Widespread Panic’s Jimmy Herring talks about guitar solos, new music and playing in Asheville

Xpress: Thanks, Jimmy for taking the time to chat it up with us today. You just got off fall tour and your 200th show with Widespread Panic. What’s going on in Jimmy’s world today?

Jimmy Herring (guitarist for Widespread Panic): I haven’t even gotten out of this chair yet today. I am fighting this head cold from a fishing trip I took the past couple of days in Charleston with my family. We went fishing the first time with these guys when we were playing in Charleston, but the conditions weren’t right, and we went back down there and caught a ton a fish, and cooked up some trout that evening. It was great.

I want to congratulate you on your first album, Lifeboat. … What are your feelings about your first solo album?

It was something I felt like it was time to do, and I had some friends who played on the album who told me that is was time for me to do it. We talked about this for a long time, and I had some tunes laying around, and the people that helped out with it were so great. I feel ok about it, I haven’t listen to it that much since it has come out, because you know we were really close to it during the project. Hopefully we can play some shows maybe sometime this spring possibly.

This past week Widespread Panic was awarded the first Road Warrior award from Billboard magazine [for the band’s dedication to touring]. What are your thoughts about this award?

I can’t think of a better deserving group than Widespread Panic. These guys have been getting after it for over 20 years, man. I am thrilled to be playing with the band now, but I don’t feel comfortable going up there with these guys to accept this award I have only been playing with these guys for two years. I certainly appreciate them wanting me to participate with them for this award, but they have been touring like dogs for over 20 years …I feel the same way about the Georgia Music Hall of Fame.

Well the fans of WSP are thrilled to have you on board to help feel the void for the late Mikey Houser. You bring this jazzy rhythm guitar to the band and that is a different sound then what Mikey played. What do you do to try to fill that sound that is so unique?

Generally when you are having to replace a guitarist in a band that has already has a distinct sound, in my mind you just listen to the music like it was before you were there, and you listen till it’s second nature, and the style of the sound. In my case I listened to a lot of tapes, live shows, and other material from various time periods, and see how the sound has transitioned from the late 80’s till 2000.

I try to listen to how the songs have evolved through the years. I try to get it in my head, and try to pick out the melody lines in which Mikey was playing, and try to get a idea of his contour, and how he would build the solos. But there is a fine line between copying someone’s sound, and just trying to play off that general kingdom that he played in. If you listen to a lot of versions to songs you will see he is playing that lick in every song in every version. That must be part of the song, not improvisation. Like “Surprise Valley,” the intro where the melody is part of the song, I try to make that sound the same. The solos I approached by staying within his kingdom, and you know the band has been great about allowing me to approach each song in my way, and they have been really cool on how I approach it.

Speaking of “Surprise Valley,” what are your thoughts or perceptions of Asheville? I know the band makes a lot of people happy with the visits you and the band makes to this area. Does Widespread enjoy coming to this area?

I love everything about Asheville. It is so beautiful, the people are so warm, they are very accepting of everything we want to do. And it is a cool town, and is very close to where our home is based out of. The mountains in that part of North Carolina are so beautiful, and inspiring to look at, and inspiring to play there. The people are always so jacked up to see us play there.

The new album Free Somehow is the bands 11th album. What were your contributions to the album, because you obviously don’t sing, but through your guitar vocals you seem to play a huge part in the process. Your thoughts?

Well, we all contribute to the album equally. We all bring in our thoughts to each song, and that is what is so cool — it’s not like one person does all of the decision-making. Everyone adds their thing to whatever tunes you may bring in. Everyone brings a layer to each tune, and this makes it easy to input into each others’ tunes. It’s not like this is Widespread Panic playing my song. It is never like that, it is a Widespread Panic song.

Free Somehow has some rocking tunes there, but there were some laid-back tunes too.

I never thought that the tunes were not rocking hard enough, or this is to mellow. I really enjoyed the process of making it, and don’t think I brought anything to it that no one else did.

Obviously there is a comfort between each of the band members, and that everyone feels free to contribute equally to each other’s ideas. There seems to be a mutual respect from each member that reflects in the process.

