The cast of characters in the new Allman Brothers Band biography One Way Out contains 59 names, including core band members, backstage crew, label execs, wives and many affiliated musicians. That can make for a lot of opinions over a couple of decades, and a lot of material to sift through for an author. Alan Paul is a music journalist who has a long history with the band. Drawing upon hundreds of interviews he's conducted, Paul turns chaos into order and provides the framework -- introductions, segues, sidebars, plus a slew of images (many never-before-seen) -- to guide readers through a complex and compelling story, acting as a moderator for the many powerful voices that make up the storied history of this blues-infused southern rock band.
We asked Paul for a "backstage pass" to his own process for some insight into how One Way Out, one of our selections for February's Humor & Entertainment Best of the Month list in February, came to be. Here's what he had to say:
I actually interviewed the band hundreds of times before I decided there was a book in it, or at least before I actually started writing a book. I may have been thinking about doing so as far back as eighth grade when I chose Duane Allman as the subject of my Great Americans Social Studies essay. I wrote about the band as a journalist for the first time in 1990, a story that first brought me to the Guitar World, where I became Managing Editor.
One Way Out began as a 2009 Guitar World cover story. I went through 20 years of notes and interviews and conducted a new round of interviews and put together an oral history. It was very long for a magazine article, but still only scratched the surface of the band's extensive history.
I started writing it for myself and other hardcore fans, seeking to clarify some mysteries. As I researched, I broadened my vision and my grasp of what their story means, beginning to more fully understand how their ups and downs--years of struggle, overcoming death, drugs and dysfunction--told a powerful tale, one which can inspire people who may not know much of anything about the Allman Brothers.
Some of the interviews in this book go back to 1990. So in a sense I've been writing it for 25 years. I started doing new interviews to expand the scope into a full-length book and that's when things got really interesting.
I also made three trips to Macon, Georgia and the band archives housed at the Big House Museum. I spent many hours sorting through papers, ledgers, receipts, legal documents, photos, and letters.
Format: Oral History
It's a format I've always enjoyed writing and reading. It can be lazy, but when executed properly, it takes a tremendous amount of time, craft and dedication. I also quickly realized that many events had different versions from different people. Sometimes the differences were subtle and sometimes they were radical. When something was factually incorrect I did not include it; I did the same sort of fact checking and due diligence you would in any narrative. But many other situations exist in a gray area and I liked the idea of letting each person have their say side by side, letting the reader decide. It mimics life, where answers are rarely black and white.
Soundtrack: Allmans and Beyond
I listened to too many Allman Brothers recordings to list, but a few stayed in heavy rotation: At Fillmore East, which remains the gold standard, Eat A Peach, Live at the Atlanta International Pop Festival, a fantastic archival release I had somehow overlooked. I also received some great goodies from dedicated fans, including an entire CD consisting of brilliantly edited versions of "You Don't Love" and another with the most epic hour-long "Mountain Jam." Toward the end of writing I got an advance copy of Play all Night: Live at the Beacon, 1992 and it went into very heavy rotation, because I love it and because it helped me remember just why I fell in love with this band so deeply in that era.
Other music includes jazz greats Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Wynton Kelly, Kenny Burrell, Grant Green, Cleanhead Vinson, Cannonball Adderely and Miles Davis; blues giants Son Seals, Albert King, Lightnin' Hopkins, Bobby Bland, B.B. King, Albert Collins and Katie Webster. And African musicans Fela, Tinariwen, and Ali Farka Toure.
Words: Reading Between Writing
I return over and over to my favorite crime fiction writers like George Pelecanos, Elmore Leonard, and Walter Moseley. They all write with such great momentum and economy of words and create such vibrant characters. I felt like the real life cast of Allman Brothers characters could stand up in any of their books and I needed to honor them by making that clear.
Three friends inspired me with very different books that were filled with humanity and clear-headed thinking: Will Schwalbe's The End of Your Life Book Club, Anand Giridharadas' upcoming The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas and Brad Tolinski's Light and Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page, which showed me that this could be done. Stanley Booth's The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones and Robert Palmer's Deep Blues are my gold standards of music writing, to which I often return.
My greatest distractions are also my greatest inspiration: my three kids. Being their father pulls me away from my work plenty but also gives me perspective on life and fulfills me deeply. I got into Cross Fit training early in the writing of this book and it helped me stay sane. So does my little dog MeiMei and my wife Rebecca, who was a tremendous help.
Oh God, yes. The first versions of this story reflected what I knew and had reported. I thought I knew where the holes were and that filling them would be a tidy process. I thought I knew most of what there was to know about the Allman Brothers Band, but that was pure hubris. No piece of writing can have real depth until the writer knows far more than he or she can put down on the paper. Getting there was a long, invigorating, exhausting process.
I had to let go of my preconceptions and see where the interviews took me. Every time I thought I was nearing the end, a new door would open and every time I walked through it, I saw another set of doors. Sometimes I thought I needed one interview to finish a section but that one raised all kinds of new areas of inquiry. It became a much more involved process than I envisioned -- and it made for a much better book.