For decades, world-renowned guitarist Jimmy Herring has been the ultimate sideman, a musical chameleon who blends his own unique style with the guitar licks of Jerry Garcia, Dickey Betts, and Michael Houser to forge a storied rock and roll career of his own. Over the last 13 years, Herring’s main focus as been on Widespread Panic, with whom he’s gigged internationally on a slimmed-down touring schedule of about fifty performances per year. Jimmy has had his various side projects through the years, too, from his 2008 solo album, Lifeboat, to his jazz-fusion instrumental band, The Invisible Whip, which he took on tour with John McLaughlin & The 4th Dimension for one last North American celebrate the legacy of the Mahavishnu Orchestra in 2017.
Now, Jimmy Herring has teamed up with several fellow students of the late Col. Bruce Hampton—all of whom played with the Colonel in various decades and are now busy musicians in the Atlanta music scene and beyond—to form a brand new band, The 5 of 7. Featuring Kevin Scott on bass guitar, Darren Stanley on drums, longtime collaborator Matt Slocum on keyboards, and Rick Lollar on guitar and vocals, The 5 of 7 just kicked off their inaugural tour in Denver. After making their way across the U.S. over the course of September and October (and taking a late-October break for Jimmy to shift back into Panic mode for the band’s Milwaukee and NOLAween runs), The 5 of 7 tour will culminate on the other side of the world with a four-night run in Japan.
Jimmy Herring & The 5 of 7 – Tour Opener – 9/12/19 – Denver, CO – Full Video
[Video: Bennett Schwartz]
Ahead of the tour, Live For Live Music Widespread Panic correspondent Otis Sinclair caught up with Jimmy Herring to chat about the new band, its ties to the late Col. Bruce Hampton, Widespread Panic’s recent acoustic run at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, and more. You can read through the conversation below.
Otis Sinclair: Getting straight to business, let’s talk about your new band, The 5 of 7, and your first-ever tour.
Jimmy Herring: I’m really excited. We just had a rehearsal yesterday and it went really well. I am real pleased with just how all the tunes are feeling. Most of my band are local musicians and there’s so much good music here [in Atlanta] and it was time to investigate a bit. I know some young guys who know some other young guys and they turned me on to some of these young lions in Atlanta and, man, what a blast to play with them.
Otis: Can you talk about the name and where it derives from?
Jimmy: Well, there are a lot of things that it could be connected to, but mainly… Bruce Hampton, our mentor, had a band called the IV of IX. Many years ago. I was always just struck by that. I thought that was great. So, when this came up, the other band members and I kicked around a bunch of ideas and, eventually, we settled on 5 of 7. But we didn’t use Roman numerals like the IV of IX did. We just thought it was funny. All these guys at one time or another has played with and worked with Bruce in their careers. It’s like you share something with each other even though you might not have played with each other in the same band or the same era. I played with him in the late 80s and early 90s and these younger people played with him much later. We have that in common with each other. Just about everything we talk about or do is somehow a lesson that we learned from Bruce. The name came from a tribute to him.
Otis: In what year did you first run into Bruce for the first time?
Jimmy: ’88, and I started working with Bruce and his band in ’89.
Otis: That’s also when you were introduced to Widespread Panic, right?
Jimmy: That’s right! I was in Bruce’s band, which was really only one night a week in a local pub in Little Five Points in Atlanta. One night, we were playing in there and these three guys came in and were hanging out after the show talking with Bruce. Then, we all met. It was John Bell, Dave Schools, and Michael Houser. They had gone to Bruce to say, “Hey, man, we like what you guys are doing. We have three nights at the Center Stage Theater in a month from now and we’d like you guys to open the show if you’re up for it.” And that’s how we met.
Otis: That’s amazing how the universe kind of doubled back on itself.
Jimmy: It is! I think Bruce may have already known them [WSP]. Bruce knew them before with another band that he had. They had discovered Bruce and were fans of his and were sort of acquaintances and friends. By the time I was playing with Bruce, they were coming to see anything he did. When they came in, they saw that particular ARU [Aquarium Rescue Unit] run, which is the one that made those records with Bruce in the early ’90s. Aquarium Rescue Unit was a band before I got in it.
