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Over the hills and far away: Warren Haynes' Christmas Jam returns to Asheville

Jason Bonham's Led Zeppelin Experience played Asheville on Dec. 9. Jason Bonham's Led Zeppelin Experience played Asheville on Dec. 9. Stephan Pruitt Photography

It’s been some 43 years since John Bonham, iconic drummer for rock gods Led Zeppelin, tragically passed away at age 32. But, in the decades since his death, his son, Jason, has been getting behind the kit and holding his father’s legacy up high for all to see and hear. 

“I look out [in to the crowd] and you’ve got generation after generation coming to the show — when you’re [playing] it right, you can just forget you’re actually playing,” Bonham told The Smoky Mountain News.

Backstage at the recent Warren Haynes’ Christmas Jam at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in Asheville, Bonham was one of the headliners alongside Haynes’ Gov’t Mule, Slash & Myles Kennedy, Billy F. Gibbons, Karina Rykman, American Babies and more.

“To be invited back and be able to play sets of my own original music is almost beyond words what that means to me,” Rykman said of her second appearance at the gathering.

For its 32nd chapter, Xmas Jam once again partnered with Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity and BeLoved Asheville in its annual holiday musical extravaganza. To date, the fundraiser has garnered over $2.8 million, resulting in dozens of new homes built and given to local families in need.

An array of special guests also jumped onstage at Xmas Jam, an all-star cast that included George Porter Jr., Bill Evans, Mike Barnes, John Medeski, Greg Morrow and others.

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“[We’re] doing this for the humanities and housing [to help others],” Porter said. “It’s a great cause and Warren [Haynes] is good people — when Warren calls, I’m coming.”

Before the doors opened for Xmas Jam on Saturday, Dec. 9, pre-show festivities were held throughout the “Jam by Day” at venues around downtown Asheville. Kicking off at noon, a slew of live music from local, regional and national acts got behind the microphone at the Asheville Music Hall, One Stop and Jack of the Wood.

Artists at the AMH and OS were Sneezy, Red Clay Revival, Andrew Scotchie, Paper Crowns, Mike Barnes & Friends, The Snozberries, Empire Strikes Brass and more. At JOTW, the “Songwriters in the Round” put a spotlight on Ashley Heath, Leigh Glass, Kevin Fuller, Christina Chandler, Ray Sisk, Morgan Greer, Aaron “Woody” Wood, Kevin Smith and more.

“This is always when I get to see all the local musicians. Most of the time, we’re all out and about doing our own thing — this is the only time of the year I get to see them and hear them play,” said Heath.

For Heath, a native of Marshall and rising Americana/rock act in Western North Carolina and greater Southern Appalachia, “Jam by Day” provides a platform for hardworking, local acts to gain national attention.

“As a musician, the biggest thing that we’re looking for is exposure — a way to get out [in front of big crowds],” Heath said. “And I feel like Warren has supplied the whole community with a way to connect with each other, artists and audiences — that’s everything to me.”

In the moments right before jumping onstage at the JOTW, Smith, a Candler-based singer-songwriter, remembers first attending the Xmas Jam back in the early 1990s, all when the now-massive performance was still in small clubs around downtown Asheville. And, from then to now, it’s not lost on Smith in how not only Xmas Jam has flourished and evolved, but also the city itself.

“[Even] at that point in time, you could tell that Asheville was growing, that something special was happening here,” Smith said. “It’s amazing to see how many people come here for [Xmas Jam]. We live in a special place. There’s so much talent, music and beauty here. All of that adds up together — it’s a cauldron for this creative explosion [we’re continually experiencing].”

A few blocks away at the AMH, blues-rocker Andrew Scotchie hops off the stage after a raucous set in front of his hometown crowd. A longtime fixture in the local/regional scene, the singer/guitarist recalled when he was a young kid just wanting to see and be part of the wild-n-out melodic festivities at Xmas Jam.

“When we were kids, my dad would take us to the ‘Jam by Day’ at Jack of the Wood and we’d stand in the doorway and watch the musicians play,” Scotchie said. “[Xmas Jam] reminds me why I love this area. It reminds me why I refuse to move elsewhere — there’s magic here and I don’t ever want to miss out on it.”

For Scotchie, whenever December rolls around on the calendar, he gears up for another rendition of the Xmas Jam, this opportunity to connect and collaborate with other artists from around the corner or across the globe — all of which coming together for one day in the heart of Asheville’s vibrant musical realm, the effects of that day reverberating throughout the coming year.

“There’s been a buzz at this year’s ‘Jam by Day’ that I’ve never felt before. And that’s because Asheville is really coming into its own in recent years as one of the great music cities in America,” Scotchie said. “[Xmas Jam] speaks volumes to the community we have here, also what we have here in the water — everyone wants to see each other get better at what they do, expand at what they do [musically].”

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