Journeyman guitarist finds peace with Widespread Panic

By Michael Deeds / / for

Jimmy Herring finally finds home with old friends

When the Allman Brothers Band was looking for a top-notch guitarist to fill the formidable boots of Dickey Betts?

Jimmy Herring got the call.

When The Dead needed a musician brave — and nuts — enough to take over Jerry Garcia's former role and, as the New York Times pointed out, "go in front of 20,000 fans and play music that they probably know better than you do"?

Herring was the man.

Like a hired gunslinger with a lifetime silver-bullet supply, the 45-year-old musician — who's also played lead guitar for The Other Ones and Phil Lesh & Friends — has made a career of replacing the seemingly irreplaceable. But he never stays too long. The next challenge is always too great to resist.

"It's so weird, man," Herring says, phoning from the road with his latest musical pit stop, Widespread Panic. "In my entire musical life, I've never looked for a gig. And I've been very blessed. These things just keep falling on my doorstep."

Bearing this in mind, would it not be wise for fans of Panic to avoid falling in love with Herring's incredible playing? Won't Herring eventually just leave them at the altar for a younger, more attractive band?

"No," Herring says, sounding content and relieved. "I think I'm done."

That long-term commitment is huge news for Panic fans, aka Spreadheads. The

Athens, Ga.-based band — which plays Monday, Oct. 8, at the Idaho Center — has earned a diehard following during its 20-plus-year career. For the past eight years, Panic has ranked among the top 50 grossing touring acts.

But the lead-guitar role has been difficult for Panic, known for a combination of Southern-fried rock and jam-band improvisation. Tragically, founding member and lead guitarist Michael Houser died of pancreatic cancer in 2002. His replacement, guitarist George McConnell, left the band last year.

When Panic phoned Herring, he was not about to refuse.

An expert player with a background in Southern rock and jazz fusion, Herring might still be playing bars in Atlanta if not for Houser, singer-guitarist John Bell, bassist Dave Schools, drummer Todd Nance, percussionist Domingo Ortiz and keyboardist John Hermann.

Herring was a struggling local musician when Panic walked into a bar he was playing in early 1989. Herring had a one-night-a-week-gig with a gleefully inaccessible act called the Aquarium Rescue Unit, a band led by the irreverent frontman Col. Bruce Hampton. Herring describes the group as "a sort of a free jazz group in rock 'n' roll clothing."

"It was one of those 99-cent beer nights or something like that," Herring remembers. "These guys come in, and we didn't really know them at all."

It was the members of Widespread Panic, who were blown away by what they heard. They invited Aquarium Rescue Unit to open for them for three sold-out nights in Atlanta. Then they took Aquarium Rescue Unit on tour.

"They believed in us, man. They were so cool," Herring says. "They brought us into their family, basically."

Aquarium Rescue Unit soon met and played with Phish, Blues Traveler and the Dave Matthews Band, "and it was all because of (Widespread Panic)," Herring says. "So when they called me (last year) and needed my help, I was like, absolutely."

Nobody mentioned this until years later ("That's the kind of people they are," he gushes), but Panic even prevented promoters from kicking Aquarium Rescue Unit off the first touring H.O.R.D.E. festival in 1992.

"The promoters didn't like Aquarium Rescue Unit. It's not hard to understand," Herring adds, laughing. "We weren't really what you call a big draw. But the musicians, for some reason, liked us."

Friendly and devastatingly talented, Herring soon became a sought-after musician. A graduate of the Guitar Institute of Technology in Hollywood, Calif., Herring is capable of slashing, jaw-dropping licks. But feeling also plays a large role in his musical vocabulary.

Feeling also is a big part of his life. It's the reason he lasted just seven months with the Allman Brothers Band, which had fired Betts.

"I never would have imagined myself being a guy that comes into bands that retired icons as a replacement," Herring says. "And it's a tough spot to walk into. You walk into Dickey Betts' spot, and think, ‘I started playing because of Dickey Betts.'

"I did that for a while, and then I was, like, ‘Man, I can't do this. I'm too much of a fan. It's so close to home.' It was an incredible experience, and I loved it, but Dickey didn't pass away or retire. I just felt like, ‘This can't be right.'"

The line between playing guitar right and wrong has been a fascinating balancing act for Herring. He likens each new situation he's been in — whether it's the Allmans or Widespread Panic — to learning a new language.

"You've gotta tip your hat to the original," Herring says, "but you can't copy it. It's really fun, and it's a big challenge. I can't just go in and play the way I play, because that's not what the gig needs. It's like, ‘OK, you've got to listen to this, you need to internalize it, and start from the same kingdom this music is from.' Eventually, you can fit your own voice into it."

Herring's searing guitar solos were more restrained with Phil Lesh & Friends than, say, his all-guns-blazing Aquarium Rescue Unit, a group he still performs with to this day. Some of Herring's friends even gave him grief about not unleashing more notes at Lesh concerts.

"That was horrible! You never even got out of first gear!" Herring remembers them protesting. "I'm like, ‘Look, man, you don't understand. You can't go 80 miles an hour in a 35 zone.'"

Herring has gained musical wisdom by filling the shoes of guitarists before him — and by studying the peers they left behind. He remembers Lesh telling his group,"OK guys, I don't want to hear any solos. I want to hear people having an interactive group conversation."

"And he had one basic rule," Herring adds: "If you find yourself in your own space, stop, listen and react. And that's a beautiful philosophy."

The joyful nature of jam-band audiences has had a significant impact on Herring's success. Whether he stepped in for Betts or the late Garcia, fans have been almost universally positive, he says.

"The common thing between all of them that I've noticed is, ‘God, they're so with you,'" Herring says. "They're so supportive. I've been very lucky, too, because it could have gone the other way."

Musicians have been equally supportive. When Herring got the call to join Widespread Panic, he had two weeks to learn songs, he says.

Talk about ... panic.

The group not only has a vast repertoire, it takes pride in never playing the same set twice and in making selections at the last minute.

"They've been really great with me," Herring says. "Because I was like, ‘Guys, please, help me out. If you could give me tomorrow's set list tonight I could work on the gig in the hotel room.'

"I'm still struggling to just keep up and learn these songs," Herring admits. "So I'm spending a lot of time listening to an iPod that's got, like, 300 Widespread songs on it. ... Luckily, everything I've done before this has kind of prepared me for this."

A year into the band, Herring feels less like the new guy every day, he says. He collaborated with Widespread Panic on every song for a new studio album. (A release date has not been set yet.)

Joining Widespread Panic after the band helped Aquarium Rescue Unit so many years ago feels like "coming full circle," Herring says.

So it's really not just for a tour or two? Not just for the money?

No, Herring promises.

"It's funny to me," he says. "Because I've never done anything for the money. I've been blessed and got some great gigs. But I would have done them for a lot less money. It's a musical journey. I was just looking for a home, and sometimes it just doesn't work out for people. But I've never done any gig that I didn't want to do."