Guitarist Jimmy Robinson remembers hitchhiking barefooted to the French Quarter from the Lakefront to play guitar when he was 16. He has played guitar in New Orleans all his life, and for years, he has been known as the guitarist with the city’s closest equivalent to a prog rock group, Woodenhead. He has also been the go-to guitarist for hire, someone with the chops to play almost anything.
Since the late 1990s, his main gig has been Twangorama, the guitar lover’s dream with Robinson, Cranston Clements and Phil DeGruy, backed by the Woodenhead rhythm section of Paul Clement and Mark Whitaker. Twangorama put out a self-titled album last year, and this month Robinson follows suit with his solo debut, Vibrating Strings. The acoustic album alternates between instrumental material—including a solo guitar cover of Led Zep’s “Kashmir” and a tribute to the late Bonerama member, “Brian O’Neal”—and vocal material, sung by Robinson. It’s an album of goodbyes as he deals with loss, but dark lyrics are often balanced by the musicality of his playing. His technique is impeccable, but he never lets it do his thinking for him.
Between Twangorama, your new solo album and playing in Susan Cowsill’s band, you’ve been busy.
Suddenly, I’ve been getting a bunch of calls which is really nice. That hasn’t happened to me in a long time. Susan called me for the Jimi Hendrix gig [when she played Are You Experienced? for her “Covered in Vinyl” series] and it stuck, so that’s kind of nice.
How long have you been playing solo sets at the Neutral Ground Coffeehouse?
I started that a couple of years ago since I started working on this solo thing in earnest.
When I went to college, my major was classical guitar so I’ve been dabbling with that forever. But the thing with my hand—I had to put classical down because of my fingers I have carpal dystonia. Basically, it’s a condition that is generated in your nervous system that makes certain tendons, usually affiliated with your occupation, contract when you don’t want them to. My problem is with my middle finger. It started about 25 years ago, and I kept on adapting around it. Then it got to the point that I couldn’t hold a pick, so I kept inventing little things, and I finally hit around this one pick which works out so perfectly, and I’m playing better now that I think I ever had.
The first time it happened had to scare you.
I was doing my graduate work at Loyola and this weird thing kept happening. I kept thinking I’m not practicing enough and something’s wrong.
I think I’m playing better than I ever have now, but I had to really dramatically change my technique. If I try to play in a conventional way, or if I try to play piano—sometimes when I go to shake a hand, I expect it to curl up. It’s not life-threatening or painful or anything. It’s just when I go to perform specific tasks, something in my brain is sending commands that it’s not supposed to.
Tell me about playing with Susan Cowsill’s “Covered in Vinyl” nights.
She really can make something, just about anything, her own. She didn’t know that Hendrix album at all. Russ [Broussard, her drummer] and I grew up with it, but she never really listened to it. She didn’t do the Hendrix version; she did her own version.
That Springsteen gig [Born to Run] was absolutely awesome. There was no room in the place; it’s a little mystifying to me that there’s such a cult following that album, but people were holding up their cigarette lighters and singing every word.
How long does it take you to pick up the guitar parts for one of those shows?
It’s getting quicker, but it depends on the record. That Springsteen record has a lot of stuff wrapped up in one after the other, and that took a little bit, but it’s a real good exercise. It’s been real good for my thought process and chops.
To be honest, I like doing her stuff more than anything else in that gig. Just the freedom to be able improvise and add stuff. I grew up playing in rock bands playing Stones and Beatles.
Is it hard to restrain yourself?
Yeah. Sometimes I’ll tend to do too much. There’s a lot of space to add interesting things.
Every time she does her songs, she changes them on the fly. We did a couple of tunes at Jazz Fest this year that we had talked through and never actually played. I was standing there behind her calling out the chords that I thought she had taught us the day before.
How has playing with Susan affected your solo work?
