In early March of 1999, Gov't Mule was in a Hoboken, New Jersey studio putting the finishing touches on its latest studio effort, Life Before Insanity. The official release date was still several months away, but optimism was everywhere.
Two years removed from their roles as key sidemen in the revival of the Allman Brothers Band, guitarist Warren Haynes and bassist Allen Woody could finally see a ship on the horizon - and this time it was their own. Both had willingly given up the money and glamour that came with playing in one of the world's most venerable rock 'n' roll outfits, and to some, their decision to join drummer Matt Abts and make Gov't Mule a full-time endeavor was a curious move: Why leave a fabled institution - one that was still playing to sold-out audiences - for another that remained an unproven commodity?
The answer was in the music. For all of the Allman Brothers Band' improvisational in-concert brilliance, their creative hey day had long since passed. Haynes and Woody had helped rescue the band from its late-'80s doldrums, but in the end, even that wouldn't provide enough satisfaction. The two musicians wanted to write new songs and venture into an entirely different realm. Woody was a key link in the development of that new identity. Then 43, Woody was an imposing, hulking, tattooed figure with thick, Fu Manchu mustache (some say he looked like a professional wrestler). It was initially difficult to reconcile his physical appearance with his starkly contrasting personality -that of someone who upon meeting you acted as though he'd known you forever.
His death in late August, 2000 was not just a shock. It marked the end of an era. Allen Woody, born in Nashville in 1955, was a true Southern man (as his accent firmly suggested), and a talented musician whose versatility on a number of other instruments complemented his abilities as a bassist.
The following excerpts were culled from a conversation with Woody that lasted for the better part of an afternoon. The chips and hummus were flowing, and Woody was in the mood to talk. The conversation covered a broad range of topics: his musical youth in Tennessee, life with the Allman Brothers Band, the hoped future of Gov't Mule. But through all the dialogue, one moment was particularly poignant: Woody was talking about a double-neck guitar that used to be played by jazz great John McLaughlin. It sported "tree-of-life" vines, and Woody could relate to the concept. He talked passionately about an interview he'd read that explained their significance.
"The vines represent a musician's path," he said. "A growing vine always tries to find another way to share the musical experience with other people, other musicians. Your life, as a musician, should be a path where you're always trying to climb up just a little higher, and learn something else - a different instrument, a different way of doing it. You should get better and better until God takes you from this earth. It's a constant path to hopefully better you and get you ready for when you leave this earth. That's the way I look at it."
Guitar.com: Gov't Mule is charting somewhat of a new course on Life Before Insanity. For example, the first single "Bad Little Doggie" clocks in at less than four minutes. That's almost unheard-of for you guys. Allen
Allen Woody: On this record, we didn't want to grovel to get on the radio. I think what we've proven is that, yes, we are, in fact, a very viable rock 'n' roll band - and here's some songs you can actually sing along to. There's still plenty of depth. Spectrum-wise, it's broader. Not only is it deeper in that we're treading on territory that we haven't before, but also, some of the songs are more accessible -- more anthem-type, ZZ Top, "Arrested for Driving While Blind" kind of shuffles and stuff. So we have a couple of tunes that cater to that need on this record. So I think we did what we did on the last record, only we dug a little deeper in some areas.
Guitar.com: You and Warren left the Allman Brothers a couple of years ago. They might not be in the midst of a creative renaissance, but most musicians would view that gig as the chance of a lifetime.
Woody: You hit the nail on the head about not being overly creative. The creative years for the Allman Brothers, I think, have passed. What they do now is they go out and they play the same songs night after night, switching the set up a little bit. Warren and I felt the need to go out and create some new music. You know, I never had the pleasure of meeting Duane [Allman] and Berry [Oakley]. It's kind of odd, because I was born in Nashville. I'm from there. I was born in the same hospital that Duane and Gregg were born in I honestly think that, in the spirit of Duane Allman and Berry Oakley, I think that Warren and I are doing what they would have us do.
Guitar.com: So you wouldn't have been content to stay?
Woody: We knew that we had a great band in Gov't Mule, and we knew we could do something with it. When you hear us play It mesmerizes me. If nothing else, the talent that Warren and Matt possess and the chemistry that the three of us have together, you know, it's a once-in-a-lifetime situation.
