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art theplaceI got it. Growing up outside of Burlington, Vermont, I came out of the womb with a Phish album in-hand. Founded in The Queen City, the jam act was the soundtrack we blasted in our cars and the melodies we danced to frantically at shows — the group we pledged our allegiance to.

Which is were the irony lies in such an inclusive and beautiful music and counterculture. The north had Phish, the west aligned with The String Cheese Incident, and the south flocked to Widespread Panic (with all sides praising The Grateful Dead). And as our transient souls trekked around America, we would cross paths with the other sides, always debating who was the more skilled guitarist, wildest drummer or most transformative live experience. 

It’s not that I didn’t “get” Widespread Panic in my early years, I just wasn’t brought up in their music, like so many who are around Southern Appalachia and beyond. I’d seen their live shows around the country, and it didn’t initially click. That was until they hit the stage in Asheville in November 2013.

Standing there, in the front row, snapping away pictures, I was awestruck by the immense waves of sound crashing into my soul. Every cell in my body vibrated, with each song finding its way into the furthest depths of my being. Living in the south, in these ancient and mysterious mountains, you begin to understand why things are the way they are, especially with music. This same attitude goes towards the beauty of bluegrass, and now, for me, in the presence of Widespread.

A band that takes flight onstage, Widespread soars into the heavens above. The sextet weaves and bobs through the audience, carrying all of us on their spiritual journey through the power of music, which is the power of the universe. It’s the thundering bass of Dave Schools, the sandpaper grit of lead singer John Bell or the primal heartbeat of percussionist Domingo Ortiz. 

During their performances, my focus would always drift toward guitarist Jimmy Herring. Where other guitarists have a specific tone or style, Herring’s unique signature was the mere fact he is a melting pot of all the good stuff. From Sunset Strip razor sharp licks to Latin-tinged notes to straight ahead blue-collar rock-n-roll, Herring is a menacing whirlwind let loose on six-strings gone electric.

Garret K. Woodward: What’s going on in your head when you’re onstage?

Jimmy Herring: The goal is to not be there at all, to just be an open channel. I can’t always get there, and most improvisation musicians will tell you that. You learn everything you can learn, and you keep pressing forward to try to learn new things and new pieces to your vocabulary. But, at the same time, when you’re at a show, you don’t want to be going through your vocabulary, you don’t want to be thinking about it, you want to get out of your own way. The idea is to somehow clear your mind and do all the thinking you need to do before the show.

GKW: You recorded you latest record (“Street Dogs”) at Echo Mountain in Asheville, a beautiful old church now turned into a recording studio. What do like about that room?

JH: It has this amazing vibe. There’s no substitute for the room, the wood in there just soaks up the sound. The beauty is that you not only mic the instruments up close, you can also mic the room. A lot of other places you just put the mics right up to the speakers and up to the drums and you don’t really get to hear anything but the speaker or the cymbal. But, when you mic the room, you get this special ingredient. 

GKW: What has a lifetime playing music taught you about life?

JH: That music can help people. It can be a positive thing in people’s lives, something you can’t get anywhere else. As someone who plays, it’s like church to me, but not in a religious way — it’s a spiritual thing. I just believe if that you’re able to get out of your way, all your years of preparation and practice to get yourself to that point, if you can get out of your own way, instead of being academic, it comes out as music in that moment, and that’s the goal for me, and it’s not going to stop anytime soon. You can lose yourself in it, in a good way, and that’s what I see when I watch people dancing out there at our shows. I think it’s just beautiful seeing that. And yeah, some of them look insane, but that doesn’t matter at all, because people being able to let go of their inhibitions and let it overtake you, that’s a spiritual journey. I know a lot of people in other genres of music, they look at what we get to do, and say, ‘Oh man, I want to get in on this, look how much fun your audience is having.’ They’re not sitting in front of you with their arms crossed, analyzing what scale your playing on, they’re actually going on a journey with you. They let their guard down, they get wrapped up in it, and open themselves up to it — it’s a beautiful thing.

Editor’s Note: Widespread Panic will perform Oct. 30-31 at the U.S. Cellular Center in Asheville. The band is currently on a national tour in support of their new record, “Street Dogs.”


Hot picks

1 The 11th Western North Carolina Pottery Festival will be from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 7, in downtown Dillsboro.

2 The Smoky Mountain Roller Girls will take on the Rome Roller Girls on Saturday, Nov. 7, at the Swain County Rec Park in Bryson City.

3 A celebration of all things Halloween will be held Oct. 30 to Nov. 1 at the Folkmoot Friendship Center in the Hazelwood community of Waynesville.

4 A live burlesque show will be held at 9 p.m. Friday, Oct. 30, at Mad Batter Food & Film in Sylva.

5 Virtuoso Celtic fiddler Jamie Laval will perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 7, at The Strand at 38 Main in Waynesville.

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