Classic Americana Albums: Richard Betts “Highway Call”

The early ‘70s were a very exciting time as The Allman Brothers Band developed and ultimately defined the southern rock genre. What was remarkable was that this development continued despite the untimely deaths of legendary founding member guitarist Duane Allman in October 1971, and founding bassist Berry Oakley in November 1972 in motorcycle accidents. At the time of Duane Allman’s death their live album ‘At Fillmore East’ brought their incendiary live performances to a new and global audience. The band were looking to build on that success, but their subsequent album, ‘Eat A Peach’, became a homage to Duane Allman including as it did further Fillmore East recordings and his last studio work with the band, it also included the first Allman Brothers tracks without Duane. However, it was a Dickey Bett’s original about his then-girlfriend, and subsequent future wife, Sandy “Bluesky” Wabegijig, that was also one of the last recordings to feature the guitars of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts that gave a hint at the future of the Allman Brothers Band sans Duane and Berry. ‘Blue Sky’ brought to the fore a country influence to Betts’ vocals and guitar playing that had only been hinted at in his playing as he supported, complemented, and duelled with Duane Allman on previous recordings.

A musician of the calibre and vision of Duane Allman is not readily replaced, and following his death, the band decided that Dickey Betts would be the sole guitarist, with pianist and Gregg Allman associate Chuck Leavell joining on piano, and drummer Jamioe’s acquaintance Lamar Williams replacing Berry Oakley. The prominence of Dickey Betts in the new line-up and the addition of pianist Chuck Leavell brought a lighter more countrified sound to the jazz and blues rock of the Duane Allman days. The country rock credentials of the band were burnished by the success of Dickey Betts’ ‘Ramblin Man’   sung and penned single, and 1973’s  ‘Brothers and Sisters’ became the band’s most successful album, selling over seven million copies. The band’s success meant that its two leaders Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts were given the opportunity to record solo records with Allman’s ‘Laidback’ being released first in 1973, and Bett’s ‘Highway Call’ in 1974.

‘Highway Call’ built on the country styling of ‘Blue Sky’ and ‘Brothers and Sisters’ but more so. While this seemed new and innovative in 1974, in reality, Dickey Betts’ inspiration was based on his childhood exposures to country, bluegrass, western swing, and the music of Jimmie Rodgers. The fact it was released under the name Richard rather than Dickey Betts adds to the sense of personal history. The musicians that Betts gathered to record ‘Highway Call’ were a mix of southern rock musicians like Chuck Leavell, Cowboy’s Tommy Talton, and producer Johnny Sandlin, and real country and bluegrass musicians like famed steel player John Hughey, and bluegrass fiddler Vassar Clements. There were also appearances by Frank, Leon, and Walter Poindexter who were related to the Rice Brothers, Tony, Larry, Wyatt, and Ron, and the American Southern gospel group The Rambos.

The album opener ‘Long Time Gone’ sets the tone for the whole album with Betts duelling with steel player John Hughey and adding a keening slide to this road song that dances along to a country and swing beat. ‘Rain’ maintains the relationship between Betts’ guitar and the pedal steel guitar. Chuck Leavell is all over ‘Highway Call’ as are the lush backing vocals. Dobro and Vassar Clements’ fiddle are featured on the ode to nature, ‘Let Nature Sing’. The four self-penned tracks that make up the original side 1 of ‘Highway Call’ are all excellent additions to the country rock canon and are all excellent vehicles for Betts’ vocals which are ideally suited to the material. Until ‘Blue Sky’ and ‘Ramblin Man’ Dickey Betts was known as the writer of instruments such as ‘In Memory of Elizabeth Reed’ and Top Gear’s theme  ‘Jessica’ and side two celebrates this side of Betts’ playing and writing. Betts’ ‘Hand Picked’ runs the gauntlet of bluegrass, western swing, country, and jazz and heavily features the fiddle of Vassar Clements. Clements’ own ‘Kissimmee Kid’ closes ‘Highway Call’ and points the way to his own groundbreaking ‘Hillbilly Jazz’.

The Allman Brothers Band’s records up to and including ‘Brothers and Sisters’ are the jewels in their large catalogue and are what their reputation is built on, though they scaled new heights with Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes in the ‘90s and 2000s. Richard “Dickey” Betts was a key part of that original success with his guitar-playing and emerging songwriting skills. With ‘Highway Call’ he added to the Allman Brothers legacy and shone a light on his own musical influences producing one of the truly great country rock albums of the ‘70s. It may have been his debut solo album but it remains one of the best examples of his overall musical creativity, and there is hardly any blues rock to be found to detract from the country, bluegrass, western swing, and jazz. In fact, ‘Highway Call’ with the fiddle playing of Vassar Clements can be said to be part of the development of the jazz bluegrass sound that was so much a part of the development of newgrass in the ‘70s. The involvement of Frank Poindexter led to Tony Rice’s brother Larry joining Dickey Betts’ touring band to support ‘Highway Call’ maintaining the more traditional bluegrass influence and bringing this sound to a younger audience. Finally, Betts’ own guitar playing is a sheer joy, and his playing swings rather than rocks. ‘Highway Call’ may be nearly fifty years old but it still deserves to be heard for the sheer joy of the music.

About Martin Johnson 389 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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I agree with everything you wrote here. Here’s my take on this fine LP.

Philip Baldwin

Bought this on a pre-recorded cassette in a sale somewhere in the 70’s because I recognised his name – even in the posh version. I always loved it but haven’t played it for years. I shall definitely be digging it out again now.