Jacob Blickenstaff

Warren Haynes Brings On The (Solo) Music Ahead of New Mule Albums

If there is one thing to know about Warren Haynes, it is that he and his band Gov’t Mule strive to create an inimitable experience for their audience at every show.

There is no pretense or filler. When one experiences Warren, they get the artist in his entirety – solid, thought-provoking songwriting, decades of experience slung over his shoulder, and his clear, evocative voice blending sublimely into and through his Les Paul. 

This complete package allows for a musician such as Haynes to hold his own – and then some – on a stage solo. 

Having honed his chops with the likes of The Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead, Haynes’ reputation is rock-hard. He is so well respected, in fact, that fans (and even some fellow musicians) will utter the phrase, “It’s all about Warren,” while enveloped in a mesmerizing melodic moment of his creation. 

This summer, Haynes is ready to “get back to work” as the pandemic winds down and live music picks up. After an extremely productive year of writing, he will hit the road for a handful of solo shows before releasing the first of two Gov’t Mule albums he and the band have been working on in the studio.  

A long-awaited blues album should arrive this year, according to Haynes, with the second releasing sometime next year with subsequent tours. So, for fans who have been holed up in their houses shouting, “Where’s my Mule?!” It is on its way. There is even the possibility that a few unreleased tunes may make it into Haynes’ Solo Tour setlist. As any Warren Haynes and Gov’t Mule fan knows, anything can happen… and that is just the way we like it.

So, you’re getting ready to come see us in New Jersey and New York soon.

Yes, very soon. We’re looking forward to it. I’m excited. These are the first shows of this little tour.

What was the impetus for you to begin this solo tour?

Well, I just wanted to get out there like everybody else. I’m just dying to get back to work and Gov’t Mule is going back to work a little later in the year. It’ll be nice to kind of ease back into the situation. It’s long overdue.

And you’d been keeping busy during the pandemic. How was the virtual thing feeling for you?

The virtual thing is… a solution, but it’s not the real thing. I mean, we all did the best we could and there was a lot of great music that happened with the whole virtual experience. But, I think one of the things that everybody learned – the artist and the fans and everyone – was that we all just miss being together, you know? It was a nice way of being able to kind of deal with the situation and I found myself writing more than I have in decades, which, I’m sure, most everyone probably felt the same way.

Wow. You wrote more during the pandemic than in decades?
I would say so, yeah. I mean, you have to do something, right? I haven’t been home this long since I was 15-years-old [Laughs]. I’m one of those people who is used to touring.
Of course, there were the obvious downsides, but there were some upsides to it – being able to spend time at home with family and to get a lot of things done that you may not normally have time to do. 

One of those things turned out to be writing, and that was great. It also put me in a situation where now I have all these songs. Now, I’ve got to go record, so it took awhile to feel comfortable enough to get back into the studio, but we finally did. Gov’t Mule went into the studio recently and worked on two different records and we’re very psyched about that.

Excellent! When can we expect those?

Well, the first of the two records is coming out this year, and Gov’t Mule will tour accordingly, and the second record will come out sometime next year. It was the first time we’d ever done two records back-to-back like that, but, as I said, there was tons of material that I was dying to record. We had all this time on our hands and finally felt comfortable enough to be back together.

That will be great news for fans. I’m sure with all of that material you’re ready to get out there and try some songs out. Will you be playing any of those songs on your solo tour? 

Possibly. I mean, of the two records that we did, the one that’s coming out this year is a blues record, which we’ve been talking about making for a long time, while the other record is more just a Gov’t Mule record. 

There are a few of those songs in each case that I could perform solo. I might bust out a few of the ones that I feel like I can represent by myself. One of the beautiful things about doing the solo shows though, for me, is that I don’t have to stick to any format. 

