Warren Haynes Interview: How the Allman Brothers Staged a Comeback
Image attributed to Warren Haynes
Grammy Award-winning vocalist, songwriter and guitar legend Warren Haynes is best known for his work with the Allman Brothers Band and as founding member of the Southern rock jam band Gov't Mule. Along with Haynes, current members of Gov’t Mule are Matt Abts, Danny Louis and Jorgen Carlsson. Allen Woody, co-founder of the band, passed away in 2000 at the age of 44.
Gov’t Mule’s 12th studio album, Heavy Load Blues, dropped November 12, 2021, and the deluxe edition of the record was recently released digitally across all streaming platforms. The band’s first ever blues album, which debuted at number one on the Billboard Blues Albums chart upon its original release, encompasses an even mix of Haynes’ originals and revered covers.
"Gregg and I were so close and traveled the world together that a day doesn’t go by that I’m not thinking about him."
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I imagine many people would be surprised to learn that Heavy Load Blues is your first blues album because you’ve always been associated with blues. Was it your idea to make the record?
Warren Haynes: Well, I’ve been wanting to do what I consider a traditional blues record for a long time, but it’s always been on the back burner. I was even jotting down songs, making a list of cover songs and artists that I would consider when the time came. But I think it was the whole lockdown of COVID-19 that brought it to the forefront really. I wrote a few blues songs during that time period, which I don’t very often do. I don’t write many of what I consider traditional blues songs. So that, combined with the list of songs that I’d been working on, turned in Heavy Load Blues.
You may have heard this story. But we went into a studio that had two rooms side-by-side, and we set up in the small room and recorded blues. In the big room, we recorded what’s going to be the next Gov’t Mule record because it was a good way to utilize our time. We couldn’t tour. We couldn’t travel. So recording was a good option.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Actually, I was hoping you’d tell the story, as I’m sure other musicians would find it fascinating. Did everything go smoothly?
Warren Haynes: It went great. We were in search of a studio that could accommodate both records, and we found this place in Connecticut called Power Station New England, which is a replica of the original Power Station in New York City where they did a ton of great records. So we found it, and it served our purpose. We were able to put all the vintage, small amplifiers in the small room with a little drum kit, and there was a piano, an organ and a small bass amp. We set up in that little room in a way like we were on a tiny stage in a little blues club or something. We were all right on top of each other. No headphones, and everything was bleeding in to every microphone. We recorded everything live. Live vocals. Everything live. I was singing into a little monitor.
In the big room next door, we had all of our Gov’t Mule toys set up. So we’d enter in the morning and record Gov’t Mule songs in the big room until about nine o’clock that night, then we’d take a break and go to the blues room and play blues the rest of the night and go home. That was our daily routine. It was a really cool way to shut your brain off and just play blues at the end of the night. That’s when you’re supposed to play blues. You’re not supposed to play blues in the daytime.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: That’s a neat concept.
Warren Haynes: Looking back, I don’t know if it’s something I’d want to do very often because it was tons of work. But given the circumstances where we were all just dying to play music and couldn’t travel or perform on stage, it was the perfect solution. So with that in mind, it was absolutely the right thing to do. Would I want to go next year and do it again? I’m not sure (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: How did you narrow down the list of cover songs?
Warren Haynes: It was probably 40 or 50 songs. There were certain artists that I wanted to make sure that we covered. I’ve done Robert Johnson in the past. We’ve done B.B. King. There were songs I could eliminate. There were artists I could eliminate because we’d done them in previous releases. But some artists like Elmore James, Howlin’ Wolf, Bobby “Blue” Bland, I wanted to make sure were represented.
But it was more about the balance of different types of blues, different tempos and different approaches. The blues can get pretty samey if you stick in one version of it. So I wanted to cover as many different styles of blues as possible. That was the mission. So there’s still a list of probably 20 or 30 songs that we didn’t get to.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did you invoke the spirit of anyone in particular, like Gregg Allman, while writing Heavy Load Blues?
Warren Haynes: Yeah. I’m sure he was on my mind because he is all the time. It’s a daily thing. Gregg and I were so close and traveled the world together that a day doesn’t go by that I’m not thinking about him. Of course, we wrote so much music together that whenever I’m writing music, I’m always reminded of those times and little things that I learned from him through the years. I used to joke around and tell him that I learned more from him before I ever met him because I was such a big fan that I studied his music and was singing his songs before we even met.
We became friends, I think, in 1981, and we wrote a lot of music together through the years. But there were little subtle things about songwriting that I would always take away from him. He was never in a hurry. If we were working on a song together and something wasn’t working, Gregg would say, “Let’s come back and look at it tomorrow.” Most songwriters would be like, “Let’s take 10 minutes and come back and look at it.” (laughs). But he was right, you know. There’s no reason to rush something as important as a song.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: There was a time when Gregg and Dickey (Betts) felt like their sound was not welcome in the music business, and they simply didn’t fit in anymore. Have you ever felt that way?
