By Brian Scherzer
Jack Pearson’s versatility and skill on guitar have led to an incredible career as a “1st call” musician for artists ranging from blues, jazz, rock and country. Although most people probably associate him with the Allman Brothers Band , whom Pearson played with from 1997-1999, my first experience listening to his work came in 1996 when I purchased a CD by Jimmy Hall (ex-vocalist with the southern band Wet Willie) titled “Rendezvous With the Blues”. It turned out to be one of the best CD purchases I ever made. The music was top-notch from beginning to end, but the thing that kept capturing my attention in tune after tune was the incredible guitar playing. I looked at the insert to find out who was on guitar and saw the name “Jack Pearson”. Who?
Pearson’s early career was full of “who?” as far as the majority of the public was concerned. Yet, folks in the music business already knew about the talent and incredible musical flexibility that this guitar player possessed. I was simply late in learning about him. Having heard some of the best blues chops I have ever had the pleasure of listening to, I was eager to learn more about Pearson and have followed his career ever since.
Let’s get the list of some of his credits out of the way so that we can get to the “who” Jack Pearson is! Much more of his history is covered in the interview. Pearson has played with more artists than this article has space for, including such notables as Jimmy Buffett, Earl Scruggs, The Allman Brothers Band, Delbert McClinton, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Lee Roy Parnell, Lee Ann Womack, Ronnie Milsap, Gov’t Mule, Johnny Jenkins, Bonnie Bramlett, Chris LeDoux, Faith Hill, Derek Trucks, Gregg Allman, Buddy DeFranco, Jimmy Hall, The Bacon Brothers, and Shelby Lynne. He has appeared on numerous CDs by other artists and has four of his own projects on CD, including a wonderful acoustic blues CD with William Howse that is reviewed in the CD Reviews section of OSG.
The following are YouTube video clips of “Jack Pearson Performance and Style”
The Interview With Jack Pearson
Scherzer: I know that you began playing guitar at an early age. How did your interest in guitar develop and ultimately lead to recording and playing on the road as a teenager?
Pearson: I was born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1960. My oldest brother, Stanley, plays guitar and taught me how to play. I was around 12 years old when I started. After learning a few songs, Stanley gave me a chart of the fretboard with the names of all the notes on it. He told me to memorize it, so I did. It let me see how the notes are positioned, where the same notes are in the different octaves and so on.
Then he gave me a slide and told me, “Here boy, put this on your finger and play some slide.” I asked him, “Can you play it?” And he said, “No, but you need to learn how to do it.” Stanley was a good teacher. He had a lot of patience. He never memorized the fretboard, but he knew I should and he knew I should learn how to play slide. He would pull out his records and get me to learn certain songs. Anytime I would hear something that I liked, I would sit for hours, and sometimes days, just playing it over and over, trying to learn things note for note and which strings the notes were being played on so I could get the same tone and feeling. I would try not to damage the records by scratching them, but I wore a bunch of ’em out.
We had a family band, and we would play together every weekend. My brother-in-law, Gerry, sang, and his sons, Randy and Rick, would take turns playing drums. Then I started playing in bands with friends at school. I also started playing out with some of the older musicians in local clubs when I was around 15 or 16. I know it was before I could drive ’cause they would pick me up to go rehearse and to go to the gigs. We would play a variety of music. I remember being in two or more bands at the same time, so I did a lot of playing. Growing up around the Nashville area, there were a lot of good musicians to play with and learn from. One group I played with went in the studio when I was 16, so I guess that was my first session.
When I was 17, I heard about a band named Renegade that just moved to town that had a guitar player that played slide. At the time not many people played slide around here. So I went to hear him. I had my equipment with me ’cause I played earlier that night. I only heard a couple of songs before they asked me to sit in. I ended up playing the rest of the night. The next day they asked me to join the group. The guitar player was Lee Roy Parnell. In the fall of 1977, we got an offer to go to Florida for two weeks but we ended up staying down there for nine months. We went to Muscle Shoals and recorded some songs, but nothing ever happened for us. We were playing music that wasn’t popular. Disco was going pretty strong at the time. We relocated back to Tennessee and toured the Southeast. After the band broke up, I drifted around for a while in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida and then came back to Tennessee. In 1979 Lee Roy called and I moved to Austin, Texas to start another band with him. It was a good sounding band and we tried hard, but times were tough. We couldn’t get anything happening. So in 1980 I put all my stuff on a Greyhound bus and headed back to Tennessee. Man, that was a long ride from Austin to Nashville. That bus stopped everywhere.
Scherzer: Was there any specific event that made you decide to make music your profession?
