Stepping out of the shadows of giants
BY RYAN SNYDER firstname.lastname@example.org
If the jam-band scene never produces the spiritual successor to George Jones’ “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes?,” it’s because the question has already been answered rather affirmatively. Seats once occupied by Duane Allman, Jerry Garcia and, presently and most permanently, founding Widespread Panic guitarist Michael Houser have all been assumed by Jimmy Herring, an unassuming, affable six-string savant who relishes the role of the sideman. The 50-year old, Fayetteville-born
guitarist prefers his home around the periphery of stages, letting his jazz-steeped, improvisational style command the spotlight when the time comes. With Widespread Panic currently off tour, Herring is preparing for the release of his second solo album — Subject to Change Without Notice — and again assuming the leadership of his own eponymous group, however reservedly.
Y!W: Given the number of styles found on the new album — rock, swing, gypsy jazz, gospel — it’s easy to assume that the title speaks to its content.
JH: The title was really not mean to reflect the styles of music on the album. There’s a lot of different things going on, but to me, music is just music. The label was hammering me for a title and they were patient as they could be with me. One day I was walking up the stairs to go sit down and think about it and it just hit me — Subject to Change Without Notice. I thought that was going to buy me a little more time, but they liked it. It’s weird when things like that pop into your head, you don’t realize why until later. You start to see the relevance of it in different ways. When you’re buying something, in the fine print….
Y!W: …To music festival bills and shows themselves. It could describe the show you’re doing here soon at Jomeokee with the Everyone Orchestra.
JH: Yeah, it’s been a few years since I’ve done one of those, but I had such a good time. The director (Matt Butler) really knows what he’s doing and everyone always really has fun doing it because it’s so loose. He’ll hold up cards saying “trombones only” or “groove,” so it’s more fun, because he’s open to any and everything. It’s spontaneous.
Y!W: It certainly presents the chance to play a lot styles, something you do on the new album. The first one, Lifeboat, sounded like a deeper exploration of a single voice. Were you intending to not repeat that on this one?
JH: Wow, I hadn’t thought of it that was but it makes sense. Musicians should always be in a constant state of change and evolution, and I was in a different place with this record. I was really into trance music. I wanted to sit in the chair and lean way back and have that effect. That carries over into this one to a degree. I used a tremolo arm to mimic a vocal effect. The cover of George Harrison’s “Within You, Without You” has a heavy drone to it that’s found in Indian music also.
Y!W: Obviously, every Dead or Widespread Panic song is a body of work unto itself, but is writing in your own voice a challenge on the same level?
JH: I think it’s a different kind of challenge. Some of this music might be more difficult to play because they change keys a lot. You could talk to a sax player about playing over a lot of different keys and for them it’s easier than playing over a single chord like a band like Widespread Panic does. In the jam-band world, bands tend to explore one tonality for a long time — the D-minor chord in “Surprise Valley” — sax players tell me they run out of ideas right away. I say, “Man, I feel the same way when I’m trying to play Coltrane’s Giant Steps. I can’t get through it more than one time before I can’t figure out what to do next.”
Being a sideman, it has another set of challenges, but that’s really where I’m most comfortable, because you just show up, learn your music and do your work, and that’s just kind of where you commitment ends.
Y!W: Not a fan of having your name out front, are you?
JH: To be honest, being a bandleader is not something I’ve ever wanted to do. Until you get to the highest professional levels, conditions aren’t always perfect and it’s up to the bandleader to rectify those things. I’ve been with the guys I’m playing with (Jeff Sipe, Matt Slocum and Neal Fountain) for a long time though and we’re buddies. We played with Bruce Hampton, and if you can do that, then everything else is easy. We always joke that there’s two kinds of musicians: those who have played with Bruce and those who haven’t. If you don’t get broken playing with him, nothing will.
Y!W: It was my understanding that he was anything but a taskmaster.
JH: Oh you would be right. But a lot of times when you’re traveling with him, the conditions aren’t exactly five-star, and it teaches you that you create your own reality. One of the things he taught us was that the simpler the music is, the easier it is to improvise, to explore and bend it. His take on true improvisation, which I absolutely agree with wholeheartedly, is that it comes from your internal vocabulary. It’s not stringing a bunch of notes together that you’ve learned. It’s like having a conversation. You might tell three people the same thing, but phrase it in different ways. I play a lot of notes I guess because it takes me that many to get my point across. That’s my vocabulary.
Subject to Change Without Notice will be released on Aug. 21 and the Jimmy Herring Band will perform at the Jomeokee Music & Arts Festival in September.
Follow Ryan on Twitter @YESRyan