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Warren Haynes Celebrates 20th Anniversary Of His Christmas Jam

Warren Haynes – Asheville ~ New Orleans ~ New York City
Haynes Celebrates 20th Anniversary Of His Christmas Jam

By Derek Halsey

There was a phenomenon in major league baseball back in the day called “The McCovey Shift.” Hall of Famer Willie McCovey played with the San Francisco Giants and was one of the most dominant power hitters in the 1960’s and 70’s. Many opposing teams would react to his awesome power hitting abilities by moving extra players over to the right side of the field because that is usually where McCovey’s batting talent would manifest itself. I noticed a similar “Haynes Shift” during a recent Gov’t Mule concert held at the Madison Theater in Northern Kentucky, across the river from Cincinnati, Ohio.

As the show begins, Warren Haynes, the guitarist, singer and leader of Gov’t Mule, is playing on the left side of the stage and the crowd is heavily tilted in that direction. And, rightly so, as he is considered one of the best rock guitarists in the world. Midway through the concert I run into a friend named Jim who says he has found some of his friends on the less crowded non-Warren side of the venue, so we take advantage of the Haynes Shift and the party goes from there.

The concert is taking place on November 6th, 2008, two days after Barack Obama’s historic election win and the band is rolling through an opening set of Gov’t Mule songs along with a long and smoking version of the Haynes and Dickey Betts-penned tune called “Kind Of Bird.” This instrumental originally appeared on the Allman Brothers Band’s Shades of Two Worlds album. Sensing the post-election enthusiasm of the day, Haynes then pulls out a classic Buffalo Springfield song whose lyrics fit the times, “For What It’s Worth.” As we talk during the break in-between sets, one of Jim’s friends tells me that the music of Buffalo Springfield had been following him around all week on the radio, as if an omen.

That kind of serendipity seems to happen all evening. As Gov’t Mule rocks through a second set of songs including “Mr. High and Mighty, “Tastes Like Wine” and “Mule,” they end the night with the Marshall Tucker Band’s “Can’t You See,” written by the late Toy Caldwell. Caldwell had been on my mind that day, having just listened to a live post-Marshall Tucker recording of his from 1990 where he brilliantly combines Willie Nelson’s country blues song “Night Life” with the 1950’s Santo and Johnny classic “Sleep Walk.” The crowd comes alive as the signature first notes of the song are played on Haynes’ guitar, and by the end of it, the audience has long taken over the vocals. It becomes an inspired moment, as both the band and the crowd boisterously salute Caldwell. Backstage after the show Haynes tells me, “I don’t know why I thought of Toy today. I just did.”

It is a high level of musicianship that enables Haynes and his band mates to change the setlist on a nightly basis, and to add a song at the last minute. The rest of Gov’t Mule includes Matt Abts on drums, Danny Louis on keyboards, and newcomer Jorgen Carlsson on bass. After the show, the band gets onto the bus to make the drive to Philadelphia where they will play a concert the next night. At the Philly show, they play a completely different set of 17 songs, with no song repeated from the previous evening’s jam in Cincinnati.

The “hardest working man in show business” moniker has been tossed around a lot over the years, and used to describe many an artist. In the rock and roll world, few have had as good a claim to that designation over the last decade as Warren Haynes. Haynes not only fronts Gov’t Mule, but is also one of the two premier lead guitarists of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame group, The Allman Brothers Band. In that legendary outfit, he gets to trade solos with the phenomenal slide guitarist Derek Trucks. Yet, that is only part of the story of this great musician.

In late 2003, Rolling Stone Magazine put Haynes on their “Greatest Guitarists of All Time” list placing him in the number 23 slot. That was largely due to his stellar work with the Allman Brothers and Gov’t Mule, and may also have reflected his earlier playing as a member of outlaw country legend David Allan Coe’s band. Haynes began playing with Coe at 20 years of age, appearing on many of his albums. He has also played and recorded with many other legendary musicians since then including The Dead and Phil Lesh and Friends. 