They weren’t touring. Like I said, they were playing one night a week at Little Five Points. It was a Monday night. It was a chance for the musicians to stretch and be free because most musicians that were playing with him had to do other stuff to supplement their income. Bruce’s gig wasn’t about money, you didn’t get paid to do it. It was something you did because you wanted to. But when we played with Panic the following month, they were going on tour and they wanted us to go on tour with them. The three shows at Center Stage went well and that’s where they invited us to go on tour. And through them, we met Phish and Blues Traveler and we started touring with them. Panic introduced us to that world.
Otis: So, the musicians you’re playing with now—Rick, Kevin, Matt, and Darren—all learned from the Colonel?
Jimmy: Bruce helped shaped their experiences and helped open their minds to the possibilities of what could happen onstage in a performance. I think that anybody who works with him, just being in his presence, you learn a different way to look at things. He never tells anybody what to play or what not to play. That’s not his way. His way is just, maybe, show you a different way of looking at things. How to get out of your own way is really what it’s all about. He talks about blockage a lot, like how yourself is in your own way. You gotta get rid of the self in order for the music to come through you without you doing it. He gives you an outlet where that’s a possibility. I can’t say that about a lot of other musical opportunities. There’s a handful of them, and I’ve been blessed to have gotten a few of those, but most people don’t get those and I’m super grateful for that. It gives you a whole new way of looking at things and it just steers you down a different path which is cool.
Whatever instrument you play. The instrument doesn’t even matter. It’s really you that matters. It’s not the instrument. It could be a guitar, it could be a broom. It could be a French horn, it could be a bouzouki. It shouldn’t matter what the instrument is, that was another big thing of his [Bruce]. The instrument makes no difference at all, it’s really just you. That’s what you want to present. Not just you, but your ability to be an open channel for inspiration to flow through.
Otis: In this 5 of 7 band, you have Rick listed as doing vocal work. I saw The Invisible Whip with McLaughlin in Newark when you played here, and it was very instrumental, jazz-fusion, a lot of jams, but no vocals. Will 5 of 7 include some vocals as well?
Jimmy: Yeah, there will still be some instrumental stuff. Rick’s a great singer, he’s got a lot of tunes. Rick, Kevin Scott, and Matt Slocum—three of the guys from this band—were in another band, King Baby. King Baby did a record a couple years ago, and it was a killer record. We are doing some of those tunes, and then we wrote a few tunes together that we’re gonna play. Some of us would come in with a chord progression and Rick would listen to that and write lyrics to it and then add other music to it. We didn’t have the kind of time that a lot of people have to write together. I wanted to work with some local guys. There won’t be any plane tickets or hotel rooms. I’m thinking it will be so much easier, but in truth, these guys are so in demand and are so busy working for other people, that it wasn’t easy at all to get the schedules together to rehearse.
We started talking about this last November, almost a year ago, that’s when we got together for the first time. It’s not like we’ve been rehearsing for almost a year. It’s more like we got together, we realized this thing had potential, then we get together again whenever time allows. The first several times, we weren’t even trying to learn a set of music. There were no gigs on the book. We were just trying to write tunes together to see what it felt like. Push came to shove, gigs started getting booked and we started putting our tunes together. Some of those instrumental tunes we already had, and some of the vocal tunes King Baby already had. Then you put a few covers here, a few covers there, and you start to have enough music to play live. Then you have three or four tunes that we wrote together. Those are vocal tunes that will possibly have extended improvisation within those tunes.
We are still feelin’ it out. We don’t want every song being an improvisation because then it becomes the same thing on every song, and we don’t want that. We want to have everything form a delicate balance that doesn’t go too far in the extended improvisation and have the song speak for itself. We also want to have tunes that are like sketches and are free that we can include extended improvisation and everything in between. That’s what we are hoping for, that’s what we’re looking to do.
We got a nice, warm, family-oriented group. I’m really excited about it. The youthful exuberance is contagious. Rick is 32 years old, I’m 57. It goes 32 to 57, and Darren is in the middle. Kevin is a few years older than Rick, and Matt is a few years older than Darren. But we don’t look at each other in terms of age, we just feel like we are all equals. We’re all out there to try and play together and make the best music we can make.
Otis: Judging by your history and the talent pool you’ve worked with, it seems like when you put the right people in the same room, it’s bound to be amazing.
