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Love is a mean old world: A conversation with Warren Haynes

Gov’t Mule is fronted by rock icon Warren Haynes (far right). (photo: Jay Sansone) Gov’t Mule is fronted by rock icon Warren Haynes (far right). (photo: Jay Sansone)

The beauty of the blues is that it’s a style of music you grow up alongside, one where you may pick it up early on and, perhaps, easily, but it’ll take a lifetime to journey down the rabbit hole of its intricate nature, endless depths of sonic textures and unlimited melodic possibilities. 

For rock icon Warren Haynes, the blues signifies an acknowledgment and appreciation of the human condition, where the guitarist not only embraces those vast sonic textures, he also purposely lets go of any and all preconceived notions of how to grasp and hold the blues — for once you let go, you’ve unlocked the secret of what it means to be a cosmic soul in the greater universe.

And for the better part of the last 30 years, Haynes has fronted Gov’t Mule, which initially was his solo outlet when not on the road and onstage as a six-string ace for The Allman Brothers Band, a position he held from 1989 to 2014. 

Nowadays, Mule carries the fiery torch of live performance and improvisational exploration, values that remain at the core of this juggernaut of sound and purpose — this seamless blend of rock, soul and psychedelic tones, all with a thick thread of the blues running through the heart of the operation.

Smoky Mountain News: Mule recently put out the album “Heavy Load Blues.” And what I find so interesting about the blues is that, when you’re younger, you can kind of get into it pretty quick as a guitarist. But, as you get older, you find out how intricate and complex it actually is. 

Warren Haynes: Well, the blues is what you make of it, right? The chord structures, the melodies and note selections — and even the tempos and the grooves — are all coming from a kind of limited, minimalistic sort of space. But, what you can do inside that space is limitless. 

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And so, if you want to discover the blues, all you have to do is listen to someone who’s really good at playing or singing it, because that’s what sells you. It’s not the genre. It’s 110% the performance that people give inside that genre that transcends it to another place. 

SMN: It’s not a matter of how many notes are played, it’s a matter of the feeling behind the fingers playing those notes. 

WH: Yeah. If you hear B.B. King play one note, it sounds incredible, and you know who it is when you hear it. It’s the same when you hear Aretha Franklin sing one note or Ray Charles sing one note or Son House. And that’s so much deeper than a fancy flurry of notes. When someone can hit you with one note and it stirs your soul — that’s the real thing.

SMN: And that’s what I think about with you or Derek Trucks or people that can almost slow down time. It’s not that you’re trying to “wow” people with a million notes a minute, you’re slowing down time for people to actually relax and not think about anything.

WH: And let go, and do whatever the opposite of thinking is, you know? And that’s the way when musicians play their best, it’s when you shut your brain off and you’re not aware of anything. You get into that zone where you’re not thinking, and that’s the best that you’ll ever play. 

SMN: And I would surmise that night after night, whether consciously or subconsciously, what you’re chasing is that feeling of letting go.

WH: Absolutely. The ultimate version of that is when you actually forget that you’re onstage and transcend to another place where you’re not aware at that moment of what’s really going on. I remember [bassist] Oteil [Burbridge] describing it as it’s almost like you’re in the audience listening to someone else. I never thought of it that way until he described it that way, and it makes total sense.

The only way you can really achieve that is to be performing with amazing people around you that you share a chemistry with. And those magical moments may happen from time to time, and when they do, it’s this amazing thing. And I’ve been very fortunate to have been involved with so many wonderful musicians that once you experience that, you are chasing it from that point forward. 

SMN: I was recently talking to someone about why it is groups like the Allmans, Grateful Dead and Rolling Stones have lasted so long. And I think it has to do with the mere fact all of those bands have a blues component, where there’s something so mysterious and timeless about the blues, that it makes the music just as relevant generations later.

WH: I think that’s exactly right. It’s the honesty that all those things have in common — it’s honest music. And the blues element is a big part of that. When people hear that honesty in the music, it makes a connection that you can’t really explain. But, I think that’s where the timelessness comes from. 

All the [bands] you mentioned achieved their success by not trying to adhere to whatever trends were going on at that time. If you change the trendiness or the timeliness of what’s going on at the moment, then you’re obviously going to fall out of vogue or reach a point where there it’s no longer honest or relevant. 

But, bands that made timeless music, there’s always going be a place for that — and I think that’s the key.

 

Want to go?

Rock juggernaut Gov’t Mule will hit the stage at 6:30 p.m. Friday, June 3, at the Salvage Station in Asheville. 

Gates at 5 p.m. Travers Brothership will open the performance. Admission is $35 in advance, $40 day of show (general admission)

For more information and/or to purchase tickets, click on salvagestation.com.

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