More than 20 years ago, Colonel Bruce Hampton invited Jimmy Herring to come onto the stage of the Avondale Cinema and perform with Hampton’s new band, the Aquarium Rescue Unit. Then Hampton not only invited Herring back the next night, he asked him to join the band. Beginning on that cramped stage, Herring forged a relationship with Hampton that would eventually lead to his reputation as one of the greatest rock guitarists alive.
Herring first gained national exposure when ARU was one of the anchors of the first “Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere” (H.O.R.D.E) tour in 1992. Five largely unknown East Coast jam bands — Widespread Panic, Blues Traveler, Spin Doctors, Phish and ARU — joined together for a tour that brought rock-flavored improvisational music back into vogue. Through improvisation and experimentation, H.O.R.D.E fed a blend of jazz, blues and rock to hungry audiences that hadn’t been served a proper such meal since the heyday of the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band. Many of those jam band members refer to Hampton as their “papa,” a symbolic father to them all.
After ARU disbanded, Herring was recruited to play guitar for such groups as the Allman Brothers, Phil Lesh and Friends, the Dead (post-Jerry Garcia) and Frogwings with Derek Trucks. In 2006, Herring was asked to join Athens-based Widespread Panic, the most popular jam band. Although previous guitarists had tried to fill the spot left vacant by the devastating death of founding Widespread Panic member Michael “Mikey” Houser of pancreatic cancer in 2002, they were at best awkward attempts. But, like Derek Trucks with the Allman Brothers Band, Herring proved to be the right guitarist for Widespread Panic and Widespread Panic the right band for him.
Band members have said that Herring’s distinctive guitar sound and gentle spirit re-energized them and the music they play. And while Herring pays homage to Houser by performing many of the guitar parts he created, the band’s improvisational style allows Herring to put his own trademark on its sound.
When Widespread Panic went on hiatus for much of 2012, Herring used the time off to record his second solo album, the critically acclaimed “Subject to Change Without Notice,” and to tour with his own band. Now, after four decades of playing guitar, Herring is finally receiving acclaim for his precise, evocative style. He’s been featured in numerous publications over the past year, including landing the coveted cover of Guitar Player magazine in December.
Herring, 51, lives outside Atlanta with his wife of 33 years, Carolyn, and their two children. Their daughter, Cameron, is an aspiring artist who attends the Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta. Their son, Carter, though still in high school, is already earning a reputation as an up-and-coming guitarist.
Widespread Panic is back on the road this year with its much-anticipated spring tour, which will bring the group to Verizon Wireless Amphitheater at Encore Park this Friday and Saturday, April 26 and 27. As the concerts neared, ArtsATL sat down with the guitarist to discuss his roots and love for music, his new solo album and Widespread Panic.
ArtsATL: Do you remember how music first captured you?
Jimmy Herring: Oh, man, it probably had to be when I was about eight years old. I had two older brothers listening to all the music of the time. I think that was a great advantage, having older brothers listening to the Allman Brothers and Santana, because I wanted to like what they were listening to. My older brothers had posters of Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles and other bands in the house. And I had my toy guitars. That was the beginning for me.
ArtsATL: So playing guitar started for you with a toy guitar?
Herring: (Chuckles.) What really drew me to the guitar was my oldest brother’s best friend, who came to live with us in his high school senior year. His name was Bob McClurkin. He had a Fender Mustang, an Ampeg amp and incredible musical taste. When he plugged that thing in, it sounded really good. That was the first time I’d seen anyone play live music, and after hearing him I remember thinking, “I’ve got to find out what this is all about.”
We didn’t have music videos. You had to use your imagination, which I believe is a huge part of playing music and being a music listener. Back then music was so important. To have a hit on the radio it had to be really good, because there was so much competition.
To see the band, you had to go to the show. There was no MTV. I was too young to go to shows at the time, but Bob would go to concerts like Sly and the Family Stone and then come home and share with me what he’d seen. He’d play for me and teach me. He was a supercool guy and was like a third brother. He showed me the basics of playing the guitar, taught me the simple chords: C, F and G. That’s really what got me interested in playing the guitar.
ArtsATL: What was your first real guitar, and how old were you when you got it?
Herring: My parents bought me the student model Fender Mustang, or its little brother, the Fender Bronco. (Chuckles.) I was 10 years old.
ArtsATL: And the first song you learned to play on your Fender Bronco?
Herring: “House of the Rising Sun.” “Hey Joe” was the second. I really identified with the guitar and was committed to the guitar. It just seemed like the instrument of the time. Everybody wanted to play guitar. I was born in 1962, so this was the early ‘70s. The Beatles, Stones, Zepplin, Jeff Beck were all playing guitars. All that music just spoke to me.
ArtsATL: Once you began playing a real guitar at age 10, has it been nonstop?
Herring: No, actually it was on and off. I got into motorcycles real heavily and didn’t get serious about playing guitar until I lost my motorcycle at age 14.
ArtsATL: You lost your motorcycle?
Herring: Well, not quite. What happened was my dad had told me I could have the motorcycle as long as I didn’t ride it on the streets. I went along with that for a while, but then I got brazen and started breaking the rules. Someone identified me taking my motorcycle on the streets and told my dad.
ArtsATL: You got busted.
Herring: I got busted! I came home one day and, literally, it was gone. At first I thought someone had stolen it, but my dad told me, “Your bike didn’t get stolen; I sold it.” I fell on the ground. I was devastated.
That changed everything. With the motorcycle gone, I turned my focus on the guitar. I had this little Vox amp that my dad had bought me a few years back for $50, but it was missing two speakers. After seeing me depressed and moping around, he went out and bought two more speakers for the amp. He was great with electronics, so he actually fixed it himself. That changed everything, because it really sounded good and I could start getting the songs to sound the way they did on the albums.
