Singer, songwriter and revered guitarist Warren Haynes is southern-rock royalty. His music credentials include: guitarist in the Dicky Betts band, singer and guitarist of his much loved jam band Gov’t Mule, a long stint with the legendary Allman Brothers trading licks with fellow-guitar great Derek Trucks, stage time and sessions with the remaining members of The Grateful Dead, and then there’s his solo career. Haynes has just released his 3rd solo studio recording, Ashes & Dust an album he recorded with Americana band Railroad Earth. The album allows Warren to step away from the blues rock focus he’s long been associated with and offers an opportunity to touch base with his celtic and folk influences. Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips spoke to Warren Haynes about the creation of the new album.
Is Ashes & Dust an album you have been wanting to make for a long time or is it a reasonably recent urge?
This is something I have been thinking about for a long, long time. I have probably been planning to make a record like this for 6 or 7 years now but it kinda always needed to have the right reasons. I write more of these kinds of songs than any other directions I guess but with The Allman Brothers and Gov’t Mule, I might get away with a few of these songs here and there but never an entire collection. So these songs have been accumulating through the years. Eventually I had to start recording some of them to get them out of my system. I was really excited about doing this and it turned out great and I am hoping to do a follow up as well.
Do you have a large collection of unused songs?
Yes! Even for this record, so far we recorded about 30 songs and there are another 5 or 10 we’re looking to record when I get back into the studio. I feel like there’s at least one more record like this and maybe even two, depending on how it goes and how people react to it of course.
Was it a difficult album to let go and say that it is finished?
Not really. Most of the music and even some of the vocals were live performances in the studio. I have always preferred to record that way and it’s so steeped in improvisation that to me, even the more straight ahead songs benefit from the call and response that comes from the good chemistry of musicians. I have never been happy recording one instrument at a time as some people do. So a lot of times, if the performance is there from the beginning, you might add little bits and pieces but generally you just move onto the next song.
Railroad Earth is such a multi-skilled band. Is jamming with other fretted instruments such as banjo, mandolin and even fiddle a different listening and playing dynamic to jamming with the traditional rock instruments such as guitar, bass, drums and keys?
Both from a playing and a singing standpoint, I am approaching my role differently. Starting with the way I sing, which is more similar to the way I sing when I am sitting around by myself playing an acoustic guitar. Also from a playing standpoint, choosing sounds that blend in with the mandolin and the fiddle and upright bass and banjo … and even the electric sounds tend to be clearer sounds and I am using much smaller amplifiers, different guitars and trying to just weave my way into the tapestry so to speak.
What were the main guitars you used on this album?
I used a D’Angelico New Yorker probably more than anything else. I used my 1961 Gibson ES335 and my signature Les Paul, mainly for the slide guitar stuff. The acoustic guitars I played were my Washburn acoustic signature model and some Rockbridge guitars which are from a guy in virginia who makes handmade acoustic guitars, and an old Guild and an old Epiphone.
Do you use glass slides?
My slides are glass but they are painted on the inside so they don’t look like glass, they have a kind of psychedelic appearance. Sometimes they even look like they could be metal but painting them on the inside makes them have a strange look but also makes them stick to your finger a little better.
Was the Fleetwood Mac tune Gold Dust Woman a track you’ve been wanting to record for a while?
Well I have done it on stage quite a few times with Grace Potter. We never really talked about recording it until this project and then with the acoustic instrumentation and the kind of celtic direction, it seemed to make sense and I was very happy with the recording we got.
We’re presenting the Melbourne Guitar Show in August. Did you get to attend guitar shows, or any kind gear show as a teenager, either as a spectator or performer?
I grew up in a really small town. So where I am from in Asheville, North Carolina, they have that sort of thing now but not when I was a teenager, I would have to drive several hours to experience something like that. But all that sort of stuff was inspirational to me. I spent hundreds of hours just hanging about in music stores just to soak up the vibe of all the instruments that were beyond my reach. It’s very inspiring when you’re a teenager to hang out in that environment I think.
What does playing guitar mean to you?
It’s a great form of expression obviously. Since I started singing before I started playing guitar, I tend to gravitate toward guitar players that sound like they are singing through their instrument or guitar players who also sing. I love the musicians, not just guitar players but musicians in general that have that vocal style of phrasing. Electric guitar is probably the most versatile instrument on the planet from a sonic standpoint. You get to choose so many wonderful sounds from an electric guitar that you couldn’t possibly achieve from another instrument. With that in mind, any guitar player who picks up an electric guitar and an amplifier, sometimes his or her own voice is based on millions of possibilities. It’s kind of an endless experiment.
You are known as a wonderful guitarist but on this album, you’re the total artist … singer, songwriter and musician. Are you moving more toward that now?
Singing and guitar playing and songwriting has always been equally important to me but being in bands like The Allman Brothers and Gov’t Mule and even working with the guys in The Dead, where the focus is more on the guitar playing … and rightly so… I mean I am very fortunate to have that sort of company, so sometimes the songs and the singing tend to take a back seat in that environment. For this kind of record, not as much and I enjoy that but there is still quite a bit of guitar playing going on as well in addition to some great fiddle playing etc. I think it is a nice departure and includes all of the elements that I love but to a certain degree, they are just blended in a different way. Of course having the acoustic instrumentation puts a whole different slant on it as well and allows me to sing in a different way.
What other album concepts do you have in the back of your mind that you might get around to recording one day?
Well I have never made a traditional blues record, which I would love to make and I have never made a studio instrumental jazz influenced record, which I would love to make as well. That’s as far as I have really thought about it, other than doing more Gov’t Mule records and hopefully more records like this one.
I’ve been reading recently about how The Allman Brothers recently came to an end. Do you think the door is open to maybe do some one-off performances in the future?
I would never rule it out. There are no plans to do anything like that but the door is always open for me.
When do you see yourself coming back to Australia?
Trying to make that happen in the early part of next year!
Would that be with the new guys you are playing with, Railroad Earth?
It would be some form of that. I would really love to promote this music in Australia and I would like to spend more time in Australia than I have in the past, as well as in a few more cities. Also I would love to bring Gov’t Mule back as well but probably the next thing would be promoting Ashes & Dust.
What’s on for the rest of year?
We’re going to be touring a lot and after that I guess we’ll start working on another Gov’t Mule record.
Ashes & Dust is out now.