a ballad. That was especially true when we’d perform one everyone knows, such as “Melissa.” You have to pay attention to each and every moment, because each performance varied according to how Gregg was feeling and breathing. I’d stress out about that tune the most, afraid one wrong note would ruin a sacred moment for everybody. I’d compare the experience of playing in his band to surfing. We’d all try to catch the same wave and roll with it together. It was an amazing ride.
Gregg Allman, Southern Blood [2017, Rounder]
Gregg Allman Live: Back to Macon, GA [2015, Rounder]
Bass Moollon P Classic, Moollon J Classic
Strings Elixir Nanoweb Light (.045, .065, .080, .100)
Rig Aguilar Tone Hammer 500 head, Aguilar DB 412 cabinet
Effects Aguilar Octamizer, Aguilar Filter Twin