BAD LITTLE DONKEY
Gov’t Mule Conquers the World
by Michael Buffalo Smith
Following in the footsteps of bands like The Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers Band, but with heavy influences ranging from Cream to Hendrix to Pink Floyd and Traffic, Warren Haynes, Allen Woody and Matt Abts forged a power-trio that was moving straight ahead with a bullet - a band with elements of all the best classic rock and blues groups, but totally original. They power trio known for giving their heart and soul to the audience in extended jams and long shows that featured countless guest stars from Little Milton to Jimmy Herring, from Gregg Allman to Col. Bruce Hampton. That was all before the untimely death of Allen Woody in 2001.
After years of grieving for the loss of their fallen brother, Warren and Matt regrouped with a new Mule. Of course, it could never be the same without Woody. He was one of a kind. Still, The Mule of today kicks ass in a whole new way.
What was to be the original band’s final album together, Life Before Insanity, (Capricorn), was about to be released, and all three band members were in high spirits when we spoke with them. I spoke with Warren in March of 1999, Matt in October 1999, and Woody in November of 1999.
A Conversation with Warren Haynes
As one-third of the hottest power trio playing today, Asheville, N.C. born Warren Haynes stays busy all year long, and up until a couple of years ago, he was juggling that career with his career as lead guitarist for The Allman Brothers Band. Then Warren, along with bassist Allen Woody decided they had to put more time into their own band, pulling away from the legendary Allman group.It wasn’t an easy decision, but as Warren tells us in an exclusive interview, it was something they had to do, in order to show the world just how important Gov’t Mule is to them and their drummer, Matt Abts.
Speaking with Warren is as easy as talking to a cousin or a brother. His relaxed demeanor and kindness tend to put everyone at ease right off the bat. With tapes rolling, we spoke with the man that many are calling the best blues-rock guitarist and singer living today.
What would you consider to be your first big break in music?
I would say being hired by David Allan Coe as guitarist. I never thought about playing a country gig before, but they called and offered me this gig and it was my first chance to record on a major label and to tour on a national level and stuff. I talked to Coe on the phone, and I told him I wasn’t a country guitar player, and I might not be right for this job. He was like, ‘Well, I’m looking for a blues-rock guitar player to add a nice edge to my sound. I thought if I can play like me then I’ll be into it. It was really through playing with him that I met Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts and all those guys. That was my first opportunity on a national level, plus I met a lot of the people I’d become involved with later.
I know you played with the Dickey Betts Band for a while, before joining the Allman Brothers Band reunion. Can you give us a bit of retrospective observation on those experiences?
I met Dickey and Gregg on the same night. It was late ‘80 or ‘81. I was always a big Allman Brothers fan, so it was a big thrill for me to meet those guys, and hang out with them and jam and stuff. Then a few years later, when I joined Dickey’s band, I had just signed a deal to do my first solo record. In the same time I got a call from Dickey, and he said he was going to do his first solo record in nine years, and wanted me to sing and play guitar and write some songs. It was two really great opportunities hitting at one time, and I was going, “Man, when it rains it pours.” I had gone from having nothing to having both of these things. So I had to chose between them. I made a decision at that point to join Dickey’s band. (Who released an excellent album featuring Warren, Pattern Disruptive) I did that for about two and a half years. Again, that was stepping up to a nicer situation, and also, because of the musicians in the band-Dickey and myself, and Johnny Neel was playing keyboards and Marty Prevat was playing bass, and Matt Abts, who is now in Gov't Mule was playing drums. We had a really excellent band, and toured for about two and a half years. Then that thing was kind of coming to a halt, and I decided I was going to take that opportunity to do my solo record. That’s when I got a call from the Allman Brothers saying, “We’d like you to join.” It was really strange timing. Here I was preparing to do my own record again, and I got a call from The Allman Brothers. Once again, it was an opportunity that I couldn’t turndown. I mean, getting a chance to work with an institution like the Allman Brothers, that’s a once in a lifetime situation. I never really knew that they were thinking about getting back together. And they never kept it a secret, they didn’t want to get back together. They just said, “We’re never going to play together again.” But somewhere along the line, with Stevie Ray achieving success, and being so good at bringing blues back to the people, and Robert Cray coming into the picture, and The Grateful Dead was doing great, they started seeing opportunities for The Allman Brothers to be a valid entity again, and knowing that if the right combination of players could be brought in, it could be a great thing. So they had a little meeting, and they brought me and Johnny Neel into the band. Then they auditioned bass players, and they auditioned Woody, and he got the gig. It was just a great feeling, that first year, knowing that The Allman Brothers Band was coming back full force. I had always been a big fan. I’d grown up listening to that music, and it was just a great opportunity for somebody like me to come in, and be allowed to interject my personality into it. That’s about all you can ask for, as far as being in a band that’s been around that many years. I can’t imagine another band from my past like that who would give me that much musical freedom, and be so enjoyable to play with.
