20 YEARS OF XMAS JAMS Warren Haynes

You sure as hell can
go home again, son. And the Gov’t Mule mainman keeps proving that year after
year.

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

 

 

For a long time I had a habit of referring to Warren Haynes
as Asheville’s second most famous
native son, after the famed author Thomas Wolfe, who of course has long been
identified with this town located in the mountains of western North Carolina.
But in recent years, there’s almost no question that the guitarist’s fame has
eclipsed the writer’s – as frontman for Gov’t Mule and guitarist for both the
Allman Brothers and the Dead, he’s one of the most recognizable presences on the
international music scene nowadays, and the fact that Haynes, along with his
wife Stefani Scarmado, also return to Asheville each holiday season to mount
the Warren Haynes Christmas Jam as a fundraising event for the local chapter of
Habitat For Humanity hasn’t hurt his profile locally, either.

 

Having attended the last six Christmas Jams, I can
personally testify to how special they are – another habit of mine is referring
to a Haynes Jam as a kind of “mini-Bonnaroo.” 
He started the Jam in 1988 at a now-defunct club called 45 Cherry and
while back then it was just a low-key gathering of friends and fellow local
musicians, it quickly earned a reputation as a must-attend event. As it
expanded in size and scope it moved first to a now-also-defunct, but fondly
remembered, club called Be Here Now, then to the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium (cap.:
around 2500), before winding up at its permanent home, the Civic Center, which
can hold between 7000 and 8000 punters depending on the event. Compared to
pretty much every modern-day arena, the Civic Center
is small, and Haynes also told me once that they’d occasionally pondered what
it would be like if they relocated the Jam to a nearby city with a larger, more
up-to-date facility. But again, his organization felt it was important to keep
things local.

 

Why is the Jam musically significant? Aside from it being
for a damn good cause, and the fact that return-attendees help give it almost a
gather-round-the-communal-fire vibe where old friends are able to reunite year
after year, the selection of artists is always an eclectic one, and the potential
for mind-bending onstage collaborations is always high. From Haynes sitting in
with most of the acts (last year found him and Peter Frampton, no less, in a
pretty fiery guitar duel) and an ad-hoc supergroup one year featuring Marty
Stuart and members of Widespread Panic and Gov’t Mule, to an even wilder set
that same year with Haynes, Stuart, Dave Schools, Bill Kreutzmann and Trey
Anastasio (pictured above, in fact), there’s never a dull moment and always a slew of surprises. And by some estimation
it beats standing out in a humid, sun-scorched field in Tennessee in the middle of the summer, too.

 

Haynes has also consistently demonstrated an uncommon
intuition in picking up-and-coming acts to play at the Jam who go on to become
major artists in their own right. A few years ago a young singer-songwriter
going by the name of Ray LaMontagne came out and won over a Civic Center crowd
with a brief-but-memorable set; last year Grace Potter and the Nocturnals
brought the house down on successive evenings at both the Jam and the
invite-only Pre-Jam party the night prior; and also last year, attendees were
introduced to a band from Athens called Dead Confederate who at the time were
just readying their debut EP and have since released a critically-acclaimed full-length.

 

This year the Jam, celebrating its 20th anniversary, has been expanded to two nights, Dec. 12 and 13. You can go to the
official Christmas Jam website for ticketing info (a few tickets are still
available) and full details, but among the notable performers are Steve Earle,
Ben Harper, the Allman Brothers, Gov’t Mule, Coheed & Cambria, the Del
McCoury Band, Johnny Winter, Joan Osborne, Michael Franti, Travis Tritt and
John Paul Jones.

 

There will also be the usual Pre-Jam  – celebrating its 10th anniversary,
no less – held tonight, Dec. 11, at the Orange Peel venue. For folks who can’t
make it to Asheville
for the Jam proper, the Pre-Jam, featuring many of the performers that will
take the stage on Friday and Saturday, will be broadcast live over local radio
station WNCW-FM
, starting at around 6pm EST. (It’s scheduled to be rebroadcast
on New Year’s Eve.)

