"It's really fun, and it's a rare opportunity for me to perform this way" Haynes, 46, says of the solo act he's presented only a couple of dozen times since creating it as an opening act to Phil Lesh & Friends' 2001 summer tour. "It's a different side of me. It's more from a singer-songwriter standpoint. When it's just me and the guitar, everything is different -- the approach, the focus, the song selection, the style of play.
It's very liberating in a lot of ways."
One obvious benefit of this artistic freedom is the Haynes-penned tune "Beautifully Broken." The ballad is a staple of Phil Lesh & Friends and Gov't Mule sets, but when delivered by Haynes as a solo, stripped down to its soul-stirring essence, the meaning and emotion truly hit home. An excellent version was captured on Haynes' 2003 release Live From Bonnaroo. From the opening whisper of "Mysterious..." to the chorus "She's so beautifully broken / Shaped by the wind / Dangerously twisted / Here I go again," it's a work of tragic glory that's a true treasure in Haynes' considerable canon.
But such mastery of his own material doesn't mean Haynes doesn't face challenges when preparing for his solo act. "It's intimidating when I do this at something like Bonnaroo or Jazz Fest, to play in front of that size of a crowd and to keep them interested, because they're not necessarily there to see just you," he says. "And it's a lot of space to fill. Mule's a rock band, and that's what we do -- fill space. I have to really work to fill it."
Not that Haynes is any stranger to hard work. He's often referred to as "the hardest-working man in rock 'n' roll" because of a relentless touring schedule that often has him playing with three different bands on tour at the same time. But, he says, that's exactly what he wants.
"It's always been my goal to be a solo artist, to be in a band, and be in a band where I am the primary singer-songwriter," Haynes says. "I often write songs that don't work for what project I'm involved with at the time. And there are times when the majority of your audiences wants something that is not in your heart at the moment."
One constant in the three decades Haynes has been performing live music is his guitar work, undoubtedly his bread and butter. Ranked by Rolling Stone as the 23rd-greatest guitarist of all time, Haynes' first break came when outlaw country-western great David Allen Coe hired him for his touring band. From there, Haynes landed a spot in a side project of Allmans guitarist Dickey Betts, which ultimately paved the way to permanent membership in the Allman Brothers. In 1994, Haynes, along with Allmans bassist Allen Woody and drummer Matt Abts, formed the heavy-hitting Gov't Mule as a means to perform original material as well as revive the tradition of the power trio.
Over the years, Mule has continued to provide Haynes his primary artistic outlet, and the band stands out as one of the finest purveyors of American rock touring today, a group that strikes the rare balance of light and dark, of fist-pumping rock and groovy jams.
But such a balance shouldn't surprise anyone who has studied Haynes' musical trajectory. Spending his formative years in Asheville, N.C., with his older brother and his dad, Haynes first picked up a guitar at age 12. From his own tastes, he listened first to a lot of soul before eventually discovering blues and jazz. Though at first he rebelled like any good teen, Haynes picked up from his dad an appreciation of country stars such as Ralph Stanley, Merle Haggard and Hank Williams. The Grateful Dead oozing out of his older brother's room intrigued him, though it'd be years later before he became a fan. But such growth and discovery is just part of the path music takes in your life, Haynes says.
"When something's really good, it's just that -- really good," Haynes says. "People that excel in any genre are the greats. They're giants in my opinion."