It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas (Jam)

KEEP ON ROCKIN': Warren Haynes joined the Tedeschi Trucks Band onstage at the 2015 Christmas Jam. Similar collaborations took place at this year's event. Pictured, from left, are Derek Trucks, Haynes and Susan Tedeschi. Photo by Audrey Hermon Kopp

A 30-year streak ended when the annual Warren Haynes Presents Christmas Jam was canceled in 2019.

“It was becoming harder and harder to make it happen, and it just seemed like the right time to take a pause,” says the concert’s founder and namesake, Warren Haynes.

The original hiatus, Haynes continues, wasn’t intended to go beyond 2019. But the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the Christmas Jam from returning over the subsequent two years.

But now the wildly popular event (advance tickets sold out in minutes) returns to Harrah’s Cherokee Center – Asheville. This year’s Saturday, Dec. 10, lineup includes Phil Lesh & Friends, Tyler Childers, Gov’t Mule, Brothers Osborne, Dinosaur Jr. and more.

To celebrate, Xpress caught up with Haynes about the show’s history, as well as his own musical journey.

At 45 Cherry 

In 1988, the inaugural event — initially billed as The Christmas Jam: Musician’s X-Mas Reunion — came about more by chance than design. At the time, Haynes’ career was in its early ascent. He had already spent four years as a guitarist for outlaw country star David Allen Coe, then moved on to work with the Nighthawks before landing with former Allman Brothers Band guitarist Dickey Betts.

It was during a break between tour dates with Betts that Haynes returned home to Asheville. While in town, he decided to organize the get-together.

“It began in a small club, 45 Cherry,” Haynes recalls. (Today, the venue’s former site is a parking lot just north of the Asheville Skatepark.)

The concert, Haynes continues, was an opportunity for Asheville-based musicians to get together during a time of the year when most were off the road. Haynes doesn’t recall what they set the ticket price for during the inaugural event, but he’s confident it was cheap.

“Probably $6 or something,” he says with a laugh.

By his recollection, the charitable nature of the Christmas Jam came about by default. “We weren’t making very much money, and there were too many musicians to pay,” he explains. “Instead of everybody taking $11 … we were like, ‘Nah, let’s just give it to charity.’”

Childhood friend, former bandmate and fellow guitarist Mike Barnes remembers it differently. “The very first Christmas Jam was to benefit Ronnie Burgin,” he says. The local blues/rock musician was a longtime friend of both Barnes and Haynes.

Proceeds from the fundraiser, Barnes continues, went toward “try[ing] to get [Burgin] in rehab to stop drinking, because he was in pretty bad shape.” The fundraising part of that goal, at least, was a success. (Sadly, Burgin died a few years later in 1993.)

But a precedent had been established. “We thought, ‘Let’s do it again next year,’” Haynes recalls. “And that next year was even bigger. Then it gradually turned into something even beyond that.”

Famous friends 

By the late ’90s, Haynes was a star. He had spent a decade as a guitarist with the Allman Brothers Band and concurrently launched his own group, Gov’t Mule. His profile and status in the music community meant that he could call upon additional famous friends to take part in his annual charitable endeavor benefiting Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity.

Jimmy Herring, Edwin McCain, Bruce Hampton and Derek Trucks were just a few of the marquee names who graced the Christmas Jam stage in those years.

Along the way, the Christmas Jam relocated to the former venue Be Here Now. Not much larger than 45 Cherry, the space soon proved inadequate for the burgeoning event. The Thomas Wolfe Auditorium hosted it next. But by 2001, the Christmas Jam headed next door to the former Asheville Civic Center (known today as the Harrah’s Cherokee Center – Asheville).

As its popularity grew, so too did the concert’s range of performers. While in its early days, the Christmas Jam focused on Southern rock, today the gathering has a more eclectic lineup.

“On some level,” Haynes admits, “I choose music that I like.”

But in practice, that can mean nearly anything from “rock to blues to bluegrass to jazz to country to soul,” he continues. “It can really go anywhere, as long as it’s integrity-oriented music.”

Some of the most celebrated acts to take part have included Widespread Panic, Hot Tuna, Steve Miller Band, Los Lobos and Counting Crows, among others.

And surprises often factor into the event. Locals will likely remember 2018, when Dave Grohl and Friends added an impromptu set at The Orange Peel.

Pause, then play

The music came to a halt, however, in 2019.

“In my own view, I needed to step away after 30 years and rethink it,” Haynes says.

The announcement came in mid-November of that year. The press release promised that the all-star event would return come 2020. But like everyone’s plans, Haynes had to pivot on account of COVID-19.  And though hopes were high for a return in 2021, the pandemic shuttered it once again.

“We were having conference calls, and the consensus was, ‘We can’t put on a charity show that might get people sick,’” Haynes says. “Even though people were more confident than they were a year before, we couldn’t do it.”

Haynes remained busy with several other projects during his time away from planning the annual event. His band Gov’t Mule released its 12th studio album, Heavy Load Blues, in November 2021. That same year, he also lent his guitar and songwriting skills to Blackberry Smoke’s album You Hear Georgia, and earlier this year he was featured on Brother Johnny, a tribute album by Edgar Winter honoring his late brother, guitarist Johnny Winter.

And as Haynes told Relix Magazine in July 2020, “I have been writing more than I’ve written probably since 1987; that’s one of the few upsides to this whole [pandemic] thing.”

‘You never know’

But time away from the Christmas Jam also allowed Haynes the opportunity for a reset. The annual event had been getting bigger and bigger — the 2018 performance swelled to two nights. By that point, the logistics threatened to turn a fun event into a chore for planners, all of whom (like the musicians involved) were donating their time.

So as circumstances allowed the Christmas Jam’s 2022 return, Haynes had a list of goals he hoped to realize. “One of the things we talked about was having fewer acts and letting the bands play longer,” he says. “And to a certain extent, I think that’s going to happen.”

Still, logistical concerns put restrictions on how long those instrumental improvisations can go. “As fun as it was to have the whole folklore of, ‘The show goes until three or four in the morning,’ that’s just not the right thing to do,” Haynes says. “Half the crowd misses the show when you do that.”

He says that this year’s extravaganza is set to end at 1 a.m.  

But when it comes to the Christmas Jam, nothing is truly set in stone. “Things happen at the last minute, you know?” Haynes says with a smile. “There are still some acts saying, ‘We might be there.’ So, you never know.”

Back at it

In addition to the top-billed acts, this year’s Christmas Jam special guests include Hiss Golden Messenger, Audley Freed, Scott Metzger, Katie Jacoby and more. Additionally, there will be performers that Haynes calls “floaters,” including Barnes.

“I never know what I’ll do,” Barnes says with a laugh. “Sometimes it’s a last-minute thing: ‘Hey Barnes, you’re going to get [onstage] with so-and-so.’ But it’s always fun.”

And the fun, Haynes emphasizes, will remain in Asheville, despite occasional talk about taking the annual event outside WNC.

“People have brought it up,” he says. “They’ll say, ‘What if you took it to another city? You could make so much more money!’”

But Haynes swats down the suggestion with a simple response. “Asheville’s my hometown, you know?”

And after a longer-than-planned hiatus, Haynes says he’s happy to see the Christmas Jam return. “I can’t believe it took this long,” he marvels. “But I’m excited to be back.”


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About Bill Kopp
Author, music journalist, historian, collector, and musician. His first book, "Reinventing Pink Floyd: From Syd Barrett to The Dark Side of the Moon," published by Rowman & Littlefield, is available now. Follow me @the_musoscribe

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