 

Meanwhile, around town a slew of other Jam-related events
will be taking place including daytime shows at local clubs the Emerald Lounge,
Stella Blue and Jack of the Wood, the latter a singer-songwriter showcase
curated by Kevn Kinney; these typically feature a smorgasbord of performers who
either are also on the bill at the Jam or have strong ties to someone who is,
so surprise appearances tend to be the order of the day in addition to those
officially listed. Over at the Fine Arts Theatre films such as the Flaming
Lips’ Christmas On Mars, Blasted: The Gonzo Patriots of Hunter S.
Thompson
and Electric Purgatory: The
Fate of The Black Rocker
will be screened Thursday through Saturday, and
there will even be an art/photography display at the Satellite Gallery
featuring works by Danny Clinch, Jay Blakesberg, Don Van Cleeve and others. Initially
a Comedy Jam had also been announced but for various reasons that had to be
cancelled. Details on all this can also be found at the Christmas Jam site.

 

 

As always, proceeds from the Jam and surrounding events will
go to benefit Habitat For Humanity, Haynes’ charity of choice. In Asheville there’s even a Warren Haynes Drive
located on the west side of the city (in the Enka Hills section) that leads to
a beautiful country enclave of Habitat-built houses. To date the Jam has raised
over $650,000.

 

To mark the occasion, Haynes spoke to BLURT from his current
home in New York City,
reflecting on how far the event has come and talking about some of his more
vivid memories from over the years. (He also talked some about Gov’t Mule and
the changes that have been going down with the band of late; you can read that
portion of the interview on the BLURT site HERE.) Each time I’ve talked to
Haynes he’s never been less than a gregarious interview subject, and while he
obviously has a stake in shining the best possible light on his 20-year old
baby, it’s clear that the Jam – and Asheville, and Habitat, and the performers that
come to town to play the benefit without compensation – is one of his proudest
achievements. Quite possibly the proudest.

 

You can go home
again. And each year, Warren Haynes proves it.

 

 

***

 

 

Last year when we
spoke you told me there was already discussion about doing the Christmas Jam as
two nights in 2008 – but perhaps doing one in New York and one in Asheville.
And I know that the idea of moving the event to a larger venue has come up too,
but that would require moving it away from Asheville
since the Civic Center is the largest place here.

 

WH: Yeah, and my thought has always been we should keep it
in Asheville. And
for the 20th Anniversary – I’m not sure if I’d want to do it two
nights every year – we wanted it to be a big blowout, and the only way seemed
to be two nights to make it happen.

 

 

Who on the lineup
this year have you never played with, or never shared a bill with? I see that
Buddy Cage, Robben Ford, Ruthie Foster and Tal Wilkenfeld have been added to the
bill…

 

WH: You know, that’s a good question. Buddy, I’m really
looking forward to seeing him. I’ve never played with Buddy. Tal Wilkenfeld,
she’s Jeff Beck’s bassist and she is taking the jazz world by storm. She is
amazing. Ruthie actually sang on “A Million Miles from Yesterday” and also on
the radio remix we did of “Mr. High and Mighty”; she sang with us in New Orleans this past Jazz
Fest when we did the Deepest End anniversary. And she’s singing on a solo record that I’m working on right now.
Robben is coming… who else. I should look at the list here. I actually played
with Coheed & Cambria recently. Johnny Winter I’ve played with the Allman
Brothers, at the Beacon. Travis Tritt, I’ve never played with.

 

 

Originally the lineup
was announced as Travis Tritt and Marty Stuart together.

 

WH: Marty has a family situation that wanted to be close to
home for, and since he’s come two years in a row…  I was obviously psyched that he wanted to come
at all, but when that came up – you have to do what you have to do.

 

 

John Paul Jones is
coming: I know you’ve played with him previously.

 

WH: Yeah, we played together at Bonnaroo. I’m extremely
excited he’s there. And of course Ben Harper, I’ve played with many many times.
Del McCoury and the McCourys, I’ve played with.

 

 

Putting Coheed and
Cambria and then the Del McCoury Band on the same bill has to be one of the
more intriguing contrasts you’ve ever had at a Jam.

