Warren Haynes will release his excellent new solo album Ashes and Dust on July 24th. It’s a fiddle-steeped folk LP of mostly original songs, some of which Haynes has been holding back for 30 years. “The ones I like usually stay with me, even if I don’t play them for a couple of years,” he says. It’s another left-turn in a career that’s included stints in Gov’t Mule, the Allman Brothers Band and the Dead. Here, Haynes discusses the new album, the future of jam bands and the chances of an Allmans reunion.
Were bluegrass and folk music a big part of your life as a kid?
Yeah, I grew up in Asheville, North Carolina, and in the mountains of North Carolina, that music is so prevalent. So I grew up studying blues and jazz and rock, but also hanging out with the folk musicians and bluegrass musicians and kind of soaking that stuff in through osmosis. I never wanted to pursue that direction as an artist, but that whole folk music scene influenced me greatly as a songwriter. I was lucky enough to see Doc and Merle Watson and guys like Norman Blake when I was a teenager. But it was really Bob Dylan that kind of opened up everything for me. Then I started studying backwards, seeing where he got it from. Also, the floodgates opened for people like James Taylor and Jackson Browne, and that fertile period where singer-songwriters became kind of pop artists.
You wrote one of the new album’s more experimental songs, the eight-minute “Spots of Time,” with Phil Lesh. Were you guys in the same room?
Yeah. I think we were in New York, in the studio working on something and he told me that he had some music he would like for me to write lyrics and the melody for. And I said, “Yeah, I’m happy to.” He said, “It’s called ‘Spots of Time.'” And I said, “Do you already have some lyrics written?” And he said, “No, I just have the title.” And he explained to me that he got the title from this William Wordsworth poem called “The Prelude.” Wordsworth had referred to “spots of time” in several of his works. And so I went and Googled “Wordsworth and the Prelude” and read the poems. It’s very heavy and I just wrote a lyric based on what it meant to me, you know. And then the Allman Brothers started performing it live but we never recorded it, so I thought it would be nice to record it here.
You’re getting into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in October – are you excited?
Yeah! I don’t think it sunk in yet, really. I know as it gets closer and closer. It’s gonna be a very bizarre feeling. I’m very honored to have been chosen for that, but you know, those kinds of honors are kind of strange. You never know how to feel about something like that. I’m a youngster. I’m 55. I’m way too young for that, though Eric Church is younger than me and he’s getting inducted, too.
You just sat in on a couple shows with Dave Matthews.
I did two shows one in Holmdel, New Jersey, and one in Camden, New Jersey. It was great. I love playing with those guys. We’ve played together so many times through the years, I mean, going back to the beginning of their career. We met early on and just kind of formed an instant chemistry both on stage and off. We play music together whenever we get the chance.
He goes out every summer and can play multiple nights at any amphitheater he wants.
I think anytime a band or an artist can invent a type of music that no one has heard prior to it, and turn it into something mainstream, just based on how much people love it, that’s an amazing accomplishment. When I first started hearing the Dave Matthews Band, they were so different than what was considered mainstream at that time. They forged their own path. And they make all their music and all their decisions based on what’s best for them and what they enjoy, and I really admire that. And they’re out there doing four-hour shows every night. I think they’re a great example to young bands on what having a career is all about.
You play a lot of the major jam festivals – Mountain Jam, Gathering of the Vibes. Is there a new, young jam band out there that could be as big as Dave Matthews Band?
Well, I think in order to be that, you have to be different from that. I think there are bands like the Revivalists that have the potential to do something like that, and there’s this young guitar player/singer from South Carolina named Marcus King who just turned 18 and is starting to stir up quite a bit of dust, and I think the potential for his music is endless as well.
Did you listen to the recent Grateful Dead farewell shows?
No, I actually haven’t. I’ve been kind of midstream with all of this stuff that I’ve been doing, but I’d be curious to hear it at some point. I wish they had done more too. I think everybody wishes they had done more, but I’m glad they did something.
Do you have a favorite memory of touring with the Dead?
