One thing for certain, Jack Pearson plays guitar every single day. “I just love it,” the Nashville, Tenn. native says from his home in Music City. It’s a lifetime of affection for the instrument, and, for that matter, any instrument with strings, that has enabled Pearson’s four-decade career as a songwriter, singer, producer, and ace session-musician praised by so many of his peers as one of the best. Yet, aside from a two-year stint in the late 1990s as a touring guitarist with The Allman Brothers Band, Pearson remains relatively unknown to the casual music fan. Even as he simultaneously, and independently, releases two terrific albums- an R&B-drenched studio record titled Are You Listening?, and Live, a blues-rock, two-CD set- the guitarist remains humbly aware of the DIY hurdles. Still, Pearson is a jovial spirit; casual and low-key, praising tech advents like Facebook and YouTube for helping to eradicate the days when he was stapling flyers to telephone poles to promote himself. With an online instructional site, a steady schedule of dates, and plans for more albums to come, Pearson’s devotion to his craft continues to yield rewarding musical exeperiences.
Why put out two records at once?
It had been quite a while- maybe almost 10 years- since I put out anything. I had been working on the studio record. In January, with my band, we recorded the live record. I just decided to put them both out at the same time. They’re totally different.
That’s your working band on the live record?
The guys on the live record have been playing with me for six years. So we have a chemistry and we do a lot of improvising. One song on the record, “Please Call Home,” we played at a show right after Gregg Allman died. And they nailed it. I wanted to put that on as a tribute to Gregg. But everything else was recorded in January.
And the inspiration behind the studio album?
The studio record is stuff I’d been working on for 20 years. Three tracks are from 1996 or something, and there is brand new stuff. It all sounds fresh and it all goes together. It’s easy to get distracted with work. I’m always writing. I’m always working on new stuff. I’ve got several records in the can. But, I wanted to finish some of the older songs.
Are You Listening? refers to whom? The music industry? The audience? Yourself?
It’s all of that. The title song- the lyrics are kind of autobiographical. Music is a deep thing, and some people don’t listen. One of the lines in there is about hearing thunder in the distance and it reminds you of where you’ve been. I say, “Are you listening?” You have to listen to the thunder, the birds singing, everything.
Is it a challenge to balance your songwriting intentions, your various influences, and room for your guitar work?
I have an R&B background. I used to live in Muscle Shoals and played with a lot of R&B bands through the years. This has more of an R&B feel to it; just another side of me. On the live record, I’m rocking out a bunch. Lots of jamming on that record. I’ve always wanted to do a live rock-and-blues record, so I’ve got it, man.
So much of music, when it’s paid for, is purchased these days on Itunes and Amazon, but then people are paying Itunes and Amazon. Where would you like people to buy your albums?
On my website: www.jackpearson.com. A lot of people forget artists have websites. It’s crazy.
Are you still doing session work in Nashville?
Not as much as it used to be because the music scene has changed so much. Everybody’s doing stuff independently. I don’t know any of the new country music. I don’t play on any of that stuff.
Not long before Butch Trucks passed, I spoke to him about you and he said, next to Duane Allman, you were the best guitarist he’s played with. What does it mean to hear something like that?
It means the world to me. Duane and Dickey, both, are huge influences on me. All four of the guys told me that. Dickey told me that. Gregg, Jaimoe, Butch- they all love my playing. It’s unbelievable. They were my favorite band in high school. That’s why I learned all their stuff and knew it inside and out. I love that music. For him to like what I do also, it’s really a good feeling.
You never appeared on a studio record with The Allman Brothers Band, but you did have writing credit on some latter-day material, and worked a lot with Gregg Allman in his solo band, memorably on a funky version of “Whipping Post” that was on his Searching for Simplicity album. What do you remember about that session?
