Gov’t Mule did not invent Southern rock, but they do carry the torch into the future. Known as one of the hardest-working bands in music because of their near-constant touring schedule, they’ve simultaneously found success with fans that remember seeing Lynyrd Skynyrd in their prime, as well as with those who were not yet born when Mule was formed.
Founded by Allman Brothers Band members Warren Haynes (who is also a member of the current Grateful Dead lineup), bassist Allen Woody (who died in 2000) and drummer Matt Abts, Mule began in 1994 with the idea of bringing the power trio lineup back to prominence. Their improvisational nature and penchant for long, one-of-a-kind shows has made them a mainstay on the jam band circuit and created a fiercely loyal fan base. Their ninth studio album, By a Thread, was released in late ’09 and features the current lineup of Haynes, Abts, bassist Jorgen Carlsson and multi-instrumentalist Danny Louis.
During a recent swing through Nashville, Haynes talked to CMT.com about getting his famous friends involved in the new record, where country music shows up in his work and giving fans free reign over the band’s music.
CMT: After such a long time and so many different records, how do you keep finding new inspiration?
Haynes: I guess the amount of wonderful musicians and artists I am fortunate to be surrounded by is kind of an endless source of inspiration. … And I think doing different projects helps keep me fresh in a musical sense. As busy as my schedule is, I’d rather it be that busy — bouncing back and forth from two or three different things — than just one thing all the time. Each situation allows me to be creative in a different sort of way, to showcase the different sides of my musical personality. I think that’s a luxury, and a lot of people don’t have that sort of opportunity.
You picked Willie Nelson’s studio outside of Austin, Texas, to record By a Thread. Do you two go a long way back?
I’ve known Willie since 1981, but we picked the studio for the studio. It’s a wonderful studio to record in, and Gordy Johnson, who is the co-producer-engineer that we have been working with on the last couple of records, really loves to record in that studio. We thought it would be a good idea to get away and be sequestered somewhere in the middle of nowhere where we were just concentrating on music. It’s a great vibe, a great place to chill out.
I wanted to ask you about ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons. What did he bring to the opening track, “Broke Down on the Brazos”?
When we wrote that song, it was the last song we wrote and recorded while we were in Texas, and when we listened back to it, it just reminded us of early ZZ Top. I’ve been friends with Billy for a long time, and I called him and said, “Hey, man. We wrote this song, and it’d sure be nice to have you on it.” A few days later, we were squared off in the studio with two Les Pauls trading licks, and I think his contribution was overwhelming. He took it to a whole ’nother place. I don’t even think about the version before Billy got there. He kind of made it his own thing.
Another song I really liked was “Railroad Boy,” which is a traditional song.
Yeah, and you can hear some country influence on that song. … I grew up in Asheville, N.C., and when I was 14, I started sneaking into this folk club and hearing folk singers and singer-songwriters. I became friends with some of them, and a couple of the guys taught me “Railroad Boy,” and it just kind of stayed in my head. When we were making this record, I played it for Gordy one night and he said “We should record that.” I said, “Well, what do you mean? Like a rock song?” He said, “Yeah, let’s just make a rock version of it.” So we did, and it was kind of like when Led Zeppelin would take a folk song and make a rock version of it. We kind of took that sort of approach to it. And it came together really quickly in the studio. I’m really proud of it.
Growing up in Asheville, did you ever listen to the Grand Ole Opry as a kid?
I did, and my dad was a huge Opry fan. I brought my dad to Nashville the first time that Gov’t Mule played the Ryman Auditorium and had him walk out onstage and have him get a sense of it. … It was really wonderful seeing not only what it meant to me but even more so what it meant to him. I’m a big fan of George Jones, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, the Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe and that sort of country music. I really enjoy it a lot. It doesn’t come out as much in what we do, but I kind of grew up listening to all different kinds of music from jazz to blues to soul music to rock ’n’ roll to folk music, reggae music. I love all types of music.
Is it true that you guys allow people to record the live shows?
So, basically you have a new record for every show. How did that idea come about?
We play a different set list every night, and when we get back to a certain city, we see what we played the time before and even the time before that, and we base the [new] set list on what we played last night or the night before, and then partially on what we feel like playing. So every show is different. If we’re in a certain area for three nights, we won’t repeat any songs over that three-night period. So the fans want to tape our shows and bring their own recording equipment, and we set up a taper section so they can do it.
We also provide what we consider a better alternative which is muletracks.com, where we make available every show we have done since 2004. Almost like a live album quality version of every show. You know, it would only work for a band that plays a different set list every night. If we played the same set night after night, there would be no demand for that.
That’s interesting. Do you think ultimately it helps everybody?
Yeah, our fans, as much as they enjoy our studio recordings, I think they enjoy live music more. So given that, why not make it available? It’s a little scary for us, knowing that every note we play is available to the public, which means if we have a bad night, that’s available alongside our best nights, but we got used to that a long time ago. I mean, we’ve been letting people record our shows for 15 years. So in one form or another, every note is available anyway, why not give them a high quality version as an alternative?