Warren Haynes spent much of 1989 getting acquainted with the freshly reunited The Allman Brothers Band. The legendary rock ensemble had recruited him to become the band’s newest guitarist. At the end of that year, Haynes returned home to Asheville, North Carolina, where he decided to organize a little holiday jam with his fellow touring musicians.
Twenty-three years later, that small jam session has evolved into a major annual tradition that brings top-tier talent to Asheville each Christmas — and shines the light on Habitat’s ongoing work in Buncombe County.
This December’s Jam featured Haynes’ own band Gov’t Mule, as well as Phil Lesh & Friends, Los Lobos, and Bela Fleck. The 2011 Christmas Jam was also notable for something else: passing the $1 million mark in Christmas Jam money raised all-time for Asheville Area Habitat.
“I’m really proud, psyched, about that number,” Haynes says. “I never imagined that it would reach the level that it has. It’s amazing that playing music can build houses. A simple chance to play music together turned into a chance to get musicians and fans from all over the world to build houses together.”
The proceeds from each year’s Jam are enough to sponsor one or two houses a year, says Ariane Kjellquist, communications director for Asheville Area Habitat. “But equally, if not more important, is the visibility we get from this,” she adds. “Everybody loves the Christmas Jam here, and it’s just a huge boost to us to have so many people learn about what we do each year thanks to Warren.”
Haynes initially envisioned the event as a way for Asheville friends to play some music and enjoy being off the road for a while. After winding up with surplus money after the first Christmas Jam show in 1989, Haynes and his friends decided to donate the profits to area charities.
As Haynes’ career blossomed — the songwriter and guitarist is consistently ranked among the 100 best guitarists ever by Rolling Stone — the list of friends he could call on grew. And it has helped to have friends who are internationally renowned musicians with large followings of their own such as Gregg Allman, Peter Frampton, Jackson Browne, Ralph Stanley and Susan Tedeschi. Haynes is proudest, though, that the Christmas Jam pairs musicians from different genres that have rarely — or never — played together before, such as Branford Marsalis and Dave Matthews. Or John Paul Jones and Michael Franti.
As the Jam expanded, Haynes decided to choose one nonprofit to receive all the show’s profits. By the late 1990s, he had selected Asheville’s Habitat affiliate as the Christmas Jam’s official partner.
“When we stumbled upon each other years ago, it seemed like the right time and the right place for things to happen,” Haynes says. “And I know it is the right organization. One of the things I love about Habitat is that I see where the money goes: The community comes together. We see the houses built. It’s amazing. The proof is right there before you.”
Habitat’s “Before the Jam, Lend a Hand” build week has become an Asheville rallying cry during the week leading up to the sold-out performances each year. This past December, more than 100 volunteers helped work on Habitat houses during the week. “The individuals supporting Habitat are people with big hearts, folks doing it for the right reason,” Haynes says. “It’s amazing to me how more and more people take the warmth and energy in their lives and utilize it in such a positive way.”
Haynes looks forward to meeting the partner families who are building their Habitat houses with the help of Christmas Jam volunteers. This year, Haynes met a single mother named Michelle Bevans, who just happened to be a big fan of Haynes’ music.
“It’s always been emotional for me to raise money for a cause like this, but when you start meeting the families, it’s just overwhelming,” Haynes says.
Haynes says this past year has brought him even more perspective on the importance of home. He and his wife adopted a 3-month-old son, Hudson, who was introduced to Haynes’ Asheville family for the first time in 2011.
“This is where I was born and raised, and it always reminds me that everyone deserves to have a home,” Haynes says. “There’s nothing like having your own private space where you can feel like you can be yourself. Being ‘at home’ is a cliche, but it’s cliche for a reason. It’s one of the most important things we have in life.”
Haynes is already making calls for the 2012 Christmas Jam and has his sights set on the next $1 million for Habitat. “Even after all these years, the spirit of this Jam is still the same,” he says. “All the musicians who come either check their ego at the door or didn’t bring it with them in the first place. Everybody’s there for the right reason, and somehow the music that gets created sounds even more authentic and magical that way. This is a beautiful thing we’ve got going.”
This year, "Before the Jam, Lend a Hand" volunteers worked on houses in Asheville's Carney Place. Read more about the families of Carney Place in habitat.org's ongoing series about the neighborhood.