Mention the most renowned guitar players of our time, and it won’t be long before Jimmy Herring’s name comes up. The North Carolina native is well known for his creative, free-spirited improvisation that weaves together Jazz, R&B, Country, and Rock. He’s been playing since he was 10, and at age 57, shows no signs of slowing down. His new side project, Jimmy Herring & The 5 of 7, will grace the stage at the Hargray Capitol Theatre on November 11. We caught up with Jimmy last week, while he was on the road with his fulltime band, Widespread Panic, to discuss The 5 of 7, amps and guitars, and the influences on his career.
MA- Hey, Jimmy! Where are you right now? The 5 of 7 is taking a tour break so you can go out with one of your other bands, right?
JH- Milwaukee. [Widespread Panic] just played three nights in Milwaukee at the Riverside Theater and we leave tomorrow from here and go to play three nights in New Orleans.
You never slow down. The 5 of 7 is about halfway through the North American leg of your first tour. In November you guys are coming through Athens, Macon, then back to Atlanta for the hometown leg of your tour. You’re always so good to come to Macon. What keeps you coming back to play for us?
I love Macon. I love the history of Macon. Otis Redding, Little Richard, the Allman Brothers. Its proximity to Atlanta makes it easy to get to you, for us being based out of Atlanta. I just love going down there, and I’ve got a lot of friends that live there. Just about every tour we do with any of these little side projects begins in the Southeast because it’s so easy for us. We can play Atlanta, Macon, Greenville, Asheville, Athens, Birmingham, et cetera. But this time I really didn’t want to start [The 5 of 7] tour in our stomping grounds. I really wanted to get some miles on the band before we play in the Southeast so that the band wasn’t playing for the first time in front of our hometowns. We’ve got a lot of shows behind us now. I think we played 19 shows on that last run.
So you’re warmed up and ready to come home.
Yeah, it’s going to be fine by then. Those 19 gigs went fast, and it was such a joy to do. It felt like we had played together for years.
Tell us more about Jimmy Herring & The 5 of 7.
It’s really fun, and all the members played with Bruce Hampton at one time or another. It’s a big age range. I’m 57 and then Matt [Slocum] the keyboard player is 45 and then our drummer, Darren (Stanley) is 41. Then Kevin (Scott), our bass players, is 34 and Rick (Lollar), our singer and other guitar player, is 32. So we have this pretty good range going on here– but when we go play together, it doesn’t feel like that at all. It just feels like we’re five equal people, laughing all the way through the whole thing. It’s wonderful.
So you guys must be having a great time out on the road together.
Yes, we are. These guys, they play so well, and I wanted to play with some younger guys– and I was hoping to find some that had also worked with my mentor, Bruce Hampton. Kevin and Matt Slocum had this band called King Baby, and they played me this record they made and was it good! It was funk, R&B, blues-based rock. And it had some leanings toward jazz, too. The singer was really, really good. And a great guitar player! So I was like, “Man, we should call this guy.” And it was Rick. Then they were also friends with Darren, the drummer.
Darren played in Bruce’s band, and Rick played in Bruce’s band at one time. Kevin and Matt obviously played with Bruce, too. So I’m like, “What do you guys think about just getting together? Let’s just go play for fun.” So we did, and we knew within the first 10 minutes that we had something that could be a band. And then we said, “You know what? Let’s go ahead and book some dates.” It’s been a lot of fun.
And you knew it pretty quickly! You announced the band in May, then announced your tour in June.
Yeah, we played for the first time in November, I think, and we did that maybe two or three times before we booked some shows. I just wanted to try something with no pressure of gigs breathing down our neck. More often than not, when you try to do something like this, they want to book the gigs first and then you’re like, “Oh, we gotta rehearse!” We wanted to do this the opposite way this time. I can’t stand it when they put the cart before the horse that way. I was adamant about not this time. This time, we’re doing this for fun. Period. Let’s just play. Let’s just see what happens. We didn’t have any songs and we just played, pure improvisation. And then the next time we said, “Hey, I’ve got this little tune” or “Hey that King Baby album, remember that song?” And then the next thing you knew, we were putting songs together. That’s how The 5 of 7 happened.
This time, we’re doing this for fun. Period.
