Welcome to The Brave New South
Mike Estes Talks About His Friend Allen Collins,
His Days with Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Brave New South
by Michael B. Smith
Born in Kentucky, raised in Ohio and currently living in Nashville, Mike Estes has enjoyed quite a varied career so far, taking guitar lessons from the late Allen Collins; playing in Lynyrd Skynyrd; heading up the Southern Rock meets NASCAR band, Drivin Sideways; playing with The Artimus Pyle Band and The Southern Rock Allstars; and recording with his latest band, Brave New South.
The red-hot guitarist spoke with GRITZ about his past, present and future.
A lot of great musicians live up and around your area there on the outskirts of Music City. Charlie Daniels, Marshall Chapman, Ed King, and Allen Woody...
I haven't seen Allen in a while. At one time, me and him and Ed King, Owen Hale, Johnny Neel and Billy Ray Cyrus played together. we were gonna put a band together. You wouldn't have believed it. Billy Ray Cyrus is a better Southern Rock singer than he ever was a country singer. It was going to be great. It was the best band I was ever in, and it lasted two days.
That Ed King can play too, can't he?
Yeah. He's one of my absolute favorites.
I saw him down in Macon about a year ago in an all-star jam, wearing a Hawaiian print shirt, a pair of Bermuda shorts and a big ol' stogie hanging out of his mouth.
(Estes cracks up laughing)
He led the band, which also featured Jeff Carlissi, through a series of Lynyrd Skynyrd songs. He was awesome. He didn't even pause between songs.
Yeah. Ed's one of my best friends. And me and Carlissi are good friends too.
How did you first become interested in music? Did you always know that was what you wanted to do?
I guess I did, actually. The first music I remember ever hearing, my dad had bought me a tiny little phonograph to play 45's. He had a great collection of Hank Williams records he bought when they first came out when he was in the Navy. He's from Harlan County, Kentucky. It's hillbilly heaven, to say the least. He kept that collection, which I still have. Then when I was about twelve-years-old, I heard Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top. To me it just sounded like Hank playing through Marshalls. The same kind of feel, just more of a rock and roll deal. But yeah, I always felt like I wanted to do that. Then I learned a couple of chords on the guitar, which my dad showed me. He played and sang a little bit. He's a really good singer. He had the talent to do it if he'd wanted to, he just didn't want to take it as a profession. I kind of got it from him I guess.
When and how did you form the band Helen Highwater, and talk a little about the Allen Collins connection?
Allen was always fabulous, I thought. I was so intrigued, I had to find out where he lived and everything. I wasn't a stalker, but I guess I was just short of being a stalker. When I was in High School I went to a library and found a Jacksonville phone book and looked in it. The Rossington-Collins Band was listed in it. I couldn't believe it. So I called it up, and this guy named Craig Reed answers the phone. I was living in Ohio at the time, and it turned out Craig's from Ohio, so we just got to talking. He was their production manager. I was a junior in high school at the time, so I'm sure I aggravated him to death. I told him I had a band, and needed a name for my band. So he got Allen Collins on a conference call, because Allen was coming up with all these cool names, but Craig couldn't remember 'em. Imagine this. My favorite guitar player. I'm a junior in high school, on the phone with Allen Collins. I said about two words. But he says you can have that name Helen Highwater, but you gotta swear to God you'll do something with it. So I did. I played under that name, and opened for Allen, and he showed me all kinds of stuff. He's come and sit in when we were playing clubs down in Jacksonville. This was just at the start of The Allen Collins Band. He showed me everything on the guitar, and moved me up to the next level. I was lucky, I got to learn from him right there at his house. He had so much patience with me. To this day I still don't know why he let me hand around, but he did.
He probably saw the potential in you .
Maybe he did, I don't know. I was also writing a lot of songs and he liked those. He just wanted me to get the guitar part together. (Laughs) But I'd stop by and we'd play for hours. I took an eight-hour guitar lesson off of him on Easter Sunday in '83 that I'll never forget. That's when he showed me how to play "Freebird." It was absolutely unbelievable. That probably had something to do with me getting the Skynyrd gig when I did, because I could play all those songs.
Do you remember what you were doing when you heard Allen had died?
I was at work and I heard it on the radio. I knew he was in bad shape, but I didn't know it was that bad. I had tried getting ahold of him a month earlier, but couldn't because he was in the hospital. Nobody would tell me where. So when I found out about it at work, I took the next week off. It about killed me. It was terrible. It wiped me out. I actually had a gig that night that I had to go play. It was very hard. I went and saw his grave after that and had the closure thing. But I had told him while he was alive how much he meant to me. I still miss the crazy guy. He was so much fun to hang out with. Always on fire. I always said when I had that Skynyrd gig I'd give it up in a minute if Allen could come back. And I would have.
How did you end up playing with Lynyrd Skynyrd?
