Ashes & Dust, the new album by former Allman Brothers guitarist Warren Haynes, is a surprising record, and anyone looking for classic Allmans-style, stretched out blues-rock will be disappointed. Sure, Haynes' bee-stung slide-guitar figures prominently in many of the songs, as does his familiar gruff howl of a voice. But there are just as many tracks where Haynes and the band he recorded with, the Stillwater, N.J. newgrass sextet Railroad Earth, go for acoustic exploration over bluesy-electric bombast.
The real curveballs on Ashes & Dust tend to be the most satisfying songs. "Blue Maiden's Tale" is a startlingly delicate waltz that features a dramatic, almost whispered vocal from Haynes. "Stranded in Self Pity" is a bouncy, jazzy tune featuring Haynes' muted, Wes Montgomery-style runs. "Glory Road" is a dusty, gritty ballad that thrives on the interplay between Railroad Earth's mandolin and fiddle and Haynes' delectable acoustic slide. And that's all before you get to the cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Gold Dust Woman," done as a duet between Haynes and Grace Potter.
Throughout the album, Haynes and Railroad Earth seem to be in total sync with one another, and Haynes says he sensed a connection with the band after being onstage with them. "When we played together the few times prior to recording the album, it felt very natural," he says. "I loved the fact that they play a lot of different instruments, so we could go song-by-song and decide what instruments would be a good fit. It was an organic process. We didn't spend a lot of time rehearsing. We just learned the songs in the studio and recorded them, and moved on to the next song. In each case, they were hearing songs that they'd never heard before. That's the way I wanted to record. I wanted to capture that spontaneity and freshness that happens when musicians play a song for the first time."
In addition to Grace Potter, there are guest appearances by Willie Nelson's harmonica player Mickey Raphael, singer Shawn Colvin, and Allman Brothers alums Oteil Burbridge and Marc Quinones. Haynes says that the assortment of guests appear as a combination of friendship and admiration. "In the case of Grace Potter, she and I had performed 'Gold Dust Woman' onstage before," he says. "We'd never thought of recording it until I was making this record, and something about the vibe of the acoustic instruments and the Celtic atmosphere that was going on, I thought it might be nice to give it a try. Mickey and I have known each other for over 30 years, and he actually played on the original demo that I did of 'Wanderlust,' so it was kind of obvious that he should make an appearance on that tune. Oteil and Marc and I had been performing 'Spots of Time' as an Allman Brothers song, and so I wanted to take some of that onstage experience and apply it in the studio and mix it in with the fact that the Railroad Earth guys had never heard the song before. With Shawn Colvin, I'd always loved her work, but I'd never met her prior to these recordings."
The variety of songs on Ashes & Dust might be startling for some, but not to their composer, who's quite matter-of-fact about why he made the album. "I guess once I accumulate a number of songs that don't sound like Allman Brothers songs and they don't sound like Gov't Mule [Haynes' long-running jam-rock band] songs, then it's time to make a solo record, and that's what happened here," he says. "I've been writing these kinds of songs my entire life."
In fact, the musicians went into the studio with a surfeit of material, around 25 songs. "The thirteen songs on the record are just the ones that I thought flowed together the best," he says. "I still believe in the concept of an album with an overall feel as opposed to just a collection of songs. So there are another 12 songs that we recorded that we haven't released yet, and there's another ten or so that I'm looking forward to recording with them."
Even if the songs themselves didn't strike Haynes as out-of-character, he does admit that his time in the studio with Railroad Earth gave him a chance to stretch some muscles he hasn't used in a while. "It's always fun to express yourself in a different way," he says. "My main objective for this was to capture the songs, and we were able to do that but still leave them open to interpretation and kind of loosen up some of the arrangements where we could incorporate improvisation as much as possible."