Part of the reason Warren Haynes is such a legendary figure in American rock is how he’s found ways to outsmart just about every traditional parameter of the music industry.
Over the past 25 years, in both the Allman Brothers Band and as the leader of Gov’t Mule, Haynes has proven the following: You can make it up as you go along. You never have to pick a genre, in fact it’s better to avoid it altogether. You can be a riff-roaring guitarist who plays 15-minute guitar solos, and still share stages with artists of all styles. A single live performance can be greater than the sum of your studio songs, financially and otherwise. And perhaps the best-kept secret — paying attention to and understanding your audience can, in fact, be your primary business model.
And while Haynes wasn’t the pioneer of all these approaches, he’s taken cues from all the great musicians he’s worked with over the years and mastered them in a way that has made him one of the most enduring American musicians, and one of the hardest-working.
For that, he was recently inducted into his home state of North Carolina’s Hall of Fame, an honor Haynes said puts him “at a loss for words.”
“I think growing up in Asheville, North Carolina, helped shape who I am as a person and who I am as a musician,” he said. “When I was growing up, a lot of the regional sounds that I heard helped inspire me and influence me and I think that played an important part in all our backgrounds.”
It’s this sense of place and history that characterizes Haynes as a sort of wise uncle of the jam-band scene. His unending thirst to absorb all the musical flavors that came before him continues to shape the sound of Southern rock, the same way the Allman Brothers did for more than 40 years.
“The whole concept of Southern rock was something that came about after the Allman Brothers created a form of music that was combining jazz and blues and rock and country and soul, in a way that defied description and defied categorization,” he said. “I think like any great art form, it can only exist in the future if people take that same philosophy and try and create something unique, from the heart, that’s never been done before.”
It’s been a particularly momentous yet bittersweet year, Haynes said, since he and guitarist Derek Trucks announced in January 2014 they were leaving the Allman Brothers after 25 years. Soon after, the band decided 2014, their 45th year together, would be their last. The iconic group played its farewell show in October at New York’s Beacon Theatre, where they’d played every year since Haynes joined them in 1989.
“I miss playing music with those guys because we always came off stage knowing that we had created something special. And what they created before I ever knew those guys was something I’m a huge fan of,” he said. “I’ve always maintained that if I was going to join a band I grew up listening to, Allman Brothers would be at the top of the list.”
Even so, Haynes said he thinks it was the right move to stop touring so he can focus on his own band, Gov’t Mule, which is now in its 20th year.
Marking the anniversary, the group released a series of live albums from its vault of archived shows, including “Sco-Mule,” the coveted 1999 concert featuring a rare collaboration with John Scofield; “Dark Side of the Mule,” a 2008 Halloween show with 90 minutes of Pink Floyd covers; and the latest, “Dub Side of the Mule” a reggae-flavored performance in 2006 featuring a set with Toots Hibbert of Toots and the Maytals.
Live albums have long been the lifeblood of jam-rock bands. The Allman Brothers’ “At Fillmore East” of 1971, for instance, is an essential addition to any self-respecting fans’ record collection.
It’s these sorts of traditions that Haynes has carried into the next generation by tailoring them to the modern era. In 2004, Gov’t Mule had the foresight to begin selling digital downloads of all their concerts online at MuleTracks.com almost immediately after their performances, so they became an extension of concert-goers’ memorabilia, like T-shirts and posters.
Since then, the website has seen more than 3 million concert downloads, so these remastered releases to mark Gov’t Mule’s 20th year are a celebration of that success, Haynes said.
“The music business can take a cue from the jam band scene, in the way that catering to your live audience can be a big part of your livelihood, and a big part of the impetus for creating your music in the first place,” he said. “I grew up at a time when live performance was the absolute pinnacle of a band and artists’ music. And I think what we’re seeing now is that all these years later, bands and audiences that can deliver in a live setting are rising to the top, and bands and artists that can’t are falling by the wayside. And that’s a lesson to be learned by anybody who takes music seriously.”
It takes guts, but also humility, to eternalize live concerts night after night, with all their inevitable flaws laid out for critics and fans alike.
In many ways that’s the beauty of Gov’t Mule, which has never played the same show twice in 20 years.
“We have an unspoken language that allows us to explore on stage in a musical way without being apprehensive about it. And we’re lucky to have an audience that not only allows us to do that but encourages us to do that,” he said. “That’s a key factor, having an audience that understands what it is that you’re doing and wants to go on that journey with you.”
While it can often be the lightning rod for critics of the jam-band genre, the freedom to improvise on stage is the central reason Haynes identifies as a jam-band musician.
“If you do what you do really well and it’s ever-changing and you don’t rely on the same set list night after night and you incorporate improvisation into your philosophy, then in a way you’re a part of the jam band community,” he said.
And to see a collection of musicians as skilled as those in Gov’t Mule create music in the moment, without rehearsing, is one of the closest things there is to magic.
“I tell people that once you get bitten by the improv bug, you never want to go back to just playing music a certain way night after night. Because the allure of it is improvisation, which is just momentary composition, so everybody on stage is just flying by the seat of their pants making it up as they go along,” he said. “A big part of that is listening to what’s going on around you, asserting your own personality but trying to blend into the tapestry of music that’s going at the time. It’s an art form and it’s something you only get better at by doing it more and more, but it’s very rewarding.”
Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.