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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.

AAJ: Well, I hope if you do tour again for a solo project you think about doing what Susan [Tedeschi] and Derek [Trucks] did last month with that concert on iclips. That's great, fans from around the world have a chance to catch you in concert.

JH: Derek's younger brother is actually here at the house right now, and he was telling me about that. I haven't seen it yet, but I'd love to. You know, that's something I've been thinking about, I'd really love to tour Europe, Australia and Japan. The problem is that it is really expensive to take your equipment over there. And I've heard horror stories about musicians going without their own equipment, and showing up at a gig where the equipment was provided, but then it doesn't work. What would be a nightmare and I'm terrified of that happening.

I'm going to be fifty in January and I'm at that point in life, where if I can't do it right, I just don't want to do it. I know that it is important to do it, and I want to do, and I want to see the rest of the world and play there. But I don't think I'm ready yet, I don't think I have enough music yet to do it right. So I've still got some things to work out, but it's going to happen. Souvik Dutta, from Abstract Logix, keeps telling me I've got to do this, and he's right, I know I need to do this.

What I need is a three to five month period when I can put my energy into getting ready for something like that. Writing music, doing another record, and assembling enough songs so I feel like I can go on the road for a month in another country without getting bored playing the same ten songs every night. And I don't want to do all covers either. I've gotten into that before.

On my last record there was a lot of orchestration and a lot of people playing: flutes, saxophones, keyboards and overdubs that were a part of the orchestration. So without that part of the picture those songs just don't come off the same. So with a four piece band you really can't pull off some of that stuff, yeah you can do it, but it sounds half empty.

AAJ: Right, like the "Jungle Book Overture."

JH: We did that a couple of times as a four piece band and I just didn't think it came off very well. So that's the secret, write some music that can come off as a four-piece band. So that's what it's about right now, trying to write for that situation.

As I was doing that record I wasn't even thinking about trying to recreate that stuff live. So what we went out there with, was really only about half of what we could do live.

AAJ: Yet it is nice to have a studio album like that. There was a time when people were hesitant to take advantage of the studio and do overdubs. I thought you used the studio very creatively for that album and made some great music.

JH: Thank you very much. I feel the same way. All the years I've been doing this, most everything has been live, and as a result I never got to try some of the things I wanted to do with overdubs. So when Souvik allowed me to make the record I wanted to make, I thought of the studio itself an instrument, and I wanted to see what it was capable of and not worry about doing it live.

And of course I could recreate it if I could add a few more people to the band. But to tour with even two more people in the band would be nearly impossible because of the cost of everything. I have to be ready to sacrifice, and I did do that when we toured as a five-piece band with Greg Osby. And I was glad to have him there, but when we went to the West Coast we had to have a bus. And Souvik had warned me, but I thought the music was more important to me right now than the money. I just wanted it to come off the way I wanted to hear it. In the end I learned that Souvik was right, there wasn't enough money.

You know, even as a four piece I can't afford to tour the way I want to tour. I want to have a Hammond B3 organ. You know, touring with a B3 is a whole new situation, it's so big and heavy. You've got to have enough space to carry that thing, and it's expensive.

AAJ: Especially if you're flying around with it.

JH: Yeah, flying around with it isn't even an option unless people have really deep pockets. The only option would be to rent it, and then you never know what you're going to get.

And with a B3 you've got to bring someone along who can fix it if it breaks, and that person gets paid a lot of money.

AAJ: And that's the sticker, that sound; you can't replace it.

JH: That right, you can't, and that's hung me up for quite a while. That's kept me from touring because I need that, you know that sound, it's "earth"—a fake B3 sound just doesn't cut it, it's not earthy enough. And I know plenty of great players, so that's not the issue; the issue is being able to tour with that big thing. It's so frustrating.
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