Getting ahold of Warren Haynes is tricky. Understandably, he likes to keep a low profile. For the past few years he's been touring pretty much non-stop, playing leap-frog between the current incarnations of the Allman Brothers and the Dead, not to mention fronting his own band, Gov't Mule. Such a road-intensive schedule warrants the occasional game of hide-and-seek.
"This has been my busiest year ever, which, of course, is not a bad thing," says Haynes when finally tracked down in his road manager's room at an Embassy Suites in Syracuse. "But I won't lie; the traveling part is hard. It's the music that's fun."
That said, Haynes seems more than capable of adapting to his surroundings. A Southern boy, born in Asheville, North Carolina, the guitarist is now a confirmed Yankee. When not on the road, he splits his time between an apartment in Greenwich Village and a country house not far from the city with his wife of six years.
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"The Northeast is actually a huge market for the kind of music I play," Haynes points out. "The Beacon Theater in Manhattan has kind of become an unofficial home for the Allmans and Gov't Mule. We get a tremendous response from the fans." The former drops by for a series of shows at the venue every March, and the latter checks in every New Year's Eve.
Even so, Haynes's roots are firmly planted in Dixie. The singer/guitarist got his start in Nashville playing with David Allan Coe, an artist best known for writing X-rated ditties with a redneck spin. The chopper-riding Coe introduced Haynes to original Allman Brothers guitarist Dickey Betts in the mid-'80s. After collaborating with Coe for a few years, Haynes went on to join Betts's solo project in 1986 and then the Allman Brothers Band, which re-formed in 1989 (the twentieth anniversary of the group's founding).
"I had been playing with Dickey in his band for a few years," Haynes recalls. "I was doing slide guitar, singing and writing some songs with him. We were polishing the dual-lead thing, so when the Allmans started up again, I was right there with Dickey, and I was ready."
What followed was a critically acclaimed renaissance for the famous Southern rockers; many fans and critics credit Haynes as one of the driving forces behind the group's resurgence. Both Haynes and fellow newbie, bassist Allen Woody, supplied enough passion to rekindle the old Allman flames, breathing life into the band and producing new favorites, including "Back Where It All Begins," Haynes's own "Soulshine" and "No One to Run With."
But Haynes's story, like that of the Allman Brothers, contains its share of tragedy and sorrow. Five years after Haynes and Woody joined the Allman Brothers, they enlisted drummer Matt Abts and formed their own hard-rocking side project, Gov't Mule. The two friends opted to leave the Brothers entirely in 1997 to focus on the new band, and the blues-based combo quickly made a name for itself. In addition to a number of successful tours, Mule released five albums, culminating with 2000's Life Before Insanity, a disc that was poised to be its commercial breakthrough. But in August that year, Woody died suddenly of a heart attack. Having lost his co-conspirator and favorite bass player, Haynes was left at the proverbial crossroads.
"When Allen died, my first inclination was to dissolve the band," he confesses. "I didn't think I could go on. But we got a lot of encouragement from friends in the industry not to break up. And I'm glad we didn't. The Mule is at a place right now that I never would have believed we could reach." Haynes was able to keep the group going with the addition of bassist Andy Hess and keyboardist Danny Louis.
"With Allen, we knew over 400 songs," Haynes notes. "The new guys have learned the material and are doing really well. It keeps getting better and better. Matt and I are smiling again like we never expected."
But keeping the Mule going isn't the only thing Haynes has to be happy about these days. In 2001 he returned to the Allman Brothers, joining guitar virtuoso Derek Trucks in yet another version of the ever-evolving outfit, which had recently parted ways with founding member Betts. Haynes has also teamed with former Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, who himself was bouncing back from the loss of a musical compatriot.
"In the late '90s, Phil was putting together Phil and Friends, and he had a list of musicians he wanted to audition to tour with him," Haynes says. "He called me, and I started playing in the band. He was looking for a twin-guitar setup, and for a while it was a revolving door of players. But eventually we stumbled upon the definitive band, which has me and Jimmy Herring playing the leads."
Playing with Phil and Friends led to Haynes's touring with the Dead, another reconfigured and road-tested band. With all the traveling and musical chairs, you'd think Haynes would be overwhelmed, but he insists it's not a problem.
"The Dead are a combination of styles, including folk, jazz, R&B, psychedelic and country," Haynes explains. "The Allmans is more of a blues band, and the Mule is more of a rock band. But we're all products of the same influences, which are just combined in different ways, to different degrees and at different levels.
"Sometimes I'll transpose licks from one group to the other," he adds with a laugh, "just to see if people are listening."
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As for cultural differences among the acts, Haynes says it's all relative. "Musicians tend to have a lot in common," he notes, "so it's pretty easy to blend into the different bands. The musicians I work with have a diverse outlook on life, and the music reflects their personalities. The Dead are from the West Coast scene and the Allmans are from the South. They're all easy to get along with."
As for his own band, Haynes says, "The Mule is something we built from the ground floor. It's anything we want it to be and changes with every record."
One thing that remains unchanged, however, is Haynes's commitment to touring. Although he's looking forward to November, when his relentless schedule will finally allow him to return home for a little downtime with his wife, it's clear: He's equally at home with his bandmates on the road.
"The Mule is where my heart is at," he concludes. "Hopefully it'll go on for years."