Journey to The Big House

Originally posted in The New Southern Fugitives.

Southern Rock’s Graceland

Off a busy street in downtown Macon, GA sits a typical English Tudor-style house with cream white stucco and brown wood trim; however, if you drove past the big house at 2321 Vineville Avenue in the early 70’s, the inhabitants were far from conventional. From 1970 to 1973, it was the communal home of The Allman Brothers Band, one of the founders of Southern Rock. According to The Big House museum, the house was rented by Linda Oakley, bassist Berry Oakley’s wife, and along with their daughter, they shared the home with Duane Allman, his girlfriend and their daughter, and Gregg Allman, who was dating Berry sister’s at the time. When not touring, the house became a refuge for the band, roadies, friends, and families; an offbeat shelter to hang out, share meals, and jam. Today, it serves as a mecca for those wishing to revive the spirit of the band’s early success. If Elvis’s Graceland attracts visitors wishing to recall a time of innocence and the tragic legend of the King of Rock n’ Roll, then the Brother’s Big House summons a return to a time when love was everywhere. Each attraction is symbolic of a memorable time in southern history and presents an interesting dichotomy.

The contrast between Graceland and The Big House couldn’t be greater, and a significant part of the difference is due to Presley’s level of fame. Elvis was (or is) Elvis. More people watched his television special, “Elvis—Aloha from Hawaii,” than watched Neil Armstrong’s first walk on the moon. He sold one billion records. The Allman Brothers Band were long-haired good ole boys who enjoyed drinking mushroom tea. There are also obvious physical differences between the two homes.
At Graceland, a sprawling gated driveway leads to a classic colonial brick home sitting far back from the road on a knoll. The matching pairs of imposing white columns contribute an unmistakable regal quality. Elvis and his family had come a long way from a shotgun shack in Tupelo, MS. When the Allman Brothers Band lived at The Big House, the property’s current Tudor-style charm wasn’t as obvious. The appeal of the home required a deeper look into the delightful details of outdoor gardens and high ceilings with fireplaces throughout. Elvis had his infamous Jungle room, his basement TV room, and his backyard racquetball building. The Allman Brothers had a large upstairs sunporch where they drank their electric tea, smoked from their hookah, and made their music. The Graceland attraction has a half-dozen gifts shops, three or four levels of tour packages, and has now opened a new 450-room hotel, The Guest House, which promises well-to-do visitors the royal treatment. Graceland is controlled by Elvis Presley Enterprises. The Big House is staffed by volunteers. Yet despite the deep distinctions in taste, era, and intention, there are also stirring similarities.

Before they became tourist destinations, each was family homes and offered their road-weary occupants precious sanctuary. Graceland allowed Elvis to reunite his mother and father, and take in his maternal grandmother. It’s also where he started his marriage with Priscilla, and the celebrated the birth of Lisa Marie, his only child. Likewise, the Vineville house was filled with children and was the center of the brotherhood that connected the original Allman Brothers lineup. Each was inner sanctums meant to be shared with family and close friends. Unfortunately, a visit to both Graceland and The Big House also invoke painful memories of their inhabitants’ lamentable history.

By the time of his death, Graceland had become the King’s gilded mansion-prison. Holed up with the Memphis Mafia, his cadre of enablers and gofers, Elvis was detached from reality, floating in an illicit potion of uppers and downers. There was no one there to save him from himself. The grim truth didn’t reveal itself into the ballooned icon keeled over and died in the bathroom. Equally as mournful is the story of Duane Allman’s and Berry Oakley’s last days at The Big House. It’s widely reported that Duane and Berry contended with addiction to heroin, cocaine, and alcohol. Shameless drug abuse is the 1960’s ignominious legacy, as overdosing was dreadfully fashionable. A year apart, the band members perished in motorcycles accidents only blocks from their refuge. Passing at such a young age, each star is cast in a perpetual play of what-ifs. To never grow old is the blessing and the curse of those who die young.

It’s simple to view The Big House as the antithesis of Graceland. Visitors to Elvis’s mansion are saps desperate to recreate a time that has long past and those who make the journey to Macon’s Big House are aging stoners hoping to breathe hope into a failed moment. What requires effort is to see the connection. At the core of each are the love of music, the love of friendships, and the love of family. When we focus on the love, we feel it everywhere.

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