 

[laughs] I think
it’s cool! It makes for an interesting evening of music. If people are going to
sit and watch a show for seven hours, it’s nice to take ‘em on a ride, you
know? A lot of different styles and genres of music. Think back to when we had
Ralph Stanley there – and we’ve had [John] Scofield and Branford [Marsalis].
The scope runs really wide, in other words, of the types of music we like to
include.

 

 

You start planning
the Jams out well in advance, and this year even more so I’d imagine. Yet
you’re on the road most of the year too. So – how many Hard Heads does it take
to screw in a lightbulb for the Jam?
[Note: Hard Head management, based in New York, handles
Haynes, Gov’t Mule and several other bands, plus the Christmas Jam.]

 

WH: You know, it’s a lot! For months in a row our entire
office is consumed by Christmas Jam. And we start making phone calls six or
eight months in advance, checking people’s schedules, letting people know what
the dates will be once they are confirmed: “Hey, keep this on your radar..” But
it’s a sensitive time period because it’s a big family commitment time, and
it’s also a time when a lot of artists are still working and juggling those two
things – and things tend to change. A lot of people think they’re going to be
available but their schedule changes and they then find themselves unavailable,
and vice versa. So we just have to stay on it, trying to coordinate it all. And
as you say, this year more than ever.

 

 

Some of the artists’
commitments grow out of informal backstage conversations too, right?

 

WH: Oh yeah. Casual conversations, cellphone calls, whatever
the case may be. More and more people are becoming aware of the even and are
calling us: “Hey, we’d like to be part of the Christmas Jam!” A lot of people
are like Ben Harper, who’ve expressed interest for years but it’s been hard to
fit it into his schedule – family, business, the fact that he lives on the West
Coast.

 

 

You’ve always managed
to pluck some up-and-comers for the Jam too – I’m thinking Ray LaMontagne
several years ago. I remember watching Ray do a handful of songs to a Civic Center
crowd that for the most part probably was not too aware of him yet.

 

WH: Yeah – this year we’ve got Ivan Neville’s Dumpstafunk,
Ruthie Foster, people that are amazing that deserve to be heard. And we hand
pick people who really want to be there, too. You know, looking back at Ray’s
set, he had not quite made the impact at that time that he would shortly after,
and I think a lot of people regret not knowing who he was at the time.

 

 

And then starting
last year you began having daytime events around the downtown Asheville area – films, the photos at a local
art gallery, the day shows. Did you have a chance to drop in to any of those
shows last year?

 

WH: Yeah, I was able to check out a couple of things. I
dropped by the Stella Blue show and me, Matt, Andy and Bernie Worrell did a
short little impromptu set. And this year the lineup looks really great. Our
office along with Kevn Kinney are working really hard to just keep that getting
better and better. I’m also finding that a lot of the Jam artists and special guests
are expressing interest in dropping by.

 

Plus, Asheville
itself is just becoming a place where a lot of great music is coming out of and
becoming one of the cities that everybody wants to play. Just the vibe, the
overall perception of the town itself and what it represents. I think it’s just
turned into quite a cool little music capital of the South!

 

 

You originally moved
away from Asheville
around 1980, and you once told me that at the time you didn’t feel you had much
choice if you wanted to get your music career kicked up a level. Did you ever
imagine the music scene here – the bands, the clubs, the studios, the overall
infrastructure – would turn out the way it has?

 

WH: No, I would have never predicted it. It’s a whole
different city than it was when I left. I’m so proud to see how it’s grown.

 

 

Aside from family,
what keeps drawing you back here? It’s one thing to return for visits, and an
entirely other thing to become a key local patron, so to speak.

 

WH: Well, Asheville’s
in my blood; it’s my home, and it always will be my home. It’s part of who I
am. I think musicians in general tend to look at the concept of “giving back”
makes a lot of sense because we’re all blessed to do what we do for a living.
That makes it easy not to forget where you’re from. One of the great things
about Christmas Jam is that the spirit of the music is playing for free – like
we all started out. Just playing for the music and for no other reason. Making
music, making people happy. And now there’s the added bonus of building houses
for families that can’t afford homes.

 

So it’s an absolute win-win situation. People find
themselves kind of tapping into the reasons they started playing music in the
first place.