A lot of people felt that you and Woody made the band sound the best they’d sounded since the days of Duane and Berry.
We tried to bring that spirit back. I think Woody deserves a lot more credit than he got, because the bass player’s role is more understated in most bands. But Berry Oakley was such an aggressive bass player, so unique, that when they lost Oakley, having just gotten over the loss of Duane, that was such a huge loss for those guys that a lot of people thought they’d never get it back. But they were gaining momentum from a fan base standpoint, and they had some great bass players through the years. I mean, Lamar Williams, who passed away as well, was a really great bass player too, but he didn’t play in that style that Oakley did.Until they hired Woody, nobody ever did. He brought a lot of that fireback in, and deserves a lot of the credit.
I remember seeing Woody when he played with The Artimus Pyle Band in Tryon, North Carolina.
You bet! In fact, that’s when I met Arty. I was eighteen years old, and playing in a band called Ricochet, not to be confused with the band that’s playing now called Ricochet. We were playing at the other club in Tryon called The Second Level, and Artimus came to see us.
What was the real story behind you and Woody leaving The Allman Brothers Band?
Well, it wasn’t nearly as complex as some would have you believe. When I joined The Allman Brothers, Woody and I joined in ‘89- it was just going to be a reunion tour. But it went so well, we decided to do it the next year. Well, that went even better, so we decided to do it another year. But they had this past history of never staying together over three years at a time. I don’t think it was ever my intention to be in The Allman Brothers for eight and a half years. But it was a great experience and a great opportunity, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I write a lot of songs that don’t necessarily fit into the The Allman Brothers bag, and I always wanted to first and foremost do my own music, and I was able to in The Allman Brothers. I was able to write songs in the band, and I was able to be one of the singers in the band, and given a lot of musical freedom, as we had talked about earlier. But I still wanted an opportunity to record and perform a lot of the songs that I was writing that didn’t fit into that genre, so to speak. For three years, Woody and I juggled the two bands. We’d get off the Allman Brothers bus and get on the Gov't Mule bus, and we’d get off the Gov’t Mule bus and get on the Allman Brothers bus. We went from one tour to another and another, which proved to be a very hectic schedule. It was rewarding, but it was tough, you know? Eventually we just figured out that Gov't Mule was really starting to gain some momentum, and that’s where our heads were as far as a musical future. That’s what we wanted to do, and we didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to do it the right way. So we thought about it, and the only way we could convince the world that we were serious about it, and that it wasn’t just something we did when we weren’t playing with the Allman Brothers, was to do it full time and allow it to gain the steam that it needs. Last year we left the band, and this was the first year that we’ve had the entire year to do what was best for Gov’t Mule, and it's been a great year. We’re really excited about it. It was great to make decisions based on what was good for the band, as opposed to saying, ‘Well, The Allman Brothers are working here, here, here and here, and what’s left we can figure out, if and when we want to work. See, to leave an institution like that is never going to be an easy decision we had to do it to kind of show ourselves and the rest of the world that we were very serious about this. A lot of people read more into it than there really was, you know.
The rumor mill at work.
(Laughs) Yeah, probably a lot of them I haven’t even heard!
Like the one where Dickey Betts drove you out of the band...
You know, Dickey and I played together for eleven years. He’s the one that brought me into The Allman Brothers, and gave me some wonderful opportunities, so I have no regrets about any of it at all.
I’ve heard that you’ve written a bunch of country songs. Is it true you co-wrote one for Garth Brooks?
I co-wrote “We’re Two of a Kind, Workin' on a Full House” with Bobby Boyd and Dennis Robbins in Nashville.
Have you had other songs like that picked up by country artists?
Well, I’ve only written a handful of country songs, compared to the amount of songs that I've written. But they’ve been recorded by George Jones and Earl Thomas Conley, and David Allan Coe.
I didn't realize you were such a prolific writer. I mean, I knew about your great songs with The Allmans and The Mule, but I didn't realize you crossed over the genres.
When I was living in Nashville, I had a lot of friends who were country performers and writers, and we would get together and write songs and stuff. And there were even a few that I wrote by myself that turned out to be country songs. But the majority of what I write are rock songs or blues-based rock songs, things that fit into the Allman Brothers or Gov’t Mule genre. But a lot of my stuff tends to go across the board. A lot of things that could be interpreted in a singer-songwriter sort of way. And I’ve had things recorded by a lot of blues artists. People that grew up listening to, like John Mayall, he recorded a song that myself and Johnny Neel wrote. Gregg and Dickey both did some of my songs on their solo records before I even joined The Allman Brothers. And blues artists like Son Seals, Kenny Neal...It’s very flattering to have people like that record your stuff, and they always do it justice.
