Jimmy Herring: Don't Say No

By: Dennis Cook

Jimmy Herring
Superheroes don't always look super in their day-to-day lives. Case in point, Jimmy Herring, a quiet, perfectly gracious Southern man, who'll shake your hand and let you yack his ear off longer than he probably should. In short, the definition of mild mannered, but put an electric guitar in his hands and he is transformed into an octopus-fingered, quicksilver smooth marvel, notes gleaming as bright as the Silver Surfer as he blows your hair back with studied grace.

The first time I saw Herring perform was with Aquarium Rescue Unit at the 1993 H.O.R.D.E. tour. A sparse crowd at the amphitheatre sat mostly bemused by the instrument de-tuning, Zappa-esque strangeness mucking up their afternoon, but a handful of us were crouched at the lip of the stage, rapt with honest wonder. After one especially gnarly-beautiful solo, I actually bowed down in front of Herring in full "I'm not worthy" Wayne-and-Garth mode. Meant it, too. And the intervening 16 years have only seen him harness that wild brilliance into some of the sharpest, most technically exacting yet massively satisfying guitar work of the past few decades. Without overt hype, it's clear to anyone who's been paying attention to Herring's playing with luminaries like Phil Lesh & Friends, the Allman Brothers Band and especially in recent times with Widespread Panic that he's well on his way to joining the highly exclusive six-string pantheon of Al Di Meola, Jeff Beck, Eric Johnson and the rest of the Guitar Player magazine cover boys. However, Herring seems to be making his ascension sans the usual ego, showiness and self-indulgence that often mar otherwise fabulous players. With him, we get the best parts of Clark Kent and Superman, and wowee zowee is it a sweet combination.

Last October, Herring released his first solo album, Lifeboat (read the review here), and has begun touring behind the material as a headliner for the first time in his career, which stretches back to the late '80s. The core band on the all-instrumental Lifeboat is comprised of Herring (guitar), Oteil Burbridge (bass), Jeff Sipe (drums) and Kofi Burbridge (piano, flute), who are bolstered by quality guest spots from Derek Trucks, Bobby Lee Rodgers (Codetalkers), Ike Stubblefield and sax great Greg Osby. Full of strut and fusion-dude complexity, the album also reveals a real gift for melody and band leadership that his more rock-oriented fare hasn't shown quite as clearly. Lifeboat skips wonderfully, while also taking time to pull us in close occasionally. Confident, fun and masterfully played, it's a great solo debut and JamBase was anxious to hear about its creation and explore some of his rich history.

JamBase: You're at a point in your career where you could potentially do just about anything.

Jimmy Herring by Ian Rawn
Jimmy Herring: Only thing is I wish I was more free so I could do more, but I'm just no good at trying to do ten things at once. I'm just blessed all the way around. I can't complain about anything. I wish I didn't have to sleep [laughs]. Then, we could do a LOT of stuff.

JamBase: I'm with you on that. I sometimes resent having to sleep. It's positive, in a way, when one is so into what they're doing that they don't want to stop. A lot of folks don't want to get out of bed in the morning.

Jimmy Herring: I feel that way sometimes, too [laughs]. But, you do what you choose to do, and I know for me, personally, that if I try to do too much at once something's going to suffer. And all of it is so important to me that I don't want any of it to suffer.

And you've got two major mainstays going with the solo record and tour and Widespread keeping you busy. Part of what I love about Panic is that it's this big trundling monstrosity that could come off the rails any minute.

Yeah, man, and they're such good people. I've known them since '89, and they've always been such a classy organization. They're always trying to help as many people as they can and they're just wonderful people. So, when they called me I said, "You just tell me what you need."

When I was talking to Luther Dickinson last year about learning the Crowes songbook, you came up. Luther said, "It's nothing compared to what Jimmy has to learn in Panic."

Well, Luther will say that but Luther can do anything. He's fabulous, and it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy.

Let's talk about Lifeboat. Why do you think it took you so long to have an album with the name 'Jimmy Herring' on the front?

Jimmy Herring by Ian Rawn
Well, I'm trying to think of a good reason and I don't really have one [laughs]. Music is a collaborative effort, in my view. Sure, you can have somebody write a tune but what people play on it is them. I can remember this situation where I was sort of the front of the band I was in when I was a kid, and it puts a lot of pressure on you to be the guy that has to say, "Hey do this" or "Hey do that." Being a bandleader comes with responsibility and it can put you in a situation where you're not the nicest person in the band. I'm not sure that's the right way to put it but I just didn't want to be a bandleader. Plus, I feel like I can work for other people better than working for myself.

I fully get not wanting to be the guy who says, "You're fired," especially to someone who's been bunking three-feet above you for months.

Exactly! That's big right there. Also, I just seem to be better at working for other people. I'm not a prolific writer. I can write songs but I throw most of them out because they sound like something I've heard. When I'm composing I'm trying to do something I know wasn't just stolen from someone else.

I think Lifeboat is very striking in that way because it sounds very little like any of your earlier work.

That was a conscious effort, but it wasn't just that. I wanted to work with Jeff, Oteil and Kofi, who I've been playing with for 20 years on and off, and we'd never done anything like this before, but we could have [laughs]. We've done things like this for other people but the times we'd played together it was mostly improvisational things, which is all good – I wanted that to be a factor in this music, too – but, to me, in great music the solos are just part of it, not the main focus.

Continue reading for more on Jimmy Herring...

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