“I really wanted to race motorcycles, that’s what I wanted to do, up until the time he sold my motorcycle. That’s when my focus shifted from motorcycles to music,” Herring said.
Guitarist, solo artist, and member of Widespread Panic, Jimmy Herring’s talents with a Fender are widely documented. What many don’t know about Jimmy is his love of motorcycling, evident by the almost 50,000 miles he has on the odometer of his 2004 Harley Heritage.
And shift it did. The list of bands Herring’s played with reads like the Who’s Who of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame – The Allman Brothers, The Dead including Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, Phil Lesh and Friends, Bela Fleck, Oteil Burbridge, Widespread Panic, and more. Herring’s currently touring in support of his second solo album, Subject to Change Without Notice, an instrumental effort combining original pieces along with amazing covers of songs like George Harrison’s Within You Without You and Jimmy McGriff’s Miss Poopie. In addition to being a talented musician, Herring is an avid motorcyclist, and few things bring him more pleasure in his down time than jumping in the saddle of his 2004 Harley Heritage and hitting the road.
Motorcycles and music have always been a part of Herring’s life. His dad had motorcycles and both of his older brothers rode. They also loved rock & roll, and an iconic poster of a legendary guitarist kicking back on a motorcycle fueled Jimmy’s passion for both. We’ll let him tell you the story.
“We grew up riding. As a kid, I had an SL70 (a Honda dirt bike). I can remember my oldest brother getting a motorcycle for graduation, like a Honda 450. That was my first experience with a bigger motorcycle.”
“My middle brother Joe had an XL350, a single-cylinder Honda 350 that was kind of an on-road, off-road bike. It had a headlight and license plate but was more of an endure-type bike. But it was a bad-ass, a 350 with a Kerker header. It got stolen so my brother got a Yamaha 650.”
About two weeks after his brother got the 650, they found the Honda 350.
“The people that had stolen it were racing it so they had done some work on the motor and made it even more powerful. The motorcycle ended up back out our house but my brother didn’t ride it anymore because they had ripped off the headlights and taillights and stripped it down for racing. He ended up selling it to my father for $100 because they had ruined it cosmetically and it looked terrible, spray painting the gas tank gold and doing a really bad job. But it ran like a scalded dog! I was 13 and begged my dad to let me have that motorcycle. He thought it was too much power for me when I was 13 but I eventually talked him into it. I had it for two years but I got into trouble with it because you weren’t supposed to ride it on the street. I would run from the cops but when I was growing up, there were a lot of woods, just acres and acres and acres, so there was a lot of places to ride a dirt bike.”
From The Dead to The Allman Brothers, the list of people Herring has jammed with is testament to his skills on the six string.
“I started getting chased by the cops for riding it on the street and things like that. I never got caught but my father knew the cops and they went to him and said ‘Look, your son is starting to become a problem.’ So I came home from school one day and the motorcycle was sold! It was gone and it changed my whole life. At that point, that’s when I started getting serious about music.”
“I was really into music before that though. My brothers were into classic rock so they had every Jimi Hendrix record, every Allman Brothers record, every Santana, Beatles, Led Zeppelin. My oldest brother was really into Miles Davis and heavy into jazz and fusion like the Dixie Dregs. So I had this amazing record collection at my disposal. So my dad sold the motorcycle, he didn’t even talk to me about it, I just came home one day and it was gone and I thought somebody had stolen it. But he felt pretty bad so he bought me a guitar amplifier and it was a Vox Scorpion, my first real guitar amplifier. Since I didn’t have a motorcycle anymore, that’s when my focus shifted from motorcycles to music.”
This didn’t mean Herring stopped riding. On the contrary, his brothers continued to have motorcycles, one of them owned the 650 he mentioned while the other had a four-speed AMF Sportster, so he rode their motorcycles when he could.
“It was a matter of time before I’d get my own because I didn’t have any money, but finally I got one. Ever since I saw Jimi Hendrix sitting on a Harley in this poster we had in our house that came with one of the records, my brother had this huge picture of Hendrix sitting on a Springer (the cover of South Saturn Delta) and the image of that was just too much to handle. I guess I was always attracted to V-Twins not even knowing what they were or knowing what made them different from other motorcycles.”
“When I was about 20, a lot of my friends had motorcycles and they liked me because I was a guitar player, so they’d be like ‘Hey Jimmy, wanna ride my ’74?’ So I’m like “Hell yeah!”
Through friends and his brothers, he stayed in touch with the motorcycling scene. But it wasn’t until his brother came rolling up on his brand spankin’ new 2004 Fat Boy that, as Jimmy says, “It was over.”
“I always wanted a Harley, but I never could get one until about eight years ago. My brother got one. It was a weird story. I got home from my mom’s birthday and my brother had bought a new Fat Boy in 2004. I seen his bike and it’s over. I’m like, OK, I’ve been living in this house for 10 years. For two years of it, I didn’t even look at the Harley dealer that’s less than a mile down the street. I would ride by and just put my hand up over my eyes so I couldn’t see it because it’s right there. When I saw his bike, I rode it. I went home the next day and bought one! (big laugh). It was that quick.”
The motorcycle Herring bought was a 2004 Harley Heritage.
Jimmy Herring has added a few chrome accessories and an aftermarket exhaust to his Harley, but for the most part he’s left his Heritage true-to-form.
“I stripped it down, put some dresser bars on it, took the windshield off and just hit the road.”
He says he’s changed out the handlebars too, but otherwise has left it primarily stock.
