Warren Haynes takes pride in his job, and rightly so. He’s good enough at it that Rolling Stone recently named him one of the top 100 guitarists of all time, actually, number 23. “I was honored and flattered and automatically thought I’d take the number 100 spot,” says the guitarist. “When it came out that I was number 23, I was very pleasantly surprised.”
If his work ethic is any indication of his chops, he’s earned it. When City Paper spoke with him last week, he was in a cab in New York City, fresh off a plane from Gov’t Mule’s tour in Florida. On his “night off,” he flew up to the Big Apple to play “I Shall Be Released” and “Thunder on the Mountain” at a Bob Dylan tribute gig, along with Phil Lesh and Patti Smith. The next day he was back performing in Florida again.
This Thursday, the Mule-train stops at the Charleston Music Hall, a venue they’re excited to play in.
Gov’t Mule’s latest album, High and Mighty, is pure, heavy, rock ‘n’ roll that more than shows off the relatively new lineup’s compatibility. When Haynes first formed Mule in the mid-’90s with drummer Matt Abts and thundering bassist Allen Woody, they envisioned a Cream-esque power trio. Building on their reputation as members of the Allman Brothers, the crowds at their shows were a mix of old rockers, headbangers, and dreadlocked hippies. They jammed, no doubt, but above all they rocked.
When Woody tragically passed away in 2000, Haynes rejoined the Allman Brothers, but stayed active with Mule as they produced the Off the Deep End albums with multiple guest bassists, including Jack Bruce, Les Claypool, and Victor Wooten. After a tour with Widespread Panic’s bassist Dave Schools, they picked up former Black Crowes bassist Andy Hess full-time and added Danny Louis on keys, rounding out the current Mule rotation.
Haynes wrote each song on High and Mighty, and he doesn’t hold anything back. Lyrics like “We’ve applauded mediocrity till there is no lower we can go,” in the song “Like Flies” read like statements in a speech, and unabashedly call out our leaders for their shortcomings.
“We’re at a time right now where regardless of which side you’re on, everybody needs to take our future seriously,” says Haynes. “Not only to speak out, but to learn more about what’s going on in our world and in our government.” It’s not what you’d expect to hear from a good ol’ boy Southern rock outfit, but if anything, Haynes is honest.
Guilt, pain, and regret are common themes in the characters of Mule’s songs, but Haynes doesn’t describe himself as a despairing person. “I think that I tend to do a lot of writing in my darkest moments; it’s a therapeutic sort of thing. When you’re in your greatest mood you’re out enjoying life, not sitting in your room writing a song.”
Growing up in Asheville, N.C., Haynes was raised on soul singers like Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett, a heartfelt influence heard in songs like his signature “Soulshine.” “I started singing before I started playing guitar,” he says. “James Brown was probably my first hero. Then when I heard Sly and the Family Stone, it built this bridge toward rock ‘n’ roll for me.” He cites a laundry list of influences ranging from blues masters like Howlin’ Wolf and Elmore James to jazz greats Django Reinhardt and Wes Montgomery, many of whom appear with him on Rolling Stone‘s top 100 list.
In 1980, Haynes was asked to join David Allan Coe’s band, through which he met Dickey Betts and Gregg Allman, beginning his relationship with the Allman Brothers. Ever since, he’s quietly done his thing, singing and playing from his soul and enjoying the ride. Despite his heavy lyrics and strong message, he’s as amiable and polite on the phone as a Carolina boy should be, even given the hectic situation of speaking with City Paper while stuck in New York traffic.
Warren Haynes made his reputation playing heartfelt rock and speaking with honesty, and fortunately he shows no signs of changing. Lyrics like, “Fake liberty is just another form of hate; unring the bell before it’s too late,” cry for people to wake up to reality.
“I’m sure there’s some people who take the stance of ‘You’re a musician, you don’t need to be getting political,’ but I think it’s time for everyone to voice their opinion.” Haynes certainly voices his, and he’s right on. He’ll be telling it like it is this Thursday with Gov’t Mule’s healthy dose of hard-rock-your-face-off reality.
Love Best of Charleston?
Help the Charleston City Paper keep Best of Charleston going every year with a donation. Or sign up to become a member of the Charleston City Paper club.