 

 

Do you still remember
the very first Christmas Jam, 1988, at the 45 Cherry club?

 

WH: Oh yeah. There were four or five bands, probably a
couple of hundred people. We raised a fair amount of money and gave it to
charity, and it was a cool thing to do – a lot of fun. But nobody had any idea
it would grow beyond that.

 

 

At what point, then,
did it stop being a one-off and something you thought you could do every year?

 

WH: Well, it was just one of those organic things. We did it
once: “Oh, let’s do it next year…” Then after that: “Let’s do it again next
year…” It never seemed like something we have to do every year, but it kinda turned into the one opportunity for musicians to
get together and play so it took on its own life.

 

 

How about the moment
when you realized it wasn’t specifically a local event but something that was
on the national radar?

 

WH: I remember the first year it expanded beyond just Asheville musicians.
Bobby Keys, who plays saxophone with the Rolling Stones, drove down from Nashville, and Toy Caldwell from the Marshall Tucker Band
drove in from Spartanburg.
Having both of those guys there was a really big deal! Then shortly after that
I did this America Street
benefit with Edwin McCain, and Kevn Kinney was there; the three of us played
together, and I talked to those guys about being part of the upcoming Christmas
Jam, which was going to be at Be Hear Now [defunct Asheville venue that hosted the Jam for
several years]. They helped raise the profile of that gig. Then Derek Trucks
started coming a lot. Allen Woody had been coming a lot too. Those people were
really volunteering their time and energy to raise the profile of the gig. So
it just kept going like that.

 

 

Any standout memory
or memories from past Jams?

 

WH: Oh…. There’s so many. It’s hard for me to choose
favorites to be honest, because there are so many highlights each year. I’ll
tell you one: watching everybody on stage, all the musicians, all the artists
coming up on the stage to watch Ralph Stanley [in 2005] was pretty amazing. I
think that’s the only time that every musician that was part of the show was onstage to watch any particular artist.
That was pretty incredible.

 

Another one: doing “Cortez the Killer” and “All Along the
Watchtower” with Dave Matthews and Branford Marsalis [2006]. That was such an
impromptu thing. Dave and Branford had never played together before. And it
just fell into place so naturally!

 

That’s one of the things I love about Christmas Jam is that
people wind up onstage who have never performed together, and in some instances
have never met before and only know each other through reputations, but somehow
wind up making some amazing, spontaneous music that most people would think
must be rehearsed.

 

 

I’ll tell you one of
mine: 2004, when Jorma Kaukonen effectively fronted a supergroup of you, Matt
Abts, Dave Schools and Charlie Musselwhite…

 

WH: “Baby What You Want Me To Do” – yeah!

 

 

2005: Marty Stuart’s
first appearance at a Jam and also the Pre-Jam, doing Dylan and Byrds songs
with you, Abts, Schools, Danny Louis and Audley Freed.

 

WH: That was really, really special. And there are so many,
like I said. Having Phil Lesh and Friends there was great. The Allman Brothers
all decided one by one that they wanted to come, even though it started out
just me and Gregg, that was really cool. Building the band behind Bob Weir,
behind Jorma, behind Peter Frampton…

 

 

You say “building the
band”: how does that happen? Do you have to sketch out a lot of this before the
players get to town?

 

WH: Absolutely. We start talking way in advance about who’s
gonna be there, and let’s see if we can come up with the ultimate band to put
behind so-and-so. And then hopefully talking about song selections and stuff.
That happens a lot, and I really enjoy it because you see artists playing with
different bands, which kind of forces them to take on a different personality,
you know, by proxy. And everybody rises to the occasion. In some cases you see
some really amazing chemistry happen that never happened before.

 

 

Well, has there ever
been a moment when somebody said, “No, no, I can’t go out there, I’m not
worthy…” That sort of thing? You, of course, are used to flying without a net
anyway.

 

WH: Nothing that leaps to mind at the moment. I’m sure that
might happen. But a surprising amount of the people involved are kind of adept
at that as well. I guess that’s one of the common threads of the artists and
musicians in the bands that are represented: they’re all prepared for whatever
happens; they’re all good improvisers. Some thrive on it more than others, but
once people kind of get in tune with the spirit of the event, they refocus
their energies and their thoughts on what to perform and how to perform, based
on that spirit.

