The Allman Brother I Knew

Early this morning I received a text informing me that Butch Trucks, the drummer for The Allman Brothers and a founding member of that band, had died.  I was grieved to hear of it.  Butch was a man I met in October of 2013 when he and his wife, Melinda, visited me, my family, and staff at Labastide.  Below is a blog I wrote after that event.

This past weekend we hosted Butch Trucks and his wife, Melinda, at Labastide.  Butch is a founding member of The Allman Brothers Band.  He read my recent article in The Atlantic and spent some time perusing our website.  Since he owns a house in France only three hours from here, it was easy for him to visit us for a few days.

It is important to note that Butch is an atheist.

To be honest, I didn’t have the highest expectations.  A 66 year-old atheist rocker who fashioned himself as the scourge of Christians?  It was hard not to conjure images of Richard Dawkins with long hair, leather pants, and tats.  But it is always best to suppress expectations and just let people make their own impressions.

I was standing outside talking to contractors when the Truckses pulled into the driveway.  He stepped from the car smiling, strode rapidly in my direction, extended a hand and said:

“I’m Butch Trucks.  Glad to meet you.  I have been reading your stuff for the past few days!”

I immediately liked this warm, friendly man.  He wasted not a second in getting to The Big Questions, but, catching himself, added, “I know, I know, we have time.  We will just let our discussion happen.  

Sasha then took the Truckses up to their room, and I finished up with the French contractors who, not understanding a word of English, looked bewildered by the exchange.

Over the next three days we would talk over breakfast and dinner, as we walked through the gardens, and late into the evening at the hearth near a crackling fire.  He was intrigued with our work.  And I with his.  I told him about the interesting people we had engaged.  He told us terrific stories of music and the road and one very memorable one about a Playmate.  (You had to be there.)

We toured our group through the region, introduced them to the history and culture, and told them about Christ.  Butch listened respectfully and, at the first opportunity, raised objections with me.  The objections were always good natured and tactful, but real nonetheless.  He went through the whole list of atheism’s critique of Christianity:  creation and evolution, inerrancy and infallibility, the Christian concept of justice and mercy, the scientific “impossibility” of God, etc.  A moving target, he was difficult to pin down.  Even so, I did my best to focus on one thing at a time while asking a few questions of my own.

Butch’s story was interesting.  Born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida, he was the son of ardent Southern Baptists.  He sang in the choir, participated in youth group, and even walked the aisle during an altar call.  Butch loved his drums and had serious questions about being a Christian.  In the first instance, his parents did not encourage his drumming for fear he would play them in places where people danced.  In the second instance, the questions were largely ignored.  But the desire to play the drums never left him—”That is my spiritual experience,” he told me—and neither did the questions.

Graduating high school, he went to Florida State.  There, his talent for the drums was encouraged, even developed.  He met others with similar interests.  Forming a band with friends Duane and Gregg Allman, he decided the Bible was nonsense and music would be, as he put it, his “god.”

By the time the band released Eat A Peach, they were megastars.  Sadly, Duane Allman, Butch’s dear friend and, it seems, hero, was dead, having been killed in a motorcycle accident.  By his own account, Butch’s atheism took root in his soul.  He became a defender of his faith, so to speak, and an aggressive opponent of Christianity.

And yet, here he was, at Labastide talking to me.  Talking openly, willingly, enthusiastically about spiritual issues and genuinely enjoying the wonderful hospitality of my family and staff.  It reminded me of my conversations and my relationship with the late atheist, Christopher Hitchens.  An opponent of faith, yes, but not an uninterested outsider.

“I believe in the teachings of Jesus,” Butch said.  “I try to live by them.  But I do not believe in the religion about Jesus.”  As you can imagine, comments like this led to conversations about Jesus, his teachings, and his claims of Lordship.

One evening at dinner during just such a conversation, Butch told me of his desire to play Gospel music in churches as he had done in his youth.  Melinda, who had been listening silently, suddenly raised her hands in surprise and said, “Listen to him!  He is going to go back to the church.  I’ve always said that he would.  It will come full circle.  I just know it.”  Melinda did not sound like this idea pleased her (I can only guess), but the comment was nonetheless intriguing.  The idea was fixed in his mind and he wanted me to think about how he could do it.  It was as though he wanted the things of God, but not God Himself.