ArtsATL: With your father being a Superior Court judge, did you ever feel pressure to go into law or follow in his footsteps? Or, perhaps, just not go into rock ‘n’ roll?
Herring: My poor mom and dad. My parents were such outstanding members of the community. They were both such educated-minded individuals. Here my father was a judge and my mother was an 11th-grade English teacher, and yet they were so supportive of my music. I always worried that if I screwed up, it might hurt my dad and his career. My two brothers and I had long hair and wanted to wear tie-dye and play rock ‘n’ roll.
My parents never put anything on us. They were just so supportive and encouraged us to figure out what it was we wanted to do. When they realized that I was staying in the basement alone for five or six hours straight playing my guitar at age 17, they knew I was serious. At that point they encouraged me to pursue music from an academic level as well. So I did. Of course, that made my mother real happy.
ArtsATL: You’re a parent. Do you worry that your children’s paths following the arts, rather than working in mainstream America, could pose a struggle for them?
Herring: I feel like a big part of success is trying to figure out what you want to do at as early an age as you can. I’ve always told my kids since they were little, “The sooner you know what you want to do, the more prepared you’re going to be when you come of age to have to start working and making a living.” My wife, Carolyn, and I never pushed anything on them. And success to me is not a money thing or a fame thing. As long as you can make enough to eat and keep shoes on your feet and a roof over your head, that’s what truly matters. I’ve just wanted to be able to do that and also be able to play guitar. That’s success to me.
ArtsATL: How do you find the balance, stability and normalcy in your marriage and being a father while also being on the road touring as a musician?
Herring: It’s her; it’s my amazing wife. Without her, it would not be. It’s all Carolyn. My wife is truly amazing. I mean, when you come home after being out on the road for six months, and you have only $500 to show for it and two small kids and your wife smiles and supports and encourages you — you know, wow! I didn’t make any real money as a musician until I was in my 30s, but my wife let me do what I love, with love.
ArtsATL: You’ve talked before of how Colonel Bruce Hampton has musically been the most influential person on you. What single word in your mind describes the Colonel?
Herring: God, that’s hard, because one word leads to another. If it’s got to be one word, “open.” And “open” can mean any number of things, such as being open to anything or “open that door to that room you may have locked yourself into.” But you can use any word for him — really, you could. (Laughs.)
ArtsATL: You always appear so calm and collected onstage. Do you ever feel nervous?
Herring: I’m nervous all the time. The Colonel always says, “If you’re not nervous, you’re not playing.” I know there are some great people who don’t get nervous, but for me; I still get nervous every time. Everyone laughs at me because I won’t eat before a show, and I’ll be pacing. I’m literally teetering on the verge of panic about the first four or five songs of every show. I have major anxiety in the beginning of the show. I’m conscious of the audience. I’m conscious I’m not warmed up. It’s an awful feeling that it is me doing this. I want to get out of the way and just let the music come through. That’s the goal. Then I can relax, get out of the way and let the music do it.
ArtsATL: Did your recently released solo album, “Subject to Change Without Notice,” come out kicking and screaming, or did it feel more as though the stars all lined up for its birth?
Herring: Making records is usually both fun and difficult. I really enjoyed working with this incredible group of people on this project. I knew I wanted to do another one, but it was just a matter of finding the time to do it. When Panic decided to take a year away from touring, I found the time to start putting the material together. I had some ideas and some tunes lying around, but I wouldn’t have found the time to finish writing stuff if Panic was on the road. When I learned in late January that [producer] John Keane was available in May, I started trying to prepare for recording.
ArtsATL: Your daughter, Cameron, did the artwork for the album. Does it have any particular meaning between the two of you? Is there a story behind how she and you collaborated on the art for the cover?
Herring: We’re very proud of Cameron. She had several pieces that I thought were wonderful, but we all really loved that particular piece and thought it would be great for an album cover. I didn’t really collaborate with her. I just left it in her capable hands.
ArtsATL: A couple of years ago, I asked Widespread Panic’s lead singer, John Bell, about the loss of “Mikey” Houser and about the band’s choice of you as lead guitarist, and he said, “Jimmy Herring was always our first choice after we lost Mikey, but he was under contract elsewhere and therefore unavailable at the time. Jimmy never glazes over anything; he brings the level up for everyone. I know Mikey approves.” What thoughts do you have about Bell’s comments?
Herring: Of course I’m touched. I have known these guys since 1988. Panic is a very family-oriented group. They could have anyone they wanted, but they weren’t just looking for some guitar player to come in and play bitchin’ leads. They wanted someone they already knew and felt they could work with. And they have been really great to me, allowing me total freedom to do whatever I want to do. Obviously Mikey isn’t replaceable and they know that, so they didn’t want me to have any hang-ups about trying to play a certain way.
ArtsATL: How would you describe the Panic fans?
Herring: They’re very dedicated and loyal. They encourage the band to improvise, which is really wonderful. And they are very enthusiastic, which definitely brings a shot of adrenaline to the band.
ArtsATL: Will the upcoming Verizon Amphitheater shows be a little extra-special, since they’re almost in your backyard?
Herring: It’s always special when we get to play Atlanta.
ArtsATL: What are a couple of favorite things to do when you’re not touring on the road with Panic?
Herring: I would say being with the family and enjoying the outdoors — drinking coffee on the back porch and watching the birds.
ArtsATL: What things might Jimmy Herring likely be doing 10 years from now?
Herring: Hopefully bouncing grandchildren on my knee and evolving as a musician.