A handful of highly-esteemed bands and collaborations of our time share an ambitious common denominator: Warren Haynes, one of the most respected musicians in the world whose prolific career spans discographies, genres and decades. A consummate professional, the dedicated vocalist/guitarist/songwriter has earned a reputation for being a grounded gentleman and collaborator in the music scene. Having played with The Allman Brothers, The Dead, Gov’t Mule, as well as with several incarnations of the Warren Haynes’ Band, Haynes has solidified his place not only in blues rock, Southern rock, and the jam band scene, but in music history.
The embodiment of a musician deeply rooted in blues, Haynes grew up in North Carolina and began playing guitar in his teens. After years of honing the breadth of his talent, he, along with Mule, cultivated a distinct sound that resonated beyond the space The Allman Brothers had left behind while essentially defining the next evolution of Southern rock. Gov’t Mule’s albums include an eclectic mix of studio and live recordings, including Live…With A Little Help From Our Friends (1999) and DubSide Of The Mule (2015). Each album is vastly different, proving the band’s pliability even presenting tributes to classic bands such as Pink Floyd. This versatility is the reason why Warren Haynes’ name, along with Gov’t Mule, has become synonymous with the all-encompassing Americana genre.
While he may be the busiest man in the business, it’s as if time stops when he’s on stage. The Grammy Award-winning virtuoso doesn’t stay still. And neither do his songs. Constantly seeking the truth within the tune, Haynes writes solo material, collaborates with Mule and works on arrangements with symphony conductors for the Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration. All of this is in addition to the many festivals and guest appearances he makes time for within touring schedules. Often channeling his influences, his playing style reflects the attention he has paid to the masters as Haynes leans into each note on each song while riffing reminiscent of greats such as B.B. King. Focusing on the whole rather than showmanship, however, the gracious vocalist-guitarist provides space for the synergy to happen which elevates the jam. The blues/folk/Southern rock fusion is a sensory experience unlike other circuit jams in that the undercurrent of first-rate musicianship unifies the sound. Crowds savor these moments and the everlasting musical experiences that can’t be duplicated. The music is meticulous, even the jams. Random raucous moments such as the infamous “Gold Dust Woman” showing with Grace Potter at Mountain Jam VI in 2010, play as if they’d been rehearsed for days.
As he finished up the Ashes & Dust World Tour in the UK in support of his third solo album, Ashes & Dust Featuring Railroad Earth, released in 2015, Haynes looked forward to reuniting with Mule and embarking on the Smokin’ Mule Tour with Blackberry Smoke this summer. He fit in shows with the Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration as well including one epic night commemorating Jerry’s birthday at Red Rocks in Colorado on Aug. 1, and is slated to perform two nights in October on the bill for the Dear Jerry: Let’s Play 2 shows in DC and VA. Not one for long breaks, Haynes plans on returning to the studio as soon as the smoke settles.
It has been three years since Gov’t Mule released a new studio album. The most recent, Shout, is a culmination of where Mule had been in conjunction with where they are headed. The critically acclaimed album offers a two-disc concept with one disc featuring guest appearances by Toots Hibbert, Elvis Costello and Dave Matthews, to name a few. Since eager fans consistently demand, ‘Where’s my Mule?’, Haynes is gearing up to collaborate with founding member Matt Abts (drummer), Danny Louis (guitarist) and Jorgen Carlsson (bass) as they record their 11th studio album in the fall. Meanwhile, released via Haynes’ Evil Teen Records on Aug. 5, Tel-Star Sessions will surely satiate appetites for more Mule. The archival album consists of early recordings of the original trio—Warren Haynes, the late Allen Woody and Matt Abts—who began the side project without expectation. Recorded in June of 1994 as demos, the tracks include 10 newly-released songs harkening back to the origins of Gov’t Mule who recently celebrated their 20th anniversary.
The hardest working man in music took time out to speak with me from the UK just before heading back for the JSO shows. Here, he reflects on the Tel-Star Sessions, Mule’s writing process and the direction of their next studio album.
You’re gearing up for Jerry’s Symphonic Celebration at Red Rocks in Colorado soon…
Yeah, the times we play together have always been a lot of fun. The Red Rocks show is in honor of Jerry’s birthday and, of course, we already have Jackie LaBranch who sang in the Jerry Garcia band. She’s on the whole tour with us and Melvin, for that particular show, is going to join us for a bonus encore set that we’re going to do after the symphony leaves the stage…they’re going to let us keep going in honor of Jerry’s birthday, and we’re going to have a lot of fun. We’re going to play a lot of stuff we haven’t played on the tour. We’re really excited about it.
Blackberry Smoke is more country-inspired than you guys are. What can we expect in terms of on-stage collaborations?
I think it will be a lot of fun for both bands. We’ll be joining them, and they’ll be joining us…night by night we’ll be trying to think of something cool to play that, hopefully, we haven’t done before. I think it’s a really nice combination for the audience because their audience is a little bit different than ours, but there’s a lot of overlap. Each band will be bringing its own fans to the shows and exposing the other fans new music, so it’s kind of a situation that we’ve been looking forward to for a long time. They’re quite the rock band on stage as well. They have more country influence than we do, but they’re very much a Southern rock band.
Have you worked any particular songs out?
We’re going to be winging it, and it’s just going to keep getting better night by night. We’ve played together enough to know that just kind of flying by the seat of our pants in the best way to go.
Charlie and I have been talking about a few song selections to be mentally preparing for, but these kinds of things just tend to happen organically, and that seems to be the best way.
Now, you’ve recently been working with conductor from the Boston Pops. How is it preparing for the Symphonic Celebration in terms of a challenge for you?