That evening as we sat by the fire, he studied my then broken leg.  “You know what has terrified me my whole life?  That,” he said, pointing at the swollen limb.  “I have always been afraid that something like that might happen to my hands or arms and I wouldn’t be able to play.  But I’ve been lucky so far.”

Around 1 a.m., we retired for the evening.  Butch and Melinda were staying in one of our guest rooms.  During the night something you only see in cartoons or movies happened:  the large, ornate, wrought iron chandelier hanging above their bed came loose from the plaster ceiling and fell right in the middle of their bed with a loud CRASH!

Suddenly, the lights were on throughout the house as people rushed to see what had happened.  Inspecting the scene, I was amazed.  The chandelier occupied a full quarter of their bed.  Yet remarkably, neither Butch nor Melinda was hurt.  More remarkably, neither was even touched.  How something that size could fall without hitting either of them seemed incredible to me.  Butch and Melinda were good humored about the whole thing.  After a joke or two about French workmanship, he spoke of being lucky again.  That sentiment contrasted sharply with my family and staff who all, independently, “thanked God” that no one was hurt.  For Butch, God had nothing to do with it.  But that we thought God did have something to do with it seemed to make an impression on him.

Later that morning the two of us drove a short distance from Labastide to a mountaintop lookout.  From it one can see the beautiful French farmland stretching out for miles; in the middle distance, the mountains that Hannibal and Alaric crossed are visible; and, on a clear day, the snow-capped peaks of the Pyrenees dominate the southern horizon.  It is the kind of scene that will move you to think on Higher Things.

“My father tried to convert me for a long time, but I think he’s given up,” Butch reflected.

“I won’t give up,” I said.

He turned, studied my face and replied, “No, I didn’t think you would.  And I wouldn’t respect you if you did.”

At the end of the weekend the Truckses departed.  “I hope this is not the end of our conversation, but the beginning of it,” Butch said and then invited me to an Allman Brothers concert in New York.  “Come and sit on stage.  It’ll be fun and we can talk more.”  He and Melinda then extended what I believe to be a sincere invitation for us to visit them at their French home.

Upon our parting, the image of a falling chandelier kept coming back to me.  It served as a fitting metaphor for his whole life.  His narrow escapes from substance abuse, run-ins with police and other authorities, crazy fans, and his many broken relationships were to be attributed to luck or his own wit.  But deliverance was due neither to luck nor his wit.  It was the work of God.  God had done more than spared his hands and arms.  God had even done more than spare his life.  The Lord had blessed him with talent, family, friends, wealth, and a reasonably good life even if Butch had never given Him thanks for these things or used them for the praise and glory of God.

But there is still time.  So far, the chandeliers have hit around, but not on, him.

As much as I would like to say that we met, I shared the Four Spiritual Laws, and Butch, moved by the Spirit, received Christ, such was not the case.  It seldom is.  Sometimes people like Butch want to be pursued.  They want to know that you really care about them.  Other times, they just need time to catch up to the argument and reflect on its various parts.  Do not grow weary or discouraged, but instead trust that salvation is a work of God and that He uses us, not because He needs to, but because He wants to.

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Postscript: When I received news last night of Butch’s death, my mind went back to this memorable weekend.  I dug out this blog, reread it to remind myself of our time together, and wondered if, in fact, I had given up on him after all.  We exchanged an email or two after this, but we never had any meaningful interaction again.  I am very sorry for him, his family, and his friends.  It was a joy meeting him.  He will be missed.  Below are a couple of videos of Butch with our family, friends, and staff that you are sure to enjoy:

One evening Butch was kind enough to, as he put it, “show off for us.”  We rented a drum set and he gave us a private drum concert:

Here Butch teaches our son, Zachary, then a high school student and an aspiring drummer, a bit about the art of drumming:

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