Who would you say were your greatest influences growing up?
Well, I started out as a singer, so all my influences were soul singers-James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, The Four Tops and the Temptations, that kind of stuff, you know. Eventually hearing Ray Charles and B.B. King, and getting the idea that, wow, you can sing and play a musical instrument at the same time. Then I heard Cream and Hendrix, which made me want to play guitar. So I’d have to say Clapton,during the Cream days, and Hendrix were my two major influences. Johnny Winter, Dickey and Duane were big influences a couple of years later. I really listened to everybody. All the blues guys, all the jazz guys. I tried to learn as much from as many different people as possible. The three Kings, Freddie King, B.B. King and Albert King were big influences. And of course Otis Rush. I loved Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Elmore James. I listened to a lot of great jazz players like Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass and Grant Green and Jim Hall. A lot of guitar players from all over the map, whether it be Southern guys like Billy Gibbons, or West coast players like Santana. Some of the British guys-Jeff Beck I always loved. David Gilmour, Steve Howe from Yes I always liked. I think any musician is really doing themselves a favor to not put any boundaries up, or to cut themselves off from any type of music.There’s good and bad in all types of music. You can be influenced by something in a whole different direction from what you do, and sometimes it’s those influences that add extra character to your playing or singing.
I heard a tape the other day of a 1988 show. It was the Dickey Betts Band at The Lone Star Cafe in New York. You were there, and Jack Bruce, Rick Derringer and Mick Taylor all jammed with the band.
Right. You know, that was awesome. Just playing with those guys was a great experience, and they sounded great. You know, sometimes you get a chance to play with great musicians, but the environment’s not conducive to good music. That was definitely not one of those times. The music was great. I’ve had the opportunity to play with so many people I grew up listening to. I played with Willie Dixon before he died. I played with John Lee Hooker. I played with Albert Collins before he died. A lot of people that I loved in blues and rock and roll. Hopefully there are tapes somewhere of those performances. Sometimes there aren't tapes, but a lot of times, there are tapes rolling to remind you of what a beautiful time that was.
Your album Dose really has some dynamic rhythm changes and odd ball time signatures. Was that initially a part of the band’s plan, and is that the direction you are heading with the music?
We are going to continue showing a little more jazz, acoustic folk and other influences. We just want to show all of the different sides of Gov’t Mule that we haven’t yet revealed, while still maintaining the blues rock influences. Take our first record for instance. While we are extremely proud of it, we tended to stay close to that blues-rock, power trio genre. Now the band has been together for over five years, and it’s just kind of growing exponentially. We are able to show a lot more diverse sides of what Gov’t Mule does. I believe Dose is the most diverse thing we’ve had released.
I’d like to get your thoughts on Derek Trucks and his band.
Derek is amazing. I’ve known him since he was eleven years old, and he was amazing even then. He’s got the depth and maturity of someone three times his age. It’s really a special gift he has, and to deal with it the way he’s dealt with it, he’s such a great person. He’s so down to earth and genuine. I could tell in all the times we’ve been around each other and played together, he’s going to always remain a student of music. That’s what it’s all about, learning. You’re always going to be learning. When you’re eighty years old, you’re still going to be learning. He has such a great attitude about it, and he’ll get up and play with anybody,anywhere, anytime, which is really what it’s all about as well. I have a deep respect for Derek as a musician and as a person. For all the guys, they’re all great musicians. He’s fortunate to have a touring band of that caliber, because they’re turning heads. People come out to see them live, and they say “Wow, these guys are really great.” We’re really glad to have them on the road with us, we have such a great time. We always end up jamming together in their set or in our set, or in both. it's a great excuse to play together, and some really good things come out of those jams.
That’s one of the great things about your band and Derek’s, and of course the Allman Brothers, you’re bringing back a lot of the magic that was so prevalent in the late ‘60’s and into the 70’s with Charlie Daniels’ Volunteer Jams and stuff. Just everybody out there on stage having fun together, which of course, transcends over into the audience.
When I go to a show, and I see something special happen, that maybe only happened that one time, then I feel like I was a part of it. That’s the way we want our audiences to feel. You know, in the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s, bands got really mechanized into playing the same songs the same way night after night. Even down to a little rehearsed speech in between songs. You know, if you go see two or three shows like that, you get really turned off, and say, hey, I’ve seen it, I don’t need to see it again. But a lot of bands these days are taking their cue from the late ‘60’s, early ‘70’s groups that played a different performance all the time. There are a lot of people who follow those groups around. There are people who have seen 75-80 Gov’t Mule shows. It totally blows my mind.
