This year’s two-day event promises to be one to remember, with the recent additions of Gregg Allman and Widespread Panic, previously announced acts like O.A.R. (of a Revolution), Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, Michael Franti, and the Phil Lesh Quintet, just to name a few, make the price of admission seem like a steal.
For the 15th year in a row, the Christmas Jam will directly benefit the Asheville area Habitat for Humanity. Nearly 25 families have become homeowners from charitable donations and profits stemming from the annual concert. Each year the Christmas Jam has become synonymous with impromptu jams, unique collaborations, and a few surprises that will make it a much lauded and ultimately unforgettable concert experience. If you can’t make one of the two nights, then seek out the “Xmas Jam by Day” held throughout downtown Asheville in various music halls and bars — you never know who might sit in for a song or two.
Haynes has remained connected with the charitable organization and offers his services both on and off the stage to the Asheville community when he has the opportunity. Already Haynes is in possession of a key to the city, has a street named after him in recognition of his humanitarian and charitable work, and recently was given an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from UNC-Asheville. His contributions to the Allman Brothers Band, The Dead, Gov’t Mule, and various solo and collaborative projects has landed him a spot on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Guitarists of all time.
He is truly a man in motion, a seemingly endless whirlwind of activity who stays busy throughout the year. Although he’s played all over the world, Christmas Jam in Asheville is something he holds very special and looks forward to every holiday season.
Haynes recently spoke to The Smoky Mountain News about the upcoming Christmas Jam.
SMN: Congratulations on the 25th anniversary of the Christmas Jam. Did you ever think it would evolve into what it’s become?
Warren Haynes: It’s amazing it’s been that long, it’s hard to believe it’s gonna be the 25th one. We had no way of predicting it would go even more than a year. It felt good and we kept doing it and it kept getting bigger each year. You know in the beginning it was just a local event, an opportunity for local musicians to get together and have fun. The money we raised we gave to local charities, but it was more about the comradery and getting everyone together.
SMN: I’m sure you still enjoy getting together with old friends and making new ones at the Jam.
Haynes: Absolutely, I try to see as many old friends when I’m home and of course a lot of the people, even on a national level, that come to be a part of the Christmas Jam, are people that I’m associated with. Some are close friends, some I’ve worked with on projects, but it’s wonderful that all these folks volunteer their services to be a part of it.
SMN: The talent each year has always been impressive, when do you start reaching out to bands and artists?
Haynes: It starts pretty early, I would say somewhere around March or April we start making phone calls. We know people’s schedules are gonna change, we’re just trying to get the seeds planted and see who’s interested for the year and see who’s hoping their schedule will be free, but it’s a sensitive time of year for people to commit to so we keep the lines of communication open. Of course people’s schedules will open up and some will close. We’re still changing things even in the last few months of the year.
SMN: Have some of the surprise guests been true surprises or have they known in advance?
Haynes: It varies from artist to artist and year to year. Some people will say, “I’ll be there if I can,” and as we get closer they figure out if they can make it or not. Some will know a month or two ahead of time, but they have some commitment that doesn’t allow them to be a part of the advertisement. Every situation is different.
SMN: How did your relationship with the Asheville area Habitat for Humanity begin?
Haynes: When we first started the Christmas Jam we would pick a different charity every year, and of course we weren’t generating a lot of money, but we would just donate it all. Eventually, somewhere down the line, Habitat became one of those charities and it just felt right. What I love about Habitat is that you can see where the money’s going, you can see the houses that are being built. There’s an underlying question, with any charity, if you don’t know the answer, how much of the money actually trickles down to the cause. With Habitat you see it. We know exactly where the money’s going. It’s a wonderful organization and one that I’m proud to be associated with.
SMN: There’s not a lot of musicians that give back to their hometowns quite like you do. What motivated you to do so?
Haynes: I do think a lot of musicians give back to their hometowns in ways that you just might not see or hear as much about. I think it’s easy for musicians to give back because we’re just doing what we’re doing every day anyway, which is just playing music. There’s something very special about the music that gets played when people are volunteering their services and playing for charity. It takes on the spirit of the event. That’s one of the things I love about Christmas Jam, the music that takes place there is not just a rehearsed, orchestrated show, like a typical concert would be. There’s a lot of flying by the seat of our pants, a lot of impromptu pairings and collaborations, especially people that are meeting for the first time and wind up on stage together. Sometimes lifelong friendships are built out of those moments, but the music itself benefits from that spirit as well because somehow we’re all reminded why we started playing music in the first place. I think we all consider ourselves lucky and fortunate to do what we love for a living, so that makes the thought of giving back that much more appealing.
SMN: You’ve played all over the world in a wide range of venues. Is it still exhilarating to get up there with old and new friends in front of a hometown crowd?
Haynes: Absolutely. Since all of us tend to play music with an improvisational approach, it varies so much from night to night that you never know when you’re gonna have a great night, a pretty good night, or not so great night. It’s something you just can’t predict. You can try to keep the law of averages on your side, but there’s no way to force it, and when it happens that’s what we’re there for, that’s what we all do it for. The Christmas Jam is a great representation of that, so much wonderful music happens because the connection between the audience and musicians on stage is so positive and so strong and that’s what creates that energy that inspires wonderful improvisational music. That’s not to say that all the music is improvisational, it’s just a nice part of the overall picture.
SMN: Over the past 25 years of jams, any of those special moments on stage stand out?
Haynes: Well, there were some bizarre collaborations like Branford Marsalis and Marty Stuart playing together for the first time, which was beautiful to witness. They are both wonderful musicians that possess the ability to go far beyond what people might expect of them, as far as genres are concerned. One of the things all the musicians that are a part of the Christmas Jam tend to have in common is that we all love a lot of different types of music, we all look for opportunities, reasons and excuses to play music that’s different than what we’re known for or what we’re expected to play. A lot of the musicians are open-minded and love to express themselves in different ways, and seeing those kind of moments is very special. Watching Branford and Dave Matthews play together was really cool. One of my favorites was when Ralph Stanley was there, every musician that was at the Jam that year was standing on stage watching, because no one was going to miss that. That was really something to behold, everyone standing there watching in awe at Ralph Stanley doing what he does after all these decades.
SMN: Looking ahead to 2014, what’s to be the future of the Allman Brothers Band? Will there be any more tours or albums?
Haynes: Well, next year is the 45th anniversary. We’re gonna be back at the Beacon in March, there’s other shows scheduled for the year, it’s going to be a very special year. Gregg’s doing great, he’s going to be at the Christmas Jam both nights and we’re going to play an acoustic set Friday night and an electric set on Saturday night. I’m really looking forward to it.