Panic’s Hermann immerses himself in Southern music
John “Jojo” Hermann would seem the ideal of the Southern musician. Hermann calls Oxford, Miss., a college town that has spawned a thriving music scene, home. To be precise, though, Hermann lives 15 miles away in Water Valley, which is even better: Water Valley is home to Fat Possum, the small but influential blues label.Hermann comes across good-natured, polite and laid back, right in tune with the Southern musical life. For over a decade, Hermann has been keyboardist and singer with Widespread Panic, a group rooted in Athens, Ga., that has put a big Southern twist on the jam-band style.For fun and variety, Hermann founded Smiling Assassins, a bluesy quartet that features two young sons of the South, brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars. When Hermann speaks of his music idols, he mentions such Mississippians as Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside and Mose Allison.No one except the most devout Widespread Panic fan would expect that Hermann is a Southern pretender. The fact is he was born and raised in New York City’s Greenwich Village. His parents, likewise, were New Yorkers. Hermann began his musical education tinkling around on the piano in his parents’ Third Street apartment.Hermann began getting serious about music in his early teens, when he heard his first Doors record, with the eerie organ playing of Ray Manzarek. He and some sixth-grade buddies formed a band and played Neil Young, Grateful Dead and Doors tunes.When he set out to become a gigging musician, however, Hermann quickly found he wasn’t a New Yorker at heart.”I tried to get into the music scene in New York, playing r & b piano, and there wasn’t anything for me,” said the 39-year-old Hermann via cell phone, as he and his wife drove around Oxford looking for a parking spot. “Everything was punk rock in New York at the time.”With no desire to turn punk, Hermann sought a place where the prevailing musical tastes were more in line with his own. A friend had moved to Oxford, the north Mississippi town some 50 miles from Memphis that is home to Ole Miss. Hermann went to see him.”I came to visit, really,” said Hermann, who has lived in the Oxford area since 1987, and also has a home in Tennessee. “I decided to go south and check out and learn the music I liked. I figured I’d just go down and hang out for a while. I’d had enough of my job” – as a New York bike messenger – “so I just stopped showing up.”In north Mississippi, Hermann found most everything to his liking, from the pace of life to the people to the music. “The first thing that hits you is how nice and friendly everyone is, and how slow the pace is. It didn’t take long to realize I wasn’t going back north.”Hermann fell in love with the music scene, centered around such fertile towns as Oxford and Holly Springs. He frequented Junior’s, a juke-joint run by blues singer Junior Kimbrough, where he’d see the likes of R.L. Burnside, Cedell Davis and Kimbrough himself. He saw Mose Allison, a native of Tippo, Miss., play at the tiny club Sid & Harry’s. In the music known as Hill Country blues, or the Holly Springs sound, Hermann had found what he was looking for.”Getting turned on to that music, it woke something up in me,” he said.Hermann helped found a band, Beanland, that played on the nascent jam-band circuit. On that circuit, he had regular encounters with Widespread Panic, a band that had formed in the mid-1980s at the University of Georgia. In 1992, Hermann got an invitation to join Widespread, which was beginning its ascent to the top of the jam-band world. In an easy decision, Hermann accepted the offer.”They called and asked if I’d like to go on the road,” he said. “They had heard me play in Beanland; we were on the same circuit and heard each other a lot. When Beanland started fizzling, they asked me if I wanted to join. I was a fan and had started following them around. They knew they wouldn’t have to teach me the songs or pay me anything.”With Hermann on board, Widespread Panic became one of the most popular rock bands in the world, and an icon of independent success. They toured nonstop, selling out multiple dates in places like Red Rocks.Their recordings, mostly on the smallish, Atlanta-based Capricorn Records, were, by jam-band standards, innovative and artistically and commercially successful. When Capricorn dissolved, the band didn’t skip a beat, releasing albums on its own Sanctuary Records and touring as much as ever. Even when lead guitarist and founding member Michael Houser died last year, Panic rolled on, with crew member George McConnell taking the guitar spot.In 2001, Hermann started branching out. Among the musicians he had known in his early days in Mississippi were brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson, sons of noted producer and keyboardist Jim Dickinson. Hermann had long been impressed with the younger Dickinsons: “We all knew they were going to be good, but nobody knew how good,” he said.When the Dickinson boys formed the North Mississippi Allstars and began playing the Hill Country blues, Hermann grew tighter with them. Jams turned into gigs; the gigs begat a Jojo Hermann solo record; a tour followed the record, and all of a sudden there was a band, the Smiling Assassins, comprising Hermann, the Dickinsons and bassist Paul “C. Dawg-Crumpy” Edwards from the band Bloodkin.”We played small gigs and they went pretty good,” said Hermann. “And they helped me make a record. It all happened pretty organically. Nobody planned it. People ask us, you want to go to Colorado? So we say, yeah, sure.”The Smiling Assassins is a band marked by easiness and commonality of interests. The band recorded its first CD, “Smiling Assassin,” over three days in October 2000, at Water Valley’s Money Shot Studios. When the group played a two-week tour of the South last February, they found time to reconvene at Money Shot and recorded another album in a matter of days. “Defector” – like “Smiling Assassins,” credited to Jojo Hermann, who wrote the bulk of the material – was released on Fat Possum last week.”We all listen to the same records, and know the Holly Springs and North Mississippi music,” said Hermann, who has appeared on recent CDs by Fat Possum artists T-Model Ford and Cedell Davis. “So it’s a common interest we have. This is fun.”Widespread Panic fans will be surprised to see Hermann playing guitar in the Smiling Assassins. But Hermann doesn’t aspire to guitar-godhood; in fact, on the advice of his wife, he’ll be playing even less guitar than on the first Smiling Assassins tour, and is bringing a Hammond organ along for the current set of shows. The heavy guitar lifting, Hermann says, is best left to Luther Dickinson.”I just kind of strum the cowboy chords,” said Hermann, who handles most of the vocals. “I just do the chords and Luther – I give him as much room as I can.”Smiling Assassins isn’t about to take over as Hermann’s main gig. The CD title “Defector,” he said, has no significance. He was reading a newspaper when Fat Possum’s owner called and told him he needed a title; Hermann looked at the paper, saw the word “defector” in a headline, and “Defector” it was. “I don’t even know who it referred to. It’s definitely not meant to be taken seriously or politically. I’m not political or serious,” said Hermann. And it definitely shouldn’t be taken as a sign that Hermann is about to defect from Widespread Panic: “If I were up for idiot of the year, maybe that would be so.”Widespread Panic, in fact, recently signed on to play this year’s Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee, where they will be a top attraction. The band was also one of the featured acts at last year’s inaugural Bonnaroo, which drew over 70,000 fans. The success of Bonnaroo would suggest that the jam-band scene that Panic helped build is in solid shape, but Hermann says that, as he has increasingly become a man of the South, he’s lost perspective on what’s happening in the jam universe.”I don’t follow the scene as much as I used to,” he said. “But my friends, we’re all working, still out there playing, and I find that fortunate.”But ask me anything about the Mississippi scene, and I’ll tell you anything you want to know.”[Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org]
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