I played acoustic guitar, electric slide, and the dobro. Gregg wanted to do a different type of version, but Johnny Sandlin wanted to do that funky version- like “Walk on Gilded Splinters.” He wanted to tie that all together. The electric slide, I did that on a guitar that had one of Duane Allman’s guitar necks on it. I’ve since given that guitar neck to (Duane’s daughter) Galadrielle so she could have it. I had it for about 20 years. A friend of mine in Muscle Shoals had given it to me. Duane left it behind there. It was a Strat neck that Duane liked and carried around, but he didn’t like the (original) body and never found (a replacement) one. It was, like, a ’61 slab rosewood neck, really nice, with birds-eye maple. I showed it to (Allman Brothers Band guest harmonica player) Thom Doucette and he said, ‘I remember that neck.’ It really had a tone to it.
Were you present for the discussion between Gregg and Johnny as to which version to play?
I was in the middle of it. (Laughs.) Johnny was the producer. Gregg did what Johnny wanted to do.
What was your opinion?
I was intrigued by what Gregg wanted to do.
Respectfully, can I ask what that was?
I can’t tell you. I might record it myself someday. Gregg and I sat down (to work it out), and I even have the sheet of paper where I wrote down the notes of how he wanted to do it. One of these days I’m going to do it myself. But, it’s such a private thing.
You place a lot of emphasis on being personally connected to the song, it seems, both in lyrics and performance.
I started writing when I was a kid. I played bass, keyboards, mandolin, banjo; anything with strings, I’ll try to play it. I played a lot of the instruments on Are You Listening? just like I did on my first CD, Step Out! Gregg was very inspirational to me and encouraging about my writing. When he first heard “Find a Way” he said, ‘Man, that made me weep.’ What a shot in the arm that was. At the time I was getting a lot of resistance in Nashville with my songwriting because I didn’t write within their restrictions. I just try to write whatever is going on. I never know what is going to come out.
Do you still like to perform?
I love it more than ever now. What I don’t like is the traveling part. But I love being in new places and meeting new people and performing for them. There’s a lot of trips I do when I drive myself and play solo acoustic guitar. It gets lonely. It’s much easier to get on a bus with your friends and let the driver take you to the next town. I’m hoping I get to do that again.
What does the album format mean to you? How important is it?
I’ve never had a record deal. I’ve always just put out CDs when I could as I could. To me, it’s a way to share music. I hope it will pay for itself. Of course, you want it to be a success. I like all the creative parts about it. I love to play. It’s who I am.
When did you realize it was who you are?
(Laughs.) When I was a kid, man. My parents are musical. My dad played. My momma sang. All my brothers and sisters are musical, but they never did it for a living. My momma told me I was a pretty good kid until I saw a toy guitar in the grocery store, and I wanted it so bad. My brother played guitar, and the first time I saw him play I thought, Yeah, that’s what I’m going to do, right there.
I’m guessing it’s still a lot of fun for you.
It is. Some of the people I worked for, it wasn’t any fun. You know what I mean. I remember when I had to play disco music in the ‘70s. That wasn’t fun. It was work. Through the ‘urban cowboy’ scene, that was the only work I could get.
Your hearing suffered in your time with The Allman Brothers Band. Has it recovered?
That’s why I quit. I was having terrible problems with it. I still have it. It’s never gone away. I was wearing custom-made earplugs, but it still wasn’t stopping the damage. Dickey and I talked about it a few times. I always loved to play live, but it came to a point where I couldn’t do it to myself anymore. It was one of the hardest decisions I had to make: to quit The Allman Brothers Band. My favorite band. It was very, very tough.
It was the right decision, though.
Yes, I had to. My doctors told me I couldn’t keep doing it to myself. Most of my life I was known as the loudest guitar player in Tennessee. A lot of the damage I did to myself.
I hope the memories are positive ones.
(Allman Brothers Band road crew members) Red Dog and Joe Dan Petty said I fit right in; getting the sound back. They made me feel right at home. I thought Dickey and I played well together. I always loved playing with Gregg. I’m proud of it.
If The Allman Brothers Band was the dream job, are there any dreams left for you to fulfill?
I’ve always wanted to do a record with strings. I would like to play with Jeff Beck (Laughs.)
Maybe he’ll read this.
He knows, man. My friend Jimmy Hall sings with Jeff. I’m always in Jimmy’s ear, “Come on, man, I want to play.” Might as well dream big.