Over the course of this short tour I’ll play… I don’t know how many songs, probably 60 or 80, as many as I can squeeze in because I can take songs that I’ve written from all these different projects – for Gov’t Mule, for The Allman Brothers, solo records, cover songs, and songs that other artists have recorded that I wrote and just choose from anything… as long as it’s something I feel like I can represent in a solo format.

So this is allowing you to have no constraints, and you’re mixing it up?

Yeah. Mixing it up is a good thing. I mean, we always do, and with these shows there’s no rules.

Speaking of no rules, I think that’s one of the things your audience, your fan base, really love. They appreciate a long jam or a five-minute song that they don’t know what to expect. They’re waiting and thinking, “What are they going to do? What’s going to happen?” and it turns out to be this amazing experience for them. You spoke about your gratitude for your fans in “Bring on the Music.” What would you say sets your fan base apart from fans of pop music or Top 40? 

Well, you know, I feel like since we started Gov’t Mule, which was late ‘94, we were just doing what we wanted to do to have fun. We didn’t have any designs on doing it year after year, year after year. It was kind of a side project. We didn’t know what type of audience would be there for it. We were just doing something to please ourselves, so the audience that kind of formed around the music was made up of people that, obviously, have similar tastes to the music that we like. Then, once we became a real band, with each record we expanded our influences, which would reach out to more people in more diverse groups of listeners, and, eventually, as we made the third record and the fourth record, the fifth record and the tenth record, you could see that that all these influences were there because we like so many different types of music. 

We feel like, with each record, we should add as many different influences as we can. And what we’re discovering is that not only are there fans of the individual genres that influence Gov’t Mule, there are all these fans out there that have a similar mindset that like so many different types of music and don’t like to be force fed popular music. They like to work a little harder to discover music that they love and I think that’s one of the things that our audience members have in common: they take music very seriously. It’s a big part of their lives and they don’t mind working a little harder to find stuff that they love. 

So, consequently, what winds up happening is that there’s an audience full of people that not only tolerate us going out to experiment on stage, they actually encourage it. They want to see something that’s never happened before and I adhere to that philosophy. If I go to a show, I want to experience something that has never happened that way before and will never happen that way again. That’s what we try to deliver night after night, and that’s a beautiful thing to have an audience that is there to celebrate that part of not just our music, but music in general. I think since we’ve all been trapped with COIVD in the past year-and-a-half, one of the things that we’ve all missed was that live music experience that can only happen when a group of like-minded people get together and the energy that comes from that.

I agree that it seems your fans have a real appreciation for music and they want that moment when they can say, “Yeah, I was there at the Capitol Theatre when they did [song].” It’s interesting how they’ve evolved with you over the decades.

And we’re so lucky to have that because it propels us, musically, to heights that we would not be capable of without the energy coming from the audience. It gives us the inspiration to want to do what we do and to know that we’re not just doing it for ourselves, but there are a lot of people out there that want to experience the same thing.

That must be a great feeling. Now, on the flip side, when you mention how they want to see something or hear something that hasn’t been done before, is there any pressure in that for you?

Well, there’s pressure in the same way there’s pressure on an athlete or a sports team when they’re playing a game or participating in a match. There’s that good kind of pressure that, if you channel it properly, it makes you perform better, and we’ve all been approaching music this way for so long that it’s kind of the norm for us. But, we’re lucky also that we’ve had all of these opportunities to express ourselves this way. 

I mean, if you think back, The Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead are two prime examples for rock bands that have been able to forge a path based on this philosophy, and, myself, having worked in both of those camps, I was influenced by those philosophies before I’d ever had the opportunity to work with those folks. Being on the inside of that and learning what makes it tick from their perspective is valid and valuable as well. I think one of the things that Gov’t Mule has strived to achieve from the very beginning – and it’s still one of the most important things for us – is that balance between improvisation and songs. If you look at The Allman Brothers or the Grateful Dead, they had a great balance of both and just one without the other is not nearly as effective as the combination of the two together.

You guys certainly do achieve that balance. Getting back to your early days with David Allan Coe, when you were a young musician, what was one of your biggest takeaways that stuck with you from those early years? 