December 12th and 13th, 2008 will mark the 20th anniversary of Haynes’ annual Christmas Jam. Held every holiday season in his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, this concert benefits the Habitat For Humanity organization. The lineup is a strong one, featuring everyone from the Allman Brothers and the Derek Trucks Band to the bluegrass music of the Del McCoury Band, from the rock and blues legends Johnny Winter, Col. Bruce Hampton and John Paul Jones to more contemporary players such as Ben Harper, Ivan Neville, Karl Denson and Travis Tritt. More information can be found at www.xmasjam.com.

I was first impressed with Haynes’ musical abilities when I heard his performance on the 1988 Dickey Betts Band (DBB) album titled Pattern Disruptive. What sparked me about his playing was his slide guitar solo on the song “C’est La Vie,” where a series of smoking riffs appear at about the 3-minute, 16-second mark of this rocker that still knocks me out when I listen to it. Haynes was with Coe when he first met Betts, one of the original guitarists for the Allman Brothers Band, and that meeting led to membership in the DBB. Coe and Betts are known as brilliant yet volatile musicians, yet the time Haynes spent playing with them was positive.

“I obviously learned a lot from both of them,” says Haynes. “They are both great artists and unique. When you hear anyone of those guys you know who it is. That, in a lot of ways, is one of the signs of a great artist. You know, it’s funny, when I look back to playing with Coe, we used to do a different set list every night. At that point I knew nothing about the Grateful Dead approach to set lists. I just knew that that was what Coe did. And, it was a little frustrating for the band because we never knew what we were going to play. We might play something that we hadn’t played in three months. And here it is 20 years later and that’s what I’m still doing (laughs). And, it was Coe that introduced me to the Allman Brothers so that is where that connection came from.”

As the story goes, after the Pattern Disruptive album came out in 1988, Betts and the rest of the Allman Brothers decided to get back together in 1989 after yet another of the band’s break ups. When they reformed, they brought Haynes into the group who, in turn, brought his song writing, vocal and slide guitar skills to the table. In the mid-1990’s Haynes and Allen Woody, bass player for this new version of the Allman Brothers, and Matt Abts, drummer for the Dickey Betts Band, formed the power trio Gov’t Mule.

Haynes and Woody left the Allman Brothers in the late 1990’s to go full speed ahead with Gov’t Mule, then Woody died suddenly in 2000. That same year, Betts was unceremoniously given the boot from the Allman Brothers. The next year Haynes rejoined the Allman Brothers, doing double duty with Gov’t Mule. He has continued to play in both bands since then.

Looking back on his time in the Dickey Betts Band in the late 1980’s, Haynes has good things to say about that experience.

“That was a great band,” says Haynes. “Me and Dickey, and Johnny Neel and Marty Pervette and Matt Abts were a hell of a band and we made some great music. That is a really good record, but sonically it is a little dated. Records were being made with a lot more reverb and stuff like that at that point. That was in 1988. A few years later the production started going back toward drier, more organic sounding records. So, I’d love to hear that record remixed. There was a lot of good music being made during that time period. That’s for sure.”

“I learned so much from that opportunity,” continues Haynes. “We wrote a lot of good music together, played a lot of good music together. It was one of those opportunities that was impossible for me to turn down. Even though, when I got the offer from Dickey to join his band it was coinciding with the first opportunity that I had to sign a record deal and make a record of my own, which I put on the back burner to join Dickey's band. With no regrets, because it was a great opportunity.”

Born in 1960, Haynes grew up in the mountains of North Carolina where he was exposed to many types of music as a youngster. He views his upbringing in the Asheville area fondly, a town that has always had a good reputation for music.

 “Absolutely,” says Haynes, when asked if he listened to bluegrass music as a kid. “Growing up there, there was a lot of great bluegrass. There was a cool rock and roll and blues scene and a lot of great guitar players. Not a lot of keyboard players. An abundance of guitar players and not enough keyboard players. But, the scene was pretty cool when I was growing up. It dried up a little bit when they changed the drinking age from 18 to 21.”