I have the tendency to start racing and I’m trying to work on that. Russ is helping me with that a lot because he’s really rock solid, and he spend a lot of time working on that same thing. When you’re playing by yourself, you can do whatever you want. When I play with just the two of us, I realize wow, I’m really behind the beat, or way ahead of the beat.
What made you decide to do a solo album?
I’ve been writing solo pieces for a while, and started performing before the storm. When we went to Memphis as an evacuation, I got some gigs there, playing solo and duets with some other guys. I started going pretty heavy at it then, but I didn’t know how long I was going to get to do this because I didn’t know when I was going home, like everyone else.
Could any of these songs by Twangorama pieces?
I think a lot of them could be. We have so much material and so many people bringing in stuff.
We tend to write things together a lot; that seems to be the best stuff we do—when we all collaborate.
I’m always interested in how artists who work in groups decide what material belongs with the band and what belong on solo albums?
Solos best stand up on their own. I have to come up with textures and techniques that can make it sound complete with one person. To play those same pieces with a band, there would be a lot of redundancy.
I’ve never really had trouble coming up with ideas. I’ve got a gazillion of them, but it’s working them out, completing them. That’s where the work comes in. I’ve got boxes and boxes of cassette tapes, reel-to-reel tapes, and discs and stuff of ideas.
Sometimes I’ll get one that I think is really great, and I’ll play it and it doesn’t click. And, some things stick with people and they really like them. I’ve been doing whatever the hell I want to, musically, for 30 years. There has never been this huge throng of people, but some things lock in better. The solo thing in general seems to be working pretty well. It seems to be going over. It’s not as mystifying to people as say, Woodenhead. Twang is more audience-friendly. Woodenhead’s kind of like math class for a lot of people.
I’m fascinated by what motivates bands to keep it at, even when they have a hard time finding an audience.
It was always a labor of love for us. I still really like that band. I love doing Twang. Twang is a lot more successful than the other. The solo thing is so easy to do. I can do whatever I want, I can go anywhere. I just went to Europe for two weeks. I could never have afforded to do that with a band. You can practice when you want. The big time saver is that I don’t have to listen to Cranston and Phil do constant variations on jokes when we’re trying to work. We spend three-quarters of the time with them joking, and I’m always like, “Come on, let’s focus.” They’re really a blast to work with, though. I love them.
I’d imagine there’s a lot of give and take when working out a piece for Twangorama.
Oh yeah, it’s like down to the microscopic level. When we do these pieces together, we’ll work for an hour on a segment that lasts 30 seconds. “How about this? How about that? Let’s try this.” It kind of drives me crazy, but everybody wants to try out the way things sound a different way.
How long did it take to work up the Twang arrangement of “Friday on my Mind”?
That was Pre-K. We would come over to my house, and I had a little grill outside. I would cook chicken, and we’d drink wine, and we would sit down. That probably took the better part of the summer. Everybody’s got a million ideas, and for a song like that, and there are literally thousands, or hundreds of thousands ways of you can go to change every little moment. It might be overkill, but it was really fun and really good for us as a band. And, it really locked us. We would spend afternoons just working on stuff. It really helped us just find our spot, I guess.
Was that when you were doing regular shows with special guests at Carrollton Station?
The Thursday night thing, yeah. That was a hard run because we did every week, and every week we had to learn a new person’s music. In one way, that was good for us, but in another, it stopped us from working on our own stuff. We spent so much time preparing a new guest every week.
It seems like the time when Twangorama solidified its identity?
Yeah, it put us on the map. That was the whole idea, and I think it worked. I’d like to do that again, maybe not every week. But, it’s like Susan’s thing. It’s a lot of work for one night.
We’re working on material for a new album now. I’ve actually got enough stuff to do another solo record as well. But, I just got this one out so I have to work and promote it.
How do you know when a record’s done?
For me, picking the order of songs is excruciating. It’s probably too much material. It’s 18 songs. But yeah, you can work it to death.