With a band that has been together for so long they develop a language, and that they sometimes don’t have to talk about some things, because they’ve been together for so long. A new person coming into there kingdom has to learn the new language. They are so into everything being so organic, and not forcing anything, and they never say “play it like this or play it like that.” That is not who they are.

The lead singer John Bell and your old band mate Colonel Bruce Hampton are very close friends. Do you see some resemblance with how each of these artists share some musical things in common? 

Yes definitely. JB is a lot like a jazz musician, but not like a traditional jazz musician. He is really into improvising, and especially the vocals. His vocal melodies are different from an album, and per se a live show, because he never sings the same thing twice. Which is cool. And I come from a jazz background to some extent, and that makes me feel very comfortable.

That is what’s so cool about this band putting all these styles of music of jazz, soul, and rock and roll and improvising each genre into a cool sound. 

That’s exactly it. It is to border the lines of genres of music, because no one thinks that this is jazz, or this is rock. We just like to play music and wherever that may take us we are cool with that.

Following up with that question with the types of music that are made today, and all of the different sounds out there. Do you feel like there is some undiscovered sound or music that is yet to played, or do you feel like a lot of this is layers of old music that have been chopped up or dissected?

I am sure there is, man, there has to be. I am not saying we are tapping into that yet, but there is still music that is yet to be done. Hopefully someday we will stumble across something like that. Everybody has their influences, and any musician has their roots they stick to no matter how advanced or how long they have played. You should be able to listen to their roots, and what they do. But at the same time there is music that is yet to be played, and music is intimate, and that is one of the most beautiful things about being a musician—you can spend the rest of your life exploring music or new information. And you get this new music by listening to music all over the world. Not necessary styles, but music from all over.

Being that you are now a road warrior when do you find time to discover or play this new music? Is it long bus rides, or staying up late in hotel rooms… You seem to have a pretty busy schedule.

Yeah, late nights in hotel rooms, especially after a three-night run, or when we are in a city for more than one night, is a really good time. Even in the first year with WSP, late night in the hotel room was studying Widespread Panic, and prior songs because I was terrified they would play a song that I wasn’t up to par on. There are plenty of songs I’ve still yet to play with the band, and a lot of that time is learning those songs. Or listening to a new record I had inquired and listening to the song, and we will sit around and discuss this new music. Derek Trucks has turned me on to some new music—like music from Madagascar, and Indian music. It’s fascinating that musicians study other cultures and how musicians will incorporate that into their own thing.

How do you keep yourself on top of these things mentally. Obviously playing with different bands with different styles, you cover a lot of material. Do you have a cheat sheet when playing certain music, or how do you prepare yourself?

In Panic’s gig, a lot of the songs are on regular rotation, and some songs are played once a tour, or once a year. Songs in regular rotation I start to feel comfortable with; I can approach it a certain way. There are the songs that are yet played as frequently as others, and I have to study those songs, not academically, but by listening to the sound or charting out the chords in my head. Because Panic has a lot of bars where they require me to have a cheat sheet, and they have phrases that are five bars long instead of four bars long. So that helps keep from getting to a part too soon or too late. They’re just chord outlines of the form of the song, and as far as melodies go I just learn them and store them in my memory bank. There are a lot of singable phrases that Mikey made easy to follow to, and they are in your head anyway if you listen to the music.

Final question, what is the chance that you will be going out with the Dead this summer? You have played with them in the past, are you open to this slot?

Well I haven’t heard about anything about that, except from other people. Well people keep asking me about that, and there are no plans whatsoever. I still stay in touch with the guys, and if I happen to be in a town where one of them are playing, they are always gracious enough to invite me to sit in with them. Warren Haynes and I sat in with Ratdog in New York on one of the nights we were off Panic. It was great sitting there talking with those guys, and talking about old stories, but there has been no discussion with me playing with the Dead, and I want to make that very clear. I mean I love those guys, and I wish them all the best, but I am playing with Panic now. I am sure they will have a great trip, and understand they are going out in the spring sometime, and I recommend you going to see them but I want be there. I feel like I am the fulltime guitarist for WSP. I got the call two years ago and my friends needed me and I am grateful for this opportunity to play with them now. They are about spreading the music, and those are the types of people I want to be around.

Xpress: Cheers to you and Widespread Panic in red Solo cups.

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