JoJo Hermann: Missing Cats, Mississippi and Mikey
You did a series of spring dates with Missing Cats, was that prior to or after recording the album?
It was right in between. We went ahead and recorded the album and then Sherman and I went out for ten dates just by ourselves. That’s when we really worked on our vocals, we belted these songs out every night together and that’s where we got our harmonies set, so we then went back into the studio and did the vocals over a two day period, and because we went out we were just able to knock it out and we had our harmonies down. We just sang together on a lot of the stuff, and it was just so much fun to record that way, vocal tracks. I’ve never done that, where you just had two guys singing to one mic. It’s like how they used to make records in the ‘50s and ‘60s. It was really refreshing, it was great.
In September you’re going to tour with Luther and Cody [Dickinson]. Are they going to be in your band? Who are members of the Missing Cats?
We’re taking the attitude that we’re a one, big family band kind of thing, so Cody and Luther are going to playing a lot on the Missing Cats set and I’m going to be sitting in on keyboards on the North Mississippi Allstars set. I’m a huge fan of the Allstars and we also play a lot of R.L. Burnside/Junior Kimbraugh stuff, we both know that music very, very well. We’re all just going to sit in with each other—and Sherman, and we’re just going to go back and forth and just play with each other. But yes, they’re definitely going to rock out the Missing Cats stuff from the record too.
You’ve known Luther and Cody for some time. Can you talk about watching the Allstars career develop?
It’s a phenomenal career. Their new album Key To The Kingdom is one of the great albums of the last year. They I think Luther was like 14 and Cody was 10 when I first met them through their Dad, Jim Dickinson, who produced a record I did in Oxford [with Beanland] and we came up to Memphis. I remember Luther was just hanging out, sitting there, and I got to know him that way. I did a project in Oxford with a guy named Michael Nichol, a songwriter from Oxford who’s now in Memphis, and that’s when Cody and Luther and I retreated to an old plantation, Pluto Plantation, in the Delta—I think it was in Tula, Mississippi—and we just hung out in this old plantation house for five days, and that’s where I think musically we came together. And even at that time I was just like “man, these guys are just the best.” And it’s not only that they have such great chops, they just have this unbelievable sense of hooks and melody, and they just take a song and make it work. They just have this sense of brining things so much energy and life. That’s when we started Smiling Assassins, around that stuff, and was very, very exciting to get back together with them—I’ve been wanting to get back together with them, and now I finally have the time to do it.
What continues to draw you to Sherman as a collaborator?
He’s a great songwriter, and we’ve just shared so many times together, so writing together—there’s just so much to write about. We just sit in the car and it’s like “Oh man, remember this? Remember that?” It’s really great to write with someone who we have so many common experiences with—we know each others’ families and we know each others’ friends and we have all the same hangouts, so that makes it really fun. And we were definitely [doing] a lot of reminiscing on that. And he just has such a killer voice, and he has this ability to blend vocally, not just with me but with anybody. He has this ear that just automatically tunes perfectly into whatever he’s hearing. Even if someone sings a little bit off, he can attune to that off-ness. It’s just a natural gift that he brings to the vocals.
Do you remember the moment when you started playing again after those years apart?
The biggest thing I recall when I think we really decided “Hey, let’s actually do this” was in Telluride, Colorado, and I was out there doing a fundraiser benefit for Wounded Warriors at the Opera House in Telluride and I was like “Sherman, I don’t think I can do this myself—why don’t you fly out and we’ll do these songs?” We knew about ten songs together, and so he flew out there but of course his flight got derailed and he had to fly into Gunnison, and then it was like a five hour drive through the snow, and I think it took him 20 hours. He was a broken man when he got there. But he did it, and I think it was that night that we got together, and I think we sang about ten or fifteen songs together, and that’s when it all of a sudden was like, I just got to the point where it was like “Man, I just can’t even do this without Sherman anymore.” It’s so much more fun and enjoyable and it sounds so much better when we’re doing our thing.
And you’d communicated with him off and on in the intervening years?
Yes, and jammed with his band—Sherman’s solo band, which was a great band. I’d checked them out a bunch of places, and then I’d sit in with him and his band.
Can you talk about some of your favorite songs from the Missing Cats record?