 

 

Some artists seem naturally
inclined. I’m thinking, for example, in 2006 when you and Branford Marsalis
played with the New Orleans
Social Club. Branford obviously has roots in that scene, and you’ve always had
a strong affinity for New Orleans
music too. That seemed a natural fit.

 

WH: That was an amazing set. And of course Branford can play
with anybody! And legitimately and convincingly – he’s not one of those guys
you can just label “a jazz musicians.” A lot of jazz musicians, as amazing as
they are, wouldn’t be so comfortable playing with something like the New
Orleans Social Club, John Popper Project, etc.

 

Speaking of New Orleans –
we’ve done the Funky Meters and the Neville Brothers too at the Jam – I think
musicians in general tend to acknowledge how important New Orleans is to American music. It’s our
richest musical city, and the fact that we haven’t rebuilt it yet is, I think,
a disgrace. I want to include as much New
Orleans music as possible in the Jam each year. You
know, we take some of the money [raised at the Jam] and designate it to go to
the Musicians’ Village in New Orleans.
Musicians need to spread the word about the need to rebuild New Orleans.

 

 

Do you have a
personal wish list of artists you’d like to get for the Jam or have tried to
get for the Jam and for whatever reasons they haven’t been able to make it yet?

 

WH: Oh sure, there are several we’ve been talking to that I
still feel will be able to come within the next few years. I don’t know if I
should mention them all just yet… I’ve been talking to Willie Nelson about
coming. I would love to see him be part of it. We’ll just leave it to that for
now.

 

 

 

Was there ever a point
in the event’s evolution when you encountered resistance from the powers that
be? In some towns, folks in authority and even local merchants might take a dim
view on rock ‘n’ rollers and hippies descending on their fair city. In Asheville, there’s a local city councilman that regularly
goes off on his own anti-drug crusades; he came back from a Phil Lesh concert
reporting that the venue was like “an Amsterdam
hash bar.”

 

WH: I read something about him! [laughs] For the most part
everybody has been wonderful, going above and beyond the call to make the event
happen and to make everyone feel welcome. Hopefully the fact that it’s a
charity event has a lot to do with it! You know, it’s funny. I’ve watched Asheville grow into such
an open-minded city. As with any city there’s going to be holdouts, people that
don’t want it to change too far.

 

 

 

Change: Asheville and the
surrounding county turned just a little bit bluer last month in the election…

 

WH: That did my heart so good – not only to see North Carolina and Virginia
to go blue, but to see Ralph Stanley campaigning for Obama. I thought that was
just tremendous.

 

 

In closing, there’s
something I’ve wanted to ask you for a long time. In 2002, I interviewed you in
your hotel room at the Haywood Park Hotel. When I came up to your floor and
found the room number, yours was the only door that did not have a “Smoke Free” sign on it. The two rooms adjacent to
yours both had the signs. And when I walked in and saw the towel on the floor
next to the door… let’s just say I knew what was up. So my question is: was that a coincidence about the door sign?

 

WH: [innocently]
Oh really? [starts laughing] Ah… can
we go off the record here? [answers off
the record
]

 

***

 

 

 

[Photo of Haynes, Trey
Anastasio, Bill Kreutzmann, Marty Stuart and Dave Schools
by Dave Lores
]

 

 

***

 

 

Links to our (when we
were called Harp) previous coverage of Christmas Jams 2004-07:

 

 

 

 

16th Annual Jam (2004):

www.harpmagazine.com/reviews/concert_reviews/detail.cfm?article=10317

 

 

17th Annual Jam (2005): www.harpmagazine.com/reviews/concert_reviews/detail.cfm?article=10350

 

18th Annual Jam (2006):

www.harpmagazine.com/reviews/concert_reviews/detail.cfm?article=10395

 

19th Annual Jam (2007):

www.harpmagazine.com/reviews/concert_reviews/detail.cfm?article=10486

 

2007 Pre-Jam Jam:

www.harpmagazine.com/reviews/concert_reviews/detail.cfm?article=10485

 

 

 

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