The New School of Gov’t Mule (Relix Revisited)
But you can’t think that a man who titled Gov’t Mule’s latest opus Déjà Voodoo doesn’t have some first-hand experience of knowing “the truth is out there”—or, in Warren’s case, “in there.” As well grounded as the seminal guitarist seems, there is an element of being attracted to the dark side. Haynes got his first stint in the limelight in 1980, at the age of 20, playing guitar with outrageous country maverick artist David Allan Coe, who wrote such outsider classics as “Take This Job and Shove It,” and equally distinguished himself by living in a hearse parked outside of Nashville’s fabled Ryman Auditorium. While Warren never bunked in with Coe, he does admit to having preternatural powers that first emerged in dreams that foretold the arrival of wayward relatives or finding lost objects. But perhaps the most significant manifestation of his special powers appeared at 14, when the young picker penned a song that would strangely predict a key event in his life.
“I wrote this song called ‘Sky Man,’ and it was me singing to Duane Allman. This had to be in 1974 or so—it’s like me singing directly to him. It’s kind of like I’m telling him he’s an inspiration to me in the song—and remember he’s been dead three years by now— but also the song says something about me being there in that scene years later. One of the lines goes, ‘Now your brothers all know me’ or something like that. But it was one of these weird songs that I wrote, never showed anybody, but I think about that now and it’s so strange that I actually predicted what was going to happen to me 15 years later—that I would be a member of the Allman Brothers.”
It was in fact, as members of the Allman Brothers—who have many of their own brushes with the unseen world—that he and Woody had first sewn the seeds that would later germinate into Gov’t Mule in late 1994. The two compatriots decided that they needed more artistic stimulation than the then-creatively inert jamband progenitors could provide. Along with Dickey Betts’ skinbeater, Matt Abts, they formed an outfit specializing in gritty yet artful blues scorchers. The Allmans’ percussionist, Jaimoe, christened them Gov’t Mule. Operating as a side project, the nascent power trio gigged when the Allmans weren’t touring, and recorded three albums before they finally decided to leave the southern rock behemoth in 1997 and pour all their efforts into the Mule.
“When I left the [Allman Brothers] band there was a lot of tension, not a lot of creating going on. There were no plans to do a record, no writing, no rehearsing, and Gov’t Mule was kind of immersed in the opposite of that as far as we were writing, rehearsing, recording, doing all those things,” explains Haynes.
This new outfit was also imbued with a sense of adventure and experimentation but most of all, an artistic impishness. Most people tend to think that the reason they dubbed themselves Gov’t Mule is because of their impressive work ethic, but it’s just not so.
“We usually say that Gov’t Mule means something different to everyone, and leave it at that,” laughs Haynes. “But since you pressed, I guess I’ll tell you. Jaimoe was actually referring to the size of a woman’s ass. But not just anybody’s ass, it was James Brown’s wife’s ass. When Woody and I were still in the Allman Brothers, we had started Gov’t Mule as a side project but we still didn’t have a name for it. The Allman Brothers were headlining this three-day festival in Memphis. We headlined one night and James Brown was headlining the next night. Well, Woody and Jaimoe stayed over to watch James Brown. There’s this part of the show where he was waltzing with this woman who turned out to be his wife. Jaimoe pointed at her ass, and said ‘government mule,’ referring to the size of it. Woody just laughed, and thought it was the funniest thing he’d ever heard. It’s like some sort of Mississippi colloquialism and totally Jaimoe. It just cracked us all up, and we decided to name our band that.”
For years afterwards the band would dissolve into uncontrollable laughter if one of them spotted a woman with rather large hindquarters and even just muttered the words “government mule” under their breath but they had a tacit agreement never to reveal the origins of the name so as not to disrespect Mrs. Brown. But when Adrienne Brown died in a freak accident following cosmetic surgery—rumored to be liposuction on that prodigious backside—the band finally decided to come clean.
“Yeah, we had this real white-bread version of where our name came from,” says Abts. “I guess because we didn’t want to offend James Brown. But after she passed away, we started letting the cat out of the bag. It’s a true story, she died on the operating table. This was something, some kind of cosmetic surgery, and I don’t think she woke up from the anesthesia. Oh, my goodness! I mean just such a bizarre story; she was probably having liposuction on that government mule.”
(Actually, Adrienne Brown collapsed and died at a Beverly Hills, California, clinic, two days after her cosmetic surgery. An autopsy showed she died from a combination of drug use and heart disease—but her memory lives on in Gov’t Mule’s rather strange tribute to her anatomy.)
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