Warren Haynes Goes Americana, Jazzes with Scofield, and Remembers the Allman Brothers Band

Last year was a season of monumental change for Warren Haynes.

Last year was a season of monumental change for Warren Haynes. Gov’t Mule—formed in 1994 by Haynes and the late bassist Allen Woody as a side project to their membership in the Allman Brothers Band—celebrated its 20th anniversary with a series of archival live releases, including Sco-Mule [Evil Teen], a recently rediscovered 1999 performance that captures oodles of intricate dialogue between Haynes and John Scofield. Brian Farmer—Haynes’ longtime guitar tech and close friend—passed away on August 24, 2014. A few months later, the Allman Brothers Band ended its epic run with a final bow at New York’s Beacon Theater on October 28, 2014.

As 2015 unfurled, the creatively restless Haynes decided to let his fans experience some changes by releasing an acoustic-oriented Americana solo album, Ashes and Dust [Concord/Universal]. Backed by the bluegrass-jam band Railroad Earth, Haynes showcases his tasteful and tuneful playing against a backdrop of fiddle, mandolin, bouzouki, banjo, piano, and other acoustic instruments. Although Haynes is one of the most powerful, gritty-piped singers on the planet, as well as a monster guitarist whose tone and intensity upholds the true meaning of “guitar hero,” it’s mostly his sensitivity and subtlety that holds court on Ashes and Dust. That said, his earthy electric tones blend well with the folky vibe, and his slide playing sounds particularly poignant on tunes such as “Wanderlust” and “Is It You or Me.” Haynes even dons a D’Angelico jazzbox for several tunes, adding class and grace to the sonic tapestry. A nod to the past occurs on “Spots of Time,” where fellow Allman Brothers Oteil Burbridge (bass) and Marc Quinones (percussion) join in for some inspired improvisation.

Those who have come to cheer on Haynes’ meaty and snarling Les Paul tones and bluesy jam explorations will get a different kind of thrill by hearing how he negotiates the folky side of the music world. But, of course, following Haynes has always been a joyous exercise of expecting the unexpected.

What inspired you to pick up the archtops and acoustics for Ashes and Dust?

 I was looking to express myself with a sound that fit the music’s overall picture, which is very different than anything I’ve done before. I played a lot on a D’Angelico New Yorker strung with GHS flat-wounds that I’ve had for about 15 years. It’s from their first series of reissues, I believe. I also played my ’61 Gibson ES-335 some. I found myself playing a ton of slide stuff on my signature Gibson Les Paul—which is my go-to guitar for that. I recorded through small amps, going after a sound that fit in with the acoustic instruments. I did play quite a bit of acoustic, but, in the long run, I think I’m still playing much more electric.

Where does the acoustic guitar fit into the landscape of your life?

I’m always sitting around playing acoustic guitar. I always keep one close at home, and I play my signature Washburn a lot on the tour bus.

There are two Washburn Warren Haynes Signature Solo Deluxe guitars—the 5249 and the 5240. Is the former essentially the Cadillac, and the latter akin to a Chevy?

That’s a good description. They’re similarly based on the 1937 Washburn Solo Deluxe—which I felt offered a bit more midrange that was good for slide guitar and single-note melodic playing.

How did this Americana project come about?

More than five years ago—before I recorded Man In Motion—I was supposed to make an album at Levon Helm’s studio with Levon playing drums, Leon Russell playing piano, and T-Bone Wolk playing bass. But T-Bone passed away, and everything changed. Then, Levon passed away, and I realized it was not meant to be. So I switched from an Americana style to a soul-meets-blues approach for Man In Motion. A lot of songs on Ashes and Dust date back to that record I never made, while some are brand new, and some go back decades. We recorded 30 songs, so we’re looking at this as a work in progress. We’re going to continue releasing material from the original sessions, as well as continue recording more material.

There are a lot of great bluegrass bands. What attracted you to Railroad Earth?

A few years ago, I did a solo-acoustic show at DelFest. Railroad Earth was on the bill, too, and I had them join me for a few songs, because it’s much more exciting when you add more pieces to the puzzle. It was loose, but in a good sort of way. You could sense the potential. I eventually invited them to do it again at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York. We rehearsed a bit more, and we took it a little further. It felt great to marry the songs with that instrumentation. Our chemistry clicked, so we decided to go in the studio.