Jimmy: The older I get, the more I just want to feel good and everything else seems to fall into place if it feels good. People that don’t play music don’t care about your sixteenth note triplet. They could care less about your bitchin’ technique. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about playing to people and not at them. We don’t want to play over people or hit ’em in the face with something. We want to play to the people. The groove is so important. The groove will allow all kinds of things to happen, but you gotta give them that groove.
I’m kind of coming around in a big circle. I love the things that made me want to start playing in the first place. I love classic rock. They call it “classic rock,” but to me, it’s just the music of my youth. Everything from Santana, Allman Brothers… the list goes on and on and on. I’m not saying we sound like these people, I’m just saying we like these people and they are in there just as much as Miles Davis, just as much as John McLaughlin is in there. We love blues, too, so there will be some blues. Blues is pretty much the root of everything that we are doing.
Otis: Can we switch over to Widespread Panic and the Nashville shows? Bust-out after bust-out, the stripped-down songs, John Bell singing “Chilly Water” by himself and “Imitation Leather Shoes“, the Peanuts-style “C. Brown”… Can you talk about this year’s take on the Wood Tour at the Ryman Auditorium?
Jimmy: That’s the mother church of country music. All of us love country music. We might not be known as playing country music. … To me, country music is Hank Williams Sr. and everything that came after that up to a certain point… George Jones, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn… To me, that is sacred ground. That was the Grand Ole Opry, and to get to play those shows at the Ryman was an amazing thrill… Johnny Cash! It goes on and on forever…
Otis: Waylon [Jennings], you did your Guy Clark with “Desperados”…
Jimmy: Yeah! Kris Kristofferson, too. The guys had all kinds of brilliant ideas on what songs we would like to play.
Otis: Who was fueling that thought train?
Jimmy: All of us! JB has killer ideas, JoJo, Dave, and then Todd Snider came and sat in and he knew Guy Clark! Guy Clark was a mentor for him. That was really cool. Everybody had input on bringing in stuff. We had this young guy sit in with us, he’s gotta be one of the best guitar players that I’ve seen in my life. His name is Billy Strings.
Otis: There were so many guests through the last year: George Porter Jr. in Mexico, Marcus King in Mexico and Trondossa, Jason Isbell at 420 Festival, and now Billy Strings and Todd Snider at the Ryman. What was it like playing with Billy?
Jimmy: Billy is a wonderful kid. He is brilliant, he’s got great musical sensibilities. And, of course, he has technique for days. He can pretty much clobber anybody; he’s got flatpicking chops galore and he’s a true acoustic man. To me, acoustic is like a different world. I’m out of my wheelhouse a bit but I really love it because it’s a learning experience. To get to play with someone as good as him, I was knocked out. All of us absolutely loved playing with him.
Otis: Will he come back around in the future? I saw he covered some Widespread Panic tunes on his tour. After he left Nashville, he covered “Ride Me High” and then “All Time Low” at the next show, I think it was in Atlanta and Athens.
Jimmy: I didn’t know that! I’m very excited to hear that. I would love to have him back anytime, anyplace, electric, acoustic, either way. … I would have been at his shows when he was here. I would have gone. I wouldn’t even have called him. I just go buy the ticket and go see the show. I would have gone to Atlanta and Athens if I didn’t have these gigs coming up. Every day he was playing, we were rehearsing and getting ready for this tour. So, I missed his shows, unfortunately, because of that, but next time he comes around… I’m a fan! He’s incredible. …
He showed us an electric guitar that his grandfather built and it’s an amazing instrument. He found it in his grandmother’s house and then he took it to a really good luthier. It wasn’t absolutely complete yet, so he took it to a good luthier in Nashville and had him finish it up. His grandfather basically built the guitar, but it didn’t have any electronics in it yet. So, Billy had electronics put in it and finished it and it just a unique, amazing instrument. And he brought it for us to check it out and we were all like, “Man, this thing’s so cool!” And he built it! With his hands and with crude tools. He didn’t have a serious set of tools; he was just one of those guys who could build stuff with a chisel and a hammer. It’s amazing.
