Destiny Calling: Warren Haynes (Relix Revisited)

Jaan Uhelszki on February 26, 2014

With what may be the Allman Brothers Band’s final Beacon Theatre run set to kick off next week, we look back to our April-May 2009 issue which celebrated the group’s 40th anniversary and this conversation with Warren Haynes.

Photo by Brad Hodge

Everyone knows that it was Dickey Betts who brought Warren Haynes into the Allman Brothers fold when the band reformed in 1989, after being impressed with the young slinger when he and Gregg Allman hung with him at a late-night recording session with country maverick David Allen Coe. But the seed was planted 15 years before that, when inspiration struck the North Carolinian when he was just 14 and he wrote “Sky Man,” a song about Duane. “It was one of these weird songs that I wrote, never showed anybody,” he says. “One of the lines went, ‘Now your brothers all know me.’ I think about that now and it’s so strange that I actually predicted what was going to happen to me 15 years later.”

Kismet finally struck when Dickey Betts booked studio time to work on demos and needed to round up some background singers. Haynes turned out to be one of the hires. The two had such good chemistry that Betts invited him back to the studio to work on some songs – he ended up with co-writing credits on four of them – that ultimately became Betts’ solo album, Pattern Disruptive. Just around the same time, Gregg not only covered Haynes’ “Just Before the Bullets Fly,” but named his 1988 solo album after it (Haynes’ involvement in both projects was, believe it or not, entirely unrelated). When the Allmans got back together, they contacted Haynes, who at the time was playing guitar in Betts’ band, and asked him to join. Meanwhile, with Allman bassist Allen Woody, and Dickey Betts Band drummer Matt Abts, Haynes formed Gov’t Mule in late 1994 as another creative outlet.

By 1997, with three albums under their belt, the two friends realized that they needed to leave the Southern Rock institution if they intended to give Mule the attention they felt it deserved. All was going well, until Woody died in August 2000, leaving the band’s future in a state of tragic limbo. Would Haynes have returned to the Allmans in 2001 had Woody lived? It’s anybody’s guess, but the guitarist tried his best to clear it up, as well as what it was like replacing his mentor/friend, Dickey Betts.

Did you ever think you’d be in The Allman Brothers Band?

There’s no way that I could ever say, “Yeah, one day I’m going to be in that band” because I’m two generations younger. However, a long time ago when I was a kid, I wrote this song/poem called “Sky Man.” I’m sure it’s in one of my dad’s boxes full of crap that he’s kept through the years. But it was just a song that I wrote about Duane after he had passed away. But in the song, from the narrator’s point of view, it predicted that down the line, I would know some of the surviving members or whatever. There was a verse in there about, “Now your brothers all know me,” or something like that. Growing up in the South of course, Duane represented more than just a great musician to us; he represented the South being recognized in new ways and a lifestyle that was starting to kind of gain momentum.

He was only 24.

He was about to be 25 and when you look at someone now that age, they look like a kid. To me, he never looked like a kid, even when I look at pictures of him now – he looks like a full-grown man. Of course he played like a full-grown man but it’s amazing what he accomplished in such a short period of time. I think those of us who have studied his progression, you could see year by-year how much better he got: From ‘68 to ‘69 a huge improvement, from ‘69 to ‘70 a huge improvement, from ‘70 to ‘71 a huge improvement and all of a sudden, he’s gone. You knew that ‘72, ‘73, ‘74, ‘75 were just going to be enormous steps.

Photo by Jay Blakesberg

What do you remember discovering about the band once you joined?

I remember one time Dickey telling me that whenever they played twin guitars, or harmony guitars, Dickey always played the melody and Duane always played the harmony. That surprised me because for some reason, in my mind, I thought it would be the other way around or like a 50-50 kind of thing. But Dickey is an extremely melodic guitar player, and the way he explained it to me was that Duane had a really cool sense of harmony, so Dickey would just start playing a melody off the top of his head, which he’s so great at, and Duane had such a great ear and such a great sense of harmony that he would just start harmonizing with it on the fly without any rehearsal. So a lot of the stuff that you hear on live recordings, like Fillmore East, the reason that it’s kind of loose in a jazzy way – meaning that some of the notes aren’t parallel or perfect – is because it is unrehearsed. They were making it up as they went along, which gives it a kind of timeless jazzy sensibility, more so than if it were perfect I think.

Not the easiest shoes for you and Derek to fill.

In the beginning, when Derek and I started being the two guitars in the Allman Brothers, we talked about how strange it is, from an outside perspective, that neither Duane nor Dickey are in the band. The only thing that makes it justifiable is how great the band sounds right now, but I obviously felt weird about it as a fan and because Dickey was the one that brought me to the band.

Did you ever feel like an outsider?

I’d been playing with Dickey for about three years, playing guitar and slide guitar and singing in his band, and we had written a lot of songs together, and several of those songs wound up on Pattern Disruptive, which was Dickey’s solo record that I did with him. And then coincidentally, a song that I co-wrote called “Just Before the Bullets Fly” wound up being the title track of Gregg’s latest solo record. And that was a total coincidence, those incidents were unrelated. So when the Allman Brothers reformed and I was introduced, I’d already written songs with and for Dickey and for Gregg, so they were both comfortable with me as a songwriter and that made a big difference. They accepted me pretty instantly and made it a smoother transition than it could have been. I think looking back, the fact that they allowed me not only to sing in the band, but to be one of the songwriters – a lot of bands would have been threatened by that.

The setlists began to vary more once you got involved.

In the beginning myself, Allen Woody, Kirk West and Gregg were all pushing to vary the setlist more than we were at that time back in the ‘90s. And Gregg said to me in front of the rest of the band, “Hey, you wouldn’t have a problem if we didn’t play ‘One Way Out’ every night, would you?” And I said, “Hey man, I was sick of playing that song before I ever met you guys.” I played that song in every bar band and cover band that I was ever in, you know? Obviously it was so much more fun playing it the real way with the real folks but I definitely made my point that we don’t have to play that song every night. Our relationship has been that solid for a long, long time.

If Woody hadn’t passed away, do you think you two would have eventually rejoined the band?

I have no way of knowing if Woody and I would have found ourselves back in the Allman Brothers. We definitely were not thinking that way when we left. We were leaving to concentrate full-time on Gov’t Mule and not looking back. Of course fast-forward, Woody passes away and Dickey is no longer in the Allman Brothers Band so I get the call from Gregg, “Hey, we’d love for you to come back.” Had Woody not passed away, it most likely would have never been a consideration. But based on those circumstances, I found myself in a situation where it made sense to me.