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By Garret K. Woodward
Staff Writer 

Spreading The Sonic Word

A Conversation with Jimmy Herring of Widespread Panic

 

Last updated 11/2/2015 at 3:15pm | View PDF

Widespread Panic

I got it.

Growing up outside of Burlington, Vermont, I came out of the womb with a Phish album in-hand. Founded in the North Country, the jam act was the soundtrack we blasted in our cars and the melodies we danced to frantically at shows - the group we pledged our allegiance to.

Which is were the irony lies in such an inclusive and beautiful music and counterculture. The north had Phish, the west aligned with The String Cheese Incident, and the south flocked to Widespread Panic (with all sides praising The Grateful Dead). And as our transient souls trekked around America, we would cross paths with the other sides, always debating who was the more skilled guitarist, wildest drummer or most transformative live experience.

It's not that I didn't "get" Widespread Panic in my early years, I just wasn't brought up in their music, like so many who are around Southern Appalachia and beyond. I'd seen their live shows around the country, and it didn't initially click. That was until they hit the stage in Asheville, North Carolina during their Fall 2013 run.

Standing there, in the front row, snapping away pictures, I was awestruck by the immense waves of sound crashing into my soul. Every cell in my body vibrated, with each song finding its way into the furthest depths of my being. Living in the Deep South the last few years, amid the ancient and mysterious Great Smoky Mountains, you begin to understand why things are the way they are, especially with music. This same attitude goes towards the beauty of bluegrass, and now, for me, in the presence of Widespread.

A band that takes flight onstage, Widespread soars into the heavens above. The sextet weaves and bobs through the audience, carrying all of us on their spiritual journey through the power of music, which is the power of the universe. It's the thundering bass of Dave Schools, the sandpaper grit of lead singer John Bell or the primal heartbeat of percussionist Domingo Ortiz.

During their performances, my focus would always drift toward guitarist Jimmy Herring. Where other guitarist has a specific tone or style, Herring's unique signature was the mere fact he is a melting pot of all the good stuff. From Sunset Strip razor sharp licks to Latin-tinged notes to straight ahead blue-collar rock-n-roll, Herring is a menacing whirlwind let loose on six-strings gone electric.

Garret K. Woodward: What's going on in your head when you're onstage?

Jimmy Herring: The goal is to not be there at all, to just be an open channel. I can't always get there, and most improvisation musicians will tell you that. You learn everything you can learn, and you keep pressing forward to try to learn new things and new pieces to your vocabulary, but, at the same time, when you're at a show, you don't want to be going through your vocabulary, you don't want to be thinking about it, you want to get out of your own way. The idea is to somehow clear your mind and do all the thinking you need to do before the show.

GKW: You recorded you latest record ("Street Dogs") at Echo Mountain in Asheville, a beautiful old church now turned into a recording studio. What do like about that room?

JH: It just has this amazing vibe. There's no substitute for the room, the wood in there that just soaks up the sound. The beauty is that you not only mic the instruments up close, you can also mic the room. A lot of other places you just put the mics right up to the speakers and up to the drums and you don't really get to hear anything but the speaker or the cymbal. But, when you mic the room, you get this special ingredient.

GKW: What do you think about the whole EDM scene, where perhaps musicianship and raw talent is traded in for stage gimmicks, bright lights, and such?

JH: I have thoughts on that, and they're not very good ones. (Laughs). But, at the same time I have to remember that my dad didn't like Led Zeppelin. I can remember being in the car playing "Whole Lotta Love," and my dad going, "What is this?" There's a generation thing going on, and I can't help it. The EDM thing, I don't know how to process it. I just think that there's no substitute for somebody working at their craft and actually be able to do something with it. The EDM thing is a mystery to me. I wouldn't shoot it down and say it doesn't have a place, because it does, and I wouldn't say that it doesn't take any skill because there's so much I don't know about it.

GKW: I asked Mike Cooley (guitarist, Drive-By Truckers) his thoughts on EDM and he said, "People will always gravitate to rock music. Kids will always pick up an instrument. It has always evolved and it always will. That's the one thing about entertainment - nobody started it and nobody's going to end it."

JH: That's right. I agree with Mike. I don't think real music will ever go away. And yet people's idea of music is different for all of us. My dad loved Frank Sinatra and to him that was music, and so was Benny Goodman. And I do love those bands, too. And yet, as a kid, I also loved Aerosmith. I have to keep that in mind when I see EDM music out there today. To me, it lacks any type of personality. That's one of the things I love about the 70s was that every band had their own personality. My kids are turning me on to some great stuff that's out there today, but at the same time, there's a certain thing that goes on these days, and has been going on for awhile, is the powers that be just want to go out and make money - the individual is getting lost in all of this. You can do the whole "those damn kids" about music today, but that's the same thing our parents were doing to us when we were growing up. There's part of me that just wants to say, "Well it's just all about the drugs, this whole EDM thing," but wait a minute, look at the music of the 60s and 70s, look at Jazz, Coltrane and Parker were doing heroin, The Beatles were into acid.

GKW: What has a lifetime playing music taught you about life?

JH: That music can help people. It can be a positive thing in people's lives, something you can't get anywhere else. As someone who plays, it's like church to me, but not in a religious way - it's a spiritual thing. I just believe if that you're able to get out of your way, all your years of preparation and practice to get yourself to that point, if you can get out of your own way, instead of being academic, it comes out as music in that moment, and that's the goal for me, and it's not going to stop anytime soon. You can lose yourself in it, in a good way, and that's what I see when I watch people dancing out there at our shows. I think it's just beautiful seeing that. And yeah, some of them look insane, but that doesn't matter at all, because people being able to let go of their inhibitions and let it overtake you, that's a spiritual journey. I know a lot of people in other genres of music, they look at what we get to do, and say, 'Oh man, I want to get in on this, look how much fun your audience is having.' They're not sitting in front of you with their arms crossed, analyzing what scale your playing on, they're actually going on a journey with you. They let their guard down, they get wrapped up in it, and open themselves up to it - it's a beautiful thing.

Editor's Note: Widespread Panic is currently on a national tour in support of their new record, "Street Dogs." http://www.widespreadpanic.com.

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