Well, I grew up in Asheville, North Carolina. During that time, because the drinking age was 18 – it had not been changed to 21, yet – all the bars and clubs were packed full of music lovers and there were live bands in every club, every bar, and, in most cases, they could get away with playing original material because it was such a fertile time. The bar scene was hopping. Believe it or not, I started playing in bars and clubs – starting with one in particular – when I was 14 years old, and it was kind of this hippie club in Asheville. At the time, the stage was so small there was no room for a large band, but there was a lot of bluegrass and folk music, and, in some cases, blues, but mostly acoustic. 

Once I realized that I could sneak in there and hear this music, I became just completely obsessed with it, and, eventually, they got me up on stage to play. When that happened, I was hooked. Life just opened up in a whole new way and it became my mission to play live in front of an audience every chance I got. 

I was learning from all these older, more seasoned, musicians, but the philosophy of music back then was similar in the way that there was a lot of improv going on. The music was very influenced by the late sixties / early seventies music that was happening at the time and all that music was born out of that same sort of philosophy. I was so enamored with doing that that it just became the most important thing for me. Luckily, since I was the youngest person in that scene at the time, I was learning from all these older musicians. 

One of the things that I was learning was to go back and discover where it all comes from, to not just focus on the influences that you have but find out who those people were influenced by and who those people were influenced by and to move backwards to discover this family tree and connect the dots. Then, see where it all started and where it’s all gone. So, for me, it’s been a continual journey. I’ve been lucky that I was around all these wonderful musicians from the very beginning who’ve helped kind of steer me along.

Well, that makes a lot of sense as to why there’s so much depth in everything you do. You’d mentioned in the live DVD “Bring on the Music – Live at the Capitol Theatre” about being a student for life. Do you still feel like a student? It seems, there’s nothing else for you to learn since you’re already so well-established.

Yeah, Imean, I think the older you get the longer the spaces in between the epiphanies, for sure [Laughs], but it’s all about discovery. Music is one of those things that no matter how long you’ve been doing it and how much you studied, as much of it as you can find, it’s a thimble-full compared to what’s out there. It’s the tip of the iceberg – I hate the cliché – but you can never discover a tiny fraction of all the important music that is really out there, so all you can do is try to find the best in each genre that appeals to you, spend some time studying that, and see how that applies to finding your own voice. I always tell people that the more different types of music a musician opens him or herself up to the more the chance of finding out who you really are, finding your own voice, and being able to develop your own voice. If you limit your options and you limit your influences, then it’s much harder to be unique.

You were very young when you delved into singing and guitar came later. Is that correct? Then, you were performing on stage at 14 – so young. Where did the early interest in music come from?

Soul music, for me. I had two older brothers, and, at that time – we’re talking about the mid-to-late sixties – soul music was dominating the airwaves. My two older brothers had really good taste in music, so I was being exposed to all this wonderful soul music. The Four Tops, The Temptations, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding… I think James Brown was probably my first hero. I would just sit in my bedroom and try to emulate their voices, try to sing along with these records. It was just such a moving experience listening to it and trying to sing along. It wasn’t for a few more years that my oldest brother would bring home like a Jimi Hendrix record. Actually, before that, it was Sly and The Family Stone and then Jimi Hendrix. That kind of started veering me toward rock music, but up until that point I was mostly listening to soul music and it was all about the voice. 

I was focusing on all these amazing singers, and when I discovered rock music like Hendrix, Johnny Winter, Cream, and stuff like that, there were these great voices, but the guitar was also an equally important voice. That kind of clicked in my head, and my oldest brother had an acoustic guitar, so I started playing his guitar. Then, I think for my 12th birthday, my dad got me an electric guitar, and that’s kind of where that started. 

So, you had a lot happening for you… everything coming together with timing, where you grew up, and your brothers’ influences.

