Warren Haynes Explores his Singer-Songwriter Impulses with 'Ashes & Dust'

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click to enlarge Warren Haynes Explores his Singer-Songwriter Impulses with 'Ashes & Dust'
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When we spoke with singer-guitarist Warren Haynes back in 2013 to preview his appearance in town with Gov’t Mule, the jam band he fronts, he admitted he had a wealth of ideas he'd like to try out the next time he was in the studio.

"I want to make a record more centered around acoustic instruments and more of a singer-songwriter record," he said at the time. "I want to make a blues record and a jazz-influenced record."

Just last year, he finally got around to making Ashes & Dust, the singer-songwriter album he said he hoped to make. It’s a terrific collection of folk and bluegrass-y tunes that show off his songwriting abilities. Unlike any other project in his decades-long career, the album shows Haynes range as a musician.

“If someone wasn’t familiar with my solo acoustic performances, they might be surprised by it,” says Haynes via phone from his New York home. “Those who have heard my solo acoustic shows will see how it’s an extension of that. It’s coming from a singer-songwriter direction but with a lot of playing as well. The songs are all connected by the fact that they’re folk songs for lack of a better description. I’ve been writing songs in this sort of direction my entire life. I’ve accumulated more songs in this direction than in any other, but it’s such a departure from what people expect from me.”

He says the initial concept for the album dates back several years.

“I was going to do a record with Levon Helm and Leon Russell and a bass player named T-Bone Wolk,” he explains. “We were going to record at Levon’s studio. Some of these songs would have been on that record. T-Bone passed away and then Levon passed away, and the record never happened. I turned around and made Man in Motion, which was my soul music-meets-blues record, and then we made another Gov’t Mule record, Shout! Then, I revisited these songs and had written a few more songs in the interim so it seemed like the next step.”

The songs started as demos that Haynes performed without any accompaniment. The deluxe version of the album features several of those demos.

“Yeah, there’s a different vibe to the demos,” says Haynes. “These are songs that are written that way. They’re written on an acoustic guitar and they’re songs that I can sit around and play. They come across that way, but it was nice to work up full band versions to see how they grew and allow room for some improvisation.”

When it came time to working up the full band versions of the tune, Haynes recruited the guys from the bluegrass/jam act Railroad Earth to back him. Even though he had demos of the songs, he didn’t play the pre-recorded versions for the guys. Instead, he would play the song in the studio the morning they planned to record, and the band would learn it on the spot.

“We didn’t rely on demos,” he says. “The recording process was a little difference. I talked to the guys in advance about it and they were cool with it. We decided to forgo the whole rehearsal process and go straight into the studio. Each morning, I would show them a song they never heard. We’d work out the arrangement and record it. If it felt good, we’d move on to another song they never heard. That’s the way the entire process went.”

Album opener “Is It Me or You,” a dirge that features Haynes raspy voice and a touch of banjo, is the oldest song in the bunch.

“I’ve always wanted to record it, but it’s a very personal song, and I felt like it never fit into any of the projects we were doing,” says Haynes. “When we worked it up for this, it seemed perfect and felt like how I had written it in the first place. I was glad we were able to include it.”

Some of the songs — namely “Coal Tattoo” and “Company Man” — address labor issues. Haynes says that it’s in keeping with the folk genre.

“‘Company Man’ is about my father, and it’s a true story,” he says. “He worked for a company for 23 years and they shut down in the Southeast, and he was given the choice of relocating to another part of the world or starting over. He chose to start over. It’s a very typical Southern story. ‘Coal Tattoo’ is timely now because of the coal mining issue, which is as controversial as it’s ever been. I feel like it fit in with the rest of the songs and the messages. There are a few political messages here and there but I look at it as folk music, and that’s a lot of what folk music is.”

Another highlight: Haynes and country pop singer Grace Potter team up for a spirited, bluegrass-y rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s “Gold Dust Woman.”

“Grace [Potter] and I have done it on stage several times through the years,” says Haynes. “Never thought about recording it until I was making Ashes & Dust, and it occurred to me that it might sound really good with this Celtic instrumentation. We put a different slant on it with mandolin an upright bass and fiddle. I called Grace and she was into it so we decided to do it.”

For “Hallelujah Road,” a ballad about the afterlife, Haynes and Co. worked up a trippy intro that they cut at midnight in the attempt to capture some of that early morning magic.

“I wanted to capture that feeling that happens when musicians are playing late at night with an unfiltered attitude,” says Haynes. “I wanted it to be very conversational with no repeating patterns. Right as we were about to record it, I just said, ‘Think Astral Weeks,’ which is the Van Morrison record, and everyone knew exactly what I was talking about. That’s the only seed that was planted for that intro. We did it three times — I like to do things in threes — and each version has a different spacey intro and we didn’t even listen to it that night. We came back the next night and we chose the one we thought was best.”

Haynes originally started singing. Then, at age 12, he picked up the guitar. In addition to Gov’t Mule, his career includes a 25-year stint with the Allman Brothers Band.

“I always tell people if I could choose a band that I grew up listening to that I could join, the Allman Brothers would be at the top of the list,” he says. “It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to join an institution like that. More so based on the music we made and the fact that they brought me as a songwriter and a singer. The Allman Brothers is one of those bands that can’t function with core members out front and backup musicians behind them. It has to be situation where on the stage it’s an equal playing field. Being brought into that was an amazing opportunity.”

Haynes says that his influences as a songwriter, musician and singer all come from different places, contributing to the eclectic nature of his music.

“I was originally inspired by soul music — James Brown and Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett and the Four Tops and the Temptations,” he says. “Then, my oldest brother brought home a Sly and the Family Stone record. That started building this bridge toward Jimi Hendrix for me. When I heard Hendrix and Cream and Johnny Winter, that’s what made me want to play guitar. From listening to people like BB King and Ray Charles, I was also inspired to want to play and sing equally well. When I heard people who were really good at doing both, that’s where my head was. I started writing songs at an early age so I always concentrated equally on songwriting and singing and guitar playing. They’re all influenced by different directions. My group of favorite songwriters is different than my group of favorite guitar players and singers. I’ve always been someone who’s listened to a lot of music.”

For the current tour, he’s put together the Ashes & Dust Band to bring the songs from the album to life.

“It’s my friend Jeff Sipe who’s one of my favorite drummers, and there’s a trio called Chessboxer that was recommended to me by Bela Fleck,” he says when asked about the makeup of the band. “I checked their stuff out and we started playing some music together and it was a great fit. We added one of the guys’ brothers who’s a multi-instrumentalist so it’s me and five other musicians. The repertoire and performances are a little more high energy and retrospective and representative of my entire career than just Ashes & Dust. We’re doing stuff from Ashes & Dust but we’re doing other stuff and doing a different take on it. It’s a great band, and it’s been really fun.”

Warren Haynes and the Ashes & Dust Band, 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 26, House of Blues, 308 Euclid Ave., 216-523-2583. Tickets: $27.50-$39.50, houseofblues.com.  
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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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