ASPEN — Jimmy Herring has a dream: to one day not see his name in lights.
For the moment, Herring is the guitarist and leader of the Jimmy Herring Band, a name he seems to have genuine discomfort with.
“I never wanted that,” he said of being the bandleader, the guy with his name on the marquee. “At some point it will just be a band, and it will have a name.”
Herring’s unease stems from the fact that music — or at least, music the way he has always seen it — is a fully collaborative endeavor. The bands he has been a part of have emphasized the group aspect; even the names of those outfits — the Allman Brothers, the Aquarium Rescue Unit, Phil & Friends — reflect the idea that music-making is a team effort.
“I feel like we’re all equals. We just get together and play,” Herring said from a tour bus rolling across Missouri on its way to Colorado. “So having my name on it makes me uncomfortable. All of us know music is a collaborative effort.”
Herring, accompanied by his mates, drummer Jeff Sipe, bassist Neal Fountain and keyboardist Matt Slocum, will play at PAC3 in Carbondale on Thursday, Aug. 23, at 8 p.m.
Back in his native North Carolina, Herring did once lead a band. But only sort of, and he was terrible at it, and he didn’t enjoy it.
“I became the bandleader. I had to say some of the tough things like, ‘Be on time’ and ‘You’re not playing well,’” he said. “I hated it with a passion. Swore I’d never do it again. I came up with the notion of joining someone else’s band. And that’s what I did.”
Herring has, indeed, made a habit of being in other people’s bands. But to call him a sideman would be a mistake, since the groups he’s been in have been so oriented toward ensemble playing. Herring’s first notable position was in the Aquarium Rescue Unit, a band led in name by Col. Bruce Hampton, but that focused the spotlight on each of the gifted musicians. Herring had a short stint in the Allman Brothers Band, sitting in for Dickey Betts. He co-founded Jazz Is Dead, which put a fusion spin on the songs of the Grateful Dead, and then carried on with the Dead repertoire as a member of Phil & Friends, led by Dead bassist Phil Lesh. In 2006, Herring joined the Southern jam band Widespread Panic, whose original guitarist, Mike Houser, had died four years earlier.
Herring said that hopping on a fast-moving train like Widespread Panic was relatively easy because a) he had known the band members for 15 years; b) they were Southerners like him; c) they were nice people; and d) they were all the same age, meaning they had the same TV shows as cultural reference points. But mostly what he respects about Panic is how much the band plays as a team.
“There’s a wonderful democracy they have, and it’s such a rare thing,” the 50-year-old Herring said, adding that he’s thrilled about the recent announcement that Panic will end its 11-month hiatus in January. “I want to be like that with my group, where everybody has a voice, everybody’s voice is welcome, nobody thinks they have to shut up and go with the flow.”
But Herring doesn’t aim to turn his band into a Widespread clone in sound. Herring’s band — as reflected on “Subject to Change Without Notice,” his second solo album, released on Tuesday — plays instrumental fusion, with a nod to the Dixie Dregs, who likewise mixed jazz fusion, Southern rock and more.
Noting that his music added elements of gospel and Indian styles, Herring said he resists categorizing his approach. What does distinguish his music, though, is how tough it can be to play.
“My tendency is to write music to my weaknesses,” he said. “I’ve got millions of things I could do better, so subconsciously or unconsciously I write music that’s hard for me to play.”
With “Subject to Change,” he has added another layer of difficulty. “Curfew” has a part by banjoist Béla Fleck; “Red Wing Special” features fiddler Nicky Sanders. Both are exceptional musicians — meaning that the chances of duplicating the sound in concert is next to impossible. Herring said he probably won’t be performing those tunes anytime soon.
Herring said that his biggest weakness as a guitarist was his inability to adapt to the cold.
“Outside, when it’s cold, not letting the mental game beat you — that’s tough for me,” he said. “When my hands get cold, I turn into a baby.”