With a New Generation of Fans, Guitarist Warren Haynes Keeps the Flame of Classic Rock Burning

After a failed attempt to contact Warren Haynes at the Embassy Suites in Syracuse, the second-generation southern rocker-cum-jam band practitioner finally picks up the blower in a room ostensibly assigned to his road manager. Understandably, Haynes likes to keep a low profile. Over the course of the past few years he has developed a distaste for annoying fan calls, and as one of the most sought-after musicians in the classic roots rock genre, he’s been touring pretty much non-stop. Playing leap-frog between the current incarnations of the Allman Brothers Band and the Dead as well as grinding axe for his own project, Government Mule, his road-intensive schedule warrants the occasional game of hide and seek.

“This has been my busiest year ever, which of course is not a bad thing,” he relates with guarded enthusiasm. “But I won’t lie, the traveling part is hard. It’s the music that’s fun.” Paradoxes are the norm for Haynes, who began his life down in Asheville, North Carolina but now resides (when not on the road) in New York. With an apartment in Greenwich Village, a country house not far from the Apple and a wife of six years, Haynes claims Yankeeland as home.

“The Northeast is acually a huge market for the kind of music I play. The Beacon Theater in Manhattan has kind of become an unofficial home for the Allmans and Government Mule. We’ve been playing a series of shows there every March (with the Allmans) and a run of shows around New Years (with the Mule). We get a tremendous response from the fans.”

While this cultural heresy dispells the myth of the southern-fried rocker, Haynes’ Dixified roots can’t be brushed aside entirely. A little more chat and he confesses to having played on what would have been the last album by the Outlaws (the disc was never released) and yes, he got his start in Nashville playing with David Allan Coe, who among other things is known for writing X-rated ditties with a redneck spin.

In fact, the chopper-riding Coe introduced a young Haynes to original Allman Brothers’ guitarist Dickey Betts in the mid ’80s. And aftter collaborating with Coe for a few years, Haynes went on to join Betts’ solo project in 1986 and then the Allman Brothers Band, which reformed in 1989 (the 20th anniversary of the group’s founding).

“I had been playing with Dickey in his band for a few years. I was doing slide guitar, singing and writing some songs with him. We were polishing the the dual-lead thing, so when the Allmans started up again I was right there with Dickey and I was ready.”

What followed was a well-acclaimed renaissance for the famous southern jam act. Many fans and critics credit Haynes as one of the driving forces behind the group’s musical renewal. Both Haynes and new bassist Allen Woody supplied enough passion to rekindle the old Allman flames, breathing life into the outfit and producing new favorites including “Back Where It All Begins,” Haynes’ own “Soulshine” and “No One to Run With.”

But no account of things Allman is complete without a break-up and some sorrow. In 1994 Haynes and Woody formed their own hard-rocking side outfit, Government Mule, and come 1997 they decided to leave the Allmans to focus exclusively on the new project, which toured successfully until August 2000, when Woody died suddenly of a heart attack. Having lost his co-conspirator and favorite bass player, Haynes was left at the proverbial crossroads.

“When Allen died, my first inclination was to dissolve the band. I didn’t think I could go on. But we got a lot of encouragement from friends in the industry not to break up. And I’m glad we didn’t. The Mule is at a place right now that I never would have believed we could reach. With Allen we knew over 400 songs. The new guys (bassist and key player Danny Louis) have learned the material and are doing really well. It keeps getting better and better. Matt (Mule’s drummer) and I are smiling again like we never expected.”

Haynes not only kept the Mule going, but also returned to the Allman Brothers in 2001 to join guitar virtuoso Derek Trucks in creating a yet another version of the ever-evolving ABB, now minus founding member Dickey Betts. And he also teamed with former Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, who was bouncing back from his own loss of a musical compatriot.

“In the late ’90s Phil was putting together Phil and Friends and he had a list of musicians he wanted to audition to tour with him. He called me and I started playing in the band. He was looking for a twin guitar set-up and for a while it was a revolving door of players. But eventually we stumbled upon the definitive band, which has me and Jimmy Herring playing the leads.”

Haynes’ involvement with Phil and Friends led to his touring with the Dead, a band that continues to field lengthy road jaunts. With all the traveling and band-hopping one might wonder if Haynes can keep the music straight in his head. He says it’s not a problem.

“The Dead are a combination of styles including folk, jazz, r&b, psychedelic and country. The Allmans is more of a blues band and the Mule is more of rock band. But we’re all products of the same influences, which are just combined in different ways, to different degrees and at different levels. Sometimes I’ll transpose licks from one group to the other just to see if people are listening,” he laughs.

As for the cultural differences from outfit to outfit, Haynes embraces a one-world kind of view.

“Musicians tend to have a lot in common, so it’s pretty easy to blend into the different bands. The musicians I work with have a diverse outlook on life and the music reflects their personalities. The Dead are from the West Coast scene and the Allmans from the South and they’re all easy to get along with. And the Allmans have been a racially integrated band from the time they first started,” he points out.

Haynes, who likes to travel by bus and put on 23 free parking lot acoustic shows this summer prior to his paying gigs with the Dead, is looking forward to November, at which point his schedule allows him to return to his wife in New York and a little down time. His influences include bands such as Free, Mountain, Cream, Black Sabbath and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, al of which he says inspired his penchant for gritty power blues, the likes of which he plays with Governmemt Mule. Artists including Kid Rock have taken the stage at Mule shows and members of Metallilca can be counted among the band’s fan base.

‘The Mule is something we built from the ground floor. It’s anything we want it to be and and it changes with every record. The new release, (Deja Voodoo) is my favorite so far. It was great to be able to establish the parameters and we put a lot of hard work into it. The Mule is where my heart is at. Hopefully it’ll go on for years.”

article originally appeared in Denver’s Westword

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