Right! You said earlier this year when you heard King Baby, you wanted to get together and do their stuff, your stuff, covers and new music. When The 5 of 7 comes to Macon this month, how much will be original to the band, and how much will be music we may have heard in the past?
There’s some King Baby stuff, then there’s some of my original stuff, and then we may do one or two covers. We’ve written three or four songs together, but they’re not ready yet. You can’t rush writing lyrics like that. When we first got together, after we just played for the joy of it, we started writing tunes together. We wrote four tunes and they are going to be good ones, but I don’t want to rush the lyricist.
A lot of this music is being heard by people for the first time, songs we never played live before until this band, because now we’ve got two guitar players, and we didn’t have that for any other band I’ve had. So some of the songs that got put aside are now making their way into the set– which is good because it’s not just the same-old-same-old for people that have seen our other bands.
I don’t have to tell you, you’ve got one heckuva rock and roll record. What are you offering to these younger guys that have experience but maybe not the depth of experience that you have?
I think of us as five equals, and I want them to think of it like that, too. I guess what I’m offering them is an outlet. Like the same outlet that I was offered through Bruce Hampton. With Bruce, it was like, “Okay, if you’ve got something to say, say it and don’t worry about how long it takes. As long as you have something to say, you know, you can play as long as you want.” And so we’re all equals up there. If Rick takes a solo, he’s not looking over his shoulder to make sure I’m not going, “Come on man, wrap it up.” It’s much like you and I talking with one another. If I’m talking, you’re very respectful and you’re not going to interrupt me and go, “Okay, stop, next question.” That’s the way it is with us when we play.
Allowing each other to speak through the music, the instruments.
Right. The way we look at it, if you’ve got something to say, then you can take all the time you need to say it. Some nights, a guy will say what they need to say in a shorter amount of time and they’ll just look over and nod and then you know that they’re done. Other nights, it might go quite a bit longer. It’s different every night. It keeps it fresh and exciting, you know?
You’ve mentioned Col. Bruce Hampton a couple of times, and you guys all have that connection. The members of Panic and The Invisible Whip also have that connection. You’ve said before there are those who played with Bruce Hampton and those who didn’t. How does that connection with Col. Bruce impact The 5 of 7?
Bruce just showed us a different way of looking at things, and he never told anybody what to play. That was not his way. His way was to give you an outlet, or he’d give you enough rope to hang yourself. He would give you an outlet for you to move a mountain if you had a good night. Or you could show what a fool you are by getting up there and vomiting out that blah, blah, blah. He wanted each person to have that opportunity to do either, or anything in between. That has definitely affected all of us. That’s not to imply that anyone who didn’t play with Bruce isn’t great. There are millions of great musicians that never knew Bruce. But if you played with him, there’s a way of looking at things… You see the humor in things that others might not see. A lot of it revolves around not taking yourself too seriously. In this world of improvising, jazz-based musicians, everybody gets so serious because there’s an awful lot of work you have to do to build a vocabulary in which to improvise. You gotta work at it. But when you get up there and play, if you take it so seriously that you’re not any fun to play with… Well, then that’s no good. Our philosophy, which we learned from Bruce, is more or less, you can take what you do seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously.
His way was to give you an outlet, or he’d give you enough rope to hang yourself.
That’s good advice to live by.
JH: It is good [and] not just in music. There are a lot of life lessons and ways to live your life, not just the way you play.
When you came through Macon the last time, it was 2017. You were with The Invisible Whip and you were working on a solo project. Right now, The 5 of 7 is taking a brief break so you can do a few shows with Panic. Is there anything else you’re working on right now?
There’s nothing I’m working on per se, but there’s a lot of amazing opportunities that are just kind of hanging in the balance. I’m 57 years old. I thought by now, if I even had a job in music, I would be lucky. I still view it that way, that I’m just lucky to have a job. I’m busier now than I was at 28. It’s just insane. I’m getting opportunities to work with people who were my idols, and they’re in their late seventies. If I don’t do this, I may never get the chance to. You can’t just say, “Oh, I’ll do that next year or the year after that.” I imagined by this time in my life that things would slow down. Like there’s a lot of my friends that I grew up with, and it’s been an ongoing joke for 30 years, that they’re like, “Hey, we’re having this get together with a lot of the guys we graduated from high school with. Why don’t you come and hang out with us?” They’re still my buds, but I never have the chance to go because I’m working.