“As far as hearing (bluegrass music) live, absolutely,” Haynes continues. “There was tons of great live bluegrass in that area. Always. I would go to parties where people were playing for free. People that would rather play music than not, and sit out on the porch until three and four in the morning playing bluegrass. There are some amazing musicians from that area. I saw Doc Watson many times as a teenager. He’s great. I was always a fan. He’d knock me out, and Norman Blake would knock me out, both of which I saw at a young age.”

Haynes still listens to old and new bluegrass music, and has played with modern day newgrass greats such as Bela Fleck and Jerry Douglas, both having jammed with the Allman Brothers in recent years.

“I love those guys, man,” says Haynes. “You know, Jerry is as good as it gets on the Dobro. All of those guys are such special musicians because they excel at their own genre but they’re influenced outside of their own genre, which I think makes you better as a musician. They’re just amazing. Tony Rice is great. That whole group of musicians are people that I respect and have listened to for a long, long time.”  

Growing up in the 1960’s and 70’s, Haynes was turned on to other kinds of music in the same way that many who lived in that time period did - through the vinyl records of older siblings.

“My two older brothers were record collectors so they had virtually everything,” remembers Haynes. “It was like a library. Thousands of records from jazz to blues to rock and roll to folk music, it was all there.  My oldest brother was listening to Sonny Rollins and Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis and Coltrane. But, he was also listening to Howling Wolf and Elmore James and Muddy. The younger of my two older brothers was listening to Traffic and Joe Cocker and Bob Dylan. Their tastes were very diverse so there was tons of different types of music in the house.”

Haynes hosts his annual Christmas Jam benefit in Asheville not just because he grew up there, but also because most of his kin still reside in the area.

“All of my family is still there,” says Haynes. “My oldest brother had an acoustic guitar that I started picking up when I was 11 and I started playing it more than he did. I was playing it to the extent that I asked my Dad for an electric guitar for my 12th birthday. My Dad had a beautiful voice, or has a beautiful voice. He was very shy and didn’t sing a lot in public, but he could have chosen that path because he was always a great singer. It was a musical family in the way that everybody loved music, and there was always music being played in the house whether it was on a record or people playing guitar or whatever. Dad sings like Hank Williams Sr.. His tastes, especially back then, was very limited in a way because he didn’t listen to a lot. But, what he listened to was great. He listened to Hank Williams and Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, George Jones and Merle Haggard and not much else.  But, his tastes expanded through the years. I remember 10 or 12 years ago he asked me to buy him some Muddy Waters and some Elmore James that he had heard and decided that he liked, and for me to pick him out some good stuff.”

Gov’t Mule just released a new double DVD called The Tale Of Two Cities, a live project that documents the work of long time Gov’t Mule bassist Andy Hess. Hess has since moved on and has been replaced by Jorgen Carlsson. The latest studio albums by Gov’t Mule include Mighty High, a studio album of reggae dub versions of Mule songs and other classics, and the all original High and Mighty. The first two cuts on High and Mighty, the title track and “Brand New Angel,” have an old school hard rock crunch about them that would have fit nicely on an album by the group Mountain back in the early 1970’s. Haynes says that there is a reason behind this approach.

“Well, definitely a lot of our influences are from that era,” says Haynes. “Mountain was a band that me and Woody and Matt Abts all grew up listening to. Bands like Free were a big influence. There were a hand full of great trios when you think of the power trios of old, starting with Cream, of course, the Hendrix Experience and Band of Gypsies and all of that stuff. But, then there are bands like Led Zeppelin which was really a trio plus a singer. You know, a trio with a front man, and that’s the way Free was, and that’s the way The Who was, and there were a lot of great bands that were like that. We’re influenced by so many different types of things. But, definitely, those first two songs are harkening back to our rock roots. Gov’t Mule covers a lot of ground. Blues, jazz, folk music, soul music and even reggae music. But, we very much wanted this record to start out rocking. For anybody who felt like we were betraying our rock and roll roots, we wanted to show right off the bat that that was not the case. It covers a lot of ground. By the time you get to the end, you’ve heard a lot of different types of music.”

