“We’ve met crews that come up (or down) every year for the Christmas Jam,” says local singer-songwriter Leigh Glass. She, like those groups of return fans from South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, looks forward to the annual all-night concert that takes over the U.S. Cellular Center. And, like those groups, Glass also spends a lot of daytime hours during Christmas Jam weekend at Jack of the Wood for the songwriter jam hosted by Drivin’ N Cryin’ frontman Kevn Kinney.
Unlike the dedicated crews from points north and south, Glass is a player rather than a spectator. This year marks her fourth as part of Kinney’s Jack of the Wood sessions. Kinney, a friend of Asheville-born rocker Warren Haynes, is a major draw himself. He’s been curating the all-day songwriter performances, concurrent with Haynes’ Christmas Jam, since the jam began. This year’s Friday and Saturday, Dec. 11 and 12, productions mark the 27th anniversary for both. The Christmas Jam is sold out, but the Jam by Day and Kevn Kinney Jam are both open to listeners. See info box for ticketing details.
“I grew up here, and I think there’s a good community of music all around,” says Glass. “But I don’t think the songwriters get enough recognition.” For someone like Kinney to spotlight that pool of talent is a boon to both the performers and listeners.
“It’s not just a whiny person sitting up there with a guitar. These are real good, meaty songs. A lot are upbeat,” Glass says. “A lot of the songwriters bring two or three people with them, so you get a miniband.” She’ll be performing with her husband and collaborator, Corey Bullman.
Glass adds, “You’ve kind of got to [be in the know] about the songwriters, like you know about good coffee.”
One of her best memories of Kinney’s past jams is from a few years ago when she and Bullman were set to follow soul singer Laura Reed. But just as Reed’s set ended, a breaker blew, and the power went out. “We were like, ‘Well, screw it. Let’s play,’” Glass says. “We got out in the middle of the floor, and me and Corey and Kevn played together with no amplification. Everyone was crowded around, really listening in, and it was great.”
Glass is quick to add players like Ray Sisk, Shane Pruitt, David Earl Tomlinson and many other repeat performers to her list of favorites from the sessions. Even for those without a ticket to the main U.S. Cellular Center event, the Jack of the Wood sets offer a unique opportunity to catch Haynes and Kinney-approved artists in an intimate setting.
“Everyone loves Kevn, and for good reason,” Glass says. “People flock around him, and he’s always just awesome.” Performances run a brisk 15-20 minutes at the Jack of the Wood event — so if one artist isn’t your pint of craft beer, another will be onstage soon enough (and your favorites are likely to return to the stage to jam with fellow musicians). “You end up staying there pretty much all day,” says Glass. “It’s packed every year, and it’s great.”
Women who jam
Every element of Christmas Jam weekend is (ahem) jam-packed, from the venues to the schedule. The only dearth is in the number of female musicians represented on the roster. This year’s sold-out show at the U.S. Cellular Center has but one woman in the lineup: singer and guitarist Susan Tedeschi.
The good news is that the Jam by Day and Kevn Kinney Jam feature more female performers: Glass, soul and R&B vocalists Lyric and Lizz Wright, drummer Eliza Hill of Andrew Scotchie & The River Rats and Erika Jane Ferraby of local blues and country outfit Red Honey. “It’s an honor to be representing women in the jam,” says Ferraby.
This will be her fourth year taking part in the daytime programming. She’s played twice at Jack of the Wood and once with her full band at the since-closed Emerald Lounge. This year’s Jam by Day takes over both the Asheville Music Hall and its downstairs space, One Stop. Of the latter venue, Ferraby says, “I like the idea that there’s food there, so people can relax, have a bite to eat and listen to a band.”
At the Jack of the Wood sessions, “Everyone’s really tuned into the music and present in spirit,” Ferraby says. “It feels homey, like it should at Christmas.” And although Red Honey won’t be at that venue, the band plans to bring some holiday cheer to the stage, thanks in part to a new collection of seasonal songs.
On the just-completed EP, tentatively titled Midnight and Mistletoe, Red Honey offers three tracks of rock-meets-sentiment. The title song, with its crunchy guitars and thick bass, is both rockabilly-tough and sweetly romantic. “Watching It Snow” is a slinky slow dance and “Blue Christmas” is an eerie duet inspired by a voicemail message from country singer Greg Garing. “We built a David Lynch-y number around it,” says Ferraby.
Red Honey might invite some local friends onstage to sit in during the Jam by Day, and the band will perform its new songs along with other selections. “We always do a holiday set,” says Ferraby. “Done right, it’s contagious.”
In the footsteps of giants
Growing up in Greenville, S.C., singer and guitarist Marcus King looked not only to his bandleader father for inspiration, but to musicians like Duane Allman, Dickie Betts and Haynes. Because Haynes came from roots similar to King’s, when mutual friends introduced Haynes to King’s music, the Gov’t Mule frontman signed the burgeoning Southern rocker to his Evil Teen Records label.
That connection meant that King was also working with Haynes’ management team, “and they wanted us to come be part of the fun,” he says of the Christmas Jam. “We’re really stoked about that.” The Marcus King Band performs on the Asheville Music Hall stage, a move upstairs from One Stop, where the group appeared last year.
One of the perks of playing the Jam by Day is a ticket and backstage pass to the main event. “The whole thing was a beautiful experience,” King says of last year’s show. “Seeing Bill Kreutzmann was a powerful thing. … Getting to know Warren and the rest of the folks was really nice, and going to the pre-jam the night before was one of my fonder memories.” Of the acts taking the stage this year, King is especially excited to see The Doobie Brothers and the Tedeschi Trucks Band.
In fact, guitarist Derek Trucks (who fronts that band with Tedeschi, his wife), has more in common with King than most of the jam artists. King, like Trucks, was a child prodigy and played his first shows as a preteen. “When I was going into nightclubs playing as a 12- or 13-year-old, it was like, ‘Look, I’m here as a professional musician and I’d like to be treated as such,’” he says. “Sometimes I had to make it clear that I’ve worked hard to get where I’m going.”
King’s work — he’s nearly a decade into his career, though he’s not yet 20 — is paying off. He’s getting ready to record a follow-up to his debut album, Soul Insight, and was recently recognized by Gibson guitars in the feature, “30 Under 30: A New Generation of Players.”
The Marcus King Band has also opened for the likes of Foo Fighters, Johnny Winter and Gov’t Mule, though the musician admits that he still gets the jitters. “I try to hide it, but I’m certainly a little star-struck meeting these people,” King says. The good news — and this bodes well for Christmas Jam performances down the road — is that, “I’ve always been a lot more comfortable on the stage than off the stage.”