“Well, let’s go all the way back.” It was a fitting way to end my conversation with Warren Haynes. His new album Ashes & Dust, out July 24, is a throwback to Mountain music, with Folk and Celtic roots all filtered through the last 100 years of Rock. Going all the way back we might have hit “Jeannie With The Light Brown Hair,” or Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. Going all the way back, we might see some of the South’s ugly roots. Haynes and his new album doesn’t go all the way back, it studies the past from the perspective of a man in his 50s. Haynes is not part of the tradition, but evidence that the tradition has changed.
“Well, let’s go all the way back,” bringing us back home to when he was a child in Asheville, North Carolina. It was the late-1960s, the heart of the Civil Rights movement that threatened to tear this country apart for the second time. “The first sound that moved me was Black gospel music on the radio when I was seven years old. The sound of it made the hair on my arms stand up.” The next thing that did that for him was James Brown, and soul music, listing Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, the Four Tops, The Temptations, and Sam & Dave as early inspirations.
Being in Asheville exposed him to a lot more than those giants. Up in the Appalachian hills, a music was cultivated over a hundred-plus years. “I was exposed to what they call ‘Mountain Music’ all my life.” It was a sort of proto-music, one that would give birth to Folk, Country and Bluegrass. The Carter Family (whose lineup included June Carter Cash) and Clarence Ashley created a music that is chilling and earthen as if it had risen from the mountains itself. One of the most popular Carter Family songs, “No Depression in Heaven,” laments that the only place free from care is in the Afterlife.
The same music would inspire Bob Dylan, one of the musicians that started Warren Haynes on his musical journey. By the late 1960s, Dylan was entering into his Nashville period, and a treasure trove of B-sides revealed exceptional renditions of Traditional Appalachian songs like “Pretty Saro.” And then of course there was Rock & Roll: “My older brothers were force feeding me a lot of music, which included the Beatles and the Stones, but I didn’t pick up a guitar until I heard Cream and Jimi Hendrix. At that point I felt like I found something new that I wanted to dedicate myself to, so I never stopped singing and studying vocalists, I just added guitarists and songwriters to the fold.”
This confluence of time and place created a most versatile musician in Warren Haynes whose work stretches boundaries. Most might know him from his work with the Allman Brothers, what he called “a wonderful opportunity for twenty-five, thirty years.” Some might know him from his associations with Phil Lesh and The Dead. Others might know him from Government Mule, his jam band that’s been a huge success in its own right. But for a musician with an illustrious career going back over thirty years, it’s hard to spot the solo records. Not counting live albums, there are really only two of them before Ashes & Dust.
For those used to hearing Haynes play with the Allmans or jamming with Gov’t Mule, they might be shocked at this new side of his songwriting. “I’ve written more songs in this direction than any other direction,” he told me when we talked the other day. “I wanted to capture guitar sounds that fit in with the acoustic instruments,” which for him meant a lot of Hollowbody guitars and slide guitar. This isn’t Les Paul driven electric Rock. A lot of that has to do with the guys that he’s chosen as his backing band.
That group, Railroad Earth, is part of what is being called New Bluegrass, a term that is both fitting and inept to describe exactly what they’re doing. Masters of their instruments, they rumble behind Haynes as he sings his plaintive songs. “They have a cool chemistry of their own, and the first time we played together there was a chemistry between us.” That led to a fruitful recording session in which their versatility played an integral role in the creation of this album.
They match each songs tenor rather than trying to strike the same tone. A song like “Company Man” is earnest, “Beat Down the Dust” is furious in its anger, and the cover of Stevie Nick’s “Gold Dust Woman” is haunting, a word we both agreed on. The latter does the original justice in the way not many Fleetwood Mac songs can. “It’s the sign of a great song that it can be interpreted different ways.” Here Haynes is right. He duets with Grace Potter, which he’s done a few times on tour, but with this group of songs, it felt right to get it down on tape.”
Ashes & Dust does most to respect the tradition of Americana by telling. “A lot of these characters are real people, based on real relationships,” he said, “[…] ‘Company Man’ is about my father.” His father’s story involves the plight of the man gone to work, and beaten down by the system, only to get tossed aside when time gets rough, getting laid off, hired at a local factory, and starting all over late in life. If he didn’t say that it was 1956 when this story started, it might as well have happened sometime in the last two decades.
Coal Miners, one of Appalachia’s traditional careers, plays an important role in this as Haynes tapped into “the dilemma the coal miner inherits by nature.” On the song “Coal Tattoo,” a man searches for a job after a coal mining accident nearly left him dead. Like the Carter Family song, by the end he comes to the realization that the only place the narrator will be free from worry is in the coalmines up in heaven. The song was written by Billy Edd Wheeler, a mentor to Haynes, and the composer of “Jackson,” made most famous by Johnny and June Carter Cash.
The most striking song on the album is “Beat Down the Dust.” Haynes calls it his response to “what’s going on in the states.” It is a Juvenalian Satire, like that of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” and in it he sings verses like:
And when the day finally comes we’ll be so far away
They’ll never know what we stole – It’ll all be hidden away
And we can supply our own energy – God knows we own enough companies
Maybe even start our own country – Where all rich, white men are free
It was clear that he is mocking those with backwards opinions, but he feared misinterpretation. That’s always a risk you take with Satire—there’s even a guiding principal called Poe’s Law that states any satire mocking extremist views stands the chance it will be taken for the real deal.
“There’s a lot of brainwashing of people that are buying into the fear-mongering,” Haynes noted, and the very same day that I first received this song, a terrorist motivated by the sort of racism mocked in this song, shot and killed nine people in a peaceful South Carolina church. It was a bit shocking to listen to this song before and after that tragic event. The best Haynes could hope was that the old ways of thinking would die out.
Warren Haynes is a weary man on Ashes & Dust. You would be too if you had spent the last thirty years constantly touring. It’s no coalmine or factory, but like the Irish poet Seamus Heaney realized, there are more than one ways to dig, and all of them are tiring. He asks himself “is it me or is it you” and “what am I still sitting here for?” He’s “stranded in self-pity,” and has a case of wanderlust imagining those days when he was once “wild and free.” On “Glory Road,” the Old West cowboy narrator might as well be a rock star on tour just looking for a nice hotel and a warm bath to soothe those aching bones.
But Haynes will keep moving. He’ll tour behind this album through next year, making a stop at Gathering of the Vibes in Bridgeport where he’s playing not one, but two sets—“this being an anniversary, they wanted something unique and special.” As a longtime performer of the Gathering, he thinks the festival is getting “cooler and cooler.” Moving away from the Jam-Band roots that started the whole thing will give him an opportunity to experiment with his Americana stuff: “it’s nice to expand that to the fringes in each direction not only to music that goes a little further, but to an audience that goes a little further.”
Let’s go all the way back, now, to where we started. Warren Haynes, the artist that grew up on Gospel, R&B, Mountain music, Rock & Roll, Blues, Folk, Country; how could he not write an album that’s so personal, and not have it be called an Americana album? It’s an album with songs by his friends and mentors, songs he wrote about his father, and a weary musician just looking for a place to rest; Coal Miners and Gold Dust Women. He is as steeped in that tradition as any other living artist, only to find himself become part of that tradition, adding a little of his own touch on the way there.
And don’t expect him to stop there either. According to him this record is the first of many in the same vein, with no shortage of songs: “I’ve written more songs in this direction than any other direction.” Which should come as no surprise: Just like coal, there will always be songs to dig out of those mountains.
Article: Christopher Gilson