Edie Jackson

Edie Jackson, an American Sign Language interpreter, works with Widespread Panic at Red Rocks. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Fernandez)

Throughout the history of rock ’n’ roll, bands have had members that were not officially credited with being in the band, but whose roles were so instrumental they were considered de facto members. Billy Preston is known as the fifth Beatle, Chuck Leavell is the bandleader of the Rolling Stones, Tom Marshall is the lyricist for Phish, Boom Gaspar is Pearl Jam’s longtime keyboard player. For Widespread Panic, the seventh member of the band might be Edie Jackson.

Jackson is Widespread Panic’s American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter. And while she may not sign at every Panic gig, she is a beloved member of the Widespread Panic family, and fans are universally delighted when she signs at a show. Jackson will be on stage with Widespread Panic this weekend at the 8th annual Ride Festival.

By day Jackson teaches deaf and hard of hearing students in the Georgetown County, South Carolina school system. At night she is known to shed her teacher’s pad and pencil for a spot on stage signing for some of the biggest names in rock ’n’ roll including Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Allman Bros., Stevie Wonder, Phish, The Cure and Tedeschi Trucks Band. But she is known best for her work with Widespread Panic.

John Minich is a Colorado resident who is deaf and attends many of Widespread Panic’s concerts. He’ll be on hand, or Edie’s side as they say, at this weekend’s shows.

“Unlike other interpreters who are usually on the sidelines in an ADA section, Edie is on stage alongside with the band and in front of the whole audience and that brings out a lot of energy and makes me feel right in place and accessible,” Minich said. “She’s got fans in her own right and inspires people to learn the difficult language of ASL and helps the connection between the deaf and the hearing world. She has worked very hard to be where she’s at now and she’s made Widespread Panic the most accessible band for the deaf community.”

I spoke to Jackson Monday from her home in Pawley’s Island, South Carolina as she prepared to head to Telluride to provide sign language access at the Ride.

Geoff Hanson: Where did you grow up?

Edie Jackson: Richmond, Virginia

GH: How did you get interested in ASL?

EJ: I loved the language; it’s beautiful and very different from the spoken English language. I took night classes at community college throughout high school and the more I learned about the culture, the more I fell in love it. The deaf-hard of hearing disability has its own distinct culture, its own humor, own language, people have their own heart, poetry, idioms, stories. Deaf people are very direct, there’s no BS, and they tell you what they think. There’s deaf time and there’s hearing time. They have their own way of looking at things. It’s beautiful.

GH: How did you get introduced into the world of Widespread Panic?

EJ: I went to The University of Georgia from 1994 to 1996 to study audiology and deaf education. I then went to Charlottesville for another year of study specializing in sign language before returning to Athens in 1997.

GH: That’s when you met Peter Jackson (her now-husband.)

EJ: Yep. He sauntered up to me in a blues club. We had no mutual friends. He just came up and said, “Hi, I’m Peter Jackson.” At the end of the night, he told me he worked on the crew for Widespread Panic. I wasn’t exactly looking to get involved with a Panic roadie. I was very cautious but he’s pretty spectacular and we ended up getting married in 2000.

GH: At what point did you set your sights on interpreting at live music shows?

EJ: I went to a Tracy Chapman show in 2005 and there was an interpreter there. And it was so evident — that’s the access I want to provide. That’s where my own musical passion and professional life marry.

GH: When did you interpret your first show?

EJ: My first ASL call came from Panic for a Red Rocks show in 2007. The band’s management called. They told me there was a request from a deaf person for an interpreter and they didn’t know what to do so they called me. I just happened to be in Colorado at the time vacationing with Peter and our infant daughter Sophie. I told them, “Sure I can do it.” I had never done anything like it before. I was super nervous.

I hopped in and JB (lead singer John Bell) and I spent a lot of time going over songs and lyrics and what they mean and their context. He took it incredibly seriously. He wanted the lyrics to be interpreted in the right way as a lyricist and vocalist but he also wanted the deaf audience to receive them correctly and enhance their experience. There are members of the band and management with deaf relatives so I think it really hits home for them.

When we were just getting started we would get a table out and go over songs and meanings and contexts. We don’t have to do that anymore but he still checks in with me every show and if there’s a new song he or Jojo writes the lyrics out with full explanation.

GH: So once you got your feet wet with Panic, what did you do?

EJ: After 2007 I took on some festivals like Jazz Fest, Bonnaroo, Lockn’, Voodoo — festivals where there’s a tremendous amount of preparation, lyric study, and teaming up with hardworking music-loving ASL addicts. Festival interpreters are a special breed — I felt out of my league at first and soaked up skills from interpreter mentors. It’s super challenging and out of my comfort zone. That’s when I grow.

GH: When you sign for other bands, do their singers sit down and discuss anything with you, lyrics, etc.?

