It’s been 18 years since Warren Haynes last entered the studio to record a solo album, but he’s no slacker. Haynes has been busy. Very busy. As rock’s foremost MVP singer-guitarist, the burly native of Asheville, North Carolina has been constantly on the move and in the spotlight for the past two decades.
During that time Haynes has belonged to three of the greatest live groups in rock history: his own Gov’t Mule, the Allman Brothers Band and the Dead. And while barely catching his breath between their tours and studio sessions, he’s also hit the road with Phil Lesh & Friends and cut tunes with the late bluesman Little Milton, his Allmans’ guitar foil Derek Trucks, hard rockers Corrosion of Conformity, Dave Matthews and many others.
No wonder it’s taken Haynes so long to get back into the studio to make the follow-up to his first solo disc, 1993’s Tales of Ordinary Madness. And no wonder his new album — on the revived Stax label, no less — is called Man in Motion.
Haynes describes the title track as “a snapshot of someone who is evolving and in constant change, written with myself in mind. I feel that musicians are students for life, so it’s important for me to always seek new experiences and throw myself curves, to remain inspired and challenged, and to grow. And while I’ve been thinking about getting back to another solo studio album for a long time now, I’ve had other things demanding my attention for at least the last 15 years.”
Make that three decades, because the truth is the golden-toned six-string virtuoso has not slowed down since he joined country music outlaw David Allan Coe’s group in 1980 at the tender age of 20. From there Haynes was handpicked by Allman Brothers founding guitarist Dickey Betts for his own Great Southern band, and then integrated into the Allmans’ line-up.
“I feel like I’ve connected the dots from one opportunity to another,” Haynes says, “and that’s pretty much been my story. I’ve been open to anything exciting that’s come along, whether it was joining the Allman Brothers, who were a tremendous influence on me when I was learning to play guitar, or founding Gov’t Mule.”
Making Man in Motion gave Haynes an opportunity to connect the dots once more — this time to his musical beginnings.
“Before I started playing guitar, I wanted to be a singer, right from the age of five or six,” he regales. “And what I wanted to sing was soul music. My brothers and I had just a handful of albums. They were the ‘best of’ collections by Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett, James Brown, the Temptations, Aretha Franklin… and later by the three Kings of the blues: Freddie King, B.B. King and Albert King. In fact, it was hearing B.B. and Freddie that made me realize you could be a great singer and a great guitar player. So I decided to model myself after them.”
Man in Motion brings the heart of classic ’60s and ’70s soul and blues pumping back to life, stoked by Haynes’ timeless prowess as both a high-wire singer and a powerhouse guitarist. He draws on his deeply rooted vocal and six-string syntax to create melodies that frame the past and present, fusing classic themes of love, desire and loss with bristling, contemporary energy.
Tunes like Haynes’ uplifting “The River’s Gonna Rise” — an anthem of hope — and the Albert King-influenced string bender, “A Friend To You,” ring with the same authenticity as William Bell’s Stax-label jewel, “ Every Day is a Holiday,” the disc’s sole cover.
“In soul and blues, the vocal is really the centerpiece,” Haynes explains. “My singing has always come from a soul and blues direction, and Man in Motion really gave me a chance to bring that into focus.”
Nonetheless, there’s no shortage of numbers like “Sick of My Shadow,” which straddles the terrain of Haynes’ guitar universe, blending rock, soul, R&B and jazz in its introspective mix.
Fans of Haynes’ growling, distinctive signature six-string approach in Gov’t Mule and the Allman Brothers will notice a subtler — if no less adventurous — palette of guitar tones on Man in Motion.
“I was going for a kind of pre-rock sound,” Haynes explains. “These songs, based in soul and blues, really require cleaner tones to pay respect to the era that inspired them and to really get to the emotional heart of the matter. I used the wah-wah and a few other effects, but there’s a lot of B.B. King, Albert King and Freddie King influence on this album from a guitar standpoint.”
Although Haynes employed his Gibson signature model Les Paul Standard guitar for some numbers, a clutch of vintage Gibson semi-hollowbody instruments — ES-335 and ES-345 models from his extensive collection — account for most of the tracks, plus an archtop hollowbody that inspired his jazz break on “Sick of My Shadow.”
As usual, Haynes improvised his solos, playing live to two-inch tape along with the core band of fellow virtuosos that he assembled at Willie Nelson’s Pedernales Studio near Austin.
“I wanted to record this album just like the classic records that influenced me,” he notes. “The band played together on all the songs and we avoided overdubs. Even most of the vocals were live. It was important to catch the energy and emotion of music being made live by a group of great musicians.”
His cast of world-class players includes a trio of New Orleans R&B kingpins: bass legend George Porter, Jr. of the Meters, keyboardist-singer Ivan Neville and drummer Raymond Webber, who helped Haynes nail Man in Motion’s R&B, blues and soul-soaked grooves. Veteran Small Faces and Rolling Stones pianist Ian McLagan, folk-blues sensation Ruthie Foster and tenor saxist Ron Holloway joined them. Foster and Neville are perfect vocal foils for Haynes’ own blend of sugar and gravel, and as a threesome they conjure harmonies that sound right out of the original Stax and Hi Records Memphis soul playbooks.
“For this kind of music,” Haynes adds, “that vocal chemistry is essential. I was really fortunate. I put my wish list of musicians together and they were all available and excited about the project.”
Haynes is touring behind Man In Motion this spring and summer while Gov’t Mule is on hiatus, and then regrouping with his Mule-mates to write and rehearse songs for their 17th album.
“There are other projects I want to do, too,” he relates. “I’m interested in recording a singer-songwriter oriented album with more acoustic instruments, a jazzy instrumental CD and a straight-up blues record. But like Man in Motion, those albums will have to wait until the time is right.”