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

Searching for Your Inner Redneck

"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.)

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).

Worth noting, too, is the packaging: The discs come housed, along with much colorful photos and artwork, in slipcases attached to a mini-spiral ring binder similar to some of the recent elaborately outfitted jazz boxed sets. Nice -- and telling -- touch, that.

The inclusive suggestion of the album title isn't gratuitous, by the way. The first 40 minutes or so feature Haynes, Woody and Abts warming up with a series of hard-rock-based originals (including a brand-new cruncher, "Wandering Child," also slated to appear as a track on the forthcoming studio album -- see below), plus a rousing nine-and-a-half-minute cover of Sabbath's epochal "War Pigs." Then, as Haynes announces, the surprises begin. They bring on former Black Crowes guitarist Marc Ford and continue the descent into '70s boogierama: Humble Pie's "30 Days in the Hole" (including snippets of "I Don't Need No Doctor" -- shades of Rockin' the Fillmore), Free's "Mr. Big" (Haynes seemingly can channel back-to-back both Steve Marriott and Paul Rodgers' pumice-scrubbed vocals) and Booker T.'s "The Hunter" (done up, not so coincidentally, like Free's arrangement).

By now veteran keyboardist Chuck Leavell has joined the ensemble, followed soon enough by teenage guitar whiz Derek Trucks (replacing Ford), and a lengthy set of roots and blues unfolds; notable among the tunes is a version of Robert Johnson's "32-20 Blues," which is given a New Orleans-styled arrangement and spotlights Trucks' impressive slide guitar skills.

From here the band starts morphing through prog-rock, psychedelia and jazz and offering astonishing flights of improvisational fancy that literally defy easy categorization. P-Funk keyboard maestro Bernie Worrell climbs on board for a gospel-tinged number, "Soulshine," plus one of Gov't Mule's concert faves, the dizzying 17-minute "Mule." Then in short order (well, not exactly short -- each tune tops the 13-minute mark), Haynes, Woody and Abts serve up steaming, iconic renderings of some choice memory-tweakers, abetted, at various times, by Worrell, Leavell, saxman Randall Bramblett (Sea Level), guitarist Jimmy Herring (Aquarium Rescue Unit/Jazz Is Dead), Ford and Trucks: a joyful and wholly infectious take of Little Feat's "Spanish Moon," Dave Mason's elegantly mournful Traffic ballad "Sad and Deep As You," Hendrix's pyrotechnical wonder "Third Stone From the Sun" and Neil Young's serenely anthemic "Cortez the Killer."

And by closing the show -- circa 4 a.m. -- with one of the great jazz standards, Mongo Santamaria's visionary Latin jazz classic "Afro Blue," the Mule effectively demolishes, in the better space of 30 minutes, any arguments that might locate the group as just a bunch of fat, hairy Southern rockers riffing on guns, booze and biker chicks. Bramblett's sax conjures images of John Coltrane's version of the song, and with Abts' and Woody's supple rhythmic steering (they're assisted on Latino percussion by Derek Trucks Band drummer Yonrico Scott), the beast approaches full gallop and, ultimately, rockets off into space. It's a breathtaking display of both intuitive ensemble extrapolation and individual soloists' virtuosity, capping off what must surely have been a transcendent concert.

I'd reckon that LWALHFOF will one day be ranked alongside the Who's Live at Leeds, the Allmans' At Fillmore East and the Stones bootleg Liver Than You'll Ever Be, but the Mule doesn't aim to wait for the history books to be written. Life Before Insanity, due in a few weeks, is the group's fifth album in five years and third studio recording overall. As with Dose, it was produced by Michael Barbiero, of Blues Traveler, Gn'R and Soundgarden fame, but unlike the '98 set, LBI has enough experimenting and overdubs to suggest that Gov't Mule doesn't want to be remembered as just a power trio who had talented friends turning up at concerts.

Oh, sure, there's enough classic Mule skronk to keep old-timers hitched. "Wandering Child," previewed on the live album, is a tightly woven tapestry of sputtering riffage and complex time changes that still manages to locate both Haynes' slide work and his unreconstructed Southern rocker's vocal blues-bellow front and center. "Bad Little Doggie" is, true to its title, a mean li'l boogie crunch-monster, while "I Think You Know What I Mean" is a slow-boiling blooze that sounds amazingly like vintage Free (whom you'll recall from several paragraphs previous).

But it's instructive that not only does the latter pair of tunes feature the new texture of harmonica courtesy ace harp wheezer Hook Herrera, the new album finds the Mule inviting a couple more of their talented friends to lay down tracks. Keyboardist Johnny Neel (whom Haynes met during a mutual stint in the Dickey Betts band) is all over the record, lending spectral organ textures to the midtempo ballad "Fallen Down" as well as adding rich atmospherics to the shifting dynamics of the jazz-goes-Middle Eastern psych-rock number "World Gone Wild." Hero of the moment Ben Harper is present as well, guesting on a vocal and guitar duet with Haynes for the gritty "Lay Your Burden Down."

It's still the Mule all the way, of course -- just one that, true to its concert aesthetic, is constantly mutating, always reaching beyond the horizon. "Tastes Like Wine" is a study in mood-shifting desperado visions, equal parts Spanish-flecked acoustic guitar meditation and anthemic "Cinnamon Girl"-like clarion power chords. "Far Away"'s reluctant rhythmic trudge, hypnotic echoey guitar and distant glockenspiel tones swirling around Haynes' haunted, downcast vocal all coalesce to make for an emotionally riveting experience; at six minutes, it's every bit as draining (in a good way) as one of the Mule's 15-minute epics.

This stylistic experimentation won't come as a huge surprise to seasoned Mule-watchers. It's more like the icing on the cake as the trio signals its intentions to enter its next evolutionary phase. Still, the band does pause en route to salute its deep roots. A rollicking, barrelhouse reprise of Robert Johnson's country-blues standard "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day" -- something every Southern rocker worth his moonshine learns to play at some point -- appears as a bonus track hidden at the end of LBI. You know the saying: You can take the boy out of the South, but you can't take . . .

"That's not the kind of parade we want to join, son," my late daddy once told me. At the time, I was maybe 7 years old, and we were watching a Sunday afternoon motorcade of cars and pickup trucks rumbling past our house and headed out to the countryside. Later I learned why this "parade" earned my father's disdain: The American and Confederate flags decorating the autos' aerials were visual codes for the local Klan's weekly family barbecue and cross-burning. I also came to understand much later that the term "redneck" as employed by my father simply signified a Southern man's coming to terms with his unavoidable cultural heritage, not some racist, right-wing identification with his inner bubba.

So I pray you'll understand when I tell you I'm kinda proud to be a redneck myself. At the very least, I think Warren Haynes will understand. I bet he's proud to be one, too.


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