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Published: 2011/01/20
by Dean Budnick

Frozen Fire: Journeys with Jimmy Herring

Jimmy Herring will return to the road with Widespread Panic, as the group begins an extended celebration of its 25th anniversary. In the following conversation, which draws on questions submitted by readers, Herring talks about his role in Panic, reflects on the music of his heroes and identifies some musicians whose work he appreciates that might surprise some fans.

Back in 2000 and 2001, you toured and recorded with T Lavitz and Richie Hayward in what was first called Justice League and then became known as Endangered Species. Both T and Richie passed away in 2010 and a number of people wanted to hear your thought and memories of them.

Oh man, we just lost T recently, we’re going to miss him so much. We always loved each other but I’d lost touch with him recently. You get busy and you get pulled into different directions and I hadn’t talked to him a lot in the past couple of years but I always loved him and had a blast playing with him, recording with him and Richie too. When we did the Justice League album which was not Justice League but Endangered Species it was a Mike Varney project and his basic way of doing it is you have to write, record and mix in a ten day period. At first I said no because every little thing can take more time than you think it’ll take. But we went ahead and we wrote and recorded and mixed it in a 10 day period. Richie stayed with us a lot of the time. I got to know both of them very well.

T was always one of my heroes because he was in the Dixie Dregs and I can remember when I was 18 or 19 and I’d go see the Dregs literally anytime when they were within a three hour span of where I lived and T was one of the first guys to answer my stupid kid questions. He would sit there and isolate parts of the music for me. I would ask him, “You know that song ‘Chips Ahoy,’ I know what your left hand is doing but what’s your right hand doing?” Or it could be, “That passage in ‘Night Meets Light,’ what is your left hand doing there?” And he would show me and he would break it apart real slow and then play it up to tempo and it gave me a whole new insight into Steve’s [Morse] music and the way that he wrote. The crazy thing is Steve can play all that stuff on piano, it freaks me out. T would tell me, “Yeah, Steve can play this stuff on piano. Now the first time he might make a mistake but if he does, he won’t make it again.” T told me that Steve’s mind is like a computer. Steve was T’s all time hero so for him to get to work with Steve was a dream come true. They both went to the University of Miami although T was a few years behind him. I had been out of touch with T for a while but he was doing what he was doing and I was doing what I was doing.

T and Richie were two heroes who I had really great experiences with and became friends with but there’s always going to be that line. They’re my friends but they’re also my heroes which led me to keep somewhat of a professional distance. Even though they were my dear friends, I looked at them as icons of music.

That’s the thing with Panic, they’re my contemporaries, my peers. I’m the same age as most of them. Dave’s younger and Sunny’s older, but me and JB and Todd an Jojo are all born in the same year. Me and Mikey were born in the same year, we were only a week or two apart.

Which lead to another question. Someone wanted to know how Mike Houser’s style impacted your own playing, if at all.

Absolutely. Profoundly. The most obvious way I can think of it is Mikey had this incredible ability to make a minor blues scale fit any chord, even if it was over a major chord. He might not hit the minor third of the scale but he would play all the other notes in the scale and you could tell he was still thinking out of that scale when he would play. I’ve learned ways of doing that trying to play Panic music and that struck me. I was doing it on Lenny’s [White] tour, playing not Mikey licks per se but I was kind of thinking like Mikey in a couple ways where he found a way to make that minor blues scale fit any chord. It was quite fascinating because if there was a note that didn’t sound right, typically it would be the minor third of the scale against a major chord from the same root and Mikey would just skip that note. He would play lines out of the scale but without that note in it and I think it just evolved naturally with him. Rather than change the scale, he’d just keep the same scale and he would just not play the notes that didn’t fit and it ended up sounding incredible. That would be the most obvious thing.

Here’s a question related to your role in Widespread Panic. “Jimmy, what made you finally quit holding back and start to wail with Panic? The first couple of years you just seemed hesitant to let it rip.” (Aaron S.)

I have to say I still wrestle with that some and sometimes my tendency to play a lot of notes might not always be the right thing at the right time but that’s how I play. I don’t always play like that but I still wrestle with that a lot because Mike didn’t play a lot of notes that often. He could when he felt like it, when the music moved him that way, he played a lot of notes. I’m sure there are people who notice what I’m doing and say, “Hey, that’s not Panic” but the guys in the band they could see me struggling. Not struggling to be a musician but struggling with what’s appropriate, what’s not appropriate. So they came to me and said, “Jimmy, just play like you play. If you play a lot of notes, you play a lot notes. Don’t ever feel like you have to hold back or not be you.”

Even after hearing that it was still hard sometimes. I would be in that spot in my journey where I would be just about to do it, just about to go and I would stop myself and think, “That’s just not appropriate here.” But you can’t think like that, you can’t think at all when you’re improvising or at least you shouldn’t, and they really helped me to let go of that and just play. Playing with them is such a gas. I might play a lot of notes sometimes but it never feels wrong to me when it’s happening. The first couple of years I was trying not to do something inappropriate and I was struggling to learn the tunes too.

Was there a particular turning point or was it more of a process?

It’s still a process. I don’t remember any given moment where I stopped struggling with that type of thing but Dave and I have this ongoing joke where if I play something too stupid and by that I mean a lot of notes, he’ll look at me and hold up five fingers. That means I’m fined 500 dollars (laughs). He’ll go, “Alright, that’s five.” It’s not actually true, it’s kind of a throwback to the James Brown days when he used to fine musicians for something, either playing something inappropriate or missing a cue. He’d go, “I gotcha!” and he actually did fine them.

So there was no time I can recall where I said, “Oh it’s different now.” It’s a process, it’s evolving. We’ve made two records and we’ve played I don’t know how many gigs in the past four years. We’ve lived with each other and those guys are my peers. I’ve known them since ’89, it’s quite a bit different playing with Phil or the Dead or the Allman Brothers where you feel these are your heroes and your mentors and they seem to have an idea where they want you to go with the music. They want you to be free but at the same time, they seem to have an idea of what the sound of the group is and what they’re looking for, so sometimes they can help you by telling what that is.

But with Panic there’s never been any time where any one of them has tried to steer me in a certain direction. Sometimes I’ll ask Dave his opinion and he’ll try to give me a rough outline of the contours of what we’re trying to get across but their thing evolved really naturally with Mike and it became what it became through repeated playing together. So he says, “Don’t worry, the same thing’s going to happen with you. Not the same way but with repeated gigs we’ll find our center together.” You see they look at it like it’s a new band rather than it’s the same band with one member being replaced, because someone like Mike is just not replaceable. And they’re not looking for me to come in and be Mike number two. They don’t want that. They want it to be organic and evolve naturally.

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