Warren Haynes is taking a breather in his dressing room at Harrah’s Cherokee Event Center in Asheville, North Carolina, after powering through a wicked jam of the Allman Brothers Band’s “Melissa” with country duo Brothers Osborne. He’s due back onstage in an hour for another inspired collab: performing Charlie Daniels Band’s “Trudy” with Appalachian hero Tyler Childers.
“Seeing people play together for the first time onstage, in front of a big audience, is beautiful because the music that happens as a result will never happen that exact way again,” Haynes, a former member of the Allmans and the leader of Gov’t Mule, tells Rolling Stone backstage at the 31st Warren Haynes Christmas Jam.
After a three-year hiatus, the beloved holiday season musical bonanza returned to Haynes’ hometown this weekend. Alongside Brothers Osborne and Childers, the latest installment also featured Dinosaur Jr., Phil Lesh & Friends, Katie Jacoby, Scott Metzger, Hiss Golden Messenger, and Tyler Ramsey.
“All my life, I’ve thrived on collaboration and improvisation. Growing up in Asheville, the way we all learned to play was by jamming and collaborating — stealing and borrowing from each other, teaching each other,” Haynes says. “That’s the way you learn how to play, that’s the way you get better. [Christmas Jam] kind of represents a larger scale of that — what we grew up doing was a microcosm of what this is.”
A longtime fundraiser for the Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity, Christmas Jam began in the small, now-defunct rock club 45 Cherry in 1988. Back then, it was a way for local touring musicians to get together and play for the sake of playing.
“It was such an organic thing. There’s no reason to try and script something like this,” Haynes says. “Christmas Jam grew because it was meant to, and not because any of us were pushing it. And I think it still has that same spirit, [which] is what I love about it.”
That initial 1988 go-round raised $1,700 as part of a hurricane relief fund at the time. In the decades since, the Jam has brought in millions to help Western North Carolina families in need of a home through Habitat for Humanity.
The eve of Christmas Jam, simply known as the “Pre-Jam,” took place Friday at the Orange Peel, a must-play venue in the heart of Asheville. Tuning up his Gibson SG backstage at the Peel, guitarist Kyle Travers of the Travers Brothership readied his blues-rock band to perform just before Gov’t Mule’s headlining set.
“I grew up going to Christmas Jam, and I used to stand outside of [The Orange Peel] trying to get a miracle ticket to the Pre-Jam every year,” says Travers, who hails from nearby Black Mountain, North Carolina. “So, to play with Warren and Mule is quite an honor. It’s absolutely surreal, I’m going to have to pinch myself when I get up there to make sure I’m not dreaming.”
Sitting on the couch next to Travers is another North Carolina native, Audley Freed, a six-string ace whose career includes stints with the Black Crowes, Trigger Hippy, and Cry of Love. Since 1999, Freed has been a featured guest of Haynes’ at the Christmas Jam.
“I always feel really privileged and honored to be asked by Warren to play the Jam. And I’ve forged some great personal and musical relationships by being here,” Freed says. “Quite frankly, it always begins to feel like the Christmas season to me when I’m at the Jam. It’s this gateway into the holidays.”
Before the multitudes enter the Harrah’s Cherokee Event Center, thousands scattered across venues in downtown Asheville for the “Jam by Day” on Saturday afternoon, which spotlights local acts that might not otherwise get the exposure. At the pub Jack of the Wood’s “Songwriters in the Round” series, artists like Ed Jurdi, Leigh Glass, Kevin Fuller, Aaron “Woody” Wood, and Ashley Heath all performed.
“[Christmas Jam] means everything to our local music scene and the artists who live here,” says Heath, from Marshall, North Carolina. “It provides all of these opportunities and chances for people to just connect with other artists that you might not get to jam with, or ever meet. It opens so many doors for all of us.”
But it’s the eclecticism of the Christmas Jam lineup and the audience itself that makes Haynes’ annual party such a treat. Punk rockers are introduced to Tyler Childers and Brothers Osborne. Country folk listen to Dinosaur Jr. and Phil Lesh & Friends. And Deadheads take in all of the above.
“We’ve been seeing a lot of really young kids at shows, and that’s good because my friends my age sometimes don’t want to go out,” Dinosaur Jr. guitarist J Mascis says dryly. “So, if we don’t have younger kids coming, we won’t have anyone there.
At Christmas Jam, Dinosaur Jr. were a whirlwind of heavy riffs, thunderous drums and bass, and Marshall stacks cranked to full volume. “It’s pretty wild that we’ve made it this long,” Mascis says of Dinosaur Jr.’s power trio of bassist Lou Barlow and drummer Murph, still intact since 1984. “A lot of bands, even if they’re still together, it isn’t the original lineup. It’s like one guy, or less.”
As master of ceremonies, Haynes and Gov’t Mule took center stage with a roaring set of rock, blues, and soul numbers, highlighted by Crosby Stills Nash & Young’s “Almost Cut My Hair” with violinist Katie Jacoby and guitarist Scott Metzger, and the Allman Brothers’ “Blue Sky,” backed up by Brothers Osborne guitarist John Osborne.
Brothers Osborne were arguably the biggest surprise of Christmas Jam 2022. The CMA Award-winning Vocal Duo of the Year reinforced their reputation for seamlessly moving through all aspects of country music, from mainstream radio country to Southern rock to folk.
“Country music is rooted in American culture. It’s honesty, authenticity, and just being who you are with this style of writing,” says John Osborne, who stretched out his improvisational legs during the blistering set with his vocalist brother TJ Osborne. The duo returned later in the evening to roll through covers of Johnny Bush’s “Whiskey River” and The Band’s “The Shape I’m In.”
“It’s an interesting time right now, for county music and life in general,” TJ told Rolling Stone. “For the longest time, I think [country music] has been seen as this genre that was solely owned by very conservative people. The past five, 10 years has shown that’s not exactly true, that this is music for everyone — the whole point of music is to bring people together.”
Just like Christmas Jam itself.