Yeah, they were both big music fans and, actually, record collectors. My middle brother became such a collector that he wound up opening a record store, a used and new record store in Asheville, and that was his business for 25 years or something before he retired. There was a time period when there were literally thousands of albums at our disposal.

Photo by Eric Gettler

I have a question about “Dreams and Songs.” It’s such a powerful song and the video that you had put out felt like a very important performance while watching it. Was that important to you? Is that how you felt at the time?

Yeah, I did. That is a very personal song to me, and, in some ways, autobiographical.  It’s definitely a song that I feel kind of captures that part of my journey. After I wrote that song, I felt like I’d somehow been able to capture what I was trying to say – and it still remains a very important song to me. It’s hard to describe something in such a short four minutes or whatever, but every time I hear that song it kind of takes me back to my upbringing, growing up, and why I play music in the first place and everything. I love that song.

Like you said, it’s difficult to do, but, in some ways, that song feels memoir-ish.

I feel like it’s revealing, as well, which in order to write your best songs, you kind of have to reveal some things that maybe you, normally, would keep in.

Putting yourself out there, like you mentioned in the beginning, with the formation of Gov’t Mule, speaks to how if you just do your thing the people who are meant to get it will get it.

That’s a great way of putting it, really. You know, I think that’s where music and art, in general, should start. It should belong to the people that want it, that get it. When the artist starts trying to second-guess the public and think “How can I reach more people? If I compromise this and if I compromise that maybe more people will like it,” that’s when it is no longer true.

Since you are coming to New Jersey, here’s an obligatory question: Not sure of a time when you’ve shared a stage with Springsteen other than, I think, with Pete Seeger for the Clearwater Benefit. You guys have a connection with Danny Clinch, you’re both friends of his, and Danny directed the “Bring on the Music – Live at the Capitol Theatre” DVD, which was amazing. Would you and Bruce share a stage at some point?

Yeah, I would love that. The only time, to my knowledge, we appeared on stage together was at the Pete Seeger thing. I was thinking there might be one other time, but for some reason I can’t think of what it would be – some finale somewhere. But, to do something more personal and more serious would be something that I would absolutely welcome and love to do, so, I’m definitely open to that – and if Danny Clinch were part of it, I’m open to that, as well.

At Peach [Festival] everyone loves “Wake up with Warren.” It’s one of the best parts of the festival. It’s so early, yet, you do an incredible job performing. How is that for you, though? Is it really ok to be performing that early in the morning?
Well, in theory it should not be ok because I don’t like performing that early. I don’t like singing that early, but somehow all those shows wind up being not just fun, but kind of inspiring. Everybody’s there and you see people drinking coffee trying to wake up [Laughs], and I’m in exactly the same headspace. We’re kind of all coming back to life simultaneously. I love doing those shows, and, ironically, this year my show’s going to be later. My show at Peach is not going to be as early, which will be easier from a singing standpoint [Laughs], but different. I’m not used to playing in the daylight, and you look out and see that, you know, we’re all in this together. I have really fond memories of all those shows. 

Now, with all of this material you’ve written and two Mule albums coming out, will there be a solo album as well?

I’ve been writing a lot of material for an upcoming solo album. I’m not sure when I’ll get back into the studio to start working on it because we have these two Mule records that are kind of front and center right now. Over the whole last year-and-a-half I wrote so many different types of music and some of the songs, obviously, are not meant to be Gov’t Mule songs. Maybe a solo record on the horizon somewhere.

Warren Haynes’ Solo Tour hits Concerts on the Green in Eatontown, NJ on June 29th and June 30th, Charles Wood Park in Lake George, NY on July 1st, Northlands in East Swanzey, NH on July 2nd, Apple Valley Park, Lafayette, NY on July 3rd, and Peach Music Festival in Scranton, PA on July 4th.  

Check out Warren Haynes and Gov’t Mule for additional tour dates and to purchase “Bring on the Music – Live at the Capitol Theatre” DVDs/CDs.