I knew that I wanted to play a lot of electric guitar in addition to some acoustic, so we took it song-by-song, experimenting with different arrangements and instrumentation. It’s very folk-centric, but we didn’t intend to sound traditional. We wanted certain elements to be true to the spirit of the songs, but we also wanted to take them wherever they wanted to go. It was a very organic process.

A few of the Railroad players are multi-instrumentalists. Who ended up playing what on Ashes and Dust?

Tim Carbone only played fiddle. John Skehan played mandolin, bouzouki, and piano. Andy Goessling played acoustic guitar, banjo, and a National steel. Andrew Altman played mostly upright bass, although he played electric bass on a couple of songs. Carey Harmon played drums. Todd Sheaffer sings harmony on a lot of songs, and he played acoustic guitar on one we wrote together that’s called “Word on the Wind.”

Where did you record?

We recorded at a studio I wasn’t familiar with called the Barber Shop. It’s in New Jersey, which is fairly close to where most of them live. I commuted each day from my home in West Chester, which is about an hour north of New York City.

Did you track the musicians simultaneously?

Yes. If there’s electric rhythm, I played it on the basic track. If there’s electric rhythm at the same time as an acoustic, then Andy played the acoustic. Andy played acoustic guitar on most of the material, and, sometimes, we both played acoustic. It varied from tune to tune. John, Andy, and I were together in the main room. Tim, Carey, and Andrew were in isolated rooms, but we could see them while recording. I overdubbed the majority of lead vocals, but there are several that were cut live.

How did you set up your amps?

We set three amplifiers upstairs in an isolated room—a ’65 Fender Super Reverb, a ’63 Gibson Falcon, and a Carr Mercury. I had the option to play through one, or all three. I could blend them together, or leave it until later to decide which one sounded the best. Each amp was close-miked with either a Royer R-122 or a Shure SM57. They were all side-by-side, but with gobos in between, so we could get some separation if we wanted, or achieve a more ambient overall vibe. It was cool, because we could roll with whatever felt good, and not have to start from scratch on each song. Eventually, the Carr got replaced with a Homestead amp.

We also had a pair of Homestead amps located downstairs in a small room where I did a lot of overdubbing. I would plug right into a 50-watt 2x10, or a 100-watt 2x12. I played a ton of slide on the smaller one, and I used the bigger one for clean, jazzy-sounding stuff. There would be usually be a Royer R-122 and a Shure SM57 up close, and, sometimes, we used a Shure SM58 placed three or four feet away. My experience with room mics is that wherever you put them, they sound good. You can always work them into the mix somehow.

What’s the background on the Homestead amps?

When [amp builder and Stevie Ray Vaughan tech] Cesar Diaz died, Peter McMahon took over his amp company, and he continued building stuff for me that was considered Diaz Amplification. Recently, he started incorporating some of those ideas in different directions with his own line of Homestead amps. Many were built specifically for me. They are works in progress. We’re tweaking and changing stuff all the time.

What are you homing in on?

My main Diaz CD-100 head that I’ve used for so long has such a signature sound. Cesar built it for me, and it’s one-of-a-kind, so the first step was trying to get back to that. It has two power transformers, which is odd. It sounds basically like a Fender, but it has a unique character. In Gov’t Mule, I alternate between the Diaz and a Soldano, which sounds more like a Marshall. We’re trying to come up with different amps for different occasions. I’m looking for a sound that’s classic, but not generic.

Let’s dig into tones on specific tracks, starting with the opening ballad, “Is It Me or You.”

That’s the oldest song on the record. I wrote that on acoustic guitar decades ago, but I had never recorded it. With mandolin, fiddle, and banjo, the song took on a character I’d never thought about before. I tracked it playing the D’Angelico with a semi-clean/semi-dirty rhythm sound. I overdubbed slide guitar with my Les Paul through the Homestead.

Did you use your customary slide, the Dunlop 210?

Yes—the hand-painted one. The paint on the inside serves a dual purpose. It looks psychedelic and weird, but it also sticks to your finger better.

What kind of pickup is in your D’Angelico?

It’s a stock mini-humbucker. It will feedback if you turn it up too loud with too much gain—which is why it was nice having amps upstairs.

How did you cop such a convincing violin sound while playing slide on “Coal Tattoo”?

