Jimmy Herring’s 5 of 7

The lauded Widespread Panic lead guitarist patches together a band of local heroes for a little moonlighting from his day job. He shares some thoughts with BW about reconnecting with the Atlanta music scene, trading firepower with The Maestro and Paul Reed Smith’s mission.

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Jimmy Herring's 5 of 7
Courtesy of MAD Ink PR

“You work when ya’ can.”

Jimmy Herring isn’t one of those guys to sit back and recharge batteries. At least not yet. Widespread Panic rolls on with a dance card totaling about 40 gigs this year, but Herring found himself some open calendar landscape, put together a new band and filled those dates. 

Hey, the work is out there, get after it. 

We caught up to the guitarist at his home in Atlanta a day or two before he was headed up to Nashville to play a sold out three day stand at the Ryman Auditorium, including an all-acoustic night. Panic has evolved into a long weekend/multi-day gig outfit; three or four days at the end of the week, home on Monday, back on a plane Wednesday. It’s a luxury that bands of Panic’s stature can afford, graduation from the two- or three-month continuous road toil that’s still the model for aspirant outfits toe-dipping new markets.

But September and stretches of October and November offered some daylight, and Herring wanted to do something different. It started from conversations that Herring had with bassist Kevin Scott, who played in Herring’s last band, Invisible Whip.

“The idea came when I started talking to Kevin,” Herring says. “I said I wanted to play with some local guys. Kevin’s had his finger on the pulse of the Atlanta music scene for a long time. So he told me about these guys [drummer Darren Stanley and guitarist/vocalist Ric Lollar]. Now Darren I knew — he’d been in one of Bruce Hampton’s latter bands, and I saw him playing with Bruce and just thought, man, this guy’s great. He’s got a really cool thing, listens real hard, and I got to know him a bit and said, ‘Let’s put something together.’

“And then there’s this guy Ric Lollar, a guitar player. He’s a great side man — real supportive, can sing back up, plays guitar. But he has his own thing too. They put a band together called King Baby, with [longtime Herring keyboardist] Matt Slocum on keys, and I heard their record [The Big Galoot, 2017], and just said, ‘Holy shit, I like this. I wanna work with Ric too.’ So that’s how it came about.”

Most of the characters in this circle, of course, came through one or another of Col. Bruce Hampton’s bands. Herring himself first gained recognition with the original Aquarium Rescue Unit in the early ’90s, which went on to be one of the standard bearers of the emerging jam scene. After a successful and exhausting run of a few years, Hampton essentially pulled the plug on the spotlight and cut way back on touring, in part due to health issues, while Herring went on to projects like Jazz is Dead, Phil and Friends, the Dead, the Ringers and, eventually, Widespread Panic. Hampton remained an icon in the local scene in Atlanta, and his untimely, onstage death in 2017 hasn’t diminished the depth of his influence there.     

“I just wanted to see how it felt, playing with local guys again, kind of returning to the Atlanta music scene, which I had been absent from for God knows how long. I started with Bruce in 1989, and there was a really cool thing happening in Atlanta at that time. And after that, I was never home.

“The idea is really simple. Those of us who played with Bruce, it’s almost like an extended family. Even though we didn’t all play with him at the same time. And that’s another thing I wanted — to play with younger guys who played with Bruce but not at the same time I did. And kinda see what they learned from him.”

Herring promises a mixed bag from The 5 of 7. A spin through King Baby’s long player may reveal some clues — the album is a solid, confident mixed plate of funk, Southern roadhouse, hints of blue-eyed soul and some calisthenics. Some “instrumental madness” is probably on tap, Herring suggests, but also some straight-up vocal tunes of Lollar’s, and maybe a surprise or two. 

We couldn’t resist the temptation to follow-up on our last chat with Herring from a couple of years ago; we connected shortly after he got the call to support John McLaughlin’s last U.S. tour. Herring was unashamed at the time to concede some trepidation about trading Mahavishnu licks with The Maestro himself, in a two-bands-simultaneously setting, but says the experience was thrilling. And, yeah, a little scary. 

“You know, you grow up idolizing someone, I guess you imagine how they are as a person,” Herring says “I would never have known he was so easy to hang with. He was open to everyone’s ideas, he was very generous with solo space… it was musically challenging, but also the most fun I think I’ve ever had.”

Herring had to pause a moment. 

“Well, it’s hard to say it was fun, because it was scary.”

Were you happy with how you played?

“Nah, I played nervous, man,” he says. “I can hear it. I can hear the nerves, I can hear the rushing. I mean, if you listen to the first Mahavishnu record, there’s a lot of rushing, so I don’t feel too terrible about it. John was wonderful, he was very complimentary and encouraging to us. But you always feel like you could have played better.”

(Check out a live version of “Meeting with the Spirits” from that tour on Abstract Logix, Herring deftly playing off and complimenting McLaughlin’s blistering runs and trademark twitchy micro-tonal gestures.) 

Guitarists can be a little obsessive about their equipment, and we thought we’d indulge in a little axe-geek bantor. We’d just run across dueling meme-bait photos of Joe Bonamassa and Slash dwarfed by their nearly absurd collection of axes and amps (both heavy on the Gibson/Marshall paradigm), and we ask if Herring had that axe-hoarding bug. 

“Yeah,” he laughs. “You gotta be rich — or single — to have a collection like that. And probably an addition to your house. I like Stratocasters and Telecasters, and I have a few. I do have my ’67 Strat, and my ’63 Strat that Phil Lesh gave me as a gift. And those I cherish.

“As far as new guitars, I don’t usually seek them out. But Paul [Reed] Smith is still building some the best instruments I’ve ever played, and I mean he’s just an amazing person. He’s one of those people who’s just always trying to make a better wheel. He never rests, he’s constantly innovating. 

But the Strat thing — the mystical resonance of Hendrix, maybe — runs deep.

“I still love Strats,” Herring admits. “I have one badass Strat that I bought from Wildwood Guitars out in Boulder (Louisville, actually). It’s a Wildwood Ten, ’57 replica. I had it re-fretted with taller fretwire that I like, but other than that it’s bone stock. And it’s amazing.”    

ON THE BILL: Jimmy Herring and The 5 of 7. 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 13, Aggie Theatre, 204 S. College Ave., Fort Collins. Tickets are $25 in advance, $28 day of show. 

8:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 14, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th St., Boulder. Tickets are $28.