I really love any opportunity to work with those guys collectively or individually. We’ve had a lot of wonderful moments. There was one, I think it was July 4th and we were in the middle of “Viola Lee Blues” and this jam happened that just played itself. It was just so organic and alive, and it was just so different than anything I think any of us have ever done. It reminded me of Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew.” Later, myself and Phil and Bob all pointed at that particular six minutes of music and were like, “That’s the shit.”
Has it sunk in for you yet that the Allman Brothers Band is over?
I think when March rolls around, we’ll all feel like we should be at the Beacon Theatre. But I think we all made the right decision. It was a group decision that was made. I miss it. I’m sure we all miss it. It was 25 amazing years for me, and the opportunity of a lifetime to be apart of not only an institution and a great band, but one of my favorite bands of all time. Those guys – ever since I’ve known them – talked about never wanting to become a nostalgia act. That conversation would happen every few years, and when it started happening four or five years ago, I think all of us were in agreement that, for the Allman Brothers to just go out and play the recognizable songs and go through the motions, is not the way that band should go out. And that band’s always been about leaving everything on the stage every night and I’m glad we collectively made the decision to do that, and I think the last shows were really good, and the last show was tremendous.
Was there a point where you felt the band wasn’t leaving it all on the stage anymore?
Well, I don’t think we ever reached that point. I think we could all see it on the horizon and meanwhile Gregg [Allman] and myself and [guitarist Derek Trucks] and [drummer Jai Johanny Johanson] for that matter, who has a great new band, were all enjoying doing our own thing and so it just kind of seemed inevitable.
I assumed that it was because Gregg didn’t want to tour as much, but he seems to be touring a lot now.
Yeah, he’s really having fun with his band right now, and I’m glad to see him doing as much as he is. You know, it was just really hard to get everybody on the same page in that band because, I guess just for obvious reasons.
What do you mean?
Well, as an example, we never made a final record, which I think most of us agreed that we should have. But we could never get everybody on the same page at the same time.
Do you still talk to them?
Yeah, we stay in touch and I always look forward to anything we do together.
The Grateful Dead came back for some special shows. Do you ever see that happening with the Allmans in a few years – saying, “Let’s do another show just for fun”?
You know, I would never rule anything out. There’s no talk of that, but you know, I think the door’s always open.
What was special about the final Allmans show for you?
I think everybody rose to the occasion. Everybody gave 110 percent. We were all tuned into each other. It was just a great night. We all knew that we wanted to leave it all on the stage that night and we wanted to go out with a bang and do a show that was indicative of what that band is all about. We did three sets, which we had never done since I’ve been there for 25 years. But it wasn’t just quantity, it was quality, and everybody rose to the occasion, and everybody was in tune with each other, and it was a great experience.
Gov’t Mule has put out three live releases this year. Is there another studio record you’re going to work at some point you think?
Yeah, I think as soon as I’ve finished touring behind this solo record, we’re going to go into the studio and start on another Gov’t Mule record. We just finished our 20th anniversary, which was a lot. We did a lot of touring. We still have a couple of tours left. I think the 20th anniversary and all those archival releases will cause us to figure out what kind of record we really want to make and try to make something different than any of the records before and especially quite different from Shout, which we’re all very proud of. It was very representative of our 20-year journey, but now we’re starting on the next part of that journey and I’m curious to see what kind of record we’re going to make.
As someone who has played extensively with both the Dead and the Allman Brothers, how do they compare?
I tend to look at every situation differently. Playing with the Dead is all about relaxing and letting the music flow and come through you and not being in a hurry to force it to go somewhere, trusting that the music, the magic, will happen, and they’ve always been about waiting for that magic to happen and capturing it when it does happen. I learned a lot about that sort of philosophy because it’s very different from the Allman Brothers philosophy, which is, “Let’s make the magic happen right now.” But I love both approaches to improvisation and one’s kind of East Coast, and one’s kind of West Coast, but they’re both beautiful and being on the inside of both of them is a beautiful experience.
One thing you hear a lot about the music business now is touring is where all the money is. You’re one of the people that figured that out from the start.
[Laughs] That’s always been our modus operandi. With Gov’t Mule and with the Allman Brothers, the Dead, with all those kind of bands, it’s always been about touring and you never based it on record sales or airplay or that sort of thing. And I guess now the entire music business is having to adapt to that reality, which we’ve adapted to for our entire careers.