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Interview: Warren Haynes

Allman Brothers offshoot Government Mule heads to Mid-Florida Credit Union Amphitheatre Oct. 7


Gov’t Mule’s latest album “Peace… Like A River” shreds laurels and hews fresh sounds from a batch of deeply personal and dynamic songs that deliver fuel for new and longtime admirers alike without giving into convention or complacency. A dozen studio albums in, the gang that originally hammered out its vanguard album at the Allman Brothers' old house in Macon, Georgia three decades ago is possibly even more compelling today than it was then.

Recorded in the same stretch of quarantined sessions that also begat the Mule’s 2021 juke-fest, “Heavy Load Blues,” “Peace… Like A River” is the story told clear-eyed in the sunshine, wary of encroaching shadows, and informed by lead guitarist/songwriter/frontman Warren Hayne’s pandemic experience.

“We decided to go with the blues record first because we'd been talking about doing a blues record for a long time and we thought, ‘Well if there was ever a time when everybody's got the blues, this is it!’” laughed Haynes, the Asheville, North Carolina native who started Gov’t Mule with drummer Matt Abts, and the late bassist Allen Woody in 1994. “‘Peace... Like A River,’ in some ways, deals with coming out of COVID and the whole lockdown, which we're all thankful to be out of -- assuming we are -- but it deals with it in more of a celebratory ‘other side of hell’ way.”

Recording the album’s more introspective material during daylight hours in the main room at the Power Station studio in Waterford, Connecticut, today’s lineup of Gov’t Mule, Haynes, Abts, bassist Jorgen Carlsson and keyboardist/guitarist Danny Louis would end the evening in one of the studio’s adjacent spaces, cranking out oily, fire-belching blues.

“We would switch our brains off, take a dinner break, and after dinner, hole up in the little small room next door and play blues the rest of the night! It was kind of a way of cleansing our brains and it turned out to be the right recipe. And it turned out to be much easier than I anticipated -- because I was wondering about that too -- the transition from one to the other. I would never recommend making two records at once – except for in lockdown!” chuckled Haynes, who called in for this interview in late April. “But for this, it turned out to be perfect after working all day on “Peace... Like A River” songs. We would do what we love and what comes natural and not have to think. That felt really good.”

Songs like “Made My Peace” offer up epic swells of stadium rock and psychedelia while plumbing emotions of loss and resignation, spiritually evoking the prodigal and notions of forgiveness.

“It's also a metaphor for just coming back,” Haynes said. “It's written through the eyes of the prodigal son, which I don't think of myself that way, but metaphorically speaking, there's a lot of references to being gone for a long time and finding your way back. I also lost my dad during this process, which was really tough for me. And still is.”

On “Gone Too Long,” Haynes pays tribute to a fallen hero.

“‘Gone Too Long’ is more of a one-on-one relationship with your soulmate, but the same thing of acknowledging how much of your life you've spent being away and what damage it did, and what major losses were suffered along the way,” Haynes revealed. “[It's] is a song that I wound up dedicating to David Crosby, who I only knew slightly. We played together once, but he was definitely an influence. I felt like that song had some of his influence from the very beginning, and then when he passed, it just made perfect sense for me.”

A wealth of special guests are seasoned throughout “Peace… Like A River,” including stellar shots from Ivan Neville and Ruthie Foster on the buoyant but lamenting “Dreaming Out Loud,” soul/blues belter Celisse Henderson, who appears on the hope-and-keys-laden “Just Across The River,” and icon Billy F. Gibbons of ZZ Top, who drops in on the “Heavy Load Blues”-ish “Shake Our Way Out”.

“That song, when we started working it up in the studio, it took on a ZZ-influenced vibe from the beginning and that's what urged me to call Billy and ask him if he would get involved,” said Haynes. “When I talked to him, I said, ‘Hey, we just cut this tune and it's reeking of ZZ Top. I'd love you to be part of it.’ He laughed and said, ‘Send it to me, I'll check it out.’ It was great. You know, he had played on a song called "Broke Down On The Brazos" that we did on (the 2009 album) “By A Thread” but he didn't sing. And on this one, he just sang and didn't play, so next time I guess we gotta get him to do both!”

The album’s oddest, coolest, most left-of-dial moment arrives courtesy of guttural standout “The River Only Flows One Way,” a low-fi departure for Gov’t Mule featuring lead vocals by actor/director/musician Billy Bob Thornton.

“It started with the music, this bass line that kind of drives the song. It's kind of got a weird dub-style sort of feel to it,” Haynes said. “It was just sticking in my head when I was walking around at home one day, and I just sang it into my phone so I wouldn't forget it. But it stuck in my head and it was there all the time.

“Eventually, I wrote this lyric, which is weird and strange and different than most anything we've done, and I wanted the verses to have a spoken word, beat poetry feel, but it's much weirder and darker in a humorous way,” he said. “I started thinking it's not really my voice that I hear doing that spoken part. There are only a handful of people that I would think about in that regard -- Tom Waits would fit perfectly. We thought of Billy Bob, and he and I have been friends for a while. We actually wrote a song together recently and stay in touch, and I thought, ‘Well, he would be perfect for this. Let me call him and see what he thinks." He has a great studio and he did it at his place so I wasn't able to hear it until he did it, and it just fit perfectly.”

With the revelation that he’s writing new material, Haynes is careful not to commit to the next chapter while Gov’t Mule prepares to embark on a tour that will crisscross North America through year’s end.

“You know, I’ve been writing a lot of stuff that is more similar to “Man In Motion,” Haynes said, referencing his 2011 solo effort. “It’s somewhere between [that] and “Ashes & Dust,” and I wonder if maybe the next thing I do might wind up being a solo record. I’m sure after two records and two back-to-back tours, Gov’t Mule might want a break. I’m not there yet, but I have started to write a lot. During the lockdown, I wrote more than I have in ages, and we recorded around 20-something new songs between those two records. And there were still songs left over that didn’t get finished. I’m looking forward to getting back in the studio but for now, we’ve got a lot of stage playing to do.”

Government Mule joins Willie Nelson and Avett Brothers for the Outlaw Music Fest on Saturday, Oct. 7 at the Mid-Florida Credit Union Amphitheatre in Tampa. Tickets are available through Live Nation Concerts.


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