Rock ‘n’ roll fantasy, Part XVII

Depending on how long you’ve been reading this rag, you may have wondered by now why Xpress places on its cover each December yet another chapter in the Chronicles of Christmas Jam.

To put the story in proper perspective, it’s worth noting that this particular fantasy saga has now eclipsed the total installments thus far of Rowling’s Harry Potter books (six), Lewis’ Narnia epics (seven) and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (or it ties, if you insist on counting The Hobbit).

In any case, it seems this hometown dynasty has as much or more stamina as kid wizards or talking lions ever did: Christmas Jam author Warren Haynes will unveil Volume XVII of his own renowned best seller Saturday, Dec. 17 in this, the Year of our Mule 2005.

While the Jam’s forthcoming multi-million-dollar, 20-part movie deal is still mired in negotiations, there remains the persistent question of the mega concert’s unrelenting intrigue.

It’s also worth noting that the annual story contradicts a pair of cornerstone Xpress guidelines. House credo on event coverage discourages spotlighting events readers can’t attend if they didn’t snag their “precious” from the misty mountain box office some three weeks back. Christmas Jam stories also remain largely devoid of conflict angles. As a number of current and former city councilmen, local musicians and police chiefs can attest, Xpress aims high in the arena of conflict in its reporting.

Yet once again, we’re not here to tell about how Warren has really been diverting the Jam’s six-figure Habitat for Humanity kick-down to lobbyist Jack Abramoff, nor that bassist Dave Schools and tattooed Mule drummer Matt Abts are really orcs doing the evil of Lord Sauron.

No, the money’s still going where it’s supposed to: None of the artists gets paid — never have — and more than $100,000 has served Habitat for Humanity following each of the last two Jams; the all-time total is spiraling toward the half-million mark. Adding to the charitable import, this year’s funds are earmarked for a pair of houses for New Orleans families displaced to Asheville after Katrina.

Beyond the annual philanthropy, the newsworthiness of the Jam persists for a very obvious, fun reason: The show rocks. It scores without fail as a musical evening boasting enough mystery, history and magic to rival even Frodo and his outlandish gang busy trying to save their own native habitat.

The talent

Yes, we’ll continue gawking over Warren and Co. this year (or “butter his toast,” as bassist Dave Schools tells us he does Hot Tuna bassist Jack Casady). Perhaps the highest ranking nominees on this year’s Harry Carry/Holy Cow scale would be the legendary Dr. Ralph Stanley, whom Warren calls “the godfather of bluegrass,” or the oft-debated (but nonetheless widely respected) guitarist Trey Anastasio, appearing in his first Jam alongside former Phish-mate Mike Gordon.

In all seriousness, when else can you muse on Trey and Dr. Ralph in the same breath in bluegrass-heavy WNC and not get punched in the face for uttering blasphemy? Some might say one is like the Gandalf of bluegrass, while the other is closer kin to other Tolkien characters we won’t mention here in the interest of charity.

To flog the dead Shadowfax of Tolkien lore one last time, Gordon’s own pouffy hair and goofy disposition perhaps recall a young Samwise Gamgee, particularly when one considers his unquestioned faith as the lone dissenter in the otherwise mutual destruction of Phish in 2004.

This year promises a number of intriguing possibilities where Anastasio and bassist Gordon are concerned, and while an official press release claims their appearance will be acoustic, Warren seems less sure, telling Xpress, “I’m just gonna let them do whatever they wanna do … but there’s gonna be a lot of potential for [electric] jams …”

The smart money has a plugged-in Mike and Trey playing a Phish tune and a bunch more heady stuff, possibly alongside the likes of keyboard alien John Medeski, jazz-guitar virtuoso John Scofield and Warren. (Upping the probability of an electric-jam-centric performance, legendary Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann was added to the bill backing Trey and Mike.)

Another noticeable star and apparent left-field choice is onetime contemp-country stalwart Marty Stuart, who, along with the gritty, honky-tonk-schooled Patterson Hood and Jason Isbell of the Drive-By Truckers, marks something of a good-ol’-boy factor on the 2005 roster.

The easily underestimated Stuart has turned away in recent years from his glitzier, CMT-friendly successes of the early ’90s, coming back to something a bit purer in spirit and intent. Armed now with his own label and a sharp backing band, Stuart, on his latest releases, exhibits a flurry of inspired work, including a smoking live bluegrass set, a fantastic gospel effort and a subdued country concept record set in motion by the tribulations of the Lakota Indians.