I'd been knowing Gary and them for a long time, and Ed King had me come out on the road with them for about a year between '92 and '93. I was writing a lot of songs. Randall Hall was still in the band then. Right after that they fell out with Randall. I don't know what happened. He told me they fired him. They told me he quit. Only they know the truth, I guess. But I was out there and I got comfortable writing with Johnny and Gary and Ed, mostly Ed. When Randall left, we were down if Florida doing pre-production work on the Endangered Species acoustic record. They were gonna just do it with two guitars. I was running their board for 'em as a paid engineer. I'd never engineered in my life. One night Ed had to go out of town for something. I was staying at Ed's house. Gary called me over to see if I wanted to write. We started playing at about eight o'clock that night and didn't finish until five in the morning. I knew all of the Skynyrd songs, and we jammed on some of those and some Free songs, all kinds of different stuff. He had actually asked Greg Martin of The Kentucky Headhunters to take Randall's place, but Greg was undecided or told him he couldn't do it. Well, we'd had a little too much to drink that night and Gary turned to me and said, 'Hey man, you want the job?' So I told him I'd give him until tomorrow and let him ask me again. I didn't want him to make a decision like that drunk. So he called me the next day and said 'Hey, I meant everything I said and I want you in the band.' The next few years were the wildest ones of my life. I went from running their board to playing in the band.
What caused you to leave the band?
When Ed got sick with that congestive heart failure, we were finishing a tour up. I had to learn all of his parts in one night. Which, I need a year to learn all of Ed's parts. I got by, but it just wasn't the same without Ed. They hired Hughie Thomasson to come in and play for Ed as a temporary replacement, supposedly. I was a lot happier playing with Ed than with Hughie, and I made it known. Then I was told that Ed wasn't going to be in the band anymore. I went off the deep end. I didn't quit, they fired me. No doubt about it. But it may have been because I was fighting hard to keep Ed in the band. I thought that he was a big part of the sound and the history. Not that Hughie isn't a great guitar player. In his element with The Outlaws, he is wonderful. But it just wasn't the same. It didn't have the same feel. I was just dissatisfied with the whole deal, and maybe the feeling was mutual. But now I have Ed on two songs on my new record. He's great. When I played with him, I just stood beside him and sometimes it was just unbelievable.
I wish I'd been able to see the band when you two were playing together.
Oh it was good man. There were nights when we'd go out and we could do no wrong. You live for those nights, man. You play, you know what I mean.
You've been sitting in a lot with The Southern Rock Allstars. How's that been?
I've been playing with Jakson and the Allstars for the past four or five months. I haven't joined the band yet, but I probably will at some time.
Filling in for Dave Hlubeck or playing with him?
Playing with him! I started out filling in for him when he was having surgery, but then they didn't want me to go home!
They are great guys. Jakson Spires is the salt of the earth.
Jakson is great. Just great. We have gotten to be good buddies.
I opened for them in Spartanburg, and they brought me up onstage to sing "Can't You See." It was awesome standing there watching Hlubeck lay down those Hatchet licks of his. But they are great.
They are good boys. I've been having a riot playing with them.
You played some with The APB too.
I played with Arti for two years, since '98. We played a lot of great shows together. I don't know what the future of that band is, but I'm open to playing with him forever. He's treated me like gold. He's done me a lot of favors. I hope to play with him in the future. I love him like a brother.
Tell us about the band, Brave New South.
I have a couple of guys from my old band Drivin' Sideways, which shall rise again before it's over. That was a really good band. And I have a couple of new guys from around town. And we just started doing stuff, not pure country, some of it is. Lots of Southern influence. Like Dickey Betts said, and he was right, there are so many influences that make up Southern Rock. To me it sounds like Waylon singing for Little Feat or Skynyrd. I'd always heard that Ronnie Van Zant was going to do a record with Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard. Since that never happened, I thought I'd try it myself. That's kinda where I'm coming from anyway. It probably ain't as good as what that would have been, but it's just a raw, Southern Rock country thing, and I wrote or co-wrote all of the songs on it. There are some great guests on it, like Greg Martin from The Headhunters; Ed King on two tracks; a guy that used to play with Merle Haggard, Eugene Moles on a track or two; Jeff Carlissi may be on a track if I can pull it together. He and I want to cut a new version of "Four Walls of Raiford" that he co-wrote with Ronnie. Hopefully we can get it on there, if not it'll be on the next one. I'm going to do a Europe tour by myself on July 30th and I'll be back on August 21. I'm doing Finland, England and Sweden it looks like. And when I get back, we'll release the album within a couple of weeks. I should have had it done before I went to Europe, but there was stuff that wen on that I couldn't control. So our official release date will probably be September 1st. But I have a great backup band over there from Finland, good friends of mine. It's gonna be fun! Finland, here we come!