Shervin Lainez

Embracing Gov’t Mule’s Timeless, Expansive Style

Mule are fresh off of a well-deserved Grammy nomination and, once again, going full-steam-ahead on another accolade-inducing project.

Since their formation in 1994, Gov’t Mule have become widely beloved as an extraordinarily talented jam band, melding Southern rock and blues in a style that’s distinctively their own. They took a similarly unique approach when making their latest album, Peace…Like a River (set for release on June 16 via Fantasy Records), recording it at the same time that they laid down the tracks for their last release, 2021’s Heavy Load Blues.

They did it this way, guitarist/vocalist Warren Haynes says, “due to the frustration of being in lockdown and not being able to tour. At the time, I had written so much material that I was dying to get into the studio to record, so it made sense to do two projects at the same time. Our goal was to record two albums that sounded completely different from each other, and I think we were able to pull that off. I’m not sure that I would recommend that under normal circumstances, but under those conditions, it was really the right remedy.”

He says that it was easy to decide which songs should go onto which album because Heavy Load Blues is, as its name implies, a blues-focused album, while Peace…Like a River is more wide-ranging in style.

The band will play tracks off of both releases (as well selections from across their other 10 studio albums) when they embark on numerous tour dates throughout this summer and on through the rest of the year. (They’ll play in Atlantic City’s at Hard Rock Live at Etess Arena on July 22, and in Holmdel, NJ at PNC Bank Arts Center on August 19.)

Until they can get to a show, fans have plenty to dig into with Peace…Like a River, especially the songs that feature notable collaborations with other artists. With the exception of singer Celisse, whose music Haynes only discovered during the past few years, the others are all his longtime friends.

“In the case of ‘Shake Our Way Out,’ there was a lot of ZZ Top influence in that song, and since Billy [Gibbons] and I have been friends for a long time, I decided to invite him to be part of it,” Haynes shares.

For “Dreaming Out Loud,” Haynes tapped blues singer Ruthie Foster and soul legend Ivan Neville: “I had the idea that the song would benefit from multiple lead voices, as opposed to just my voice. I got this idea for it to be similar to Sly and the Family Stone, where different singers were sharing different parts of the song. Our voices blend very well together, so I thought about them for that song.”

Perhaps the most surprising collaboration comes on “The River Only Flows One Way,” which features actor/musician Billy Bob Thornton. This one “came about in an odd way because I had never written a song where I thought it would be best represented by someone talking in the verses instead of singing,” Haynes says. “I wanted it to be some classic narrator voice, and I thought about Billy Bob. He has one of those kind of eerie voices that draws the listener in, and it turned out to be the perfect voice for this.”

In all cases, Haynes and his bandmates were careful to give these guest artists plenty of leeway, even when that means the results are unpredictable. “It’s always a pleasant surprise when you’re working with wonderful people,” the musician explains. “I’m always open minded about what to expect from someone because I know they’re going to have ideas that I would never think of. It’s always important to let people deliver their own interpretations. Obviously, I’ll have suggestions here and there, but for the most part, the beauty of the collaboration is that someone adds something that you wouldn’t have added on your own.”

Haynes says he is similarly adventurous with his personal music listening habits, and he counsels aspiring musicians to do the same. “Listen to as much music as possible – it will only help you find your own voice by exposing yourself to as many influences as possible. At the same time, at some point, you have to make the decision of what your voice is. It can be a wide array of influences that make up that voice or style, but everybody has to draw the line for themselves.”

He began his own musical journey at quite a young age. He recalls singing in his bedroom in Asheviille, North Carolina, where he grew up, attempting to sound like his favorite soul singers. He also started writing poetry, which evolved into writing song lyrics after he began playing the guitar when he was 12 years old. The first song he wrote himself, also at 12 years old, was called “The Wasp.” The band he was in at the time tried to play it, “and I’m sure it was horrible,” he adds, amused. 

Determined to improve, he began studying all the great folk musicians and singer songwriters, such as Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, James Taylor, and Gordon Lightfoot. “I’ve always been inspired by great songwriters, and always aspired to be someone who focused not just on the instrumental aspect of the music, but on the lyrical aspect, as well.”

This early education still impacts his writing to this day: “That whole genre doesn’t really appear in an obvious way in my playing or singing, for the most part. But as a songwriter, and as an artist, I think that everything you listen to somehow finds its way into your overall picture.”

Around 14 years old, he played his first show for a live audience at a bar in Asheville – an experiences he notes as “exhilarating.” That made him realize he wanted to play music as a career – a goal he achieved as he went on to play with David Allen Coe before becoming a longtime member of The Allman Brothers Band starting in 1989.

He formed Gov’t Mule in 1994 as a side project, but it became clear that it should become his main focus as that band became a highly successful touring act. Now, almost 30 years later, Haynes is grateful that his work with Gov’t Mule continues to resonate so strongly with listeners.

“I think most people that listen to my music, or to music similar to artists like myself, really connect with music that’s being created without the intentions of adhering to trends of the current pop music,” he says. ‘I’ve always gravitated towards music that seemed to be striving for timelessness. I’ve been fortunate to have always gotten away with creating music that I love, that’s not compromised.”