Pearson: I never thought I had a choice. I’ve always felt like the Lord must have made me to play music. I was sick a lot when I was growing up and I just always loved music, and it can ease pain at times. I’m not very good at anything else anyhow. I tried to be a carpenter and a janitor. Sometimes you have to do whatever you can when you can’t find any work playing music.
Scherzer: Who were some of the artists that you were inspired by as you turned towards blues and jazz?
Pearson: I guess I’ve been influenced by everything I’ve heard and everyone I’ve played music with. I first heard a Wes Montgomery record when I was about 16. I remember trying to learn some of what he was playing, but I thought, “This can’t be right.” Years later I found out I was close. I wish I would have stuck with it back then, but nobody played those kind of things around here. I first heard Django when I was 17, wow. I didn’t know what to think about that. But later on in my early 20s, I started trying to play like him. I learned a lot from listening to him. He could really make it sing. Any musician who really speaks with his or her instrument is inspiring. There are so many, but some of my favorites are Wes, Django, Blind Willie Johnson, Rev. Gary Davis, Duane Allman, Joe Pass, Chuck Berry, Charlie Christian, Kenny Burrell, Dickey Betts, B.B., Freddie and Albert King, Carl Perkins, James Burton, Merle Travis, Albert Collins, Grant Green. And not just guitar players, any instrument…Charlie Parker, Dizzy, Dave Apollon, The Fairfield Four, Chet Baker, Mike Compton, Wynton Kelly, Art Tatum, Mahalia Jackson and on and on. I really like the old mountain musicians too. They bend the same notes. The basic rhythm on a clawhammer banjo is the same swing pattern as on a jazz ride cymbal. Now that’s cool to me. I enjoy learning how different instruments work together in music, how all the parts fit to make a sound and groove.
Scherzer: You have played with a lot of well-known artists. Can you tell us about the journey from teenaged guitar player to sought-after performer?
Pearson: I’ve just always tried to play the best I can, even in difficult circumstances. I try to be versatile and play what the songs need. I don’t always accomplish that, but I am trying. I’ve just always wanted to keep learning and improve as a musician. I’m pretty emotional and it comes out when I’m playing.
Scherzer: Can you give a rough chronology of your career as you began playing with well-known artists?
Pearson: Well, I haven’t really kept a good record of what I’ve done. And I know I’m gonna leave out so many great players and friends and get things out of order, but I’ll try to list some that you’ve heard of. When I lived in Austin, I got to jam with Stevie Ray and Bonnie Raitt and I would sit in with W.C. Clark as much as I could. When I moved back to Tennessee in 1980, I really started digging deeper into the history of music. In the early ’80s I moved to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, two different times, but couldn’t figure out how to get into the session scene. They had so many great players already, plus all I had was a 335 and it wasn’t a very popular sound at the time. I moved back to Tennessee in 1983. But I didn’t have the gear to get all the right sounds in Nashville either. Back then, most of the time, the guitar sounds were processed with the big rack gear. I bought a couple of cheap pieces to try and fit in, but it sounded terrible to me. I never was good at getting that kind of sound. So, I just freelanced all the time, playing anywhere I could. Occasionally I would get a demo session. I spent a few years learning more about jazz and got to play with Jimmy Raney in 1986, Buddy DeFranco in 1987 and Groove Holmes in 1988. But I was always writing songs too. I started touring with Delbert McClinton in 1989 and started playing with Jimmy Hall in 1990. During the time period of the late ’80s and into the ’90s, I also played live or recorded with Tracy Nelson, Shelby Lynne, Billy Montana, Bobby Bland, Jim Horn, Mundell Lowe, James Burton, Vassar Clements, Jimmy Smith, Larry Carlton, Johnny Jenkins. Oh, in 1985 I got to play with Chet Atkins in his kitchen, and he showed me a chord voicing. From the mid ’90s up ’till now, the list would include The Allman Brothers Band, Ronnie Milsap, Jimmy Buffett, Chris LeDoux, Mac MacAnally, The Bacon Brothers, Dan Penn, Bonnie Bramlett, Faith Hill, The Lewis Family, Earl Scruggs, T. Graham Brown, Mike Compton, Steve Cropper, Phil Driscoll, Buddy Spicher, Crystal Gayle, John Hammond, Johnny Gimbel, Levon Helm, Kirk Whalam. Maybe I can get a more complete list together someday. And recently I even got to pick a little with Vince Gill. Over the years, I also got to record and play with some of the famous Muscle Shoals session men…Rodger Hawkins, David Hood, Clayton Ivey, Harvey Thompson and Charles Rose and a lot of the Nashville cats. There are some great musicians in Nashville. Any style you want.