Jojo: Oh man—one of my favorites is Sherman’s ballad “High Wire,” which I think is six in or so. Great Great. That’s where his vocals just really, really shine. I really enjoy the first song, “Any Moment.” That’s one where we just sang it out together in one take, and all those harmonies and stuff that we worked on. That was really fun, to record that two of us at the same time on one mic. It was just great. And then “Body In The River” we did that as well, which I think is one where Luther really, really shines. But we just enjoyed the whole thing—it was just a blur, we did it so fast.
The title track, is that a nod to the late southern writer Larry Brown?
That is, yes—Larry Brown from Oxford, Mississippi. We were friends—I can’t say we knew each other that well, but when we did see each other we would always say hello and talk. Just the nicest guy. But his writing has had such a huge influence. When things aren’t right or your back’s to the wall a little bit, or you’re just in a lost place or just kind of searching or wondering what’s going on around you, I read Larry Brown. He just has a way of making me feel better about myself. But also his descriptions of the south, especially Oxford, Mississippi, he writes a lot about Oxford and the surrounding territory. Just the landscapes that he is able to produce through words is really amazing, I don’t know and writer who can just literally put a picture in your head of just the beauty of Mississippi and the south like Larry can.
He’s also very bleak. But you do get that fascinating peek into his world.
I lived there, so the places that Larry writes about—I mean, he describes them as they actually are. I moved from Oxford and I miss it terribly, although I’ve just started going back this year because with the hiatus I’m able to. With Larry, when he describes a bar or he describes the spillway out at Sardis Lake, I mean he paints it exactly how I remember it. So I think on a personal note it just brings back a lot of very, very fond memories of times I’ve spent there with old friends. Fortunately we’re not like most of the characters.
What about the last song on the album, “Vinyl Persuasion?”
Jojo: Oh, yeah. God, what is that song about? That’s actually a tribute to my favorite piano players—or two of my favorite piano players. I think towards the end it says “I’ve got a Mac addiction” and that’s Dr. John—Mac Rebennack—and it says I’ve got a Mose addiction, and that’s Mose Allison. I think I wrote that song late at night—I still play my old records, so I was just playing some Dr. John and Mose Allison and that lyric came out. I decided to write something about vinyl. I guess maybe when they have that Record Store day and they do the vinyl stuff maybe we’ll press a 45.
Do you have any upcoming plans for the Mardi Gras Band or is that more of a seasonal project?
Definitely. Actually we’re getting together for the benefit I’m doing, the one I told you about. They’re actually going to come by and help me out. We’re taking a break as far as the whole band and going out on the road and stuff. Some of the guys moved away, frankly. John Jackson moved to Los Angeles and he’s doing great, great stuff out there, so anyway I was just going to wait until everybody got situated and stuff, and then we were going to think about bringing it back.
Can you talk about what’s on the horizon for Widespread Panic?
I think maybe this fall we’ll actually have a meeting about having a meeting or something like that. I think we’re planning to have a meeting where we’re going to discuss having a meeting to discuss how and when we’re coming back and stuff. But I’ve gotta tell you this: I definitely miss it. I’m sitting here really missing it, and that’s a really good thing. We wore it out the past three years, and now I just feel like my batteries are getting so recharged. And I really miss it, and I miss the guys, and that’s a really good thing.
Do you talk to the guys or are you all focused on your own lives?
Well we’ve shot some emails back and forth to each other, just saying hi and checking in. Everybody’s been busy, I’ve been laying here with the family in Nashville. When I’m in Athens, and I go through Athens, when I’m there I’ll stop by and say “Howdy,” but yeah, we’re definitely in touch, no doubt about it.
It’s been ten years since Michael Houser passed away. Can you share a Mikey moment?
They’re doing a big “I Miss You Mikey” tribute in Athens, and that definitely got me thinking about it. What I remember most about Mikey is just sitting and… we played a lot of chess and we both shared a real love of baseball. Mikey and I used to sit in the back lounge and…he was a big Braves fan and I was a big Mets fan and during all those years that we were together the Braves were just winning ever year relentlessly. And the Mets weren’t, so he definitely got me on that end. Back in those days we just really hung out. We saw each other more than any of us saw our families. We became like a real family when we were out there, so he was a brother. And as far as musically, he sat three feet in front of me every night for all those years we were together, and he just had this ability musically to take me to another place. I could close my eyes and feel like I was drifting to another planet, and that’s really to me what music is all about, that’s what music is supposed to do, and any art. It takes you to another place, and no one did that for me more than Mikey.