Otis: I hope to see more collaborations down the road. So, you are basically the musical chameleon, morphing into whatever needs to be done. Many guitarists can’t switch tones or play the role of someone like Dickey Betts or Jerry Garcia or Michael Houser. How do you put yourself in the mindset to capture these different tones so effortlessly for your shows with, say, Phil & Friends or Widespread Panic? How do you switch your roles so easily?
Jimmy: I really don’t think of music in those terms, but I grew up listening to the Allman Brothers. Playing that music is like going back to your roots. I have these other parts of my vocabulary, and it’s a constant juggling. Some of the stuff I might start playing might not be appropriate to this gig. “Okay, wait a minute, I went to place there that doesn’t fit this music.” So, I gotta be careful about editing myself sometimes, but I love Dickey and Duane. That was the first music that made me pick up a guitar as a little kid. I’m enamored by the way they play. When I was younger, I spent a lot of time listening to that music. I feel like it’s in my soul. The Allman Brothers is in my soul, so it wasn’t a big step to try and be someone else, it was one of my earliest influences.
If you’re gonna learn someone else’s music, you have to start with the original. That has to be at the root of what your approach is to their music. They already made this music what it is. Some people, in jazz, when you cover another song, you can do anything you want. You can approach it from a completely different angle. You can do it in an odd meter, or you can do it straight. You can do it loud or you could do it soft. But when it comes to these rock bands like Grateful Dead or the Allman Brothers or Widespread Panic, for me, you have to start with the original as the foundation. You listen to their music and if you listen to four different shows, and you hear Jerry play that little line right there and he played that in all four shows in the same place, then you know that that is the actual melody that he played every time. When you hear him do other parts different every time, then you know he’s improvising.
Otis: So you’re listening for consistency across performances?
You’re looking for what parts of the music are written into the music. When you hear Dickey Betts play “Jessica”, you hear the melody of the song and you know that’s the melody. When a solo comes, you might hear him play phrases that are similar to the solo on the record, but it might not be identical. That’s him playing off-the-cuff, improvising within his style. Whenever I was working to try and get myself together with these different bands, for maybe ten days, I didn’t even pick up a guitar. I listened to the music and tried to get it in [my] subconscious. Then, [I’d] pick up the guitar and learn some of these melodies. I need to make a form chart to show the form of the song, so I don’t forget it. It helps a lot just to listen.
Grateful Dead and Allman Brothers were my heroes, and Panic were my peers. It was a little different with Panic because they were my friends, they were my peers. Me and Mike and J.B. and JoJo and [former drummer] Todd [Nance] were all born in the same year. While the other guys were icons, Panic were my buds. It was a little different, but not that different because I did the same thing to learn their music.
Mikey has a real definitive style. He’s got a real singular voice and it’s been a constant battle trying to decide how much to lift from him and how much to improvise with your own style. I’m sure many fans can tell you—and they would be right—that I was struggling because I was playing my style too much in this part or that part and didn’t pay enough attention to the original. As time went on, I had more time with the music and started diving back into Mike’s approach to some of these songs. I’m still working on it! I’ve been in the band 13 years, and I’m still working on trying to find that place where you be you and where you try to honor the original. It’s a constant juggling act.
Don’t miss Jimmy Herring and The 5 of 7 when they roll through your area. For a full list of their upcoming tour dates, see below. For more information and ticketing details, head here.
Jimmy Herring and The 5 of 7 Upcoming Tour Dates
09.12.19 Gothic Theatre – Denver, CO
09.13.19 Aggie Theatre – Fort Collins, CO
09.14.19 Fox Theatre – Boulder, CO
09.18.19 Wildwood Saloon – Iowa City, IA
09.19.19 El Volcan – St. Louis, MO
09.20.19 Park West – Chicago, IL
09.21.19 The Vogue – Indianapolis, IN
09.24.19 The Egg – Albany, NY
09.26.19 The Center for Arts in Natick – Natick, MA
09.27.19 Ridgefield Playhouse – Ridgefield, CT
09.28.19 Brooklyn Bowl – Brooklyn, NY
09.29.19 Ardmore Music Hall – Philadelphia, PA
10.01.19 The Hamilton – Washington, DC
10.02.19 The Broadberry – Richmond, VA
10.03.19 Harvester Performance Center – Rocky Mount, VA
10.04.19 Lincoln Theatre – Raleigh, NC
10.05.19 Neighborhood Theatre – Charlotte, NC