Coming home

To most musicians, a “jam” is a highly informal affair — a chance to swap licks and drink a few beers, maybe. But for Asheville’s homegrown guitar god, Warren Haynes, it’s a little more complicated than that.

Haynes’ annual Christmas Jam in Asheville (now in its 12th year) has become a veritable who’s who of roots-music heavyweights. This year’s concert is no exception, featuring such luminaries as Gregg Allman (a founding member of the Allman Brothers Band) and John Popper (of the inimitable Blues Traveler).

“More and more these days, people are volunteering and wanting to be part of the jam, because it’s turning into such a cool event,” Haynes told me during a recent telephone interview from New York City, his adopted home. “Gregg Allman and John Popper, for example, we’ve asked in the past and they were just unavailable. That’s true of some other people. It’s all about who can get away from home during this holiday time frame. We got really lucky this year, as we actually always seem to do.

“When I saw Gregg and his wife, Stacy, early this year when Allen Woody and I sat in with the Allman Brothers in Scranton, Pa., one of the first things Stacy told me then was, ‘I think we’re going to try and make your Christmas jam.’ There’s never any pressure, but we have a lot of friends and a huge extended circle, and we kind of just keep the invite out and see who’s available. But it seems like it’s been getting better all the time.”

All proceeds from this year’s jam will benefit the nonprofit Habitat for Humanity, which provides housing for low-income families.

Haynes began to make a name for himself in the Asheville music scene in the late ’70s and early ’80s, showcasing his damn-near-frightening slide-guitar prowess in such clubs as the now-defunct Brass Tap and Smuggler’s Den. He eventually caught the ear of singer/songwriter David Allen Coe, with whom he toured the world for four years. But Haynes real rise to fame began in 1989, when he was invited to join the Allman Brothers Band — just as they launched the famous reunion tour that led to their resurgence as a musical force to be reckoned with. In 1997, Haynes left the Allman Brothers to become the leader of power trio Gov’t Mule. The band quickly became famous for its blistering, improvisational guitar/bass/drums muscle — blending equal parts hard rock, blues, psychedelia and jazz — driven by Haynes’ soulful, down-and-dirty vocals and otherworldly guitar pyrotechnics.

A few months ago, Gov’t Mule was shaken to its core with the untimely death of bass player Allen Woody. Now, Haynes and drummer Matt Abts are taking a hiatus from touring while they figure out what to do next. “Matt and I honored dates to play the Ben Harper tour, and kind of pay tribute to Woody, because those dates had been booked for a long time,” reveals Haynes. “But we’ve canceled everything else that we had on the books. Woody was such a huge part of the Gov’t Mule sound, and the whole concept of Gov’t Mule was based around the chemistry that the three of us had. That’s not something that we feel like we can replace. But a lot of people are encouraging us to move forward and keep the music alive, so if there’s a way that we can that makes sense, we would like to. But we just don’t know what that is right now. If we do keep the band together, it’s going to involve making some changes in direction, maybe making it a four-piece or something. But it’s too early to know now, because our heads have been so cluttered up. … A trio is the most personal of sounds, because it’s so stripped down, and each member has such a big role. And especially a trio like Gov’t Mule that was so improvisational … we had a communication that was almost telepathic, and that’s something you don’t find many times in your life — if ever, you know, as a musician. It’s a rare gift.”

Haynes is adamant that Woody’s death will not put a damper on this year’s jam — emphasizing that that’s the last thing the personable, generous bass player would have wanted. Instead, the concert is shaping up to be one of the most memorable ever. In addition to Allman, Popper and popular South Carolina singer/songwriter Edwin McCain (who also graced last year’s show), such new-to-the-jam notables as the Bottle Rockets and Texas’ bone-shredding Chris Duarte Band promise to lend a fresh edge to the event. And then there’s the Aquarium Rescue Unit reunion: Band members Col. Bruce Hampton, Jimmy Herring, Allman Brothers bassist Oteil Burbridge and Jeff Sipe will take the stage together for the first time since 1994. Haynes also promises several surprise guests — “but I’m not gonna give them away,” he adds mysteriously. (For a complete list of this year’s performers, see the sidebar on the last page of this story.)

More of my chat with Haynes follows, along with excerpts from a telephone interview done with Gregg Allman (forbidden topics: his two-time former wife, Cher, and the rather unceremonious departure of Dickey Betts from the Allman Brothers Band earlier this year) from his home near Savannah.

The word from Warren Haynes

Mountain Xpress: You’ve been doing the jam for 12 years now, of course. I know there are tons of great memories, but can you talk about some of the most special moments for you?

