By James Calemine
John “JoJo” Hermann’s record, Smiling Assassin, consists of eleven country-hearted blues songs, and includes an all-star musical cast. Hermann, the Widespread Panic keyboardist, composed ten songs on the album as well as covered vocal, guitar, keyboards, and piano duties. The rest of the band consists of Paul “Crumpy” Edwards (Bloodkin) on bass and Luther & Cody Dickinson (North Mississippi Allstars) on guitar and drums.
This project’s provenance dates back as far as 1989 when Luther and Cody’s father, infamous Memphis musician/producer Jim Dickinson, produced the record for Hermann’s old group, Beanland. Hermann played in Beanland until he joined Widespread Panic in 1992.
When asked to elaborate on his debut album, Hermann responded: “Well, I started playing with them (the Dickinsons) in Oxford and Memphis. I think I met Luther in Memphis around 89, when Beanland’s record came out. I met Cody right after that, and we were just playing around North Mississippi and Memphis for as long as I can remember. And you know Crumpy—we got together over here (in Georgia) and I’d been writing a bunch of songs, and Crumpy kinda helped me hammer them out—so we went to Mississippi and Luther & Cody were there. This was like three or four years ago. We were just playing and doing demos in the studio. We had a few songs and it kinda came together. We liked the way it sounded, so this year we decided to put out a record.”
Musical guests on the album include George McConnell from the Kudzu Kings on guitar, Blue Mountain’s Cary Hudson plays violin & harmonica, as well as Widespread Panic members Todd Nance (12-string guitar), John Bell (vocals), Domingo Ortiz (percussion), and Mike Houser (guitar).
Smiling Assassin was recorded in three days last October by Bruce Watson at the money shot Studio in Water Valley, Mississippi. The album was mixed by John Keane in Athens, Georgia.
“Hell for Horses” is the electric foot-stomping opening song, followed by the title track, “Smiling Assassin”, a tune almost reminiscent of early R.E.M country twangs as Cary Hudson’s violin adds a lush ingredient to the songs downhome swing. When asked if these songs were new or locked away after many years, Hermann replied: “Yeah, some were definitely gathering dust. I was afraid I was gonna forget or lose them, so it’s not like I sat down and wrote the album, but some of it came at the end just from the opportunity to play with Crumpy, Luther, and Cody.”
“Abilene” is a haunting song with a lazy riff that grips the listener like a tequila fever on a summer night in the Texas desert, while the gritty guitars in “Don’t Look Down” call to mind some glorious bar band playing happy hour in a nameless juke joint reeking of diesel fuel.
Next, Hermann exercises his keyboard expertise on “Lazy Bum”, a New Orleans saloon song that emits a “last call” spirit.
In a guest appearance, Panic’s drummer Todd Nance recorded his first 12-string guitar track on the moody “Don’t Throw it Away”. This uneasy song serves as a mean centerpiece for the album, while these musicians conjure a sludgy groove, leaving little doubt concerning the band’s “live” dynamic.
Luther Dickinson’s unforgiving slide guitar playing sounds prominent on Smiling Assassin. When questioned about how three days of recording forces musicians to use time wisely, Hermann responded: “Yeah, Luther’s playing on everything is just incredible. He just recorded everything live—right then and there—which is definitely a benefit. I think the less time spent on a record, the better…I’m a big fan off that.”
“Daisy Mae” is a rockabilly killer right out of the Ronnie Hawkins songbook guaranteed to make any drug store truck driving man proud. The only song Hermann didn’t pen on the album is “Lonely Avenue”, an old Ray Charles hit written by Doc Pomus. Panic guitarist John Bell makes his soulful vocal appearance on this classic final track.
According to Hermann, this no-nonsense sideband will hit the road: ‘Next spring we’re gonna go out, and instead of playing places like the Northside Tavern (in Atlanta), we might move to the Roxy and start doin’ some theatre stuff. We’ll play places like Atlanta, Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, Jackson, and do the Carolinas a little bit.”
There is a fierce, devil-may-care sound that resonates in this band’s songs. Hermann’s Smiling Assassin studio and live ensemble make for one killer of a band.