The slide was recorded mostly with the midrange boost engaged on the small Homestead. My main Diaz CD-100 has one as well, and I use it from time to time. It’s a different sort of sustain. It boosts the mids so you get more gain, but it’s not the same as turning the gain up. It’s just boosting the mids, and that was key to the fiddle-like sound. When the tone sounds cleaner and more transparent, the mid boost was not engaged.

Are you somehow playing in a fiddle-like way, or utilizing certain controls on your guitar?

I’m mostly maneuvering the volume pot on my Les Paul, trying to find the sweet spot. If I want less top end, I usually get it by turning the volume down, as opposed to the tone. But, sometimes, I’ll roll the tone back, as well. The fiddle was recorded live, and the slide guitar was an overdub. I had the headphone volume up loud and listened intently to the fiddle. I tried to do counterpoint—team up sometimes, stay out of his way sometimes. I wanted it to sound as if we were standing next to each other playing live.

It sounds a heck of a lot like two fiddle players trading licks. You give Dickey Betts’ violin tone at the peak of his “Jessica” solo a run for the money.

Dickey loved twin fiddles. Bob Wills’ music was a big influence on him.

“Stranded In Self-Pity” is a standout track with a great story and stellar tones.

That was written by my friend Larry Rhodes, who is a fellow songwriter from Asheville, as is Ray Sisk, who wrote “Glory Road,” and Billy Edd Wheeler, who wrote “Coal Tattoo.” Billy has written tons of classic songs, including “Jackson” for Johnny Cash. I largely patterned my rendition of “Stranded In Self-Pity” after Larry’s solo version. Once it started falling into place, we felt good taking it in a New Orleans direction.

I played the D’Angelico on the whole song, mostly using the Super Reverb. I played some of the lead live, cutting the track while Andy played an archtop acoustic. We overdubbed the end section. Andy, Tim, and John—who played piano—all got in the main room with me and traded improvisations.

Your licks come from a jazzy place on that song.

I always let the song dictate what I play. I don’t want to challenge the chord progression. As I started out as a singer, the melody is always in my head, and I tend to phrase more like a vocalist when playing guitar. I also made a point of listening to horn players and piano players—anything other than guitar—trying to push my head in a less obvious direction. Also, I’ve been listening to jazz since I was 13 years old. When I was a teenager, I played in bands that did songs by Chick Corea, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Billy Cobham. I still listen to Sonny Rollins as much as I listen to anything. I never did study jazz full time, but it has always influenced me, and I utilize that influence when the song is right.

Do you know your theory and your fretboard well enough to pinpoint scale and chord tones when you hear them, or do you get around by patterns, shapes, and experience?

It’s a little bit of both. I studied theory, and my ear can readily discern a lot of what’s going on—even in complex situations. But at the same time, I’m more of a gut-instinct player. I try not to think too much. I tend to enjoy it more when I don’t, and it sounds better when I listen back.

“Glory Road,” “Beat Down the Dust,” and “Blue Maiden’s Tale” sound entirely acoustic.

Those three are entirely acoustic. I used Rockbridge acoustics, my signature Washburn, and a ’64 Epiphone Triumph borrowed from my tech, Eric Hanson, for one of the overdubs. “Beat Down the Dust” has two or three different acoustics on it. I played the Spanish-sounding parts on the Washburn and the Epiphone. They are panned more to the right. Andy’s acoustic is panned more to the left. The only overdub on “Glory Road” was my slide guitar, which I played on a ’74 Guild.

What was your miking strategy?

I used two mics. One was a Neumann KM 84, and I believe the other was an old Sony. I pointed the Neumann towards the fretboard, and the other mic towards the soundhole.

How did you get the sound on “Gold Dust Woman”?

I played an Epiphone 12-string hollow-body electric tuned to dropped D. I turned the volume down so low that it almost sounded like an acoustic guitar. I played the slide live on the take. Andy played a National steel, and John played bouzouki—which is awesome. We didn’t change the arrangement that drastically because I love everything about Fleetwood Mac’s original. But our version is weirder and more experimental. We use a b5 and a minor 3rd here and there. It’s a live performance that’s a little bizarre, but it turned out great.

The ensemble on “Spots of Time” really shines, and you cop a cool jazz-meets-Jerry Garcia vibe at the end.

