By Brian Wise. Warren Haynes talks about his new solo album Ashes & Dust.
It is 35 years since Warren Haynes joined David Allan Coe’s touring band at the age of just 20. By the time he was 27, Haynes had been recruited by Dickey Betts which in turn led to his association with the Allman Brothers Band – an association that only ended last year with the final shows at the Beacon Theater in New York. Also, for the past 20 years Haynes has been a member of Gov’t Mule and at the forefront of the jam band movement in America.
Last year as part of New Orleans Jazz Fest, The Mule (as they have come to be known by fans) played a six-hour show at the Saenger Theater. I caught the first part of the show, went off to Preservation Hall for a midnight show and the Mule were still on stage by the time I got back!
Haynes is no stranger to epic songs, epic sets and epic albums (The Mule played John Coltrane tunes and have released multiple disc box sets) but his latest solo studio album Ashes & Dust – his third – finds him more focused and with a different intent.
There are still some terrific extended guitar solos, as you would expect from the lead guitarist of Govt Mule and the Allmans, but the new album is all about the songs, which have come from some old friends and from Haynes himself. He has also used New Jersey band Railroad Earth to provide a completely different musical backdrop to the usual Gov’t Mule sound.
I caught up with Haynes by phone as he set out his current tour which will take him all the way through the USA in October and across to Europe in November. For part of the tour he will be joined by Railroad Earth.
Can you tell us about the band Railroad Earth? They’re from New Jersey. How did you team up with them?
I’ve known about them for quite a while. They’re one of the bands that’s considered part of the jam band scene in the states. They opened for the Allman Brothers a few years back at Red Rocks in Colorado. That’s when we first met and then I did some solo acoustic shows on a couple of festivals that they were booked on and I asked the guys to join me on a couple of numbers and it was really fun. That’s when I got the idea to see how it would sound in the studio.
I think you’ve got a few shows with them. In fact, in you’ve got a show in New York in a couple of nights’ time and then you’re going all the way through to November, aren’t you, with some shows.
Yes. Railroad Earth is doing the beginning of the tour for a few weeks and then they’re jumping off and doing their own tour. I’m going to continue touring I guess until some time in the middle of next year. I’ll be using a different band at some point when they start touring on their own.
Who’s going to be in the different band?
It’ll be my friend Jeff Sipe on drums and there’s a trio called Chess Boxer…… They’re kind of like modern bluegrass, similar to Railroad Earth but different, maybe a little jazzier, but we’re going to start that band. We’re just calling it the Ashes & Dust Band. We’re going to start that when Railroad Earth is done.
You’ve said that the songs on the new album were kind of homeless until now. Some of them go back quite a long way, don’t they?
Yes. A lot of them are brand new, but there are several that are 10, even 20 years old. One song’s even older than that. ‘Is It Me or You?’ is the oldest song on the record. That one was written in the ’80s I guess. All these songs are very personal songs to me that I’ve always wanted to record, but felt like I never had the right reason until now.
You’re pictured on the cover playing an acoustic guitar. Was that a statement about the intent of the album because it’s quite different than what you would normally do? What sort of guitar is it?
The guitar on the cover is a Rockbridge acoustic guitar. There’s a guy in Virginia that hand builds these Rockbridge guitars. He’s made a lot for Dave Matthews and several people. They’re beautiful instruments. I played 3 of them on Ashes & Dust, but for the most part I play electric guitar and it’s just juxtaposed against the acoustic instruments of Railroad Earth. I think choosing a photograph of me with an acoustic guitar helps prepare people for what the music is like.
It certainly does. What sort of electric guitar do you play? The Gibson?
I’m mostly a Gibson guy. All the slide guitar is played on a Gibson Les Paul and I also played my ES-335. Then, the jazzy sounding stuff is a D’Angelico New Yorker, which is a hollow body jazz guitar with flat wound strings on it. I think that sound blends in with the acoustic instruments quite well.
One of the most prominent instruments on the album is the violin and I assume that’s Tim Carbone from Railroad Earth.
Yes, that’s right.
It’s interesting that that takes such a prominent role in many of the songs.
Tim is a wonderful player and for a lot of these songs, I felt like the fiddle really represented the voice of the song. It’s really the combination of the fiddle and the mandolin and the acoustic guitar along with my electric guitar that creates this unique backdrop. When we play together live, it’s fun to stretch out and Tim is an excellent soloist, so I was trying to give him some feature time on the record as well. Everybody got to be featured from time to time, the fiddle maybe a little more than everything else.
Where was it recorded? Was it at your studio?
No, there’s a studio in New Jersey called The Barber Shop, which is a beautiful studio on a lake in a quiet little town. It’s not too far from all the Railroad Earth guys, so we wound up recording there. It was a great place to record.
The production’s fantastic. I gather it didn’t take you very long to record the album.
No, we recorded rather quickly I think, but we did record a lot of music. So, we were probably in the studio for a couple of weeks but we recorded like 25 or 30 songs, so there’s a lot of music still in the can that’s going to be hopefully a follow-up to this.
So there will be another album or will it be a deluxe version of the album? How will that work?
It will be a separate release. When I first went into the studio, I was thinking we might do a double CD or two CDs simultaneously, but I decided maybe let’s start with one, so I narrowed it down to the 13 songs that I felt like made the most cohesive statement and seemed to flow together the best. Then, I’ll go back in at some point and have a look at everything that we recorded and see what’s next.
Let me ask you about the some of the songs. ‘Coal Tattoo’ is my favourite and I imagine that’s one of the songs on the album that will be great to play live and gives you a chance for a couple of pretty long solos. Can you tell you about that song?