Warren Haynes: There have been many, for sure. A few years back, Toy Caldwell from the Marshall Tucker Band — he was the originator and songwriter and leader of the band — came and did one of the Christmas jams. He passed away shortly after that, so that’s a fond memory for us. And next to me, Allen Woody did more jams than anyone. He was involved in five or six of them. He was always the first to say, “Hey, I’ll be there.” We try to pay people a nominal fee to be part of it, and he would always turn it down. He’d tell us to put his fee back into the charity. I’ll never forget his contributions. Another special memory is from last year, when Little Milton and Susan Tedeschi sang “Merry Christmas, Baby” together. That was really cool.

MX: How and why did you choose Habitat for Humanity as the charity to benefit from the concert?

WH: In the beginning, the charity would change every year. We raised money for the local homeless people; we raised money for Vietnam vets, for AIDS victims. But once we stumbled onto Habitat for Humanity, we realized what a great cause it was, and the last several years we’ve benefited that one. It’s a great organization and, unlike a lot of charities, the bulk of the money that is raised does go directly to actually building houses.

MX: How much money did you raise last year?

WH: Last year — and the money still keeps coming in through merchandise and stuff like that — we raised somewhere around $13,000. But this year, I think we’re going to at least double that. There’s a lot of overhead that goes into putting something like this on. Last year was the first year we moved it up to the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, and that’s a big expense. Plus, just all the flights and hotels and stuff … it’s a big expense. So that’s one of the reasons that we’re trying to make it bigger each year and bring more national acts in, so we can raise more money. I feel confident that this year we’ll more than double what we raised last year. And then there’s also the CD [Wintertime Blues … The Benefit Concert, a live recording featuring a portion of last year’s jam], and the proceeds from the CD are going to Habitat, too.

MX: Is the jam, in some ways, the most rewarding thing you do — coming home and giving back to your hometown?

WH: It’s very apropos, because Asheville is my home and where I grew up, and all my fond childhood memories are in Asheville and from Asheville. I feel like it was such a wonderful place to grow up, and I want to give something back to the community. And, you know, we’ve raised money — when I say “we,” I mean different people I work with and am associated with — for lots of different charities. Like I’ve played for the Tibetan Freedom Concert — which is a great cause, you know — and I always enjoy doing those kinds of things. It seems like, in addition to the fact that you’re raising money for worthy causes, the music and the camaraderie seems to be a little more special when everybody’s doing it for those kinds of reasons.

MX: Do you feel differently when you play in Asheville?

WH: Oh, yeah, totally. It’s a wonderful opportunity for me to come up each year and do something a little bit different than the year before, and to explore all the different sides of what I do as a musician and a songwriter. You know, I love playing acoustically, which is something that I don’t always get the opportunity to do. And playing with all the different bands and just bringing in friends that are part of your life, that you’ve shared a lot of great memories and experiences with, is just wonderful.

MX: Do you plan to keep doing the jam indefinitely?

WH: I would like to. I would like to see it just keep getting better and better. Last year was kind of an experiment. It was taking a big risk to see if we could move it up to the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium and not fall short. We were pleasantly surprised at the amount of tickets we sold last year, but we were scared. We didn’t know if we were going to break even. And the last thing you want to do is lose money on a charity event. But we were so pleasantly surprised that we feel we can keep making it better and better.

The word from Gregg Allman

The Allman Brothers Band has held a significant place in Haynes’ Christmas Jam throughout the years. Current and former members have played in numerous editions of the event. But this year, for the first time, band leader and founding member Gregg Allman will take the stage.

Allman is a true music icon. Throughout the 30-year career of the Allman Brothers Band, his distinctive blues-drenched-with-blue-eyed-soul vocals, guitar and keyboard magic, and excruciatingly stirring songwriting style (I challenge anyone to find a more gorgeously heart-rending love song than his “Queen of Hearts”) have kept the group going, against all odds. Those odds include legendary alcoholism and drug abuse, several official “breakups,” and the chillingly freakish deaths of two founding members within about a year, in the same town and from the same cause (slide-guitar genius Duane Allman was killed in a motorcycle wreck in Macon, Ga., on Oct. 29, 1971; bass player Berry Oakley died in a motorcycle crash in Macon on Nov. 11, 1972).

Known for long, soaring, improvisational flights that ooze testosterone-infused intensity and sheer musical brawn — and such classic tunes as the tortured blues anthem “Whipping Post”; the lush ballad “Melissa”; and the outlaw-with-a-cause paean “Midnight Rider” — the newly revamped Allman Brothers Band (minus a troubled Dickey Betts, of late) continues to ramble on.

Mountain Xpress: Warren tells me that instead of him having to recruit people to play the Christmas jam, musicians are coming to him and asking to play. Is that the case with you? If so, what is it do you think that makes this jam so special? I mean, it’s special to us in Asheville, because he’s a hometown boy and it’s a 12-year tradition here now. But what makes it special to the musicians?

