Something so extremely positive about it

“There’s something special about the music that’s made when people know they’re doing it for charity and not getting paid,” says Warren Haynes, longtime guitarist with the Allman Brothers Band, cofounder of Gov’t Mule and the man behind the Christmas Jam. “It’s hard to explain, but it’s something that I feel very adamant about.”

Imagine this: you’re Steve Miller, one of the headliners for last year’s Christmas Jam, getting ready to prove your legitimacy at the Orange Peel pre-jam to a crowd that might think you’re washed up. Backstage, you meet someone you haven’t seen in 30 years — Gregg Allman — and after briefly reminiscing, you invite Allman to an impromptu dress rehearsal in front of a packed house with Ivan Neville on keys. When you get to the stage and your part comes, it’s not exactly just another night on the road.

“Being in the midst of that event, it’s the coolest, most feel-good backstage vibe among artists I’ve ever seen,” says Hayne's wife, Stefani Scamardo, twho runs Hard Head Management. “There is something just so extremely positive about it — the eagerness, the willingness the friendship is so over-the-top and you definitely feel it on stage. That’s why I think some of the jams at the Christmas Jam are some of the most special.”

Sure, subtle nuances in solos and blues- and jazz-influenced improvisations are exposed every night, and at every venue a musician plays. But the atmosphere of the Christmas Jam, with musicians donating their time to a community-driven cause among new friends and new songs, is what put Asheville on the music map.

When Haynes first started the Jam as a small-scale local reunion show in 1989, Asheville didn't have many venues to support nationally touring acts. As the event grew — from a few hundred at 45 Cherry, to 800 at Be Here Now, to 2,400 at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium — so did Asheville’s music community. Now the Jam sells out the 7,000-plus Asheville Civic Center every year.

Brush with kindness

While Haynes believes that Asheville’s rise to musical prominence is multifaceted, he says the Christmas Jam has unintentionally grown to be a vital part of the regional music draw.

“As far as the musical community, I think it’s been a part of the whole movement of turning Asheville into what it’s become — the bohemian art mecca of the South,” Haynes says.

Beyond the impact of hosting a nationally renowned annual music festival in downtown, the event’s sole beneficiary for 11 years, Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity, has seen immense growth in its efforts to build homes for the needy.

“I’m a big fan of Jimmy Carter and the work he’s done since he left the White House,” Haynes says, referring to the more than 20 years President Carter has spent volunteering and hosting annual “blitz builds” with Habitat for Humanity. “One of the things I love about Habitat is that you see where the money’s going — we physically see the houses that we’re building,” Haynes says. “With a lot of charities, you just have to wonder how much of the money is trickling down to the actual cause, and Habitat is not that way.”

Since the Christmas Jam started benefiting Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity in 1999, Haynes and company have raised $950,000.

“Strictly from a financial standpoint, it’s our largest annual house sponsorship,” says Ariane Kjellquist, communications director for Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity. “It’s a significant source of revenue for our organization — it helps build homes. One to two houses a year are built with the proceeds from the Christmas Jam.”

For funds raised from businesses, organizations and communities, a typical house sponsorship is $55,000, according to Kjellquist. The Christmas Jam’s contribution translates to 17 houses in Buncombe County.

The $100,000 raised from last year’s Jam is being used to do more than just build homes. Last June, Habitat began a new initiative to assist low- to moderate-income residents with home repairs. A Brush With Kindness, or the Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative, aims to complete 22 home-improvement projects by the end of next June, and represents an extension of services made available by funds from Haynes’ Christmas Jam, Kjellquist says.

“A lot of people still think of Habitat as a home-building program. Which it is, we’re building affordable housing, that hasn’t gone away, we’re still doing that. But we’ve added a new program so that we can help serve more families in the community,” Kjellquist says. “Not everyone needs a new home, and there are a lot of people that need help repairing the home they already own.”

As the volunteer services manager, Laura Ivey is responsible for “recruiting, retaining and appreciating” the approximately 1,700 volunteers that will contribute 55,000 hours to various efforts of the nonprofit.

To try reach out to a new audience of volunteers, and provide fans flying into town early an opportunity to connect in a more meaningful way with Haynes’ vision, Ivey and Habitat started the Lend a Hand program, a week-long house-building effort that culminates in a wall-raising ceremony with Haynes and the house recipient.

“I think that people love Warren Haynes’ music and they’re here to … come together for the Jam,” Ivey says. “I think people appreciate the cause and I think people understand that it’s bigger than just a concert — that this is something that’s truly going to change the life of a community member. Since Warren Haynes is behind it, they’re saying, ‘You know what, we’re also behind it. We’re going to come out and do what we can do to see someone's life changed.’”