Speaking of your idols… You came to town in 2017, and we asked when you got your first guitar. You said around age 10. Two years later, here’s the follow-up question: What was it and who gave it to you? Who can we thank for the Jimmy Herring we know today?
My parents got me a Fender. It was called a Bronco. My brother’s best friend moved in with us for about six or eight months because his family moved in the middle of their senior year in high school. This is my oldest brother. Bobby is his best friend and he’s eight years older than me. They were 18. I was 10. This guy played guitar, and he had a Fender and an amplifier. It had reverb, and I mean it was just like Christmas every day! I was 10 and these guys were constantly playin’ At Fillmore East. They were playing Jimmy Hendrix. They were playing Europe ‘72, they were playing Santana’s Abraxas and Sly & The Family Stone. I mean the list just goes on and on. All this great music was in my house through my older brothers. (Bobby) stayed with us, and man, to see a Fender guitar in person, so close that I could reach out and almost touch it… I mean, I could have touched it, but I was forbidden to. And there was an amp. I was dying. I would sneak in there, but I wouldn’t play the guitar. I would look at it. And he could play! Bobby was really good. I begged my parents for a guitar and they finally did get me one– the bottom of the line of Fenders. The Fender Mustang was below a Stratocaster, and that’s what Bobby had. And then my parents got the model under that. So I was off to the races, and (Bobby) showed me my first basic chords. He showed me A minor, all the cowboy chords. They taught me how to play “House of the Rising Sun.” He showed me the chords to “Hey Joe”, the Hendrix version. That did it for me.
At 13, I was begging my dad for another guitar, because the one I had was sort of a student model guitar. My brother bought that guitar for me. It was a Telecaster Deluxe. That’s a Fender, but it was used and it was only $130. Now, that guitar would be $3,500. But it was $130 and my dad thought it was too much and he wouldn’t get it. So my brother got it for me. Of course my dad paid him back. That was the kick that my dad needed to get it for me – that my brother was willing to pay for it out of his own pocket with money he’d saved from cutting grass.
(My mom and dad) were just the greatest parents that anyone could ever imagine. Just super supportive. They never once said (music’s) not a legitimate career path. My dad was a superior court judge. My mom was a career school teacher. They’re very, very education-minded people. School was very important to them. By the time I got to be 18, they were like, “Look, if you want to be a musician, that’s cool, but you’ve gotta learn your trade. You’ve got to study, you’ve got to go to school.” And I was like, “What? I wanna rock and roll!”
Right about that time, I was having these issues with finding anyone who could sing. As an 18-year-old kid, we could play. We could play some Allman Brothers tunes, we could play some Zeppelin tunes, we could play Johnny Winter tunes. It was sounding pretty good, but we couldn’t find anyone who could sing. It was really frustrating. My oldest brother said, “Why don’t you check out instrumental music?” And I was like, “What’s that? You mean music with no words?” He said, “Yeah.” And then he played me John McLaughlin, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, the Dixie Dregs, and that changed me a whole lot. I had never heard anybody play like that before. That started another road to go down, in life.
I swear, my favorite music is the same music they were playing in his bedroom. This music has lasted. This music is never going to go away. It’s stood the test of time, and it’s still just as valid as it ever was.
On the subject of classic rock, inquiring minds want to know. Do you have a free pass to play with all the toys at The Big House when you’re in town?
JH: Ha! No, but I am friendly with the people who work there. I’m just like any other Allman Brothers fan when it comes to that stuff. I’m enamored. There’ve been times when they’ve asked if I want to play, and I’m like, “No! Oh, seriously? Yeah!” Because it’s so sacred to me. I’m like, “I can’t touch that.” But of course I have, and it’s truly amazing. I played Duane’s ‘57 Les Paul Goldtop a few times and it’s just been amazing to lay hands on such an incredible piece of history. I love going to the museum and just walking through there. Just the presence in the house is so… The vibe in the house is amazing. My favorite way to go there really is when I’m not working. I just come down for nothing but the fun time of going. To just go in there and geek out and be a nerd and a fan. I love that. The people who work there are wonderful to me.