Warren Haynes: Luckily, not to that extent because I know what they’re referring to. When they broke up in ’81, the Allman Brothers music didn’t seem to fit with everything that was going on in the rock/pop world at that time. They made their attempt to utilize some of the modern influences and fit in to a certain extent, and Gregg was never into it. I know that when the band called me in ’89 about the reunion, one of the first things we talked about was that we needed to get back to ’69, ’70, ’71 where the band started because if we could get back there, then the sky’s the limit. But we had to see if the new band and this new chemistry could capture that sound and that feeling.
Dickey told me several times they felt like they just backed out of the music business because the environment that was going on at the time was so different, they felt like they didn’t belong. But then Robert Cray started having some success. Stevie Ray Vaughan came on the scene and was really knocking people out, and at the same time, the Grateful Dead’s audience was getting bigger and bigger. Dickey said to me, “You know, somewhere in-between, there is us. So maybe it’s time for us to come back.” So the Allman Brothers band came back by being themselves, and I think that’s why it lasted as long as it did. Now, people look at that music as being timeless.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I wanted to talk to you about Ann Wilson and your collaboration on her new solo album, Fierce Bliss. How did that come about?
Warren Haynes: I love Ann. We’ve known each other for several years now. It all started with the promoters at this event in Virginia called LOCKN’ which is a big outdoor festival. They like to pair groups and artists together and get people together that have never performed together before. It’s like one of their things, and it’s really cool. There’s been a lot of beautiful things that have happened on stage due to that kind of concept. So they called me one year and said, “Who do you want to perform with?” We started making a list of people that might be a cool combination. Somebody brought up Ann. I said, “Oh, yeah. That’s great. I love that idea. If she’s into it, let’s do it.”
So they called her, and she was into it. We just talked on the phone about what songs we could do together. We both love Led Zeppelin, so we did a few Led Zeppelin songs. We did one of her songs. We did a Janis Joplin song. We did a song that Gov’t Mule recorded that Ann had also recorded called “Mother Earth.” It just turned out great. So that was the beginning of a friendship and musical relationship. She invited me down to her place in Florida to play on her previous solo record. I played a Tom Petty song called “Luna,” and I played on her remake of this Lesley Gore song “You Don’t Own Me.”
Then Ann called about making this next solo record and said, “Let’s write something.” So we wrote two songs together for that record. They seemed like Gov’t Mule songs that needed Ann Wilson’s voice, so we went in the studio at Power Station while we were making Heavy Load Blues and that whole scene. She came up for that. We recorded those two songs in that studio, and then she joined us on stage for a live show. She’s come to Christmas Jam, my charity event in Asheville that I do. Ann’s just a really cool person and just a wonderful singer. Her voice is one of those voices that, as soon as she starts singing, you know who it is.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Yes, Ann’s wonderful. Does your relationship with Elvis Costello go back a few years also?
Warren Haynes: We met in Australia. There’s a big outdoor festival there called Bluesfest, but they have Dave Matthews, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello and all these people that are part of it. Elvis and I were backstage hanging out and realized that we had a lot of the same friends and the same interests. We started communicating via email. Then I had written this song that Gov’t Mule was going to record, and it really reminded me of early Elvis Costello and the Attractions.
So I initially reached out to him just to talk about how to record the vocal sound and get the vocal sound from that era. Then it turned into, “Hey, do you want to sing on it?” We picked a time for that to happen, and Elvis just came in and really took the song to a whole other place, which is very similar to how I heard it in my head when I was writing it. We just stayed in contact since then.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: When will the new Gov’t Mule album be released?
Warren Haynes; We’re hoping October or November of this year. We’re excited about it because it’s more similar to what people might expect from the next Gov’t Mule record even though I think all of our records are different from the one before it. This is more in line with what Gov’t Mule is known for. So coming on the heels of our blues record, I think it’s going to be really cool.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: How is it being married to your manager?
Warren Haynes: You know, it was Woody’s idea back in the 90s. He and Matt wanted to fire the manager we had at that time, and Woody said, “We want to hire Stef as our manager. How do you feel about that?” I said, “Well, if you’re asking me, do I think she’ll do a great job, the answer is ‘Yes.’” But it also put me in a position where I can’t fire my manager (laughs). She’s been in the music business since I met her.
When I met Stefani, she was doing A&R at Island Records. In the beginning, we vowed not to work together. That was the case up until the conversation I mentioned to you where Woody and Matt wanted to hire her to manage Govt Mule. The way I look at it now is that there are downsides to everything. But I think the upsides far outweigh the downsides. That’s really the important part.
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