It’s a really cool thing, what’s going on with the tapers and everything.
Our goal from the very beginning was to expand our repertoire to the point where we didn’t have to play the same songs every night. Even though we were kind of baptized by fire, we jumped right onto the stage as soon as we knew eight songs, and we’d stretch those eight songs as far as we could. (Laughs) Then a couple of weeks later we knew ten songs, and a month later we knew fifteen. Now, we could probably do two or three nights in a row without repeating a song if that was what we wanted to do. It makes it more fun for us, and for the audience, and for the repeat offenders, as we call them, that keep coming back. They want to see a different show than they saw the week or the month before. It works out great for everybody, because, we get bored playing the same songs, the same way all the time. We break the set list up as much as possible, and we look for new ways to interpret the same song. Sometimes a song will start feeling stale and we'll quit playing it for a while. And then, after we don’t play it for some time, you’ll find a fresh approach to it, and put it back in the show. We want every night to be different, and we want the audience to feel like they were a part of something that only happened that one time. It’s not a mass appeal sort of approach to rock music, you know? We’re making music for the people that like music for the same reasons we do. I never wanted to make a record that I wouldn’t go to the store and buy. I never want to do a show that I wouldn’t pay to go see. I think you try to maintain that attitude. If the band’s bored, how do you expect the audience to be excited about it.
Around here where I grew up (Spartanburg-Greenville, S.C.) the most popular band to come out of the area is The Marshall Tucker Band. Can you give me your thoughts on the Tucker band?
Well, I was always a Tucker fan. I grew up listening to that stuff since the first album. The first concert I ever saw in my life was in 1972. It was the Edgar Winter Group, and Marshall Tucker opened up for them. Even though they were from right down the road, we didn’t know about them. I was a twelve year old kid. We really enjoyed them. Then we started hearing about them, they were really getting a lot of regional talk. We became fans, and bought the first record, and listened to them through the years. And even though I mostly became friends with Paul Riddle and with Toy, I did know some of the other guys as well. And Doug was always such a really unique rock singer. He had such a smooth kind of folksy voice that fit perfectly into that band. I thought those guys had such a great chemistry, and that's really what rock music is all about. And they had it. Their sound was always so unique, you could hear the first ten seconds of a Marshall Tucker song and you knew who it was.
THE APT MATT ABTS
The Drums, The Beat
Gov’t Mule, Warren Haynes and Allen Woody, should be well-known to Allman Brothers fans for their stint in Southern rock’s most famous native sons. In 1989, Haynes became the second replacement for Duane Allman, and Woody filled out the Allman sound on bass. Five years after their debut, the duo joined drummer Matt Abts in the side project Gov’t Mule, a band in which the Allman Brothers’ influence is apparent but complicated with the psychedelic, bluesy power-trio feel of Cream or Mountain. Gov’t Mule debuted in 1995 with a self-titled album, on Sony/Realitivity, and then signed to Capricorn Records, where they released the stellar concert recording Live at Roseland Ballroom. The studio follow-up Dose appeared in early 1998, and Live...with a Little Help from Our Friends, a recording culled from their marathon New Year’s Eve 1998 show in Atlanta, was released this past spring. The Mule has just completed their third studio album, which will be released either late this year, or early 2000.
We caught up with drummer Matt Abts during the band’s summer concert tour, for a few questions.
How did you first become interested in playing the drums?
As a kid, I just kind of gravitated toward the rhythm end of it. Of course, The Beatles were a big part of it. I was interested in it before then, but I didn’t get a drum kit until after I saw Ringo on the Ed Sullivan Show. So many people say that that grew up during that time frame, that all it took was seeing Ringo. After I saw that, I had a one track mind. I wanted to do that. Then I got caught up in the whole rock thing of the sixties and early seventies, and of course, once you get interested, you explore all avenues of music.
Did you come from a musical family?
No, not really. My Dad played a little ukulele around the house. (Laughs)
I really enjoyed your work on the Pattern Disruptive album by The Dickey Betts Band. How did you come to hook up with Betts?
