On October 28th, singer-guitarist Warren Haynes will celebrate the one-year anniversary of his final concert with the Allman Brothers Band — an epic and now legendary show at New York’s Beacon Theater — by working. He is appearing with his current Ashes and Dust band at the Fonda Theater in Los Angeles, performing material from across his long career as a songwriter, power-blues guitarist, Allmans veteran and the leader of his own band Gov’t Mule — with a hearty focus on Haynes’ latest album, Ashes and Dust (Concord), made with the bluegrass-jam band Railroad Earth.
“I enjoy working — I feel fortunate to do what I do,” Haynes, 55, said during a recent, rare 90 minutes away from the tour grind in his publicist’s New York office, during a candid, reflective interview about his life since the Allmans ended in 2014, featured in the current issue of Rolling Stone. “I’ve been lucky to not have to compromise, to get away with what I want to do. That’s something I never take for granted.”
Haynes went long and deep during that conversation, recalling both the bonds and tensions that ultinmately led to the Allmans’ 2014 farewell show at the Beacon as well as his teenage roots as an aspiring singer-songwriter, which in turn led to Ashes and Dust. He also acknowledged the realities of his freelance life in a much tougher music business than the one he started in, as a country songwriter, session and touring guitarist and, in 1989, a new member of the Allman Brothers.
“We’re in a situation where everybody’s reinventing their role,” Haynes said pensively. “Longevity is a whole different thing now. I read interviews with young musicians and hear people talk about how they’re not sure what they’re going to do five years from now.”
But, he went on, “I don’t understand that. You’re a musician — especially if you’re fortunate enough to have done something in that. That’s kind of your clue — this is what you do.”
The end of the Allman Brothers Band came as a surprise to many fans, given everything that the group had survived. Could you feel it was getting closer, even before you and Derek announced your departures early last year?
We had been talking about it for three or four years — all of us. It’s funny because I think back to when I joined the band 26 years ago. The original members would have conversations on how they viewed the Allman Brothers, that the legacy was not the typical thing where you could go out and play the hits — do the nostalgia trip. Even back then, the discussion was, “If this band is ever on the verge of becoming a nostalgia act, it would be time to quit.”
The past 14 years we had with this incarnation were such a pleasant surprise to everyone. It seemed to getting better all the time. Then the conversations started again. [Drummer] Butch Trucks would say, “I’ve only got three or four more good years left.” The first time I heard him say that was eight years ago [laughs].
When you and Derek both announced you were leaving, that set the stage for the end. Did you realize that might be the result?
Derek and I had basically become a package deal. If I didn’t want to be there, then he didn’t want to be there. And if he didn’t want to be there, then I didn’t. Neither one of us wanted to stay and initiate some new incarnation. That was something everybody felt as well. The band had come too far; the chemistry was really special. I don’t think any of us wanted to start trying to get past that.
How did you feel at the end of that last night at the Beacon after “Trouble No More?”
We were all walking on air. Thankfully, that last show was all we hoped it would be — a real representation of what that band was capable of. Everybody was communicating and listening, more deeply entwined in the music than we had been in quite some time. I was proud of everyone, individually and collectively.
You wrote “Spots of Time,” one of the songs on your new album, with Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead, and played it in live shows with the Allmans. Would that have appeared on a new Allmans record, if you could have made one?
Everybody individually pushed for it — or acknowledged that we should do it — at varying times. We could just never get everybody to push for it at the same time.
Was that frustrating for you as a songwriter — trying to keep the repertoire moving forward rather than relying on the established glories in the old material?
Part of the frustration was based on the fact that myself, Derek and Gregg were all doing other things. That was taking precedent in some ways. And Derek and myself both felt that if we’re going to make another Allman Brothers record, it needs to be as good or better than [2003’s] Hittin’ the Note. We needed to buckle down, get Gregg into songwriting mode. We had a nice half of an album, but it would have taken real effort to have a whole one.
What was the nice half?
There were a couple of instrumentals. We were doing “Spots of Time” and “Dust ‘Til Dawn,” another song I had written. There were a couple of cool cover arrangements floating around. It could have gone toward a whole record, but it would have taken all of us getting on the same page.
