When you're Warren Haynes — which means you're a badass rock-and-blues guitarist, a member of The Allman Brothers and The Grateful Dead, and you have your own band, Gov't Mule, for playing your own crowd-pleasing songs — you can pretty much jam with anyone you like. Which might be part of what inspired Haynes' annual Christmas Jam, held in Asheville each December since 1989.
That first jam was made up of a local cast including Mike Barnes, Crystal Zoo, The Stripp Band and the McBad Brothers Band, but the event (a benefit for Habitat for Humanity) went on to include huge stars like Peter Frampton, Jackson Browne, Johnny Winter, Derek Trucks and Dave Matthews. (The list goes on and on.)
"I'm always looking for music that has a freshness but also some sort of timelessness about it," says Haynes in regard to the artists selected for the Jam. He invited Ray LaMontagne to play in 2005, just after the release of LaMontagne's debut, Trouble. And it was the Jam that brought a pre-artist-development Grace Potter to Asheville the first time. "It's harder and harder to find, but there is stuff out there if you look for it. It's really hard to compare the music people held up in the light today with some of the greatest music ever made," says Haynes.
By "the greatest music ever made," he's referring to sounds like soul music from the late '60s and early '70s. "A lot of the music created between 1967 and 1973 has proved to be timeless," says Haynes. "A lot of us try to take cues from that era. Not only does it represent the music we really love; it also represents some openness and integrity. It was before music was striving to be something commercially manipulated. There was a lot of great music that was created because that was the way people felt. The fact that it was successful was a bonus."
It's those influences (soul and blues, specifically) that Haynes tapped for his forthcoming solo album — his first since 1993's Tales of Ordinary Madness. According to Haynes, the new album (due out next Spring), was recorded in Austin, Texas at Willie Nelson's studio and features an all-star cast: George Porter, Jr. (Funky Meters) on bass, Ivan Neville (Neville Brothers) and Ian McLagan (The Faces) on keys, Raymond Weber (Dumpstaphunk) on drums, Ron Holloway on tenor sax and Ruthie Foster singing backup.
And there's this: "The touring band will be as close to the studio band as possible," says Haynes. "I know a couple people aren't available for the Christmas Jam, but most of them will be there." That's right, Haynes will debut his new group, aptly named "The Warren Haynes Band," at this year's Jam. This doesn't spell the end for Gov't Mule, however.
"I decided to debut a lot of new material. This is a record I've wanted to make for a long, long time," says Haynes. "A lot of musicians thrive on change, myself included. The material I've written for this record is different than what I would write for a Gov't Mule record or even an Allman Brothers record, and it deserves to be presented as such. Now is the right time."
The timing might have something to do with the musician's recent milestone. He turned 50 this year and, he says, "It definitely makes me reflect on everything I've been though. I'm amazed I've been able to stay afloat all this time and still play uncompromised music. Whatever success I've achieved has been from following my heart and doing what I thought was best."
He adds, "Doing it as long as I've been doing it allows me to have some overview about what it is I'd like to accomplish … and to examine what I want to do next. There are a lot of projects that I have in mind. It's important for me, right now, to do all the things that have, up until now, taken a back seat." So, expect more releases, including new Gov't Mule material.
Haynes also plans to do more of the same, especially when it comes to the Christmas Jam. "I never envisioned it growing to the extent that it has," he says. "But once it started growing, thanks to all the amazing artists and musicians and bands that have donated their time and services through the years, it presented an opportunity to make more and more money for Habitat for Humanity, which turned into a major incentive to keep it growing."
Even more than Habitat, Haynes does the jam for Asheville. "I love the fact that my hometown has blossomed into this amazing bohemian town that people come from all over the world to visit now," he says. "Christmas Jam brings people in, in some cases, who have never experienced Asheville before. People just fall in love with it."
— Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.