When I think of Warren Haynes, singer/songwriter is not what comes to mind.
Until now that is. Because surprisingly, Haynes is not just a killer guitarist, he can write and deliver a mean story-telling song as well. Known for his wicked guitar prowess in bands like the Allman Brothers and Gov’t Mule, Haynes takes a new turn this time.
That’s all evidenced in his new album, Ashes and Dust, set for release July 24, 2015 on Concord Records.
In this collection of superbly written and recorded songs, Haynes taps Railroad Earth as his performance partners and brings in a few special guests like Grace Potter, Shawn Colvin, Marc Quinones and more.
Haynes’ gravelly voice seems appropriate for the serious nature of the subject matter, with a variety of stringed instruments, and, of course, guitar punctuating throughout. The result is simply wonderful.
Gorgeously layered and skillfully delivered, this project is so superbly written and crafted, I have no hesitation in labeling it my favorite album to date of 2015.
I was delighted to speak to Haynes about the Ashes and Dust…
Can you share some insight on how this new direction for you came together?
I’ve been writing songs like this my entire life, and accumulating them through the years. Some of these songs I’ve wanted to record for a long time, but I just didn’t have a reason. I feel like some of these songs just didn’t have a home. You know, they didn’t necessarily fit into the Allman Brothers or into Gov’t Mule. So somewhere around seven years ago I started thinking about making this kind of record.
You know, a lot of the songs are new, but some of them go back 10 or even 20 years. One’s even older than that! The song, “Is It Me Or You” is the oldest song. And then there are songs like “Blue Maiden’s Tale” and “Word On The Wind” that are brand new, and several in between.
So you’ve been thinking about it for a long time, then! Why is this the right time now?
You know it was probably the right time then. I was going to make a record about seven years ago with Levon Helm and Leon Russell and a bass player named T-Bone Wolk. And then T-Bone passed away and then Levon passed away and I thought, well, this record is disintegrating.
So I turned around and made Man in Motion, my soul meets blues solo record, because I already had a lot of songs in that direction as well. So I put this on the back burner and continued to write more songs. Probably a lot of these songs would have been on that record.
But I also recorded almost 30 songs during these sessions, so there’s enough material for at least one and maybe two more albums. And I’m gonna continue that process. I have another five or so songs that I want to add.
I feel like the album is nicely balanced as far as instrumentation. You do inject some wonderful guitar and string parts, but it’s not overbearing. Did you have to hold yourself back?
I wanted it to be a singer/songwriter record first and foremost, and then I wanted to play as much guitar as possible when it seemed appropriate. I’m just playing what the song needs, and I think that’s enough. And I do think there’s a nice balance between songs that have some nice improvisation and some that are just telling the story.
I was intentionally catering my sound to Railroad Earth’s sound. I tried to pick guitar tones that I felt would work with the fiddle and the banjo, the mandolin, the upright bass and stuff, so I wasn’t relying on any of my go-to sounds. It kind of forced me to play differently.
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Can you share some of the guitars you used on the album?
I think probably the guitar I used the most is my D’Angelico New Yorker. It’s a hollowbody jazz guitar that has a cleaner sound that seems to work with the more Celtic instrumentation, but also with the more classical side of what the band does. It just seems to fit in. A song like “Stranded In Self Pity” is a good example. That song has a Stephane Grappelli, Django Rheinhardt sound going on.
But then there are a lot of times I’m just playing that guitar as a rhythm guitar, because it’s not quite electric and it’s not quite acoustic.
And then I ended up playing a lot of slide guitar, which is mostly on my Les Paul, but with small amps. Little combos. And that seems to fit the storytelling aspects of the songs well, and the slide playing is coming from more of a lap steel/pedal steel sort of direction, more so than blues.
And then I played my ’61 335 on some of the stuff. And there are a few songs that I’m just playing just acoustic guitar. Either a Rockbridge guitar or my Washburn signature model. Or the Epiphone archtop that I borrowed from Derek, my tech. And also I have an early ‘70s Guild that I played the acoustic slide on.
When you write do you start with a guitar riff or progression?
Actually, normally I wait until I’m lyrically inspired to write. And these songs are definitely indicative of that. You know, with Mule or the Allman Brothers, some of the songs would start with a riff and see where it went. But for all of these kinds of songs, they were written with acoustic guitar. Usually I’ll get some kind of lyrical idea, and as I’m writing it down, I’ll get some kind of a cadence and a melody. I just find it easier to look at a lyric and capture that kind of mood in music than vice versa.
I love the storytelling aspect of the album. I feel it’s very serious…not too light-hearted.
I guess so, but that’s okay. It’s an extension of folk music and that’s what I love about folk music. It’s meant to be reckoned with.
Find out more and preorder Ashes and Dust at warrenhaynes.net