Warren Haynes on the Last Days of the Allman Brothers Band

By Brian Ives 

Over the weekend, Warren Haynes performed at the Peach Festival, on a lineup that featured several of his fellow former Allman Brothers Band members: Gregg Allman, Jaimoe, Butch Trucks and Oteil Burbridge all played with their current projects. (Percussionist Marc Quinones is part of Allman’s solo band; the only missing member of the final lineup was guitarist Derek Trucks.)

Haynes and Jaimoe joined Allman onstage during his set, delighting Allman Brothers fans. Meanwhile, Jaimoe, Burbridge and Quinones joined Butch Trucks, so it seems that the relationships between the ex-Brothers are still pretty solid. We spoke to Haynes about saying goodbye to the Allmans and the about band’s final year. Of course, there was also the business of his excellent new solo album, Ashes and Dust, which sees him teaming up with the band Railroad Earth.

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This album is a definite departure from Gov’t Mule and the Allman Brothers Band.

Well, I’ve been thinking about this sort of record for probably six or seven years. At one point I was going to do a record with Levon Helm and Leon Russell and T-Bone Wolk. And T-Bone passed away, and then Levon passed away, and the whole project kind of just faded away. Some of these songs would’ve probably been on that record, and of course, I’ve been writing a lot since then as well.

I’ve accumulated dozens and dozens of songs through the years that kind of all have a similar folky sort of direction; they’re coming from more of a singer-songwriter type place. And I’ve been looking for the right way to capture that in the studio, and when I started working with the guys in Railroad Earth it made sense. There’s a lot of wonderful playing, but it’s very much a “song” record. You know, Gov’t Mule could make this kind of record, but I wouldn’t feel good about asking that band to do something quite so traditional. Not that this is necessarily a “traditional” record, but it has traditional aspects about it. It was important to me to kind of find the right voice and build a home for these songs that didn’t have a home prior. And once we go into the studio, I realized that that was the right decision; things were just happening organically and falling into place.

But would you ever play any of these songs live with the Mule? 

I can see playing some of these songs with Gov’t Mule and possibly even some songs from Man in Motion, my last solo record. For the most part, I tend to try and keep them a little separate, but a little overlap here and there is a good thing I think, especially just to shake things up and do something different, you know.

Related: Warren Haynes on the Confederate Flag: ‘You Don’t Need a Symbol to Be Proud of Who You Are’

I think Steve Earle once said that every album he does is a reaction to the prior one; is that how you feel about this album? 

Well, I guess in the back of my mind I have this list of things that I really want to do and I keep checking them off. Before I made Man in Motion, I wanted to make a record that combined soul music with blues, and now I’ve done that. And now, for this record I wanted to make a record that captures songs that I wrote on acoustic guitar. There’s so many of these type of songs, I feel like there will be at least one follow-up to this record, but there’s still other things I would like to do. I wanna make a traditional blues record; I wanna make a jazz-influenced instrumental record. But this direction is something I can see carrying into the future.

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I thought after you did the shows with the orchestras where you played the music of Jerry Garcia that you might do a more symphonic album. 

Well, doing the live tour with the orchestra was such a cool fulfillment, you know. Working with a symphony was always something that I wanted to do, but it was always on the back burner; it was always on the “I’ll get to it later” list. So being able to do an entire tour that way for me was really, really fun. As far as doing it in the studio, if there were the right reason I could see it. I’ve never written a collection of songs that I felt like needed a symphony, but I sure enjoyed the experience, so I don’t rule anything out.

You always seem to have a rapport with whoever you’re playing with, whether it’s with the Allmans, or the Mule, or if you join someone else on stage, like Ben Harper. It must be weird meeting local symphonies that day, and then playing the show that night. 

It was a lot of work doing that symphony tour, because we would rehearse the entire show every day with a different orchestra and then play it that night. So I had to make a point of trying to hold back during rehearsal. Sometimes if you do something great at rehearsal, then the performance suffers. I’ve always felt like that, theoretically. So it was kind of one of those things where I just tried to never get out of third gear at rehearsal, just save the fourth gear of fifth gear or whatever it was for show time. But a lot of work making sure each symphony was comfortable with what we were doing.
It did get easier eventually.

Talk about the song “Company Man.” 