I first met Dickey in the early eighties. During that time, I had moved down to Florida and I was playing with a friend from the Virginia area. My Dad was in the Army and we moved around a lot, so I ended up in Virginia. I worked the East Coast right after high school for six or seven years, and we all gravitated toward Florida, where the weather was nicer. (Laughs) So I was playing in Florida with a friend of mine in aTop 40 cover band, and that’s where I met Dickey, down in Sarasota area.Gregg was living down there at the time too. Dickey used to come into clubs we played in, and we had some sort of jam relationship going.After I moved out of the area, Dickey had a band called BHLT, which was Dickey, Jimmy Hall, Chuck Leavell and Butch Trucks, during one of the times when The Allman Brothers were broken up. At one point, Butch couldn’t make the gig, and Dickey had my phone number, so he called me.I was in Virginia. I ended up touring with them that summer, and working with Dickey from 1984 until ‘89. We had a number of guitar players, and then Warren was brought in around 1986, and we went on to do some playing. In the mean time, Warren had brought Johnny Neel in. I played with Dickey for about five years through a bunch of different configurations until it ended up with me, Marty Privette on bass, Warren Haynes, Johnny Neel and Dickey Betts. We did the record. That was the best band, but it only lasted about a year before The Allman Brothers were reunited, and Warren was invited to join them. It was a great learning experience, and I met a lot of people from the whole Allman Brothers family. I had a great time and I enjoyed it very much.
What did you do between the time he Allmans reunited and the time the Mule was formed in 1994?
At that point I mad a conscious move to Los Angeles, to settle down.When I got here, I did the Mick Taylor record. I was also playing with a guy out of Florida named Chris Anderson, and we did a record, just before the Mule did it’s first record on the Sony/Relativity label.Anderson was a great player. I also did a bunch of side projects. I was living in L.A., but in and out of L.A. a lot.
So how did Gov’t Mule come together?
At this point, when Johnny Neel and Warren were invited to join The Allman Brothers Band, it was the end of he Dickey Betts Band. I would see them almost every year when they would play the Greek Theatre. We all remained friends, and I was happy for Warren. It was a great break for him, and it brought him a lot of well deserved notoriety. I would get up and jam with them, and there was this whole brotherhood thing going on. Talk kept coming back to Allen, who I didn’t know at the time,and we talked about doing the trio thing. Warren had this solo project he had been working on since before he was in The Dickey Betts Band, and I knew he had to finish that up. He had a lot of New York players on it,and Chuck Leavell produced it. We all had stuff we needed to get out of our system. So in early 1994, Warren gave me a call and said that he and Woody had been seriously talking about the trio thing. So he called me up and formally asked me what I thought about it. Of course I thought it was a great idea. So we started scheming at that point. So the next time The Allmans were in town I took them to a club I had a gig at called The Captain’s Cabin in North Hollywood. Just a little rock club where we did a blues jam every Sunday. So that’s how the band actually started. We initially went in and said, this is cool, let’s record it ourselves. So we went to Telstar Studios in Sarasota where we had all done a bunch of work. It was owned by Bud Snyder, who is the sound man with The Allman Brothers. We recorded on our own with no record company, and then by the end of 1994, we got signed with Sony/Relativity, and that’s when we went in to do that first record.
How would you compare playing with Warren and Woody now to playing with them when they were in The Allman Brothers Band?
They were just more stressed out at the time because they were doing double duty. At this point it’s all Gov’t Mule, so there’s no dividing it. At that time, we were just getting started, and it was fine then. Everything turns into what it is supposed to turn into over time, you know? That was a good time, and this is a good time now.
If you could jam with anyone, living or dead, who would it be and why?
Oh boy, wouldn’t it be nice to play behind Jimi Hendrix? I’m thinking to myself , most of these people are dead.(Laughs) But, just in our lifetime, people like Miles Davis, Stevie Ray Vaughan. I have played with some great people, and I’m very thankful for that. But, people living today, wouldn’t it be great to play with Clapton. You know, Allen and Warren and I have such a great time, and it’s hard when you spend so much time together, although we’ve never come to blows or anything, or gotten tied of each other, but it’s great to play with those guys.
Can you tell us about the new studio album?
It is done. I don’t know what to tell you. There was a scheduled release for it this fall but I’m not sure that’s going to happen. But is done and we are really happy with it. We recorded half of it in Muscle Shoals, and half in New Jersey. We spent the first six months of the year working on it. There are twelve songs, most of which nobody has ver heard. It’s our best album yet, and our best sounding. I think more thought went into this album than any yet. Some of the songs are shorter, more concise. We’re all very excited about it.
What’s next for the band?
We have the live album out this year, and a new studio record ready to go, so we are cocked and loaded. Let’s just say, up until the New Years Eve gig this year, which will also be in Atlanta- it was originally supposed to be The Roxy, but I’m not sure The Roxy will be available- up until that point we are staying really busy.
LAYIN’ DOWN THE BOTTOM
An Interview with Allen Woody
When did you first become interested in playing music?
