Gov't Mule's Warren Haynes on the rumor that he's the one who got the Dead to cover Metallica

Gov't Mule formed in 1994 as a side project of Warren Haynes and Allen Woody, who were then members of the Allman Brothers Band. While both men continued to play with the Allman Brothers, Gov't Mule became quite a viable entity on its own, rooted in a similar blend of blues, jazz and rock, with a penchant for improvisational elaborations on a theme. The Mule has long had a rotating cast of guest musicians with an exhaustive list that reads like a who's who of the improvisational rock, blues and jazz world.

See also: Gov't Mule at Ogden Theatre, Tuesday, November 5

With the untimely death of Woody in August of 2000, the same year as the release of the band's critically acclaimed album Life Before Insanity, Gov't Mule might have called it a day. But it didn't and as if to celebrate Woody's life, the group has since written music and been involved collaborations that would have made the bassist proud.

Last month, Gov't Mule released Shout! with one album that features the band playing its own music and a companion record with the outfit playing with guest singers on each track. We spoke with guitarist Warren Haynes about how the guest singers side of the release came about, how he became involved in playing with David Allen Coe and the Allman Brothers Band, and the truth behind the rumors that he got the Dead to cover Metallica and Linda Ronstadt.

Westword: Duane Allman played '58 Les Paul. What did you and perhaps do you like about those guitars?

Warren Haynes: I've always gravitated toward a bigger, fatter, rounder sound, which is what Les Paul's are known for. I'm very comfortable playing a Les Paul because I've been doing it for a long time. They have a little fight to them, and they're not the easiest guitar to play, which is probably a good thing because you want it to be a little bit of a struggle.

You're known as a master improvisational player. Was that part of your musical experience from the beginning, or did that sort of thing come along later?

I was lucky to grow up not only in a very fertile time for guitar-driven music but also a very fertile time for improvisational music. All of the bands I was listening to growing up, even rock bands, seemed to improvise, and the bands I was most drawn to definitely included improvisation as a key part of their sound. All of those bands released live albums that gave you more insight into the way they played on stage. Also being a big fan of jazz and blues, improv has always been a big part of the way I approach music from the beginning.

How did you come to join David Allen Coe's band, and is there an enduring lesson you came away with from that experience?

That was the first real opportunity that I had when I was around nineteen years old. His bass player had heard me play in a club in North Carolina. They were looking for a guitar player, and it was just a step up for me. I wasn't really familiar with his music, nor his lifestyle at that point in time, and I quickly got familiar with both. And it was an odd change in direction for me, but it's also what lead me to meeting Dicky Betts and Gregg Allman, which lead to my association with the Allman Brothers.

How did that facilitate your joining The Allman Brothers?

They knew each other, and Coe introduced me to both Dicky and Gregg in 1980 or '81, not long after I joined the band. Dicky Betts and I stayed in touch, and as I became a little older, we played a little together here and there, which lead me to joining his band when I was 26, and then joined the Allman Brothers when I was 28.

You have probably played, at some point, with almost every prominent improvisational rock band of the last 25 years. What is it about that world and culture you find interesting as a person and as a musician? Do you think there's a big difference between the Allman Brothers crowd and the Dead crowd?

Yes, there is a difference between the East Coast and West Coast crowd, and even musicians, as far as what they grew up listening to. And, of course, the music that was made available to musicians, especially going back to the '60s, and even earlier with people before me; whatever you were exposed to is what influenced you, and what influenced you is what made you who you are.

Of course that's different now. It's evolved with technology and the Internet. A musician in Antarctica can study music from Tahiti. But it wasn't always that way, so the regional influences played a big part in the development of people's styles. Growing up in the South, I was exposed not only to the Allman Brothers at a very young age, but also to all the music that they grew up listening to.

What would you say they grew up listening to?

I always looked at that band as being a combination of rock and jazz and blues and, of course, folk and psychedelic music. Soul music. Most of which came from, or through, the south.

Coming from the South what did you learn from East Coast and West Coast musicians in that realm of music?

