In "Unring the Bell" — Gov't Mule's loose, reggae-infused ode to a passive populace and its current excuse for a president — guitarist/singer Warren Haynes soulfully queries, "Where is your freedom?/ Is it buried in the earth?/ Tell me is it growing?/ Or is it losing its worth?"
The Southern rockin' band's aggressive, genre-blending August release, High & Mighty, is clearly more socially conscious than previous efforts, but Haynes insists this wasn't intentional. "I can acknowledge that we're living in a much more politically charged environment," he says by telephone on a Friday evening, "and in my opinion, everyone needs to make their voices heard, now more than ever."
Haynes is certainly doing so on High & Mighty; he's responsible for writing all of the songs, and though he insists that this isn't normally the case, it certainly confirms his status as one of the hardest working musicians around.
The Asheville, N.C., native divides his days between two full-time jobs: leading Gov't Mule and playing lead guitar for the Allman Brothers Band. If he's not touring with the Mule or the Allmans, he's recording an album or DVD with one of those bands, playing with Phil Lesh & Friends in the coveted guest guitarist spot, hosting charity jams or sitting in with [insert talented band here]. In fact, if you do a search for Haynes on Jambase.com, you'll find that his name pops up frequently, his talent for skillfully fitting his licks into any situation earning him invites to stage after stage.
"Making the change from one band to the other is much more natural than people may think," Haynes says. "You're really just responding to the music that you're playing and to the musicians you're playing with. Mostly, it's just a matter of adapting to the musical environment." Each project he takes on enables him to show a different side of himself, to utilize different parts of his musical personality, which was shaped, in part, by his two older brothers.
"They had great taste in music and thousands of albums," Haynes says. "Our house was like a music library." He discovered soul and found himself moved by the black gospel music that played on Sunday morning radio. His love of Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and B.B. King got him singing any chance he got — in his bedroom, in the school chorus, in the church choir. When he discovered rock 'n' roll, he decided he wanted to play guitar, too. "And once I picked it up," he recalls, "I couldn't put it down."
By 20, Haynes had a solid performance background, and his guitar playing was starting to turn heads, namely that of outlaw country singer/songwriter David Allan Coe, who convinced Haynes to join his band in 1981. Haynes admitted he had no idea what to expect, the four years with Coe "a bizarre, crazy sort of lifestyle, more than I had experienced ever before. I got a pretty heavy dose of what the road could be like and learned about the positive and negative aspects of touring."
He also met Dickey Betts and Greg Allman, who invited Haynes to join the Allmans when it reunited in 1989. Bassist Allen Woody came on around the same time, and he and Haynes struck up an immediate friendship that was founded on a shared a love for '60s power trios like Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. By 1994, the pair formed their own power trio, Gov't Mule, a side project with former Dickey Betts Band drummer Matt Abts.
"I've always needed an outlet for songs I write that don't fit into the Allmans stylistically, and when I joined, I knew I wasn't going to do as much singing as I'm used to doing," Haynes says. The Mule suited those needs just fine.
The band released its self-titled debut in 1995 and a live recording the following year, gaining momentum and fans by playing shows whenever the Allmans weren't. In the spring of 1997, Haynes and Woody left the Allmans to devote themselves fully to Gov't Mule. But tragedy struck in 2000: Several months after Gov't Mule released its third studio album to critical acclaim, Woody passed away in his sleep. He was 43.
The Mule's future was uncertain, and after Dickey Betts was fired from the Allmans, Haynes was asked to re-join. After a trial run, he began touring with them regularly in 2001.
But he didn't forget about Woody or the Mule. In that same year, he and Abts got together to record The Deep End discs, a tribute to Woody featuring all the bass greats. Haynes realized he wanted to go back to playing with his band, but he knew it was time to take a different approach.
"We were already starting to move into a new direction, anyway; the last record we recorded with Woody had keyboards on half the record," he says. "We were already staring to write songs that had a larger sound, and we were already inviting people on the road with us, when Woody passed." It was a pretty natural decision for the band to change it up. "And it didn't seem fair to try and recreate that chemistry we had as a trio; the right thing seemed to be to move forward as a quartet."
Keyboardist Danny Louis and bassist Andy Hess — both guest musicians on the Deep End album tour — were added as permanent members and the new lineup's first album, Deja Voodoo, was released in September '04. High and Mighty was its follow-up.
Haynes continues to tour with Gov't Mule and looks forward to those nights when "the audience is primed and the energy's right and the band is clicking from the very beginning ... and you can feel it from the first note of the show."
The magic must happen often, because the man is always on the road and he shows no signs of letting up. "Music is the thing I probably love most in life," Haynes says. "You know, it's easy to be a workaholic when you love your job, and I love my job. There's worse things I could be doing in life."