RIP (and Happy Birthday) Merle Haggard.

In the ‘90s I did one of my favorite portraits ever of a undisputed giant of country music, or hell, music in general… and definitely one of my favorites.

Here’s my photo of him, shot on a 4x5 camera at dusk, outside against the white wall of a building in Temecula, CA… 5 second exposure. I’ve had blinkers, fidgeters, and slouchers but I always remember how rock solid and unblinking Merle was, like granite. A minor thing to mention compared to his singing and songwriting, but I thought for sure he’d a been a blinker.

There was a kid’s Big Wheel tricycle sitting nearby for some reason… and buried in my archives I have a photo of him sitting on it. That’s the photo.

Photo © Jim Herrington

I was digging into the archives looking for something else and happened upon this seldom seen Dolly photo of mine from around 1999 or so.

Yes, of course I sell prints and can deliver by Christmas…

Photo © Jim Herrington

Happy Birthday, yesterday, to one of the nicest guys I ever met.

And I’ll trot out this old story again…

I had originally met Carl Perkins when I went to his home in Jackson, TN to photograph him for the cover of his biography. I was living in Nashville at the time and often drove back and forth to Memphis for work and fun, usually stopping for gas or coffee in Jackson. The next time I was driving through town I stopped at a service station, left the gas hose in the car, walked over to the pay phone and gave Carl a ring.

“Carl, it’s Jim… just gassing up in Jackson, on my way to Memphis, thought I’d say hello.”

“Heeeey, cat daddy! Don’t drive through Jackson without coming by the house and seeing me.”

“Carl, I’m just driving through, I don’t want to bother you.”

“Boy, it’s lunchtime, let’s go get some catfish.”

“Alright, I’ll be there in 10 minutes.”

I left the gas station and arrived at his house and we went into his living room where he played a song on guitar that he’d just written. He told me that he wrote a song every day, good or bad. It was a good one that day. On the wall behind me was the framed piece of a torn brown paper bag upon which he wrote the original lyrics to “Blue Suede Shoes”, another good day.

After talking for a while, and catfish on our minds, we went out a side door off of the kitchen and down some steps into the dark garage where his giant yellow Cadillac was parked. When he shut the kitchen door behind us the garage went dark and I couldn’t see a thing. Feeling my way around the hood of the car I found the passenger door, opened it, and got inside. Carl slid inside the drivers side and shut his door. It was pitch black inside and so quiet I could hear my heartbeat. Carl reached over and tapped his index finger on my top breast pocket, where I kept my cigs.

“Don’t you want to smoke one of those?“

I told him I did, in fact, and I started to roll the window down. He said not to worry about the window, just go ahead and light up.

"You don’t mind, Carl?”

“No, I don’t mind.”

The flame from my lighter briefly illuminated the interior of the Cadillac and I noticed Carl was sitting closer to me than I had imagined.
As it went dark again I inhaled the first puff and I heard Carl’s seat crackle as he shifted his body and leaned in very close to my face and spoke in a low, commanding monotone, “Now blow it into my face.”

I felt the pulse in my ear start beating faster.

As instructed, I turned my head towards his and let loose a long, slow column of smoke straight into Carl Perkin’s face, now no more than three inches from mine. In the inky black silence he inhaled deeply, right up to my mouth. Then, while turning the keys in the ignition said, “GOD, I miss those things… now let’s go get some catfish!”

Thus began a friendship that lasted a few short years until he finally succumbed to the throat cancer that was in remission when I’d met him.

Photo and text © Jim Herrington

I grew up in the South where rock & roll was invented. From the get-go I loved Elvis and Carl and Jerry Lee and a lot of other musicians like that, from that era, from that place. But by the late ‘70s “Southern Rock”, with a few exceptions, became a kind of redneck thing that I didn’t much care for, the image or the sound. All rock, no roll. Then, out of Gainesville, Florida, came Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers who looked cool, sounded cool, were cool. Even though his music was being made in LA, via a brief but important pitstop in Tulsa, there was no mistaking where he was from. And he had obviously been influenced by all of the good stuff. I’m no ardent defender of the South except when it comes to the music that came out of there and I always appreciated that Tom was a guy from the South making good rock & roll. It would be hard to overstate the impression that Petty’s first albums made on me and my, at that time, small circle of music manic friends.

