He’s a guitar player’s guitar player and a jam band icon. He’s worked with John Scofield and Toots Maytal. Early in his career he toured with David Allen Coe and the Dicky Betts Band. He is a staple in post-Garcia Grateful Dead line-ups.
He fronts the blues rock band Gov’t Mule who have an extensive catalog of original material dating back into the early ’90s but are also known as a great cover band. This year in fact, they released two live cover albums taking on The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd. For these, the band not only pays homage to the originals, but worked very hard to capture the tones and arrangements used in them showing what great students they are of their influences. In 1990, he became a regular member of the Allman Brothers where he penned the instant classic “Soulshine.”
He’s Warren Haynes and he’s the hardest working man in rock and roll.
The one thing Haynes hadn’t done up until recently, was to record a great Americana album. His work, albeit celebrated has tended towards heavy blues, classic rock and jamming. This year he remedied that. In early Summer, he released Ashes & Dust, a collaboration with the mostly acoustic, New Jersey based jam band Railroad Earth. With their more acoustic make up and less reliance on a big guitar sound, Haynes is able to shift gears and show his songwriting chops. Growing up in Asheville, North Carolina, Haynes was influenced early by folk and country singers of the region. In his teens, Haynes met Billy Edd Wheeler, a songwriter who wrote hit songs for Johnny Cash, Jefferson Airplane, Judy Collins and the Kingston Trio. Wheeler helped him early on in getting gigs. On Ashes & Dust, Haynes and Railroad Earth do a nice rendition of the Wheeler work song “Coal Tattoo” which was made popular by The Kingston Trio. Haynes says he has always written more folky tunes but they really didn’t fit with Gov’t Mule or the Allman Brothers. He had intended to record an Americana album with Levon Helm but he had to put that project aside again when Helm passed away. The collaboration with Railroad Earth goes back to a few years back when they worked together on stage and felt like it was a good fit.
There are a lot of Familiar folk and country themes on Ashes & Dust. “Company Man” is another work song about Haynes’s father and his sacrifices to adhere to his principles. He turned down a transfer when his employer left town rather than uproot his family only to end up in a thankless factory job. “New Year’s Eve” is a sad country drinking song about regrets with the likely out of reach hope that “next year’s gonna be better”. “Glory Road” is another country themed song. It’s about a bounty hunter wrought with guilt looking to drown his sorrows in town. Along with “Coal Tattoo” and “Company Man” is another populist song that is timely given the #blacklivesmatter movement, “Beat Down the Dust.” It takes on white privilege from the standpoint of a member of the proverbial “good old boys” club.
Ashes & Dust has a lot to offer the jam band enthusiast as well. Instead however of the signature Warren Haynes axe grinds, he tones it down sharing and blending solos with Todd Shaeffer (fiddle) and Tim Carbone (mandolin) of Railroad Earth. One of the better jam tunes is one Haynes wrote in 2008 with Phil Lesh called “Spots of Time.” It became a staple of the Allman Brothers Band live shows but hadn’t been recorded in the studio until this album where they are joined by ABB bandmates Oteil Burbridge and Marc Quinones. Not escaping his North Carolina roots, “Blue Maiden’s Tale” blends Appalachian Folk and Celtic instrumentation with mandolin and violin taking the forefront. “Coal Tattoo” is just over 7 minutes long with some nice lick trading between Haynes and Shaeffer. “Stranded in Self Pity” is a country swing tune the sound of which evokes people dancing on a cornmeal dusted wooden floor in a grange hall. Railroad Earth really takes over the jamming on this one with honky tonk piano and clarinet solos. Haynes fills the cracks with some sweet laid back, almost clean guitar licks. In keeping with his reputation of playing great covers, he takes on a timeless rock classic with Fleetwood Mac’s “Gold Dust Woman.” Someone less respectful of the source material could have really ruined this. Haynes did his homework. For this track, the guitar tones and drum beat from the original are left intact providing a nice foundation. A flourish of violin at the beginning and some tasty slide guitar by Haynes however give it a darker feel than the original. Did I mention Grace Potter? She lends a hand on vocals. Though she too stays pretty close to the original she adds some nice riffing to give this classic a life of its own.
If nothing else, the change of gears on Ashes & Dust shows that a veteran rocker well on his way to legendary status (assuming he isn’t already legendary) is far from past his creative prime. Haynes says they recorded about 30 songs for the project and hints of at least one more album with Railroad Earth in the future. Lucky us!
Dave Jackson hosts the morning segment of Open Air, heard Monday through Friday on JPR’s Rhythm & News service and online at www.ijpr.org.