You never fully appreciate what another musician has gone through until you take his or her place. Few understand that better than Widespread Panic guitarist Jimmy Herring, who ended up staring down the challenges George McConnell faced during his four-year stint with the band.
McConnell was brought into the band in summer 2002, a traumatic point in Widespread Panic's history. Guitarist Michael Houser, a founding member whose unique guitar style had helped define the band's sound, had pancreatic cancer and had become too ill to continue touring. In August 2002, Hauser died.
As soon as McConnell stepped into the lineup, he struggled with fans who missed Hauser. According to a September/October 2006 Relix magazine feature, McConnell received hate mail, even death threats, and would look out to concert audiences and see derisive signs waved in his direction. McConnell quit after a July 30, 2006 concert in St. Louis.
The other band members then turned to Herring, who had plenty of experience filling vacancies in some pretty big bands. In the Allman Brothers, Herring was recruited soon after the departure of founding member Dickey Betts. In the Grateful Dead, Herring was, of course, filling the guitar slot left by Jerry Garcia.
"I had to step into the Allman Brothers after Dickey Betts left," Herring says. "That's impossible. You can't do that, just like you can't do what George tried to do. I mean, you can do it, but it's hard. It's hard. And there are going to be those people who don't like you."
The remaining members of Widespread Panic singer-guitarist John Bell, bassist Dave Schools, percussionist Domingo "Sunny" Ortiz, keyboardist John "JoJo" Hermann and drummer Todd Nance apparently long suspected that Herring would be the right man to fill the guitar vacancy. The band approached Herring about joining when Houser no longer could tour. Herring first ad to reluctantly decline because he was committed to touring with Phil Lesh's band. Later, he said yes.
All indications are that Herring has fit in well with Widespread Panic. Evidence of the chemistry can be heard on the group's newest CD, Free Somehow, Herring's first studio appearance.
Stylistically, the album leans a bit more toward softer material than many Widespread Panic albums. But with songs as strong as the funky but easygoing, horn-accented "Angels on High" and the epic "Her Dance Needs No Body" one of the prettiest songs the band has created that shouldn't be a problem for fans.
Herring says he's excited to see how the material from Free Somehow evolves.
"A lot of this music, the versions on the album are not the stripped-down versions," he says. "They're the highly produced, polished versions. And I think that's a really great thing. But when you're playing live, you're just going to have what's live. So I'm really looking forward to that, because my whole thing is about playing live anyway, and the band, obviously, their thing is about playing live."