The Lend a Hand program, and the chance to meet the people who benefit from the Christmas Jam’s, provides Haynes with tangible proof that his efforts are working. “It’s very humbling you know,” Haynes says. “It allows me to kind of see in an up-close-and-personal way how important the work we are doing is. When you start connecting faces to the situation and meeting families, it’s a very emotional thing. But I think it’s made me realize even more that what we’re doing is paying off and we need to work even harder to make it better and better.”

Scamardo first recognized that she and Haynes had accomplished their goals after Haynes’ first meeting with new Habitat homeowners.

“To me, that was a really exciting moment,” Scamardo says. “You really were taking the whole process full circle. We had fans coming to the show, buying tickets, the ticket proceeds going to cover the overhead of the show — but mostly to the charity of Habitat for Humanity — and those same fans coming back the next year, coming back early to help build the houses we helped to fund.”

Alan Escovitz is one of those fans. He moved to Asheville in 2008 and works as an adjunct professor in the College of Health and Human Sciences at Western Carolina University. This year marks his fourth Jam and the third time he’s worked with Lend a Hand as an onsite volunteer.

“I’ve been a follower of Gov’t Mule for I-don’t-know-how-many years — probably since they broke into the big scene initially,” Escovitz says. “I love the music; I love blues. That’s part of the reason I enjoy going to the Jam. But the other thing — I think [Haynes] is an incredible role model as a musician and as someone who really cares about our community and people in need.”

Sweat equity

In the week leading up to the Christmas Jam, Escovitz, along with a volunteer team of up to 100 Jam attendees will work to build the foundation of Michelle Bevans’ new house. In trade for what Kjellquist calls “sweat equity” — a minimum of 200 hours a house recipient must spend volunteering within the Habitat organization — Bevans will be provided a house with 0 percent financing and a mortgage payment of around $400 a month.

For Bevans, a Warren Haynes fan who has attended most of the Christmas Jams since the event was hosted in the defunct Be Here Now, her appreciation of Haynes’ vision unexpectedly came back to reward her. Six months ago, after dealing with a divorce that she said left her in a financial mess, Bevans applied for assistance from Habitat.

Four weeks ago, she found out she would be receiving a house. “When I got the call that we were going to get a house, I was amazed that we had gotten to that point,” Bevans says. “Then Byron Alday [family selection coordinator] from Habitat said to me, ‘I’m looking at the schedule and it looks like the first wall is going to be going up Dec. 9.’ Immediately I said, ‘Does that mean Warren Haynes is going to be there?' And he said, ‘Yes, as a matter of fact it does.’” Haynes' presence at the construction site made the news all the more uncanny. “I felt like I had won the lottery,” she says. “I was by myself in an empty room pacing back and forth and crying because I didn’t know what to say or do. It was amazing. Absolutely amazing.” And that's not all: Bevans’ 41st birthday is Dec. 8.

According to Bevans, for her and her two children, ages 5 and 7, the charity Habitat is providing will allow her to escape the burden of debt and plan for her children's college and her own retirement. With better living conditions and more affordable monthly payments, Bevans said the new home will ease the day-to-day struggle.

“In the letter that I wrote with my application, one of the things that I said is that in my life’s work, I’ve always helped other people,” Bevans says. “I’ve always worked in nonprofits and education. My degree is in human services and that’s just what I do.”

Bevans currently works as a lead family services associate at Head Start, a child and family development program that is free for families who live on limited incomes. She believes it’s her “civic duty to be involved in the community,” and as someone who has spent her life providing for the needy, the decision to apply for housing from Habitat was not an easy one.

“It’s sometimes hard to think of yourself in that position,” Bevans says. “That’s why I said this has been so humbling for me. I had to swallow my pride when I submitted that application. To be the recipient of the amount of energy that goes into this and the involvement that the community has, it leaves me speechless, really. Starting Dec. 6, 10 to 30 volunteers a day will be needed to prepare the construction site for the wall-raising ceremony on Dec. 9. Ivey says that Habitat still needs volunteers and that anyone interested should email her at livey@ashevillehabitat.org.

While Bevans might not know what to say when she inevitably meets Haynes on the day fellow fans help raise the walls of her house, she certainly knows what she’ll do once she sees the man who helped put Asheville on the map.

“I’m going to give him the biggest hug he’s ever had in his life.”

— Joseph Chapman can be reached at chapman.joseph@gmail.com.

what: 23rd Annual Christmas Jam
where: Asheville Civic Center
when: Saturday, Dec. 10 (Sold out).

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