Guitar.com: Does it fill you with a sense of history to have occupied Oakley's role in the band?
Woody: Berry Oakley is, was, and will always be the bass player in the Allman Brothers. I was lucky enough to be in there. I mean, I played more gigs with the Allman Brothers than every other bass player put together, including [current bassist] Oteil [Burbridge]. But Berry Oakley was always in my mind when I played. Duane Allman redefined - for that matter, defined - rock and roll slide playing. And Berry, being the bass player, didn't get the attention that the lead guitar player got. But looking back, he kicked so many doors open.
Guitar.com: You can call your own shots now. What has it meant to you as a musician to go from an ensemble to the power trio?
Woody: What it's given me, and I think all of us, is just the freedom. In this band, I play bass. In the studio, I play bass, I play rhythm guitar, I play mandolin, I play dulcimer, I play those primas. It frees Warren up to play slide and do different guitar things that he couldn't do in the Allman Brothers. There used to be a formula in the Allman Brothers that made it click The sound was defined with the first lineup. With Gov't Mule, we don't have to look back and say, "What did the guys before us do?" because we're the guys before us (laughs).
Guitar.com: Being from Tennessee, do you have any feelings about the term "Southern rock?"
Woody: As long as people keep it in perspective, it can be a good thing. I just don't wanna fly under the banner of stars and bars (the Confederate flag). I think it puts a stereotype on people from the South that's unhealthy, and that's the whole racist thing.
Guitar.com: Is there an upside to that categorization?
Woody: I tend to look at it more like our influences When I was a kid, my dad was deep into the blues. There was a blues radio station in Nashville, WLAC, that was a clear-channel blues station. The two deejays on there would be playin' Little Milton, Howlin' Wolf, Hubert Sumlin, they'd be playin' Muddy and John Lee. They played the real blues, before it was fashionable. My dad got listening to that radio station and got me listening to it, so I think the positive part of being a "Southern rock" band is that - let's face it - all the musical styles of America were basically born in black music in places like Memphis - the blues - and jazz down in New Orleans. You've got rock 'n' roll and gospel. Those are the only styles we have to call our own in America. And by the grace of God, they came from the South.
Guitar.com: Growing up in a place like Nashville, you must have seen some exciting gigs.
Woody: Like every other kid, I was a huge Eric Clapton fan. In fact, one of my most memorable concerts was with my mom when I was 13 or 14. I couldn't even drive yet, but Derek and the Dominos were playing at the Ryman Auditorium on The Johnny Cash Show. She got me some tickets and took me to that show. It was everybody but Duane, the rest of the band, you know. They played "She's Gone" and all, and man, it just melted me to the floor. I was already a huge Clapton fan the first time I heard him play with the Bluesbreakers, and Cream really made it solid for me. But Derek and the Dominos, I thought, were magnificent. I saw them with Carl Perkins sitting in, and it was beautiful the way Cash handled it. Derek and the Dominos came out, and of course, the audience was full of young kids this night, and everybody was screaming and raisin' hell. And Johnny Cash came up to the microphone. They were gonna tape the band. He came up there in that voice of his and goes [offering his best baritoned Cash impersonation], "All you kids, I'm looking forward to this just like you are. Do me a favor and give us a hand getting' this thing taped, then Eric and the boys are gonna come out and try to play a little concert for you." And everybody was like, "Yes, Mr. Cash!" Everybody was on their best behavior But in any case, looking back now, it was a spectacular thing.
Guitar.com: Back to the present, is 1999 a make-or-break year for Gov't Mule?
Woody: Yeah, I think this is the year that it's going to happen because of the excitement that we have among our peers, like the guys in Metallica. They're huge fans and they're not ashamed to say so. They've beat the drum for us. The Black Crowes, we work with them a lot and they're good friends of ours. We have the attention and the respect of bands that we respect, and I think now that we've got a few years under our belts, I think this is when it's gonna break. No question.
Guitar.com: So you're this Mule for the long haul?
Woody: Man, I'll ride it until they put our asses out to pasture.