Well, as a child, you know, hearing Elvis Presley play. And my Dad was a big music fan. He didn’t play or anything, but he was a big music fan. It was kind of weird, he was a truck driver, but he was into the blues. There’s a great radio station here (Nashville), and Gregg (Allman) and I talk about it a lot, it’s WLAC. It’s still on the air now, but it’s not the same as it was. It was a clear channel blues station, and man they played Lightnin’ Hopkins, Blind Willie Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Muddy, B.B., Freddie, Albert, they played all the blues stuff. And my Dad got interested in it when he was in the service and he was out in Wisconsin. It was a clear channel, so it would reach all over the country. He was into that, and Hank Williams, Sr., country music, real roots music, and Elvis Presley and stuff. I was steeped in that when I was a kid, and then The Beatles came along, and that overloaded my circuit, you know. I was already primed for it, so when I saw them, I said, this is what I want to do. It seemed pretty glamorous at the time.
Matt Abts told me that The Beatles were his turning point too.
Yeah, I think anybody in our generation, from their mid-thirties to about fifty, that fifteen year span there, The Beatles and that whole British Invasion would have to have some impact on you.
Was the bass guitar your first choice of instrument?
No, I played guitar. I still play guitar. But I’m not a frustrated guitar player. I’m okay with my guitar playing, it’s my bass playing that frustrates me. It doesn’t surprise me that Matt would say that, because I was used to seeing the instruments that you would see on TV. Like when I was a kid, there was a wealth of country music on TV, like Buck Owens with those glittery Telecasters and Jazz basses and stuff. And Flatt & Scruggs with their Martin guitars and Gibson mandolins and banjos. As a kid, you’re not really sure about the names, so you scramble to read what’s on the head stock. You’re familiar with names like Gibson and Martin and Fender, and Gretch, and to a lesser degree Guild, and things like that. But The Beatles came over, and Lennon had that little short scale Rickenbaker, and of course George was playing a Gretch, and McCartney had that little weird shaped Hofner- nobody knew what in the hell that was. To me, in a strange kind of way, McCartney and that little violin shaped bass somehow really grabbed my attention. The tone that he had, and the way he went about playing it with a pick, more like a guitar player. It really got my attention. Then I found out what the bass was. I had a little Japanese bass, which I unfortunately no longer have. My first good bass I got in 1970 or ‘71 was a Hofner Beatle bass which I still own, it’s in mint condition. It’s like a ‘64 or ‘65. And the first rock concert I ever saw was The Dave Clark Five. My Dad took me. That whole stigma got me.
You said your Dad didn’t play. Were there any musicians in your family?
My Mother played violin in the Junior Symphony or something before I was born, but that was many years ago and she didn’t really keep up with it. I was an only child, so I was kind of like a pioneer.
Who were some of your major musical influences through the years?
I don’t want to be tongue in cheek about this, but when FM radio came along, they began playing album cuts and stuff, and I was influenced, obviously largely by The Beatles and by The Stones, I loved them, The Who, I loved John Enstwhistles bass playing. I was a huge Cream fanatic. I was really influenced by Jack Bruce. Of course, Mountain, and Felix Pappilardi, and Jack Casady certainly caught my ear. And not to sound tongue in cheek again, but when The Allman Brothers came out, me and a friend were driving around out by a lake near Nashville, and there was an FM station at the time that would just put an album on and let the whole damned thing play. So me and this friend were out driving around the lake, we were under age but we had us some beer, and they played that first Allman Brothers record. It just knocked me in the floor. That was a major influence. I’d never heard anything like it. I found myself playing in some horn bands when I was young too, so I was influenced by Jim Felder, who was the bass player for Blood, Sweat & Tears. Peter Cetera, before he went to Vegas. (Laughs) The bass player in Chicago. The next big milestone for me was Mahavishnu Orchestra. I was a music major at MTSU, which is a little college in Murfreesboro, which is thirty miles from Nashville. This friend of mine, who was a classical guitar major, came in one day and said, “I got a record I want you to hear.” It was Birds of Fire, which was the second Mahavishnu record. Behind The Beatles, hearing the Mahavishnu Orchestra really got my attention. It was The Beatles, and then hearing The Allman Brothers thing, and then Mahavishnu. Of course, I felt a connection to The Allman Brothers because Gregg and Duane were from Nashville. I was really proud that they were actually from this area, especially those two. They seemed like the real pioneering thing behind The Brothers. And Berry Oakley as well, he wasn’t from around here, but the way he played bass really got my attention. But when I heard this Mahavishnu record, it was like, wow, this is a whole new level, something I haven’t checked out. It’s very much like the English bands, I mean, thank God for people like Clapton, and Keith Richards, and George Harrison, folks like that who were dropping names about all of these blues guys who were in my own back yard. I had some exposure to it as a child because my Dad was into it, but when you start hearing things like that London Howling Wolf session that Clapton was on, and being a fan of The Beatles and Cream, you start saying well, if these guys are into it, then I need to listen to them and see what’s going on. It’s a similar thing with John McLaughlin. You say, who has he played with, who has his drummer played with, well, they both played with Miles, and Jerry Goodman had played with The Flock, and you start looking into who Miles was influenced by, this guy or that guy, and suddenly you find yourself listening to John Coltrane, and Charlie Bird and Charles Mingus. It’s like going to music school.