Gregg Allman: Well, he’s been trying to, I guess you could say “recruit” me, for two or three years. This year I wanted to take all of December off and I did, and the first one I told was him. I said, “You still havin’ that thing?” He said, “Yeah.” So I told him I’d do it. And then all of a sudden he started signing people up. It’s amazing. Warren’s a very special musician. Musicians like him, they don’t come down the pike just every day, you know? I first met him in Key West when he was playing with David Allen Coe. That was a long, long time ago. I was down there on vacation, and they were playing outside across the street from Sloppy Joe’s and I just went over there for a minute. And, I don’t know — I might have had too many beers in me or something — but for some reason, I didn’t really pick up on Warren. Maybe he hadn’t really blossomed then. But the next time I heard him … oh, boy, look out.

MX: I know Allen Woody was a member of the Allman Brothers for some time. Were you still close to him? Do you think his absence will kind of hang heavy over the jam this year and color it, in a certain way?

GA: Oh, yes, I was very close to Woody. And I know how he’d want the jam to go on without him. He’d want us to just kick ass, play some good music and make everybody happy. And the last thing he would want would be for the whole jam to be dampened by his not being in attendance. But he’ll be there in spirit — just like my brother [Duane] is there in spirit. They’re all there.

MX: Moving on to the legacy of the Allman Brothers Band and all that that entails, the whole “jam-band” phenomenon has taken on a life of its own in the last decade or so, with a million different groups, it seems like, calling themselves “jam bands.” And the Allman Brothers are widely held up, for better or worse, as sort of the original jam band — although to me there’s a big difference in what you guys do and what all these young bands are doing, not only in the quality of the musicianship but in the spirit behind it. Anyway, do you think it’s accurate to say the Allman Brothers essentially started that whole phenomenon?

GA: The Allman Brothers was and is a band that jammed; it’s not a “jam band.” It seems that nowadays, in the computer age, everything has to have a label. I guess when it comes to indexing music, that’s OK. But I don’t buy those labels. I don’t know what “jam bands” really are, but I don’t think we’re responsible for them. [Laughs]

MX: Speaking of labels, give me your thoughts on the whole “Southern rock” thing that you guys were (and still are) pigeonholed with. Warren told me last year that he felt it was a ridiculous label, as if all rock that came out of the South was the same.

GA: Rock ‘n’ roll evolved from blues, the way I see it. And both of them were born on the Delta. Rock ‘n’ roll was born in Mississippi, pure and simple. I was lucky to have gotten to meet Muddy Waters, lots of those blues pioneers. B.B. King is a great, great friend of mine. Howlin’ Wolf — oh, yeah, he was it. Those guys are what made rock ‘n’ roll. Jazz and blues and rock ‘n’ roll all came out of the South, so it’s kind of redundant to call a certain kind of rock music “Southern rock.” It’s just kind of crazy.

MX: The very first concert I ever went to, when I was 15 years old, was an Allman Brothers concert in Atlanta. It absolutely, as they say, changed my life at the time, and I got really obsessed with your music. I played Live From Fillmore East over and over so many times my mother almost killed me. … Anyway, you guys had this big impact on so many people — particularly kids growing up in the South. Did you have a sense in the early days that the band would go on this long — surviving deaths and addictions and breakups and everything in between — and have such an impact on many different genres and generations? To what do you attribute the longevity of the band?

GA: In the beginning, we didn’t think we would even make it all; we didn’t think we had a chance. What’s caused us to last, though — despite a few hiatuses and some personnel changes — is a passion for the music. We’re not just up there enduring those long shows until we get offstage. We live for playing those shows. Being up there is our passion. The Allman Brothers has some really special thing — chemistry or something, I guess — that just keeps us going.

MX: Your latest solo project [Searching for Simplicity, 1997] is good, but I still think Laid Back (1973) contains some of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard, like “Queen of Hearts” and “Multicolored Lady.” Is the songwriting process easy for you — by that I mean, do words and images just kind of come to you and take on a life of their own, or do you really have to work at it and discipline yourself to sit down and write? Are many of your songs very autobiographical?

GA: “Midnight Rider” I wrote in about an hour. I really did. It just came to me like that. The only thing was, I was having a problem with the bridge and what to do with it. But I decided to hell with it, the bridge will just be instrumental. … “Queen of Hearts” took a year-and-a-half to write, on the other hand. But I just, as you put it, write songs as the images and words come to me. I’m not somebody who can sit down and say, “Yeah, I’m gonna write a song now.” And, sure, how much I write and the kinds of songs I write depend on what’s going on in my life at the time.

MX: What do you think is the best song you’ve ever written?

GA: [Laughs] The best song is always the next one.

MX: What are you most proud of?

GA: I’m proud of the music I’ve made, and proud to still be doing it. I’m proud we made it to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. I’m proud I’ve found a good woman to settle down with.

MX: I know you’ve seen a lot of hard times and excess and all that, and a lot of people have predicted you’d crash and burn, but your life appears to really be on the upswing now. What’s the secret to being a survivor?

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