I try to discover as much music as possible. My oldest brothers turned me on to Coltrane and Miles and "Cannonball" Adderly. But also to Elmore James, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. Hearing bands like Tower of Power and, of course, a lot of the Bay Area psychedelic rock music made its way in there, as well. I've always had an open mind, as far influences are concerned. I think it's best to listen to as much music as possible and let it all seep in to whatever extent it will. It's always been that way, and I think where I am now is just an extension of that.

You played slide guitar on Corrosion of Conformity's "Stare Too Long," from the 2000 album America's Volume Dealer. How did that come about?

I had gotten a call from Pepper Keenan saying he had a song he'd like me to play on. I listened to the song, and really liked it, and we went into the studio in New York and recorded it. I really loved that song from the first time I heard it, and I think that song should have been a big hit. I think Pepper felt the same way.

You didn't see working with them as particularly different from what you usually do?

My role on that particular song was just to be myself. And I've been lucky that way. Aside from the time I spent in Nashville grooming myself to be a studio musician -- a short-lived process -- aside from that, I've been fortunate to have the opportunity to be myself throughout my career.

You've probably done it all as a guitarist, in terms of styles of music you've played and the kinds of experiences that anyone that's a guitarist could dream of having. What keeps that an interesting instrument for you to play these days?

I think the guitar is something you can be inspired to play for a lifetime and never feel like you've even broken the surface of possibilities. I also consider myself fortunate to concentrate equally on songwriting, singing and guitar playing. So if I ever feel like I'm less interested in one or two of those things, I always have at least one of them as an inspiration.

Is it true that you got the Dead to cover "Nothing Else Matters" by Metallica?

That was actually Phil Lesh's idea. It came about as a suggestion from his son Graham. I'm glad you pointed that out, actually, because a lot of people, because I was asked to sing it, assumed that I was the one that suggested it, but that was not the case. When we covered Linda Ronstadt's version of "Desperado," that was Mickey Hart's idea, but he asked me to sing it, which I was honored to do. It's a shame we only did "Nothing Else Matters" once, because I think we could have done it better, had we done it more than once, but I don't think it ever happened again. A lot of songs, especially cover songs, only get played once on Dead tours.

For the new Gov't Mule album, Shout!, what inspired you to approach all those other singers to reinterpret those songs for the second disc of the release?

Well, we didn't start out with that concept. We went into the studio thinking we were making the next Gov't Mule album with no guests. I had written a song called "Funny Little Tragedy" that reminded us of early Attractions, or the Clash, or something from that era. I sent Elvis Costello an email about getting his advice on getting an era-specific vocal sound for that recording because we had never recorded anything like that before.

His advice to me was to use a very cheap microphone because that's what they did in the early days of that music, which I did, and I called him back to thank him. From that point forward, I had started thinking about him singing that song. We had a similar experience with "Toots" Hibbert from Toots & The Maytals and thinking about him for a song called "Scared to Live," and about Dr. John for a song called "Stoop So Low."

Those were the first three people we thought of. Initially, we were just going to have them sing a small cameo appearance, but that seemed a waste to have singers of that stature sing such a small part, so we decided to let them sing the whole song. Once we made that decision, I thought it would be nice to just go through every song and make a list of who, other than myself, I'd love to hear sing it, and that's what we did.

You have Grace Potter singing "Whisper In Your Soul."

Grace and I go way back. She came on the road with Gov't Mule several years ago, and we've toured together several times. We've shared the stage a lot. That song seemed to work from a female perspective, as well as a male perspective. So I thought it would be nice to include Grace, and, of course, she did a wonderful job.

Blues has had a kind of resurgence in the last few years. What do you think keeps that a relevant form of music through to today?

The blues is timeless music. It may come and go, as far as mainstream popularity is concerned. The music of Robert Johnson, Son House and B.B. King and Freddie King and Albert King and Howlin' Wolf and Elmore James and Muddy Waters is going to be around as long as there's music. That music is where rock and roll music came from.

I think it's important that young musicians and artists keep the blues alive, but the blues will keep itself alive to a certain extent. I think the times that we feel like blues music or blues-inspired rock and roll music is less popular seems to coincide with the times when the people doing it are less inspired.

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.

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