Photograph by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images
For Widespread Panic‘s lead guitarist Jimmy Herring, 2017 has had more than its fair share of heartbreak. Herring was performing just a few feet away from his mentor, Atlanta music icon Col. Bruce Hampton, when he collapsed on the Fox Theatre stage during the encore of his 70th birthday concert on May 1 and died later that evening.
A few months earlier, in January, Herring’s former Allman Brothers bandmate, drummer Butch Trucks, took his own life. And less than a month after Hampton died, on May 27, Gregg Allman passed away from complications of liver cancer.
“To say it’s been a tough year so far would be a tremendous understatement,” says Herring, who played with the Allman Brothers Band in 2000 following the prickly departure of longtime ABB guitarist Dickey Betts. Throughout his career, Herring has been a sought-after guitarist–a musician’s musician–for a number of different bands, including the Derek Trucks Band and several projects with post-Jerry Garcia versions of the Grateful Dead. He’s also recorded two studio jazz albums.
But he’ll always be known by many Atlanta fans as one of Hampton’s stalwart lieutenants, breaking into the public’s awareness with the Colonel’s seminal Aquarium Rescue Unit. “I haven’t had to think about life without Bruce in it since 1988,” Herring says. “My kids have never known a world without Bruce. It’s just really weird.”
Now Herring is ready for the year’s bad luck to turn around as he launches the Invisible Whip, a five-piece blend of jazz, funk, rock, and blues featuring some of Herring’s longtime collaborators. The band began a two-month tour in July that includes back-to-back shows in Atlanta (July 25 at Terminal West), Athens (July 26 at the Georgia Theatre), and Macon (July 27 at the Cox Capitol Theatre). They’ll reconvene in November, joining one of the world’s most influential guitarists, John McLaughlin, and his latest band, the 4th Dimension, on the road, including a show at Atlanta Symphony Hall on November 22.
We recently talked with Herring about the loss of old friends, leading a new ensemble, and playing with his longtime idol, McLaughlin.
This has been a pretty tough year for you so far. You’ve lost some very close friends.
It’s been unbelievable. And there have been other deaths, too, in our little circle, people that weren’t musicians but part of the musical family, so to speak. I know at an intellectual level that death is part of life. It’s inevitable; we’re all going at some point. But this year has been a big reminder for me that what’s truly important [in life] is to take the time to tell the people you love that you do love them. They should hear that.
I know that losing Col. Bruce Hampton has been particularly hard, especially since you were on stage with him the night he died. Do you remember what you both talked about that day?
Yeah, that’s still raw. I miss him every day, and I don’t expect that to change. We spoke a lot that day. The last thing we talked about was making dinner plans for the following week–where were we going to eat, that was important to Bruce. We talked about my new band’s name—the Invisible Whip was something he always talked about, [a phrase] he got from Roland Kirk, the jazz saxophonist. [The whip is] the motivating factor that keeps us playing.
Right, like the “loaded gun” Bruce used to say was at the back of his head, compelling him to stick with music. What else can you tell us about the Invisible Whip?
Basically, Widespread Panic is taking a break from touring all of the time–these people have been touring almost constantly for 30 years and they want some time to plant a garden and see things grow. So now I get to play with musicians I’ve admired for a very long time, and I want the chance to play some music that I don’t get to play in any of the other bands I work with. It’s not all going to be jazz. I’m a rock guy, when you get down to it, so it’s going to be loud, and it’s going to feel like rock-and-roll.
But you’re also playing with John McLaughlin, a pioneer of jazz fusion who got his start with Miles Davis, then started Mahavishnu Orchestra. That’s a whole different thing from Southern rock.
Well, John’s music changed the direction of my life—and the way I hear music. He’s been my all-time hero since I was a teenager. I didn’t meet him until just a few years ago. One day I got this call from Souvik Dutta (founder of the AbstractLogix label, which represents both Herring and McLaughlin), who was on tour with McLaughlin at the time. He put someone on the line who said, “Hi, Jimmy, this is John McLaughlin.” I thought it was a joke, so I said, “Oh, hey, this is Miles Davis.” Then he said, “No, this is really John.” Turns out Souvik had been playing him my newest solo record (2012’s Subject to Change), which wasn’t even finished yet. [McLaughlin] was so cool! He told me, “Man, we gotta do some playing together.” I was still wondering if it was a prank.
You two did play together in 2015 during the Aquarium Rescue Unit’s final reunion, but this is your first extended tour with your guitar hero. How does that feel, and what can we expect?
I’m still in a state of shock that I’ll be accompanying John McLaughlin. We’re going to play our own sets with our bands, then jam together on some Mahavishnu Orchestra stuff. This is supposed to be his last U.S. tour, so I’m flattered beyond belief that he’d want me to join him and also scared to death. But I feel like as long as [our music] represents who we really are, we’ll be fine. I don’t want try and copy McLaughlin. He’s into music from many different cultures, and we’re both really into some of the same stuff–like jazz and blues—music that was born in this part of the country. Here in the South, we’re famous for Little Richard and Otis Redding, rock-and-roll. But John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie are also from the deep South. Southern music is pretty diverse, and [what the Invisible Whip] plays should reflect where we come from in some way. We’re Southern.
Getting back to where we started, Col. Bruce Hampton was a major influence in Southern music, especially here in Atlanta. What are your thoughts regarding the Atlanta music scene he left behind and what lies ahead?
I’m no expert on the current Atlanta music scene, but I do know that there are a lot of young lions coming up [here] that are amazing musicians. Many of them played with the Colonel at one time or another. Bruce viewed himself as a minor league coach of sorts and mentored a lot of young musicians. All of us who have worked with him have a special bond—and there are a lot of us still around, some young, some getting older. I think Atlanta will continue to produce musicians with something unique to say. There’s just something about this place.