‘Coal Tattoo’ was written by my friend and mentor, Billy Edd Wheeler. Billy Edd is probably the most famous songwriter from Asheville, my hometown, and someone I met at a very young age. He was one of the songwriters that mentored me as a kid. We actually wrote some songs together and we used to drive back and forth from Asheville to Nashville because he had a residence in each city. Billy Edd wrote ‘Jackson’ for Johnny Cash. He wrote ‘High Flying Bird.’ He wrote ‘Coward of the County’ for Kenny Rogers, but most of his recordings, as far as songs that he’s written, were for folk artists in the ’50s and ’60s because Billy Edd just turned 82 years old. The original version of ‘Coal Tattoo’ was by the Kingston Trio. Are you familiar with them?
Definitely – but that goes back about 50 years.
Yeah. That’s, I think, 1961-ish. I don’t remember the exact date but I used to play it with some other local musicians when I was 14, 15 years old and I always loved that song. We did a very long, stretched out kind of rock version of it. When I was making Ashes & Dust, I thought it would be very poignant to do that song again because of its message about … It’s a song about a coal miner, which is a very controversial subject here in the states. I wanted to record it and I wanted to reminisce on the way we used to play it when I was a kid, so I tried to think back to that. It is a really fun song to stretch out on.
I’m going to have to go back and search out that Kingston Trio version of it.
Completely different, but it’s obviously the same song.
You mentioned you came from Asheville, the home of the famous writer Thomas Wolfe, who wrote about that area of the world. I guess that would be some inspiration to you at some stages.
Yeah, Thomas Wolfe was amazing and, of course, I grew up … Everyone in Asheville was exposed to Thomas Wolfe from a very young age.
‘Spots of Time’ was co-written with Phil Lesh, who was with the other remaining members of the Dead just celebrating with some final shows. The Allman Brothers played that for years, didn’t they?
For the last 3 or 4 years, we were playing ‘Spots of Time,’ so I wanted to take advantage of some of that on-stage experience and I invited Oteil Burbridge and Marc Quiñones from the Allman Brothers to come in and join me in the studio for that. We were able to utilise some of the arrangement ideas and some of the improve ideas that we used in the Allman Brothers and it turned out great.
Did you catch any of the shows online by the Dead?
No, I was working that whole time and actually, there was one day they were in Chicago and I was in Milwaukee, which is only less than 2 hours away, but I was there performing a solo acoustic show. I wasn’t able to see any of the shows. I look forward to checking them out at some point.
I imagine that they would be somewhat of an inspiration for Gov’t Mule, if not the Allman Brothers. Certainly, Gov’t Mule for the sort of things that you do.
I think the Dead and the Allman Brothers are the two fathers of the whole jam band scene and it’s amazing that I was able to spend time in both institutions, especially obviously in the Allman Brothers for 25 years. I think it’s those two bands that the jam band scene patterned itself after.
The Dead obviously contributed a lot of important aspects, such as doing two sets, which they always did; doing a completely different set list every night, allowing the fans to tape the shows; all those things came from the Grateful Dead. Obviously, along with their unique version of improvisation and their wonderful catalog of songs. It’s interesting that that philosophy still carries over and has kind of become a part of the American music scene.
It sure has. There’s a really interesting cover version on the album. It’s Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Gold Dust Woman’ with Grace Potter helping out. Was there a particular reason you chose that song? I mean, it suits her voice fantastically well.
Grace and I performed that song on stage a few times, never thought about recording it but, when I was making this record, I thought maybe we should give it a try mostly based on the fact that the instrumentation of this record would take it automatically into another direction, which it did. I think the version we recorded is very beautiful and haunting. It pays tribute to the original, but is quite different.
Now, ‘Stranded in Self Pity’ sounds like there’s a definite New Orleans influence there.
I think there’s a New Orleans influence and there’s also this, like, Stéphane Grappelli, Django Reinhardt type of influence, which is not completely different from New Orleans.
What inspired that particular instrumentation of the track?
That song was written by my friend Larry Rhodes, who is another Asheville songwriter. What I wanted to do for Ashes & Dust was include songs by three of my songwriting mentors that were all Asheville area writers. Billy Edd Wheeler, Ray Sisk, and Larry Rhodes. Larry Rhodes wrote ‘Stranded in Self Pity’ and I used to play that song with him when I was 14 or 15 years old, but normally he just played it by himself with an acoustic guitar and that’s the way I remember it. For this record, I wanted to take it in a different direction.
I missed out on seeing the final Allman Brothers shows at the Beacon Theater last year but it must have been an amazing experience.
It was. I thought all of the final shows were very good. I thought the last show in particular was really good and I was very proud of us. I think everybody rose to the occasion and we went out on a very high note.
I have been lucky enough to see you a few times at the Saenger Theater in New Orleans, so that’s a bit of a consolation. I noticed this year, you performed ‘Eminence Front,’ The Who song, and The Who were at Jazz Fest so it was kind of a tribute to them. Those shows have become epics but that was a great thing to do.
Yeah and we did it with a New Orleans horn section and took it to a completely different place. It almost had a Dixieland vibe mixed in with a rock and roll vibe. It was very cool.
It must have been wonderful to have Johnny Winter as a guest last year because he passed away not long after that, didn’t he?
Yeah, and Johnny wanted to come to Jamaica and perform with us at our annual Island Exodus shows that we do. He had called me about being part of that and we made plans and, of course, he passed away and never made it.
Ashes & Dust by Warren Haynes & Railroad Earth is available now through Provogue Records.