This music is never going to go away. It’s stood the test of time, and it’s still just as valid as it ever was.
Speaking of guitars, what do you have on the road with you right now? What’s coming with you to the Macon show?
JH: Well Panic plays in bigger places, so since I’m playing with them right now, I have much bigger equipment. Louder, louder, louder! Bigger amplifiers. Mostly, I like the Fenders from the mid-60’s. So I like Fender Blackface amps. I like twin reverbs. I like super reverbs, and so I have that stuff out here with me. When we go out and play with The 5 of 7, it’s generally the same stuff with smaller speaker configurations. Duane [Allman] and Dickey [Betts] were a huge influence, and they loved JBL speakers and Marshalls. Back in their day, the JBLs were like the big upgrade. That was the best speakers that money could buy back during that time. I’ve found a guy, believe it or not, in Gray, GA… His name’s Glen Harold at Wesley Audio in Gray. See, these old speakers, they sound like nothing else, but they’re old now and some of the parts on the inside will dry rot and they don’t work anymore. But (Glen) can restore them and make them like new again. So I go down to Gray, take a couple of my amplifiers with me. He’s got these speaker cabinets, just like Duane used to use, with four JBL speakers in them. And I just can’t believe the difference. Now I search out these weird speakers that nobody wants anymore because they’re so old. Then I take them to him and get him to redo them, and that helps me feel a little more connected to that time. I’ve said for years I was born 25 years too late. My jams would have been like ’69-’75. Some of the greatest music that I feel connected to was made during that period.
Mostly what I play is the Paul Reed Smith guitars. They’re so well made, and he’s a guy that I can call at any time. I can’t call Orville Gibson. He’s been dead forever. I can’t call (Leo) Fender. If you need some advice about something or if you want to try something, make a tweak, you can’t call them. Paul Reed Smith still runs his company– and he’s a guitar player. I can talk to him about stuff. I can say, “What if we tried this? Or what if we tried that?” and he’ll do it. His guitars are really consistent, well-made.
I’ve said for years I was born 25 years too late. My jams would have been like ’69-’75. Some of the greatest music that I feel connected to was made during that period.
The 5 of 7 has a few dates in Japan at the end of November. Is all this equipment making the journey, or will you have to be selective about what you take?
JH: Oh gosh, you just nailed my whole reason for never doing this (overseas tour)!
Oh, I’m sorry if I’m tripping the wire here!
JH: No, no. People always say, “Why haven’t you gone to Europe? Why haven’t you gone to Japan?” That’s why. I know so many people who don’t sweat the small stuff, you know? But I do. It’s the stuff that’s really important to me. People have certain expectations of what you sound like based on what they’ve heard on records or seen on the Internet. But when I go to Japan, I’m not going to have any of my stuff. I might have a couple of guitars, but I’m not going to have any of my favorite amplifiers, any of my favorite speakers. And none of this stuff I use is made anymore. It hasn’t been made for decades. Not the speakers, not the amplifiers. So I don’t know what I’m going to play through. And it’s really a constant source of anxiety. This is why I haven’t gone to Europe. That’s why I haven’t gone anywhere except the States.
So this is completely a first for you? To go overseas?
JH: I haven’t been to Europe. I’ve been to Japan once with Panic. It’ll be a first for me with a solo project. With Panic, we played two shows at Fuji Rock Fest. It was wonderful, but you see, that was different because they had the budget to take what I wanted to take. With The 5 of 7, we’re playing the clubs. I love clubs, by the way. And everybody whose played there says, “Man, the Japanese are so on top of it.” You may not have your amps with you that you’ve tweaked and love and made the way you want them to be, but they say you will have very good equipment and they will be on top of it. So I finally said yes. I want to go. John McLaughlin is always on my case about that. It’s like the rest of the world needs music too.
He’s got a point.
JH: Yeah. I know. He’s right about everything. He can plug into anything and sounds so great. I mean, he really doesn’t care about amplifiers. But to me, that’s everything, you know? Then there’s Derek Trucks, who can plug into a transistor radio and sound like some god. I can’t do that. So that’s what I’m scared of. But you do what you have to do.