The house that music built: Warren Haynes’ ‘Christmas Jam’ rolls on
Twenty-seven years is a long time for anything.
“It amazing to me that it’s still going on,” Warren Haynes said. “It’s getting bigger and better every year, and I don’t think we would have predicted that when we started it years ago.”
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While on tour recently, Haynes phoned in from Warsaw, Poland to speak at-length about Christmas Jam, the annual all-day rock-n-roll celebration in Asheville that raises money for the local Habitat for Humanity. Lead singer/guitarist of rock juggernaut Gov’t Mule, Haynes is known the world around for his solo work atop his endless years on the road as a member of The Allman Brother Band and The Dead. And with all of those renowned stages, acclaimed albums and rock royalty collaboration, it all began in Western North Carolina for Haynes, who was born and raised in Asheville.
From what started out as a small gathering one winter’s night in 1988 at the now-defunct 45 Cherry club in downtown Asheville has now evolved into a standalone beacon of music, community and charity each December at the U.S Cellular Center.
“Somewhere along the line it stopped being a local party and started becoming a national and international party,” Haynes chuckled.
Now in its 27th year, Christmas Jam (to be held Dec. 12) has always been something of a passion and personal project for Haynes, whose musical showcase has led to 33 homes built in Buncombe County. The event recently handed over a donation of a half-million dollars, the largest to-date from the organization. And with their latest endeavor, the Christmas Jam and Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity have broken ground on Hudson Hills (named after Haynes’ son), a subdivision in Buncombe that will eventually be the site of 25 homes and families upon completion.
Smoky Mountain News: How did your connection begin with Habitat for Humanity?
Warren Haynes: In the beginning, we gave to a different charity every year, and at some point one of the charities was Habitat. We really connected and it clicked. I was very impressed with the organization and decided to continue with them the next year, and then made it a permanent connection.
SMN: What’s it like to meet those families?
WH: It’s very emotional, and I think we connect more with the whole concept when we meet the families. It’s a wonderful feeling to get to know some of these people and see how the Christmas Jam changed their lives for the better. We’re all in this together and we all need to work together.
SMN: And that importance of giving back.
WH: As an Ashevillian and Western North Carolinian, it’s important to me because this area helped shape who I am — as a person, and as a musician. On some levels, it’s easier for musicians to give back because we just love doing what we do. But also, it’s important for musicians. Speaking for myself, I’ve been given an opportunity to do what I love everyday, which is a huge leg up. For anybody who does something they love for their work, you have to feel lucky, and I do.
SMN: Did you have any hardships growing up?
WH: I definitely grew up middle class with my dad working extremely hard to make sure three kids didn’t want. That’s not an easy thing to do, and I think it’s even harder to do now. So, I definitely connect with the situations and the families we help.
SMN: What is it about this area that makes it so unique?
WH: I’ve traveled all over the world — as I’m calling from Warsaw right now — and I’ve never seen anyplace quite like Asheville and Western North Carolina. It’s hard to explain, but I think we all may take it for granted how incredible this place is.
SMN: When you’re up there, onstage, say at Christmas Jam, and everything feels and sounds great, where do you go in your mind?
WH: Usually the best musical moments are when you’re not thinking, when part of your brain is just shut off, where you’re just responding and reacting. Those are the lucky times when you’re completely in the moment. It’s what we’re all striving for, especially in improvisational music, where you try to get the closest you can to that feeling every night — it’s the reward.