“I don’t like them fancy, I like them kind of basic. At the time I was working with Phil Lesh but we weren’t playing all the time, so I still had a large part of the year to do whatever I wanted.”
What he wanted to do was ride, logging 48,000 miles in the first four years he owned his bike. In the beginning, Herring admits that he rode more than he played. That’s how he went on for the first three-four years, but now he finds more of a balance. His bike is still running tops, though. While his brother has had to replace the cam tensioners on his Fat Boy, Jimmy hasn’t had any major problems with his bike. Sure, he’s replaced the battery, exhaust, air cleaner, and thrown on a few chrome accessories here and there, but as he says “It’s not overdone.” Admittedly, he wouldn’t mind having a little more power than the Twin Cam 88 supplies, but said “It will go 100 mph, why do I need to go faster than that?”
Herring enjoys exploring the twisty roads through the scenic north Georgia mountains and sometimes when his brother brings his bike down from Tennessee they’ll just take off and try to get lost. They went to the Tail of the Dragon on a weekend and said it was just way too crowded in comparison to his local roads. He prefers to ride in groups of two to three, preferably on day-long trips that can cover 300-400 miles. Sometimes he goes for a spin with friends from the music industry, like his keyboardist Matt Slocum or Oteil.
Herring and friends are currently touring in support of his second solo project, Subject to Change Without Notice.
“Slocum’s got a fast bike, a crotch rocket, and he does circles around us. He’ll pass us, then he’ll pass us going the other way. Then he’ll pass us again,” laughed Herring.
As our conversation shifted from custom motorcycles to music, we discovered ironically that his taste in motorcycles is similar to his taste in guitars.
“It’s not that different with guitars. An expensive guitar will run you about $10,000 unless you’re talking about vintage guitars which can go for five times that amount and more. What I found is that I just like a basic guitar, one that you can buy right off the shelf and then you can do some basic mods to it like change the flatness of the neck and re-frett it. That’s the way I feel about bikes, too. Just go out and buy your basic Harley and then do some things to it if you want to.”
When we asked Herring to tell us a little bit about his latest album, Subject to Change Without Notice, this is what he had to say.
“I got to work with a great producer, John Keane, somebody I’ve admired for a long time. He’s done stuff with bands that I’ve played with like Widespread Panic, he’s done work with REM and other bands. The music isn’t necessarily similar to the music that those bands play but I could tell right away when I worked with him when Widespread Panic made Dirty Side Down that I wanted to work with him when I did a record on my own.”
“There’s guys on the record that I’ve been playing with forever like Jeff Sipe on drums, Neal Fountain on bass, Matt Slocum on keyboards. Then I
had some guests that I always wanted to play with like Bela Fleck on the banjo and Nicky Sanders on the violin and Bill Evans, the great jazz saxophonist who played with Miles Davis for a long time. It was really great to get to play with him. It’s not a jazz record but it’s not a pop record either. It’s lined with different types of music on it. We don’t look at music in labels even though it’s almost unavoidable. To us, it’s just music. We don’t make a conscious decision to play jazz in one part or blues in another.”
“The album is instrumental. In the absence of singing, I tried to pick songs and write songs that had melodies that could take the place of the vocal. I’m one of those people who think the human voice is the ultimate instrument. Of course I’m not a singer, can’t sing, don’t try, so all I can do is try to play like someone would sing. Part of the album focuses on that and some of the music is more geared toward singer/songwriter music except that it doesn’t have a singer. Some of the music is based more in the jazz/fusion area while others parts are kind of blues-based, kind of funk-based.”
In the context of conversation I discovered Herring and I both share a love for vinyl records in addition to motorcycles. He even convinced his label, Abstract Logix, to produce his latest effort in 180 Gram LP Vinyl because as we both agree, “The recording process has a warm sound that CD’s can’t duplicate. It sounds like you’re there.” About 500 records were originally printed up, which Herring says have almost sold out, so they’re contemplating printing up another run.
Before our interview wrapped up, we posed Herring with one of our favorite questions for musicians, asking why music, especially rock & roll, goes so well with motorcycles.
Who’d have known what impact this Jimi Hendrix poster would
have on a young, impressionable Jimmy Herring.
“They’re completely inseparable. The first thing I’d say is volume. Especially V-Twins. V-Twins and loud-ass guitars are just like extensions of each other. A Harley-Davidson with straight pipes and a Marshall stack both represent “do it your own way,” they both represent individuality and freedom and they both represent no apologies. Also, I have to admit, the imagery, being a kid, before I ever saw a Harley-Davidson or saw Jimi Hendrix or Joe Walsh sitting on a Harley-Davidson, I heard the music first. And now I look at the albums covers and stuff, I look at the James Gang cover where they’re sitting on bikes, that image was incredibly powerful, especially for a kid that was 10 years old. My older brothers were into motorcycles and they were into rock & roll, and then seeing Jimi Hendrix on that Springer in that poster my brother had on the wall, it just created this association where they weren’t separated in my mind. Jimi Hendrix is the best guitarist alive and he’s sitting on a Springer, so I wanted to learn to play guitar and have a Springer!”
Herring is currently out touring in support of his latest album and is slated to play at Rhythm and Brews in Chattanooga, Tennessee, next. His fall tour with the Victory Wooten band begins not long after that. If you want to see somebody work their magic on a Fender Stratocaster like nobody’s business, be sure to catch one of his shows. And ask him how his ’04 Heritage is running. He’ll be more than happy to tell you.