As a member of the Allman Brothers and Gov’t Mule, as well as his time spent with other bands, Haynes has seen the highs of the music business. Perhaps the most famous music festival of this new century is the annual Bonnaroo gathering in Tennessee. Haynes has headlined the festival with both the Allman Brothers as well as Gov’t Mule, whose three hour-plus, guest musician-heavy concert a couple of years ago is considered by many to be one of the best shows ever at the event. Another place that Haynes enjoys playing is an historic American city with a family connection – New Orleans.

“My oldest brother was born in New Orleans,” says Haynes. “My Dad lived in New Orleans for a while and then moved back to North Carolina. So, I have a connection that’s always been there. And, of course, any musician has to respect the fact that New Orleans is our richest musical city. More music has come from or through New Orleans than any other American city. Musicians, especially, need to be responsible for helping to rebuild it. I love it. I’ve always loved it. We went back (in 2006) for the first time since Katrina and it was a little hard to look at. We’ve got a long way to go getting it back.  I didn’t get everywhere, but I saw enough and it’s hard to comprehend how much damage was done.”

But, when it came time to choose a place to hold his yearly benefit concert, Haynes picked his old hometown of Asheville. As the 20th anniversary Christmas Jam approaches, he looks back at the origins of the event.

“The first one was in a small club called 45 Cherry Street,” says Haynes. “It was really an opportunity for the local musicians to get together and jam because the only time that all of us seemed to be in town was the holidays. So, we would get together and jam and charge a cover charge and take all of the money and give it to a charity, and it grew from there. I was still with the Dickey Betts Band at that point.”

With the Christmas Jam growing larger over the last two decades, and the venues hosting the event becoming bigger, Haynes has been able to bring in many legendary musicians for the all-star event over the years. One guest musician in particular made quite an impact a couple of benefits ago, a mountain music legend whose music Haynes’ Dad listened to on the family record player when he was growing up – Dr. Ralph Stanley.

“He’s unbelievable,” says Haynes. “I mean, as far as I’m concerned Ralph Stanley equals Miles Davis equals Muddy Waters equals Otis Redding. We’re talking about giants.  I mean, regardless of what field you’re talking about, these are the guys.”

When Haynes found out that Stanley accepted his invitation to play the Christmas Jam, he had a phone call to make.

“That was amazing, when Ralph agreed to be a part of it, because I had never met him prior to that night,” says Haynes. “When he said yeah, he’d be involved, I was ecstatic. The first thing I did was call my Dad and tell him. But, the cool thing was, aside from the fact that you’ve got all of these different types of musicians sharing the stage, was you had John Scofield on the same stage with Ralph Stanley. I mean, how cool is that? But, he was the one act that night that every musician made a point of watching. And so, we’re standing on stage and every artist in every band is somewhere onstage watching Ralph Stanley. I’m standing next to Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady and Casady is telling me how he saw the Stanley Brothers in the 50’s. (laughing)”

2009 will prove to be a busy year for Haynes as the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, the Allman Brothers Band, are set to celebrate their 40th anniversary as a group. Every year the band plays the Beacon Theater in New York City, where Haynes now resides, presiding over a series of multi-night concerts filled with special guests and ever expanding and changing set lists. Big plans are in store for the upcoming concerts next Spring.

“It’s in a good place right now,” says Haynes, about the current version of the Allman Brothers. “The band sounds great on a nightly basis and everybody communicates and everybody’s open to taking the music into some fresh directions. It doesn’t take up a big part of the year so it seems to work. There are scheduling conflicts. But, for the most part the Allman Brothers are playing less and less with each passing year. So, it leaves plenty of room, for the most part, for each person’s other band to do what they need to do.”

Until then, Haynes gets to bring some of the best musicians in the world to his hometown of Asheville to make music for a good cause in front of family and old friends.

“In recent years Asheville has become that little Bohemian town that every state has at least one of, and the scene there is really great,” says Haynes. “It’s better than ever right now, not just for music but for the arts in general. Very open minded. There’s a lot of great music being made there in all different genres. I’m proud to call that place my home. I always was, but now even more so.”

(Special thanks to Jim Walsh and all at Big Hassle Publicity)




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