“Company Man” is about my father, a hundred percent. I wrote that song, which is extremely personal for me, several years ago, and then recently we went on a trip together, and I kind of quizzed him and made sure all the facts were facts, and even the years and months and different details, I wanted to make sure that everything about it was a hundred percent true. It’s a difficult song for me to sing because it is so personal, but it’s written in the true sense of like a folk song. People are responding very well to that song, which I’m glad about. But it’s one of those songs I guess that, like “Patchwork Quilt” that I’m not sure if I ever would have recorded it if I didn’t have the right reason. It’s just something that I wrote because I had to write it.

I know “Patchwork Quilt” is a song you wrote for Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead, and on the new album, you co-wrote “Spots of Time” with him. 

I wrote that with Phil Lesh a few years back. And the Allman Brothers started playing it three or four years ago in our live shows. And I think we would’ve recorded it for a final Allman Brothers album, had there been a final Allman Brothers record. Since we never made that record, I wanted to do it on this record.

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When your record label announced the album, they characterized it as an “Americana” album, but I had a hard time imagining you going to the label and saying, “Hey, guys, my next album is going to be ‘Americana!'” 

Well, the term “Americana” was coined after some of these songs were written. The oldest song on this record is “Is It Me or You,” which I wrote almost 30 years ago. To my knowledge, they didn’t start saying “Americana” ’til past couple of decades. And in the same way that “Southern rock” was trying to come up with a way of categorizing music, Americana does that. And that’s cool. I’ve done a lot of press in Europe for this record, and they all talk about Americana. So Americana is worldwide. I love a large part of what comes under the heading of Americana. I just have trouble with stereotypes and labels.

I never thought I was making an “Americana” record. I looked at it more like I was making a record that represented my early influences and where I grew up in the mountains of Western North Carolina where Celtic music and folk music and mountain music and Appalachian music and bluegrass are all extremely prevalent and always have been. A lot of these songs reflect that, music that I heard as a child before I even picked up an instrument.

I have to ask about the Allmans. After the last show in October, how did you guys leave the relationship? I’d imagine that individual members will collaborate with each other in the future. 

We did very little talking about it, which is kind of par for the course. I don’t think any of us have any aversion to playing together. It’s family, and we all have a mutual enormous amount of respect for the Allman Brothers’ music and legacy. I look forward to playing with any of those guys when the opportunity presents itself. I just know that there’s no plans to do something collectively. Everybody’s kind of happy doing their own thing, and that’s great.

Related: Concert Review: Allman Brothers Band Play Epic Final Concert at New York’s Beacon Theatre

I was fortunate enough to attend the final show; it was very emotional for the audience. How were you feeling that night? 

That whole year was emotional, because we had been talking for I guess about three years at that point about making the 45th anniversary the final tour. And it is a decision that was made by the entire band. It got convoluted in the press and appeared that Derek [Trucks] and myself made that decision, which was absolutely not the case. We did agree with the decision, and when some people started getting cold feet and thinking maybe we should keep this going. But Derek and I had made plans of our own that didn’t allow us to do that. And so we both said, “Hey guys, we’re in agreement with the decision that was made, and we’re also unavailable at this point because we’ve already made plans for the future.”

Related: Interview: Gregg Allman on His New Band, the Allman Brothers Band and the Confederate Flag

We all individually and collectively just didn’t wanna see it get to a point where the band was going through the motions and becoming some sort of nostalgia act. Ever since I’ve been playing with those guys starting in ’89, the original members would always talk about how the Allman Brothers Band was not a band that could just go play the hits and go through the motions. The band always felt like it had to be cutting edge and reinventing itself night after night, or it wouldn’t want to exist, and I agree totally with that. As a fan, first and foremost, I agree with that. As someone who became part of the organization, I agree with that.

Thankfully, that day never came, but we could all see it on the horizon, and everybody was happier kind of doing their own stuff. So it just made sense for it to kind of dissolve the way that it did. But it was bittersweet because, you know, we all loved playing music together, we love the music that the band has created, and it felt like it was all leading up to that last night, which was not only very emotional, but also a night that we’re all very proud of. I think we all felt like we rose to the occasion; we played a great final show. That show represented what that band does, and we were all happy with it.

Related: Concert Review: The Allman Brothers Band Open Their Final 2014 New York Residency at Beacon Theatre

I’ve seen a lot of Allmans shows over the years; I thought that that may have been the best one. 