It’s the same with the old blues players.
That’s a whole nother level. You start hearing Robert Johnson, he and Willie Dixon and Muddy all influenced Led Zeppelin. You hear Page and people talk about all of these artists, and you get hit by Robert Johnson and it just blind sides you, because it’s so raw. It’s such emotional, from the gut music. You know, they weren’t making any money back then playing that music, they never made a dime. What a terrible irony it is that when they became famous, they’d been dead for thirty years. We’re especially bad about that in America. You go to other counties, like Japan and Switzerland, and you see what reverence they have for musicians. Let’s face it man, if you grew up in the South, that’s where all of the classic American music forms were started. I mean country, blues, jazz, rock and roll. It all came from like three states, a tri-state area, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, right there in that area. That was pretty much the hot bed for what would become all of these classic music forms. So you have a plethora of this stuff, and some of these guys couldn’t get arrested here, but in other countries they were highly respected and revered. What we choose to embrace musically never ceases to amaze and sicken me.
Some of the things the kids are buying is unbelieveably bad.
Like MTV. Warren and I were looking at a Rolling Stone magazine on the bus the other week, and they had an interview with Tom Petty, who I think is just a marvelous artist. He was calling it like he saw it. MTV did do some good things, and helped to call attention to some people it needed to, but, he said something in there about not being into game shows. Now if you turn on MTV, they have all these trite game shows.
It’s all game shows, teenagers on the road and gangsta rap.
Once again, they’ve shanghaied us. They slipped one by us. Now, VH1, which I guess is a part of MTV, has some great stuff, like the Legends series, and Behind the Music. In Canada, they have a TV show called Much Music. Man, they are worlds ahead of us as far as showing some of the cooler, neater music. They had live music on there before MTV. They had live performances by people who really had musical calibre. Unfortunately, we are still in the wake, in the backwash of this giant ocean liner called MTV, where you can get a record deal if you’re young and thin, which we are not...
Yeah, you look at some of the beast bands in the world were some of the ugliest fuckers on the planet.
One of the great things about the Mule is the way you guys, like The Allman Brothers, don’t tend to dress up in fancy clothes or costumes onstage. Like Toy Caldwell of the Marshall Tucker Band once said, ‘We wear the same damn clothes onstage that we are wearing on the bus.’
Toy Caldwell is a personality and a musical presence that we all sadly miss, he and his brother both, for that matter. I thought Tommy had a real Berry Oakley type thing going in his playing. He was obviously influenced by Berry, and then he took it to a whole different place. People like that, like the original Marshall Tucker Band, Paul Riddle is a dear friend of mine, he’s a good friend of Warren’s and Matt’s. That guy is a slammin’ player. The whole thing that they had going on with that band was great. The songwriting was great, Toy’s guitar playing, with the Wes Montgomery thumb-picking was great. That was a deep, cool thing.
That’s one of the things I like about Gov’t Mule, is the intense jamming onstage.
About the jamming, I never was a really huge fan of The Grateful Dead. I saw the guys a couple of times, but I always liked things to rock a little harder. I think that bands like Cream and Hot Tuna were overlooked a lot as jam bands, but they had a harder edge.
Tell us how you feel about your old band mates, The Allman Brothers Band.
Oteil and Derek are dear friends of ours, always have been. We really love Derek, and are proud of what he’s doing too. Jaimoe and Gregg Allman are very dear friends of mine, and will remain so until one of us drops and is planted in the ground. Jaimoe is a wonderful drummer, a wonderful musician that taught me about playing music, a lot about listening to music. It’s the same with Gregg. Thank God he’s straightened up. The real Gregg Allman, when he’s not screwed up, which these days is all the time, he’s a wonderful guy, man. He’s a singer’s singer. He’s best blues singer that’s ever been poured into a white body. He’s extremely knowledgeable about people like Little Milton. I knew who little Milton was, but I’d never been into him. Gregg got me into him, and now we are on his new record. (Welcome to Little Milton, Malaco 7500) It was a joy. Once again, I learned tons about music from Gregg and Jaimoe. I learned about writing music with Gregg. And Warren too. Warren is a great writer.
How did you come to join The Allman Brothers Band in the first place?
