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Ramblin' men: Musical veterans Betts, Hammond find way to Fargo

Sports may be a young man's game, but the blues are like a fine wine, appreciating with age. Despite the rise of young talents like Jonny Lang, Shannon Curfman and Kenny Wayne Shepard, the best blues continue to come from artists who've been arou...

Sports may be a young man's game, but the blues are like a fine wine, appreciating with age.

Despite the rise of young talents like Jonny Lang, Shannon Curfman and Kenny Wayne Shepard, the best blues continue to come from artists who've been around the block a few times.

This year's Fargo Blues Fest lineup features rising stars in Iowa fiddler Molly Nova and blistering guitarist Tommy Castro.

Still, the biggest draw will be two men whose blues are seasoned with salt and pepper: former Allman Brothers guitarist Dickey Betts and blues circuit veteran John Hammond.

On his own

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Dickey Betts is starting over again.

A founding member of the Allman Brothers Band, with whom he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, Betts found himself back at square one in 2000 when he was informed by fax that his services with the group were no longer needed.

The group released a statement citing "artistic differences" and hinted that Betts had relapsed into drug use, but the guitarist says it was more an issue of personalities.

"We'd been together for such a long time, we just kind of blew up," Betts says from his Florida home. "There were a lot of jealousies and resentments and things got so they had to change."

After getting into some legal trouble, including charges of domestic assault, the singer/guitarist came back with Great Southern, the band he'll play Blues Fest with on Saturday.

"Mainly it's different personalities in the way they play," Betts says, comparing Great Southern to the Allmans. "I wrote half of the material (in the Allmans) so it's much the same model. It's just a hell of a good band."

"He wrote 60 percent of the Allman Brothers songs, and they were the most successful," says Dan Bredell, executive director of the Fargo Blues Fest, adding he's looking forward to seeing Betts for the first time.

Betts says he still plays the Allman classics he penned, like "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed," "Jessica," "Blue Sky" and of course, "Ramblin' Man."

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Though the Allmans are considered champions of Southern rock, the guitarist says it's a label that never really fit the Florida band.

"I think the term 'Southern rock,' we never liked," Betts says. "I never really thought the term did justice to the music that much, just where we were from. I really like the term jam band."

Both Betts and the Allmans have found new homes on the jam band circuit. The guitarist and Great Southern are hitting the road with the Dave Matthews Band on an upcoming tour and the Allmans played the 10,000 Lakes Fest in Detroit Lakes last month.

But Betts says it will be some time before he sits in with the Allmans again.

"No," he says when asked if he'd go back if asked. "I don't know what I'd go back to."

Betts still has lots of friends in music, though not necessarily backstage. After a set at this summer's Taste of Minnesota, the guitarist decided to get on stage with old friend George Thorogood, but a security guard who didn't recognize the Hall of Famer restrained him.

"That was a funny thing," Betts laughs. "The security thought I was just someone from the crowd. I just wanted to give George a hug."

Color of the Blues

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While Betts is starting over at age 59, John Hammond is hitting his stride at the same age.

After interpreting other people's songs on his previous 28 albums, the singer/guitarist finally recorded one of his own, "Slick Crown Vic." The track kicks off Hammond's latest disc, the widely acclaimed, "Ready for Love."

While his premiere song is getting a lot of play in the press, Hammond says he was always comfortable tackling other artist's material

"If you look at the greats, Elvis, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, they were not songwriters," Hammond says. "I never felt like I had to write to be valid."

The remainder of the album is packed with Hammond's gruff voice and gritty guitar work on tracks by other artists.

Plucking songs from performers as diverse as the Rolling Stones ("Spider and the Fly"), George Jones ("Color of the Blues" and "Just One More"), and Tom Waits ("Gin Soaked Boy" and "Low Side of the Road") Hammond finds the blues every bit as relevant now as it was when he started more than 40 years ago.

"Good blues is never dated, it has to do with the human condition," Hammond says from his Jersey City, N.J., home. "Right now I'm playing stuff that hasn't really changed in years. If you do too much to it, it isn't really the blues. If you do too little, it's a ballad."

Though he's played with greats like Augie Meyers, Stephen Hodges and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos on "Ready for Love," Hammond hits the Blues Fest stage solo on Sunday.

"We were a little leery of bringing in a solo artist, but we did that with Keb Mo," says Bredell. "I've never seen Hammond, but we asked around and we heard he puts on a good show."

At the end of the interview Hammond asks who else is on the bill.

When he hears names like Dickey Betts, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Tommy Castro and Eddie Shaw & the Wolfgang, he gives his approval.

"That'll be a great show," the singer says. "Those are all real blues musicians."

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533

If you go

- What: 8th annual Fargo Blues Fest, featuring Dickey Betts and Great Southern, Tommy Castro Band, John Hammond, Fabulous Thunderbirds, Corey Stevens and more.

- When: Saturday and Sunday

- Where: Newman Outdoor Field, Fargo

- Info: Tickets are $20 a day or $30 for the weekend. (218) 287-7775 or www.fargobluesfest.com

For 20 years John Lamb has covered art, entertainment and lifestyle stories in the area for The Forum.
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