Stuart, a noted mandolin and guitar shredder who early in his career backed both Johnny Cash and Lester Flatt, explained this apparent career dichotomy to Xpress via phone from his Nashville offices. “It shows you how far I have walked away from where I come from to try to get to where I was going. … That was my goal [back then], to be rich and famous and have a famous hillbilly band that wore cool cowboy clothes,” he imparts in a Mississippi-gentleman drawl.

But he goes on to add that his current projects, sans the chart-topping success of 15 years ago, “are the kind of records that will outlive me. Forty years from now, they’ll be the records that will help define who I was in my journey on Earth.”

The Coe factor

“I’ve learned not to be surprised by [Warren],” says bassist Schools. “The fact that there’s country [at the Jam], or jazz, or heavy rock: none of that surprises me ever coming from Warren. He’s very, very well-rounded musically. In fact, the only thing I think I’ve never seen him do would be a punk or new wave cover.”

This year’s country factor is especially deep-rooted in hometown hero Haynes, whose first big-time gig entailed supporting the occasionally notorious outlaw countryman David Allan Coe.

“Playing with [him] was definitely a trip.” Coe is, continues Haynes, “the madman that people make him out to be … [but] I learned a lot from being exposed to the good and bad that go with that organization.”

Warren points out that it was Coe who introduced him to Dickey Betts and Gregg Allman, ultimately leading him to the Allman Brothers gig, which later led him to a federally issued Mule, then to The Dead and ultimately more Allmans, then even more Gov’t Mule.

Besides being a gracious host and fellow human being, Warren somehow makes each year’s Jam as important as the last by putting together an ensemble cast, then cutting them loose on one another for a night of unpredictably memorable music. Warren and the rest of this year’s Xpress interviewees declined to fill in the blanks on who will play on what, and with whom, at this year’s Jam.

But if you’ve got a ticket, you’ll know soon enough. (And if you don’t, you might just remember to prance more enthusiastically to next year’s box office.) With fans coming now each year from across the country and even from overseas, it’s no longer a question of whether it will sell out, but when.

Warren, whose pet Mule will perform again this year as a polished, Southern-minded, heavy rock ‘n’ blues quartet, summed up thusly his own local-epic tale: “One of the things I encourage people to do is look at the roster of amazing talent and put together little one-off experiences that may never happen again in that exact way, or may lead to something in the future.

“That helps illustrate the diversity of what this thing is meant to be. If it was all one type of music for eight hours, it might get a little hard to deal with. But the fact that it musically takes you on a journey, crossing from one genre to another, I think is a very cool experience, and makes it much easier to hang for the long haul.”

Six degrees of Christmas Jam: Warren, not Bacon, is the center of the universe

Brad Pitt: Go. Brad Pitt (1) is currently having Hollywood relations with one Angelina Jolie (2), the former wife of a certain Southerner named Billy Bob Thornton (3). Mr. Thornton appears in the film Sling Blade alongside the inescapable Col. Bruce Hampton (Ret., 4), a decorated veteran of Xmas Jams past and present. The Colonel remains good mates with one Dave Schools (5), a member of Hampton’s Stained Souls from the 2003 Jam (and whose main band, Widespread Panic, starred many moons ago in a concert film directed by a young Thornton). Anyway, Schools returns to the Jam in 2005, his sixth appearance in as many years, and you better believe he’ll be playing with a Mr. Warren Haynes (6) before the night is spent.

Billy Graham: Go. Despite whatever reservations this other famous local boy may have about the music on tap at the Jam, the good Reverend undoubtedly nods in approval at the 100-grand-plus going to Habitat for Humanity each year. In any case, Graham (1) has met more than just a couple of times with President George W. Bush (2). In an unexpected display of music savvy, Bush presented an ailing Johnny Cash (3) with the National Medal of the Arts in 2001. As it turns out, in the early ’80s, the late Man in Black hired into his band a talented young guitarist and mandolin player named Marty Stuart (4). Stuart once recorded a duet with first-time Xmas Jammer Dr. Ralph Stanley (5) (who takes his own fashion cues from Cash). Both men are apt to appear this year alongside Haynes (6).

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