I wrote “Spots of Time” with [Grateful Dead bassist] Phil Lesh. The Allman Brothers Band has played the song live in recent years, so I brought in Oteil and Marc. We took some of the Allman Brothers arrangement, and then applied a new treatment to fit the rest of the instrumentation. It’s very stretched out and improvisational, so it was bit different each time we did a take. The one we used was the final attempt, and it’s a full, live take. I played the D’Angelico, and the lead single-note stuff is mostly the Super Reverb. Some of the vibrato stuff is the Falcon.

Will you be touring with Railroad Earth?

We’re going to do some stuff this summer, later in the fall, and maybe next year—whatever fits into our schedules.

You’re currently touring with Gov’t Mule, and you recently did a run of shows featuring John Scofield celebrating the Sco-Mule album. Is he your favorite jazz player?

Yeah. I love the fact that he thinks so entirely differently than I do—or than anybody else does. He has a unique brain and musicality. I love hearing Sco play in different contexts, because even when he’s playing straight blues, it’s simultaneously so real and so different.

Did you write the song “Sco-Mule” specifically aimed at Sco’s groove-jazz wheel-house?

Yes—in honor of us getting together.

The first solo on that track is spectacular, and there are moments when you get very “Sco-ey.”

I guess so. When in Rome, you know?

Can you explain some of that in musical theory terms?

No, because he uses all modes and all approaches. There are certain things that only he does. I haven’t quite figured out what they are yet, because he’s brilliant at superimposing one key onto another and that sort of thing.

Scofield’s Whammy-induced, pseudo record-scratching solo that follows yours is insane. What went through your head when he did that?

It started out as a Whammy-scratching thing, and it turned into what sounds like a violin solo. As it was going down, I remember thinking, “Not only does that sound like a violin, it sounds like Jerry Goodman’s violin.” As with any cool sound, it’s what you do with it that counts.

What do you remember about writing Charlie Parker-inspired “Kind of Bird,” of which there are two versions on Sco-Mule?

Dickey [Betts] and I worked on that song every afternoon for about a week. We were rehearsing with the Allman Brothers at the time, and we’d show them a little bit more each night. That was for Shades of Two Worlds, so the year must have been 1991.

You hadn’t been in the band very long at that point.

True, but Dickey and I had worked together prior. Dickey hired me to play in his band around ’86 or ’87. We spent three years playing together, writing, recording, and touring. Then, it appeared that cycle had run its course. When I got a call saying, “We’re putting the Allman Brothers back together,” it came as a total surprise, because every time that subject got brought up the answer was always, “That’s never going to happen.”

What went through your head when you got the call?

I appreciated and respected that they let me sing, and they brought me into the songwriting fold right from the very beginning. That was enticing. We soon figured out that the only way the new incarnation could tap into its potential was if we patterned new music after the ’69-’71 era. It was an equal playing field as far as live performances were concerned. Everybody had to be 100 percent involved all the time. Dickey totally afforded me that opportunity, and it changed my life.

What was the most important lesson that Dickey taught you?

I needed to learn how to translate what I did on a small stage to a big stage. It was a challenge—emotionally and sonically. You can’t just go up there with the same sound you had in a 100-seat club and expect it to work. It’s not simply a matter of bigger amplifiers. Some people get a worse sound out of a big amplifier than a small one. It’s a matter of adapting your tone, as well as what you play and how you play it. It’s hard to explain. Many conversations with Dickey helped me focus on a voice that works in an arena, and he helped ease my nerves about playing in front of a huge crowd. When you’re first thrown into that situation, it’s impossible to relax.

Can you offer some tips?

Make sure you can hear yourself onstage, but, more importantly, make sure you can hear everyone else, and that you’re playing with everyone else. Don’t feel like you have to play everything you know in the first ten minutes. Don’t be in a hurry. The stage is not on fire. Relaxing is the biggest challenge, and the hardest thing to do.

Which Betts-penned tune is your favorite to play?

“In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” is always fun, because it’s so experimental. I always like playing “Back Where It All Begins” and “Blue Sky.” I love “Seven Turns.” But my favorite is still “Jessica.” That’s Dickey’s masterpiece.

Is “Little Martha” Duane Allman’s best song?

Well, he didn’t have a lot from a compositional standpoint. “Little Martha” is gorgeous.

What is Duane’s best slide song?

He stepped outside of the blues influence and captured his own voice on “Dreams.” Nobody played like that before. His playing on “Dreams” really makes you wonder what he would have sounded like a year later, and then two, five, and ten years later.

Do you feel that Duane’s blueprint on “Dreams” was the jumping off point for where Derek Trucks took the Allman slide style?