It’s ironic that the record you made right after that show, Ashes and Dust, actually started with an Allmans gig. Because that’s where you met Railroad Earth.
That’s true. They opened for us at Red Rocks six years ago, I’m guessing. We went into the studio this past November, so that was just a month …
After the Beacon finale.
The plan was “Before things start getting hectic, let’s go into the studio and record as many songs together, in one direction, as possible. Then start thinking about what that means.” There was a time when I thought I wanted the album to be a double CD. Or I’d put out two CDs simultaneously — call one Ashes, the other Dust. But cooler voices prevailed [laughs]. It’s 80 minutes long anyway, a lot of music.
What was it about Railroad Earth that appealed to you as collaborators? You’re a favvorite guest on other artists’ records, but this is the other way around.
When it started, I was thinking two or three of the guys would join me in the studio. Then it turned into four or five — and eventually the entire band. I was careful to not feel like I was intruding on what they were doing. We would go into the studio fresh in the morning. I would sit down with an acoustic guitar — “Let’s look at this song” — and we would work up an arrangement. We’d record a few takes, and if we liked what we got, we noved on to the next song — which, in each case, they had never heard before.
We do that in Gov’t Mule, to some extent. But these songs were more complex, steeped more in folk music. I wanted them to be captured in the way I had lived with them, for years in some cases — the way I wrote it and would play it on acoustic guitar. I wanted it to be a folky singer-songwriter record.
Your liner notes refer to your adolescence in North Carolina, growing up in coffeehouses and clubs around older singer-songwriters. How important was that compared to your guitar influences, like the heavy British rock and blues of Cream and Free?
Once I realized I could sneak into this folk club, Caesar’s Parlor — that became my thing. I was obsessed with that. One night, there was a duo playing. Somebody said, “I hear this kid plays pretty good guitar. We should get him up to play.” I was 14. That’s all it took for me. I wanted to be there every weekend — and weekdays, too. There was always something cool going on, and the older cats — Malcolm Holcombe, Ray Sisk, Larry Rhodes — all took me under their wing. It was a non–rock & roll environment that was equally captivating on its own level.
Do you think you could have easily become a singer-songwriter instead of a blues-rock guitar player — more like Jackson Browne than Eric Clapton?
There was a large percentage of my makeup that would have loved that. Is it as large as the part that wants to play guitar? I don’t know. I know that as a listener, I listen to songwriters more than I do guitar players.
How do you decide what to do next, from phase to project, from one band to another? Is there a plan, or do you operate on impulse?
It’s mostly impulse. I want to make a traditional blues record at some point. I want to make an instrumental jazz record. But when and why is yet to be determined. I’ve had a lot of things on my plate for a long time, this new record being an example. It could have happened six or seven years ago. I can’t really complain that I’m so busy — about having songs I haven’t recorded yet or projects I haven’t done. You have to remind yourself — it’s the opposite that is really a problem.
“I listen to songwriters more than I do guitar players.”
With the end of the Allmans and the Grateful Dead’s recent Fare Thee Well shows, there is a powerful sense of seminal eras and institutions coming to an end — the rock equivalent of Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong passing away.
Or Art Blakey or Frank Zappa — that’s true. But the Grateful Dead music is going to be played by umpteen different camps. And the Allman Brothers’ music will continue to be played and celebrated. Different people will keep that going. It’s a strange thing to watch. But nobody thought it would go this long anyway.
I remember having conversations with [original Allmans guitarist] Dickey Betts. The Allman Brothers were broken up for nine years, before they reunited in 1989. They seemed to think that not only would they never reform, but there was a time when they didn’t think they were relevant. Dickey told me that for him, seeing the Grateful Dead on one side of the equation, then Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray on the other side, having success — Dickey thought, “Somewhere in between those things is where we are. Maybe we are relevant. Maybe we could reappear.”
One of the smartest things the band did — and Dickey was definitely a part of this thought process — was say, “If we’re going to do this, let’s go back to square one. Let’s figure out what made the Allman Brothers great in the first place — beginning with the Duane and Berry [Oakley] era — and get back to that sound.” That was the mission. And it was the best decision the band could have made.