Searching for Your Inner Redneck

A pair of new releases from Gov't Mule find meaning in being a Southern man, anyhow

"I'm a redneck and I'm proud of it," my late peach farmer-turned-politician daddy once told me, much to the horror of a teenage son who, at the time, was struggling to let his own inner hippie come out. It wasn't easy growing up a free thinker in the South during the late '60s and early '70s; it took rock 'n' roll to save me from the kind of bubbahood that my father seemed to be suggesting I'd one day inherit.

No doubt Warren Haynes, who grew up in Asheville, North Carolina, not far from where I was raised, experienced his share of cultural dissonance in those days, too. In an interview with Guitar magazine last October, he recalled having a teacher in the sixth grade who encouraged her students to bring in their favorite records for a Friday last period: "I brought in Jimi Hendrix's Smash Hits, and everybody just looked at me like I was from Mars." Rock 'n' roll would save Haynes' life, too.

Both among fans and detractors, the slide guitarist remains firmly identified with that hoary ol' beast known as "Southern rock" because he earned his stripes playing with that most Southern of Southern rock outfits, the Allman Brothers Band. In 1989, Haynes got the call to join the revived ABB at the behest of Dickey Betts; Haynes had previously worked with the Allmans guitarist in the Dickey Betts Band. A new bassist was also signed up, one Allen Woody, and before too long even the most jaded Allmans watchers were grudgingly starting to admit that with Haynes and Woody in the fold, the group was beginning to sound a lot like the classic ABB lineup of the early '70s -- Haynes playing Duane Allman to Woody's Berry Oakley. Haynes' slide guitar fireworks fully complemented Betts' clean country licks, and Woody's fluid low-end rumble slotted perfectly into the group's two-drummer rhythm section setup. (The addition of Haynes also benefited the band by giving it a third vocalist and, as the man's tenure increased, an extra songwriter.)

Liver than you'll ever be: Gov't Mule (from left), Allen Woody, Warren Haynes and Matt Abts.
Danny Clinch
Liver than you'll ever be: Gov't Mule (from left), Allen Woody, Warren Haynes and Matt Abts.

One night after an ABB show in '94, Haynes ran into Matt Abts, who'd been the Betts Band's drummer. Haynes, Abts and Woody had a one-off jam, with the resulting chemistry so strong the trio extended the relationship and formed Gov't Mule as a kind of off-season project they worked on when the Allmans weren't on the road or recording. Early comparisons linked the Mule to such classic blues-based jamming outfits as Cream or Mountain, and in 1995 Gov't Mule issued its self-titled studio debut; this was followed by a concert album, Live at Roseland Ballroom, the next year.

Realizing they now had two full-time gigs, and with a contract being waved at them by none other than Capricorn Records -- original home to the Allmans nearly three decades earlier, but these days reportedly a sore spot (money matters, natch) for both Betts and Gregg Allman -- Haynes and Woody bowed out of the Allmans in 1997. Among fans of both bands, speculation still tends to run high on this point: Did they leave on good terms, or was there a falling-out over the Capricorn issue? A recent interview in Goldmine magazine would seem to support the former contention, at least judging by the more than diplomatic tone of Haynes' account of his departure.

Dose, the third Mule album, appeared last year, and by now the trio's reputation as one of the most powerhouse acts on the national touring circuit had grown exponentially. Yet some observers tend to dismiss the Mule in the same breath they'd use to denigrate other hippie jam bands (Phish, Blues Traveler, etc.) of the day.

Admittedly, the three musicians look like refugees from some bikers convention. Gov't Mule doesn't write tight little three-minute pop songs, and it probably doesn't have a rap-metal bone in its collective body, either. But to all the pinheaded naysayers out there, I'd like to suggest they table such reservations until they've heard Gov't Mule's recent set Live . . . With a Little Help From Our Friends. Not only does it give vivid testimony to the group's estimable skills as soloists and near-telepathic ensemble playing, it's one of a vanishing breed of recordings -- the multiple-disc live album that isn't a useless rehashing of greatest hits and/or ego-ridden wankery.

Here, the Mule is heard pushing practically every musical boundary within sight. And while Haynes, Woody and Abts probably don't waste a lot of time worrying about how the general public perceives them, there's an underlying philosophical aesthetic at play as well. Images, it must be said, are irresistible targets; just like cultural stereotypes, they're made to be shattered. Initially released in March as an edited two-CD set, LWALHFOF is now a sprawling four-CD monster documenting the entire New Year's Eve bash the Mule threw on December 31, 1998, at Atlanta's Roxy Theatre. Four hours' worth of primo space-jazz-blues-rock fusioneering in all, comprising band originals plus Mule-o-fied covers of bands that no doubt merited "treasure" status in the young Haynes' record collection (there's also a bonus studio track, a first-take jam on Frank Zappa's "Pygmy Twylyte"; and Windows 98 owners can additionally access a boatload of enhanced material if they so desire).

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