Artimus Pyle introduced me to Butch Trucks. Talk about it being a small world. I’ve been to Jerusalem with Artimus, we have been down some highways together. We were working on an APB record down at Butch’s studio which never got released. Warren, Matt, Johnny Neel and Marty Prevatt had just finished recording The Dickey Betts Band album there, and then we came in. We were working there when Butch heard me playing and said that they were reforming The Allman Brothers, and he thought I’d be the one for the bass position. Artimus had told him, “Man, he was born to do this gig.” So I went down and auditioned, and got the gig the same day.
Warren and I were casual friends. We had met just prior to that. And you know who introduced me to Warren? Artimus Pyle, once again. But we were in the Brothers, and one night on the bus, we were listening to Cream, and I turned to Warren and said, “You know man, with the right drummer, we could have a power trio like there hasn’t been in thirty years.” And he said, “Yeah, with me and you and Matt Abts.” So we went out , we were playing The Greek Theatre, and we went out to The Captain’s Cabin to hear Matt play. We did a little jam, and it got reviewed in the paper. Like we were a regular band. They raved about the interplay between people, and everything. With that in mind, we formed, if you will, Gov’t Mule, and it turned out so cool, and was so rocking, we started going out on the road in between Allman Brothers gigs. It was like, wow, this is our band. And you know, you don’t want to work for somebody else your whole life, you want your own thing. The Brothers had reached a point where the creativity had died way down, and we were feeling like we had a lot of creativity we needed to get out. So we were on the road with The Black Crowes. We were backstage with Chris Robinson and some of the others, and Chris said, “I hope you guys know that you’re poised to happen and you really need to get out and do your own thing.” So we had pretty much already decided, and gave our notice after The Beacon run in 1997. So we’ve been together, a little family in a tube, going down the highway for five years now. We just finished our fifth year. But I couldn’t ask for two more creative and special musicians to play with.
What can you tell us about the new album you’ve just finished recording?
It is by far the most eclectic, best performed, best written, best produced album that we’ve ever done. Once again, Michael Barbiero was in the pilot’s seat producing. We are very blessed that we had Ben Harper come in on it. Johnny Neel is on it. We were very lucky that a lot of our friends came in to play on it. What we are trying to do is not dissimilar from what the Beatles or Cream did, where you look in there and George Harrison was playing on a Cream record, like he played on “Badge.” But this is the best performance we ever did in the studio.
Here comes the equipment question. What type of bass rig do you use, and what kind of guitars?
I do tend to collect guitars. I use several custom basses that were made for me, but as far as brand names, I tend to play Gibson and Epiphone stuff. I have a lot of the nice, older Thunderbirds, and I’ve got some of the new ones. And Epiphone, which are guitars made in Korea, that used to be made in America by Gibson. You know, a lot of Fender guitars are made in Korea. They make some really cool guitars. I find myself using the Jack Casady model Epiphone bass, the Gibson Thunderbirds, vintage Gibson EB-1’s, EB-2’s. They’re a real good working man’s guitar. As far as amps, in the studio, I use Ampeg SVT’s exclusively. We just finished a tour with The Dave Matthews Band, and I would have to travel in a lear jet, so I’d find myself taking a Steinburger bass with me. They look a little weird on a big guy like me, but they’re a good working tool.
How was the Matthew’s tour?
Great. It’s about time they are getting their due. Dave is the quintessential pop artist. For once, pop doesn’t have to have a bad connotation, because the songs are well written, and the guys in his band are great players. Warren and I have known those guys since 1995, when we did the H.O.R.D.E. Tour together. If anything, those guys have gotten even nicer, and they were nice as hell to begin with. It’s refreshing to see a group of guys come off the stage that have just made a million-dollars, and be nice and cordial, and thankful for what they’ve got.
That’s the same way I see you guys.
One thing I feel about the Mule is that we are there for each other. I’d do the same for them anytime. Sometimes you have to thank your maker that you’re in this position, playing great music with good friends. You don’t want to ever take for granted that God almighty has put you in the same plane with guys who are dedicated to making good music. I read one time that John McLaughlin said this, about that really fancy double-neck guitar with the design with all of those vines on it. He said the reason he had those was because he felt a musician should be like a vine growing up a tree, where you are constantly evolving upward as a musician, and as a human being too. I mean, it kind of goes hand in hand.
You can’t be a great musician and be a miserable schmuck. I guess you can for a season, but trust me, it’ll wear off. You’re on this path, and hopefully it’s always a path of increased enlightenment and God-consciousness, and you get closer and closer, then one day you leave this tent they we call a body and hopefully go to a better place. You have to, hopefully, become more descent, instead of less so, and become a better player instead of less so, and become more creative, instead of less so.
Rest in Peace, Brother Woody: August 26, 2000