Well, I was so happy that when we brought it up at rehearsal to possibly play a really long marathon show, everybody smiled and went, ‘Yeah, let’s do that.’ And there was no reluctance, and everybody knew it was the right thing to do. And so, it wasn’t just a long show, it was a spiritual, heartfelt experience where everybody gave 110 percent.

Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes (Maria Ives for Radio.com)

(Maria Ives for Radio.com) 

So how do you feel about working with any of those guys, outside of the context of the Allman Brothers Band, in the future? 

I’m open to anything, always, and I always have been, and I hope I always will be. Those guys gave me the greatest opportunity of my career, and it’s not something that I take lightly. And Dickey Betts really is the one that gave me that opportunity more than anybody else. I could never thank him enough.

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A few years ago, you said that no matter what happens with the Allmans, that you and Derek Trucks would probably work together in some incarnation for years to come. 

We’ve talked about some projects together, and I think both of us think it would be a lot of fun to do the right thing together, be it in a live setting or in the studio. We really enjoy playing together when we get the opportunity, and I think Derek and I kind of made a pact at some point: that I didn’t wanna be in the Allmans without him, and he didn’t wanna be there without me. So we kinda decided if it ever came up that if one of us had to leave that we would both leave. Which is not exactly what happened, but I think it’s an important piece of the puzzle.

The final version of the Allmans really holds up to the original lineup, and there are very few bands who have had membership changes that can say that. 

And that’s a very special band. The band that we had the past 14 years, I don’t think any of us could ever have imagined that this far down the line with the band going through everything it had gone through, losing all the band members that the band lost through the years up through Allen Woody, and then the parting ways with Dickey, which happened when I was out of the band, I think a lot of people thought the band couldn’t survive that. And were it not for the strength of that seven-piece unit, I don’t think the band could’ve survived it. And consequently, somehow it turned around and became this amazing organism that we were all extremely proud of, and that’s not something you can force, you know, that’s something that happens on its own, and we’re lucky that it did.

Are you going to do more gigs with Phil & Friends? 

Yeah, I think we’re all trying to coordinate schedules in a way that hopefully some stuff will work out, because we have a blast every time we do it.

Related: Warren Haynes Talks About the End of the Grateful Dead

Having played with the Dead, Phil & Friends and the symphonic shows, what are your favorite Grateful Dead songs to perform?

I think the Dead song the top of my list is one that kind of defies rock ’n’ roll categorization: “Terrapin Station.” I wasn’t a Deadhead as early as a lot of people; I kind of discovered them a little later. I was exposed to some of the music, but my head was in a different place. The first time I saw ’em was I think in ’79, and they played “Terrapin Station,” and I still remember like wow, how heavy that was. When we did it with the symphony I made a point of coming up with an arrangement that went into “Slipknot” in the middle and back into “Terrapin Station” and including some of the sections of “Terrapin” that they never played live, including the symphonic stuff that was on the record. But it’s hard to say, because I love so many of those tunes. Every day I’d probably give you a different list of which ones are my favorites.

“Loser” is always fun for me; “Wharf Rat” is always fun for me. I love singing those ballads like “Stella Blue” and “Comes a Time,” and “Black Peter.” We did “Black Peter” with a symphony; it was amazing, and my friend Steve Bernstein that wrote the score for the symphony, totally did it with a New Orleans flair, and it was so heavy. I really love doing that. And I see and understand why Jerry loved doing the ballads, because I love writing ballads and singing ballads. It’s a way of expressing yourself as a singer in a completely different way that’s probably more emotional than just singing rock songs, you know.

Robert Hunter’s lyrics to those songs are so vivid; I remember at one point in the ’90s, some company was putting out Grateful Dead comic books, where artists simply interpreted his lyrics in comic book form. 

Well, I always felt like the Dead working with Robert Hunter was one of the greatest decisions they ever made. So many bands from that era, when you look back at their music, the music’s still cool, but the lyrics maybe not. And with the Dead, those lyrics are even more timeless now than they were then, and I think that’s why that music’s gonna be around for so long. He not only is a great lyricist, but his lyrics have his character. When you hear a lyric or read a lyric that’s Robert Hunter, you go, “Oh, that’s Hunter,” you know, in the same way that all our favorite writers.

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