Change Eddie to Jimmy and it could be me:

Eddie waited til he finished high school
He went to Hollywood, got a tattoo
He met a girl out there with a tattoo too
The future was wide open

I moved to Hollywood with a camera and 20 bucks and was trying to make it somehow. In ’87 or ’88 a friend of mine was doing some work with Petty and one afternoon he asked me if I wanted to ride over with him and watch Tom and the band rehearse. Uh, yeah I would. They were at Joe’s Garage, Frank Zappa’s rehearsal room over in the Valley. We walked in the back door, my friend introduced us and Tom said, “AwwwRIGHT… a fellow Southerner!” We got high, Tom and Benmont and Mike and Stan and Howie started playing around with a bunch of cool covers… Charlie Rich songs, Bobby Darin’s ‘Splish-Splash’, Eddie Cochran. They were already one of my favorite bands and here they were doing covers of all the other records I owned. I took some pictures. Finally it was the end of the day and I was already thinking how lucky I was to spend just one day with them and watch them play in a small room. As we were all leaving and saying goodbye Tom said, “See you tomorrow Jim?” Indeed you will, Tom.

Thus began a couple of years photographing them. When I think back of what a young greenhorn I was at the time it astounds me that they brought me into the fold so warmly and frequently. They were also Southerners that had, earlier, moved to Hollywood as relative unknowns and maybe they saw that in me, I don’t know. But the fact is, even though I’d already been shooting music for years, this was the absolute, undisputed fork in the road of my music photography career. Almost all of my photos of them were behind the scenes, hanging-out photos. The powers that be, that eventually saw the photos I’d taken, must have thought that I was something I was not, with such unguarded access. “Who’s the new guy that gets in so deep with all the big guys?” Petty was at his zenith then, as a star, a maker of hits — hell, Bob Dylan and George Harrison and Roy Orbison wanted HIM around — and it’s a testament to his coolness, generosity and realness that has never been lost on me, the way he treated me and allowed me in. I was a bona-fide, card carrying nobody at that point and by Petty (and Ben, Mike, Stan, Howie) allowing me to hang out for a couple years and get real photos, the kind I like to take, not just “photo shoots”… well, suddenly I was on the radar and it was because of them.

Lots of good memories — Akira Kurosawa movies on LaserDisc… the luxury! (exactly the first thing I remembering thinking that I’d buy if I was a rock star) at Benmont’s house, rooftop debauchery and rare Edward S. Curtis photos at Howie’s — and first meeting Carlene, Mike in his front yard making the most god-awful racket on his brand new first-ever violin and the requisite Jack Benny jokes — oh, and putting him in a garbage can on the beach in Santa Monica. Stan’s coveted Billy Beer six pack and the general Stan-ness of Stan. Tom and I riding his skateboard in his driveway, “Hey, I’m from Florida, what’d you expect?”, Tom picking me up at my apartment in Los Feliz, the car door of his Jaguar opening up and a thick cloud of pot smoke and Sun-era Elvis Presley billowing out over the yard.

I could write 10 more paragraphs but I have work to do today. Tom was the real deal, no doubt about it. He rooted for the underdog, didn’t suffer fools, didn’t take any shit, especially from the record companies that he famously stood up to when he stood to lose a lot by doing it. He always seemed to be on the good side of whatever it was. Fame never seemed to go to his head, he was eternally cool, eternally liked (ever meet anyone who DIDN’T like him or his music?) He’s in the same league as Dolly Parton… if you don’t like him you must have a bone missing.

RIP to a major talent and human. And thanks.

Tom and his daughter, 1989.
Photo © Jim Herrington

I photographed blues singer/songwriter/guitarist R.L. Burnside in the field beside his house in Holly Springs, Mississippi in the 1990s.

Burnside was born in the next county over in 1926 but by the mid-1940s he had moved to Chicago to find work. He found work, and he also found his cousin Muddy Waters, but in the span of one year in that city his father, two brothers and his uncle were all murdered. He moved back to Mississippi in the 1950s where he worked as a farmer during the day and played the juke joints at night. In the mid-50s he killed a man during a dice game and was incarcerated at the infamous Parchman Farm. He would comment years later about the incident, “I didn’t mean to kill nobody. I just meant to shoot the son of a bitch in the head and two times in the chest. Him dying was between him and the Lord.“

During the 1990s Burnside stayed busy touring and making records but his health was deteriorating. He had stopped playing by the early 2000s and died on September 1, 2005 leaving behind 13 children, 35 grandchildren and some very good records.

©Jim Herrington

My new pictorial masterpiece, “Nick Lowe Throws a Snowball”, accompanies the recent news of the music legend’s forthcoming December tour (with full band). Not to be missed.

Photo ©Jim Herrington