It was a moment of truth for Jimmy Herring, no getting around it. He had to answer Mickey Hart’s question.
In 2002, the flexible guitarist – the musician’s musician – Herring was about to start rehearsals with The Other Ones, the revised version of the Grateful Dead, with Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann (he’d continue with these guys through 2004, after they renamed themselves The Dead).
Herring had some idea of what he was into, having played with Phil Lesh and Friends since 2000. But still, this was different. This was the whole damn bus, or what was left of it.
“The Dead was a lot of work and education,” Herring says. “I had the distinct advantage of being in Phil’s band first, getting a taste of what it was like to play with Phil and get his ideas, his perspective on that music. So by the time the Dead actually started playing, I had that advantage.
“But once we started rehearsing, I remember Mickey asking me, ‘How many times did you see the band?’ And I was so embarrassed, because I never saw the Grateful Dead, and I told him, ‘I’m sorry, I never got to see you guys.’ And he goes, ‘What?’ He was glad! He was happy!
“I was like, ashamed, and kind of scared because, oh no, I’d never seen the Grateful Dead. But he was glad, because he didn’t want me being hung up on trying to be like anyone else. There are people out there that can do that better than I can.”
The conversation at this point gets kind of funny, because Jimmy Herring is such a great guy with such a sweet disposition, and he talks about Jerry Garcia (and pretty much all of his musical heroes) in these reverential tones, not that there’s anything wrong with that. But this is Herring, the guy who has played with Billy Cobham, Bruce Hampton, the Allman Brothers, now Widespread Panic. And he reminds me of one of my way down to Earth, Return-to-Forever-T-shirt-wearing-hell-yeah-friends from high school. He reminds me of the guy who gets tongue-tied around his heroes. Jimmy Herring, his ‘white wizard of the solid-body axe’ reputation notwithstanding, is a regular guy. An when he talks about Jerry, I feel compelled to write ‘him’ as ‘Him.’
As in, “If I dedicated my life to imitating Him, that would be one thing. But I didn’t feel that was the right thing to do, and nobody in the band felt it was the right thing to do. I listened to a lot of Jerry, because we were gonna play that music, and what he did was so incredible. I listened to a lot, and didn’t lift much stuff, but tried to play some signature things.”
When he joined Widespread Panic in 2006, following George McConnell, who was following Michael Houser, Herring was well used to the fill-in role. He did it with the Dead. He did it with the Allman Brothers Band.
“Luckily, I had a little bit of the same situation before, coming into a band that was well-established. Been there,” he says.
“But you come into it, and they have 200-plus songs, closer to 300, an you go, ‘oh man, how am I gonna do all this?’”
Herring was under the gun, touring with his own band when McConnell left Panic and he was asked to join the band. Following his tour, he had about two weeks to get it down.
“I basically had a month and two weeks – a month to finish the tour. And when you’re on the road with one band, you can’t be working on another band’s material. Not cool. I did listen to a lot of Panic in my spare time, but didn’t get the guitar out and try to learn it until I got home. Then it was two weeks before Radio City. No pressure, it’s only Radio City!”
Herring spent most of those two weeks in his basement, at least 10 hours a day, and hardly touched the guitar for the first week.
“I just listened to the music and made rough outline maps of songs, like, this one has an eight-bar intro, then goes to a verse, and I’d write an outline in the form of a song – verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, guitar solo. It’s so funny – me and Dave (Schools) really got to laughing, because Dave’s primary concern was the improvisational aspect of the group, and that was the easiest part, that’s what I’m familiar with.”
It’s not like it was all new to Herring’s ears. He’s known Panic since 1989, he’d jammed with them, opened for them when he was with Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit in the early 1990s. Hampton, more than anyone it seems, has influenced Herring as a working musician.
“He’s like a football coach in a way, he can’t run the ball for you and can’t tell you how to run, but he can show you some avenues. He doesn’t tell you how to play, but he’ll speak metaphorically and you get what you get from it and try to implement what he’s trying to teach you. You learn through being out there with him.”
The phrase ‘out there’ seems appropriate.
“Bruce has something different and he’s in touch with something that almost nobody we know is in touch with. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but he taught us how to be ourselves, he helps you get in touch with yourself.
“You know, when you’re young, you have these musicians you really love and wan to emulate, the way a pro athlete might love Michael Jordan. So when you’re young, you probably haven’t found yourself yet. You have this potential, and Bruce’s specialty is spotting that potential and helping you find yourself, and stop trying to be someone else. That’s what he did for me.
“Nobody took it lightly, which is hilarious because it’s not about making money and getting the biggest gig in the world. It’s about being the best musician you can be, and finding out what that means to you.”
Since joining Panic, Herring’s sense of the situation has evolved from a “me with them” perspective to an “us” point of view.
“It’s definitely ‘us’ now,” he says. “They completely brought me into the family and wanted me to feel completely comfortable. So I feel like it’s been ‘us’ for a while now – hundred of gigs and man, many miles later.”
The guy grew up listening to the Allman Brothers, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and that made him want to play. Then, hearing the Dixie Dregs, Weather Report and Return to Forever made him want to become the kind of musician that practices 10 hours a day. The work shows, and Herring seamlessly combines rock and roll amplitude with a jazz improv aesthetic when wailing for Panic.
He seems to be playing notes faster than most of us can think of them, faster than instinct, and fluid, never jumping the tracks. You see him up there on stage, up front, stage right, in one moment the stoic white wizard, the next moment smiling across the stage at Schools, the two of them sharing tonal jokes. It’s almost as much fun watching this back and forth as it is listening to the sounds these guys make.
And the whole big-time, rock-star thing is still a little weird to Herring, who has a reputation for working his ass off (though he doesn’t typically refer to it as work: “I’m blessed to be in the position to make a living at something I would be doing no matter what. I just love to play.”). Like, back when he was playing with Jazz is Dead, there wasn’t a big crew to lug equipment.
“I was in there moving stuff. By the year 2000, when I started playing with Phil (Lesh), we had a major crew and everybody had a job and the musicians just showed up and played. I was like, ‘this is weird.’ Every aspect of it was covered, and I didn’t have to anything but play. So we’re looking at 10 years of me getting lazy.
“But really, for years I just didn’t want to trust anyone with the really intimate stuff, like my guitars. I would always keep my main guitar with me, still do. Now, though, I’m at the point where I show up before sound check and hand it over to Eric (Pretto, his guitar tech) and let him change the strings and so on.
“I’m superstitious, and know people who’ve been doing this for a long time and don’t even know how to set up their own rig, don’t even know how to change strings anymore. I don’t want to lose touch with that.”
He feels like ‘us’ is gonna be a pretty permanent thing. He feels at home with Panic.
“I really don’t see retirement written in the plans at this point. We’re not punching a time clock. We all love to play too much. I know for a fact that Dave, for example, has to play. Hates it when he’s not playing.”
On the road, once the band gets a few miles under its six-vehicle touring fleet (three semis, three buses that are really hotels on wheels), something happens that turns the music into an involuntary thing, like breathing.
“You get into a groove when you’re on the road, once the group hits its stride, when you’ve been out for two weeks with three to go, and auto-pilot kicks in. Everybody loves that, when things just glide, when you can step out of the way of the music and when you improvise. You’re letting it all come through you. It’s what any musician strives for, you want to be there when it happens, when you feel yourself in the music.”