Jimmy Herring Crafts His Own Lifeboat (Relix Revisited)
Jimmy Herring is now out on tour with Widespread Panic, so we thought it a fine time to revisit this feature on the guitarist, which ran in the December/January 2009 issue of Relix.
Photo by Ellis Jones
Any number of fleet-fingered lead guitarists who have steadily dazzled arena audiences would take umbrage at being described as a sideman. Jimmy Herring isn’t one of them.
“People have asked me why I haven’t put out my own album before now but I was always more interested in being a sideman. Instead of being a band leader, I decided that I would be the best sideman that I could be.”
As he spends a quiet afternoon in his Georgia home, days before heading out on a fall tour with Widespread Panic, Herring takes some time to look back on the paradox of his teenage years (more on that momentarily), en route to a discussion of Lifeboat, the solo album first envisioned as a group project that serves as the culmination of a series of fortunate events than began three days after he returned to the South in 1986, following a Hollywood interlude.
Herring’s distaste for the band leader role stretches back to the group he assembled as a teenager. He began playing guitar in 1975 at age 13, drawn to Led Zeppelin, Hendrix and “even Kiss and Aerosmith.” However, as he aspired to assemble his first band, he hit a wall, as he soon discovered that “finding a singer was impossible. Nobody could sing Aerosmith, nobody could sing Led Zeppelin in my little hometown of Fayetteville, North Carolina.”
One of his two older brothers then offered a rather striking alternative. “He said, ‘I can see you’re frustrated, why don’t you just get into some instrumental music?’ I said, ‘Like what?’ So he played me Innermounting Flame. And I was like ‘Ohhh… ’”
Innermounting Flame, the momentous debut release from John McLaughlin and Mahavishnu Orchestra offered a complex, rousing amalgam of jazz and rock that, as befits Herring’s Lifeboat, often is described as the high-water mark of fusion.
“For the first time, I heard something that was completely, utterly, totally out of reach. I probably listened to that music for two years before I ever attempted to play any of it and the easier parts of it started to seep into my subconscious. Then I started getting braver, learned some of the more difficult passages and sooner or later some of them started to materialize.”
Emboldened, Herring formed Paradox, an ambitious group that also delved into the music of The Dixie Dregs and Tony Williams’ Lifetime (which initially featured McLaughlin and later another guitarist significant to Herring’s development, Allan Holdsworth). Unable to secure a willing keyboard player, Herring arranged these parts for a three-piece horn section.
Ultimately though, it was a case of too much too fast. “I guess I was a little too serious too young. We were getting into some real heady music and I might have been too heavy about things that were not that important. The worst part, is some of my friends started calling me a slave driver. So that’s when it came into my mind, if I just worked on my own stuff, it would be hard enough.”
Paradox dissolved and Herring relocated to Hollywood to begin a course of study at the Guitar Institute of Technology. His parents, a superior court judge and a high school English teacher, had long encouraged him to pursue a more formal musical education but initially he had rebuffed them, because, as he now laughs, “I told them, ‘I play rock and roll, I’m from the street.’” At GIT, where he befriended fellow student Jeff Buckley, he refined his technique and received another education as well, bristling at the pay-to-play mentality of the L.A. club scene, which required bands to purchase sold-out gigs a few months in advance. So in 1986, Herring returned to his native South, taking up an offer from one of his teachers to become an instructor at the fledgling Atlanta Institute of Music.
Less than 72 hours after he arrived in Atlanta, his future course was set.
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