Perhaps—except that “Dreams” is in standard tuning. “Dreams” was an eye opener for me, because I play mostly in standard. I’m sure it was for Derek, as well, but he translated it to open E. Duane’s slide playing was always in open E with the exception of “Dreams,” and the little bit he did on “Mountain Jam.”

“Dreams” was the lone Allman Brothers tune you played with Gov’t Mule in February at the Fox Theatre in Oakland. What are your thoughts on carrying on the ABB legacy?

We may do more if it feels right, we’re having fun, and if there’s a special guest in the house, like Scofield was that night. Some of that stuff needs to be played for the future, so we’ll see how it goes.

How do you feel your relationship to slide playing has changed since you first joined the Allman Brothers Band?

When Dickey and I played together in the Allman Brothers, I played all the slide parts. I played less slide with Derek Trucks in the fold. I don’t play a lot of slide guitar in Gov’t Mule. When the band was a trio with bass and drums, I felt my options for playing slide were limited. Now that Gov’t Mule is a quartet, I can play slide a bit more. I’m glad to be playing a lot of slide on Ashes and Dust—not only because it’s fun, but also because it’s something you have to stay on top of as a guitarist.

There’s less harshness in your high end than in the tones of the other three ABB guitar players. Your tone definitely snarls, but it’s also creamy and more refined. It’s not the same as Duane’s overblown harp tone, Dickey’s sweet country sound, or Derek’s speaker-ripping sound.

That’s a good description of the sound I chose in the Allman Brothers. There are times when I miss some of that snarling top-end, and I feel like I want to use it more. But I was always looking for tonal contrast in the Allman Brothers Band—originally between me and Dickey, and then later between me and Derek.

It must have been wild for you to come in playing opposite Dickey Betts, and, then, because of Derek’s very Duane-like open E style, switch towards the Betts side of the classic Allman Brothers Band equation.

The sonic side of that big challenge is to have two guitars that sound similar enough to belong in the same band, but different enough to not step on each other. If the two guitars sound too similar, the midrange becomes completely overblown. You have to be able to distinguish between the two. That’s why we always make a point of panning the guitars a little more left and right than most recordings. It makes it easier to hear the call and response.

What are your thoughts looking back on the whole Dickey debacle that left him out of the ABB?

Well, that decision was made when I was out of the band. Allen Woody and I left in ’97 to pursue Gov’t Mule full time. Over the next few years, the guys decided they couldn’t work with Dickey, and they parted ways. When Woody died, I was suddenly faced with the possibility of Gov’t Mule not existing. Gregg called me and said, “We’d sure love to have you back.” It was an altogether unfortunate set of circumstances that brought me back.

That must have been personally weird being that Betts originally brought you to the band.

It was. Derek and I have always felt weird about an Allman Brothers Band without Dickey. Once you move past that, and take on the challenge, you do your best, but Derek and I both look at the essence of the Allman Brothers Band being ’69 to ’71.

You and Derek made a joint statement in early 2014 about your intentions to leave the Allman Brothers Band by the end of that year. It seemed you made that decision together. Is that how it went down?

The way it actually went down is very confusing. During several meetings over about a three-year span, the band decided to call it quits after the 45th anniversary. As it got closer and closer to fruition, at least one band member started getting cold feet, but keeping it together wasn’t a possibility for Derek or me. We had already made plans well beyond the next year or two. It all came about when Butch [Trucks] “accidentally on purpose” told a small group of people on a Jam Cruise that Derek was leaving the band, which was not true. Writers from Relix and Rolling Stone were on the boat. They called ABB manager Bert Holman, who claimed he didn’t know anything about it.

“We’ll give you a few days to sort it out,” they said, “but we’re going to have to write something.”

“I feel like I’ve got to make a statement either way,” Derek told me on the phone.

“For five or six years we’ve been saying that if one of us left the band, then we would both leave, because neither wants to be there without the other,” I responded.

So we decided to make a joint statement, even though it convoluted the truth that it was a group decision to stop in 2014. It turned into an interpretation that he and I made that decision. People eventually saw so many different statements that nobody knew what to believe.

Well, congratulations on a hell of a run with the ABB, 20 years and counting of Gov’t Mule, and a new solo record.

Thanks. I’m proud of Ashes and Dust. It’s very different for me, but my followers know to expect the unexpected, and this is as big a part of what I do as anything.