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Talkin' Blues with Jimmy Herring

Alan Bryson By

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Jimmy Herring is a musician who blurs lines, both in terms of genres and roles. Over the past two decades his work with the Aquarium Rescue Unit, Gov't Mule, The Allman Brothers Band, Frogwings, Phil Lesh & Friends, Project Z, Jazz is Dead, and Widespread Panic has cemented his position as one of the world's premier progressive rock guitarists. He has the uncanny ability to fuse the visceral power of rock with the ingenuity of jazz harmonics without diminishing the essence of either.

He's apt to describe himself as a sideman, yet in reality he's a consummate soloist with dazzling skills who adds star power to any stage or recording on which he appears. His talent is only surpassed by his extraordinary modesty and humility; to speak with Jimmy Herring is to discover that he is refreshingly unaware that his playing elicits the same level of admiration in legions of fans, as players like John Scofield and Allan Holdsworth evoke in him.

Although he gave an extensive interview to All About Jazz in late 2008, which I highly recommend, given his wide-ranging musical tastes there was no shortage topics for this interview. In fact, his insights into Telecaster chicken-pickers provided me with hours of fun on YouTube—do yourself a favor and check out some of the links.

All About Jazz: Since you've been working so hard this year, I'm curious, what's the longest you've ever gone without playing guitar?

Jimmy Herring: I'm even embarrassed to say this, but when I got back from this last tour there was almost a two week period when I didn't pick it up, and that hasn't happened for a very long time. There was a lot going on, I was going back and forth to visit family in North Carolina and then Thanksgiving, and we had birthdays in the family, and then a family member had to go into the hospital —thankfully everything is fine. But that's the longest, [laughing] and I'm not proud of it.

I'm trying to make up for it this week by playing long hours every day. You know Warren Haynes has this Christmas Jam every year and that's coming up. He invites people from all over, so I'm going to take part and this year he's got Bill Evans and Bela Fleck. I've always had Bela and Bill up on a big pedestal, so I'm terrified, but they are really cool and we've been emailing back and forth about the songs and stuff. They're great.

Jeff Sipe will be playing drums, with Neil Fountain on bass; they're scary, too, but at least I know them well.

AAJ: It's been a few years since the release of Lifeboat (Abstract Logix, 2008). Over the past two decades you've been in bands and toured as a hired gun for several bands, how are you getting into the role of Jimmy Herring, solo artist?

JH: Well I would get into it more, if I would just embrace it. I really battle with that whole thing, because I really have always been a sideman and I kind of prefer that. There's so much pressure that comes with being a band leader. When your name is on it, it just changes things. Everybody comes to you and there's just a lot of responsibility. The truth is, I'm really blessed because the phone keeps ringing and I'm offered projects and every one of them seems to be something I really want to do. But that's the dilemma, if I do all of them, I'll never do anything of my own. So Lifeboat has been out a few years and I still haven't found the time to write enough material for a new record.

AAJ: So, we shouldn't be expecting another album in 2012?

JH: Yes, because I'm hoping to do that. Normally, Widespread Panic doesn't play in January and February and that's the perfect time to write; you know it's cold outside, so it's a good time to be inside working on stuff. But this year I've got stuff to do and I won't be free until February 20th, and I was hoping to be recording by then. After that I've got some stuff to do with Phil Lesh, but it's not touring, it's just this one venue he's got up near San Francisco. I love him, he's a great guy and he's been a good friend for a long time, so I'm excited about playing with him again.

Then the next thing you know it's March, then April and then there's this offer to do something in June with some people I really respect. So I'm thinking, when am I going to be able to do this?

AAJ: Yeah that reminds me of how Louie Shelton, the great session guitarist from the L.A. Wrecking Crew, described sticking with session work instead of pursuing a solo career. The money's good, you sleep in our own bed at night, you're playing with great musicians and working with lots of interesting people, and you don't have the stress of maintaining a solo career.

JH: That's true, but it's a whole other animal. I know some guys who do session work, and you need to be able to handle anything that comes your way, and read really well.

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