Don’t ask me why I thought of Duane Allman in the predawn hours of a rainy Groundhog Day.

I don’t know.

I awoke Tuesday to the patter of a light rain outside the window.

That sound ended any notion of my driving to the Yellow River Game Ranch in nearby Lilburn. Waiting outside to learn whether General Lee, our esteemed Southern groundhog, would see his shadow had little appeal in the damp chill.

The Allman idea whizzed by. I took hold of it and let it carry me to a decision.

This would be the day for that long-awaited road trip to see his grave in Macon. I would perform the ritual undertaken by countless other fans of the Southern rock legend. Perhaps the rain would lift by the time I arrived at Rose Hill Cemetery, just off Interstate 16.

A half hour after informing my drowsy wife, I was heading south in my 1995 Dodge Intrepid, a road warrior with 329,000-plus miles under its timing belt.

I was looking forward to the adventure and a brief break from intense job-hunting and substitute teaching.

I drove from Snellville to Conyers, Social Circle and south on Ga. 11 toward Gray, and then Macon. I formulated my plans for visiting the cemetery and the Big House — where Allman Brothers Band members lived in the early 1970s — as my car whistled past farms and small communities.

I’m not what you call a devout music fan, but I’ve liked the Allman Brothers since I attended high school in South Georgia. I have a stack of vinyl records from their golden era. I count “Statesboro Blues,” “Stand Back” and “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” among my favorite songs.

Years ago, when I had more hair and no paunch, I picked up both of Duane’s posthumous record anthologies and delved a little deeper into his amazing slide guitar work. He was a sessions player with stars such as Aretha Franklin, Clarence Carter and Wilson Pickett before a succession of bands morphed into the ABB and growing fame in 1969.

Duane wasn’t a singer or songwriter (with the exception of “Little Martha”), but something about his long blond locks and thin frame presiding over Fender and Gibson guitars was enthralling. And boy what sound they made together.

As I pulled into Macon I sheepishly did some radio station surfing to see if any ABB tunes were playing. That was silly. Why would I think this city would put aside its commerce and newer dreams and ambitions to entertain me with “Midnight Rider”?

At Rose Hill I walked down a narrow road, past Confederate and Jewish graves, to Carnation Ridge, where Allman and bandmate Berry Oakley rest on a shady terrace. The sound of I-16 truck traffic beyond the nearby Ocmulgee River was my only companion.

The musicians’ graves are side by side, each marked by white marble with inscriptions and an etched guitar (a bass guitar in Berry’s case). Small angels, representing the young men’s daughters, are in prayerful pose at their feet. A visitor had tossed guitar picks onto the graves. I was surprised there were no other tributes.

A few years ago, a renovation erected a secured iron fence around the graves.

Duane and Berry lived so fast and died so young. During a break in October 1971, when the band had finally hit the big time, Duane drove his Harley-Davidson Sportster motorcycle from the Big House toward his own home in West Macon and was killed when a truck turned in front of him. He was only 24.

Eerily, Berry died only 13 months later after his motorcycle crashed a few blocks away from where Duane’s went down. He, too, was 24.

Neither were strangers to Rose Hill. In their early years, the band would come to the Southern Gothic setting and play their guitars for hours, shaping their musical future.

I drove to the Allman accident site. There’s nothing at the intersection of Hillcrest Avenue and Bartlett Street telling what happened. A school playground and lumberyard look upon the scene.

My final stop was the Big House on nearby Vineville Avenue. The Georgia Allman Brothers Band Association recently opened the museum. It features thousands of items, many belonging to Duane, that were collected by the band’s tour manager.

Unfortunately, I was there on a Tuesday. The Big House is open only Fridays-Sundays.

Still, I snapped photos and walked around the neighborhood of stately homes. Some are in a little disrepair. The Big House, which was home to members of the band from 1970 to 1973, underwent a major renovation and almost looks too scrubbed for a band of rock musicians.

The band’s psychedelic mushroom logo is present on everything from a driveway gate to a stained-glass window and door fixture.

Almost out of nowhere a pony-tailed visitor was at my shoulder, asking me about my visit and interest in the band. He wore a blue Quebec hat. I shared some of my Google maps to the Allman sites, feeling every bit the tourist.

He started a conversation with a man who had driven up in a car with Florida plates. They spoke about concerts and other Southern bands.

“So you saw [Lynyrd] Skynyrd before the crash?” the Canadian asked the other, referring to the airplane crash that killed several members of the popular band in 1977. Lynyrd Skynyrd dedicated their hit song “Free Bird” to Allman’s memory.

After a time, the three of us walked off the porch. We had not made it inside, but we had shared a nostalgic moment.

Back behind the wheel, I almost felt my age. It has been 38 years since Duane died. Does anyone young know or care about the band? On the ride back, I got a call from my 25-year-old daughter. When I mentioned my visit she asked me if Duane was the guy who had a brother (Gregg) once married to Cher.

I had the radio turned back on as I drove on Ga. 42 north of Forsyth. Blue jays and cardinals took flight from grass along the road.

The opening riff of “Layla” blasted through the car speakers and made my heart leap. A few months before he died, Duane played some powerful licks with Eric Clapton on the classic love song.

Music, as we all know, has this ability to carry us back in time. The song reminds me of other places and circumstances in my life. And it always makes me think about my wife, who adores the piano solo in “Layla.”

For a few minutes, Duane was as free as a bird. And, like General Lee, I felt the promise of an early spring.


Phil Gast

Phil Gast

Phil Gast is a writer-editor living in the Atlanta area.