It is a different kind of challenge. I really enjoy bouncing back and forth from one project to another. I think it helps keep me inspired to do a lot of different things because I enjoy so many different types of music, and I have the opportunity to work with so many wonderful musicians. When we first started doing this a couple years ago it was a bit intimidating because I had never worked with a symphony before, and it took a couple of shows to kind of get my sea legs, so to speak. But it was something I was looking forward to and in the back of my mind I had been looking forward to for a long time.
I had never had the opportunity to work with an orchestra, so when I got a call from the Jerry Garcia estate about three years ago saying they wanted to pursue this idea of doing Jerry’s music with symphonies and guest artists…they wanted to know if I was interested in being the first guest artist. I said, ‘Absolutely, I would be honored to.’ It took us about a year to put everything together, and when it started happening it was a whole other world. It was a welcome challenge for me. Now we’ve done it a lot. Now we’re just kind of adding new material. It’s really just a wonderful situation and the conductor, Rich Daniels, that we work with who will be us at Red Rocks, he really makes it easy on everybody. He’s great. He’s also a great musician. He plays saxophone and will join us on some of the jams. It’s been a real pleasure working with him as well.
With Tel-Star Sessions set to be released in August, 16 years to the month after Allen Woody’s passing, is the timing of the release coincidental or to pay homage to Woody? Yeah, I think it’s an appropriate time period to honor his memory, and these recordings are the first recordings Gov’t Mule ever did as a trio in 1994. Allen Woody’s presence is felt from the first note to the last note, and his playing on these particular recordings is amazing, as is the way he and Matt Abts played together. I think it’s very indicative of the reason we became a band. And this shows our chemistry in the beginning.
We had only been together a short period of time, only knew a few songs, and we went into the studio and self-financed these recordings. They haven’t been made available until now. When I went back during the 20th anniversary and listened to them I was really moved and smiling the entire time. I thought it would be very appropriate to put it out now.
You’ve talked in the past about possibly putting together jazz- and blues-inspired albums. Are they somewhere down the pike? What’s next?
Those are two things that I feel like are inevitable, but I still haven’t done yet. The next thing for us will be going into the studio with Gov’t Mule and making the follow-up to Shout which it’s been a little while now. So this will be the first Gov’t Mule record post-20th anniversary which I’m very excited about, and we’re really anxious to get into the studio. I kind of feel like this record is going to be one foot in the future and one foot back in our roots. It’s really hard to say until it’s all said and done, but I kind of feel like that’s where we’re headed.
Is that the feeling you’ve derived from material you’ve written so far or is that the vision?
Well, most of the stuff I’ve written so far is very different than what we’ve done in the past, but once we immerse ourselves into rehearsal mode and the writing process over the next four months the sky is the limit. So, you know, I’m just really curious to see where it all goes. The fun thing for us making a studio record is that one piece of the puzzle leads to the next, leads to the next, leads to the next…it always winds up completely different than we thought it was going to be when we started.
That’s the most exciting way to do it. I mean, you can rethink it as much as possible, but it’s still going to change every day.
So do you prefer to bring in what you’ve been working on for the guys to add their element or do you prefer working together in collaboration when you’re writing?
Every Mule record is kind of a combination of those things. I bring in songs I’ve written that I feel like would be good for Mule, and we start rehearsing them…but we also carve out a lot of time to do a lot of writing together. Danny and myself get together in advance and do a lot of writing together. We just throw everything in the pot and see what makes the best combination of elements, you know? For us, we still look at a studio album as being like a concept, so we want it to have a beginning, an end and a theme—even though a lot of people get their music these days one song at a time—we still like the concept of an album having an overall feeling and an overall statement.
Shout feltmore contemporary and stretched though still rooted in Southern rock…
Well, one of the things I really love about Shout is that it went in a lot of different directions. It kind of gave glimpses into all of our influences a little bit. Without really thinking of it that way, it was just happening organically based on the fact that we knew our 20th anniversary was happening, and we wanted that record to culminate what we had done up until that point. So, I felt like, in a really cool way, that each track was different than the one before, and I really liked that.
As a musician, you are never stagnant and constantly evolve, always working on new projects…Is there the possibility of a new Warren Haynes solo album in the near future?
Well, when I made Ashes and Dust with the guys from Railroad Earth we recorded a lot of songs that we didn’t utilize for the record, and since I’ve been touring with the Ashes and Dust Band, we’ve really developed this amazing chemistry together. So, I’d like to go in with that band and record some more stuff at some point and, of course, I’m continuing to write in that direction as well. But I want to get the next Mule record behind me before I start thinking about that.
Speaking of your busy schedule, how has being a father changed or informed your music or your perspective?
Well, everybody tries to tell you when you become a parent all of the things that are going to change when you do and, of course, there is no way to prepare for it until it actually happens. It’s almost cliché to say, but it’s the truth—I feel like I have a different perspective now because in a lot of cases I’m looking at things through his eyes, listening to things through his ears and seeing how he responds to everything, and it kind of just changes your perspective on everything. It’s nice, you know, because a little perspective change is always a positive thing.
Sure is…So how many Les Pauls does he own so far?
(Laughs) We’d better slow down. He has a few guitars, but they’re not Les Pauls (laughs). But he plays guitar, he plays drums, he’s taking piano lessons, he loves to sing and make up songs, and he’s definitely a very musical boy. We would never push him that way, obviously, but he seems to be extremely drawn to it, at least for now.
That’s great. We’ll look forward to seeing him on stage one day, too, then. Thanks so much for your time today…it was nice to speak with you, Warren.
My pleasure. Nice speaking with you as well.
Catch Warren Haynes with Gov’t Mule at the Nikon At Jones Beach Theater in Wantagh, NY on Sept. 9 and at Sands Bethlehem Event Center in Bethlehem, PA on Sept. 11. For more information, go to mule.net and warrenhaynes.net.