EJ: With all the other bands I’ve ever worked with, not one band has ever had a conversation with me about the music before I’ve gone on. That’s not a knock so much on everyone else as it is a compliment to Panic and the crew who really care about the performance and the individuals in the audience.

GH: Can you feel it when the band is especially on fire?

EJ: Definitely. But what’s funny is it’s often shows I wouldn’t expect. Like I’ll see a set list and not necessarily think it’s a rocking set list and it ends up ripping my head off. And there are other shows that look rocking on paper but they might take a more jammy approach to playing them. For instance, a few weeks ago, the second set at Red Rock’s Saturday night show featured some of their most rocking songs and while they rocked them for sure, the band didn’t play them straight ahead but kind of broke each song down. Before the show, the set list had the word “Vomit” written after one of the songs and I had never seen that before and I asked JB about it and he said, “We’re gonna get all far-out and Zambi (a reference to Col. Bruce Hampton’s style of music characterized by total musical anarchy).”

GH: Tell me about Col. Bruce and his influence on the band a little more than a year after his death.

EJ: Bruce’s impact on the band is solid and everyone can feel it. At Red Rocks, they knew they wanted to bring him out and up there. He’s had a huge influence on how they think, how they approach music, their lifestyle, their philosophies.

GH: Can you describe the process on how an ASL interpreter ends up signing at a show?

EJ: Here’s the way it’s supposed to work. When a deaf/hard of hearing person who uses sign language to communicate buys a ticket online they can click a button that allows them to request an interpreter. The Americans with Disabilities Act mandates that the venue provide an interpreter for that one person. Some venues like Red Rocks have it down but for most venues it’s not that simple. Part of my push has been to educate venues about this. Panic has me on their rider. If the request goes in, the venue calls me.

GH: How many deaf/hard of hearing fans will you get at a show?

EJ: Sometimes it’s only 1 or 2, but at other shows it may be up to 25 people.

GH: Do you think the number has grown because of the band’s commitment to the deaf audience?

EJ: I do think the group of patrons has grown. I am known as a dedicated interpreter which means it’s understood that I know the lyrics, the meaning and context in a deeper way than just a random person who signs a show. And believe me, I’ve been that person many times. I sign for lots of different bands and festivals and I study my butt off to know the lyrics to the songs as well as I can but I don’t have the background I have with Panic’s music and I think the audience has a more fulfilling experience because of that.

But there’s also this dynamic that you don’t want to give away too much, but you want it to be accurate. You also don’t want to detract from the band so you have to be careful that you don’t get too carried away. I view myself as a conduit. It’s not the Edie show, it’s a Widespread Panic concert and I never want to detract from the band.

GH: Are you friends with your deaf audience?

EJ: A number of them, absolutely! And it’s great to have enough familiarity with those patrons that I know what style of language they prefer since ASL is not one-size fits all. Some prefer more conceptual ASL, some like English word order, some like to see aspects of the instrumentation.

GH: Tell me about what happened recently at Red Rocks with the general fan base participating in the signing.

EJ: I’ve always wanted to bring the fans into the signing, and someone came to me online and said, “Edie we’d all like to learn some words that we can do with you and show the deaf people our support and be a part of it and bring the community together.”

I loved the idea and I posted a video of myself signing the chorus of “Climb to Safety” and “All Time Low.” They’re both simple and very evocative. The band played both songs at Red Rocks. During “All Time Low” I could really see people doing it all the way to the top of Red Rocks. It was pretty awesome (for anyone who might want to learn these lyrics in ASL, go to Edie’s Facebook Page Edie Jackson; ASL Interpreter).

GH: Do your deaf fans sign/sing along to the music with you?

EJ: They sing along just like we sing along.

GH: What do you do when JB starts improvising his lyrics?

EJ: It can be challenging. I feel it’s important to the deaf patrons’ musical experience to perform memorized lyrics in real time with no delay. Clearly that’s a bigger challenge when it comes to the infamous JB raps. Somehow though, if JB and I can see one another from my spot onstage, I can tell by the smirk or the bliss on his face where he’s gonna go with those wise perceptive newborn babies or that sweet plump Hatfield mama. If my deaf patrons are grinning, I know the message is clear. In the past, I’ve asked JB pre-show about other curveballs he might throw my way and he says, “When in doubt, it’s chicken and angels, Miss Edie. Chickens and angels.”

GH: What does Widespread Panic mean to you?

EJ: Aside from the fact that they are a great band, an iconic Southern institution, you can see it and feel it, there’s a real family vibe in the organization. There’s a ton of love there. It’s been hard with the new touring situation (Panic has significantly cut back on the amount of gigs they play), but they work hard to stick together and it’s been amazing how they’ve been able to do it. I don’t just do it for the music, there’s this whole back of the curtain goodness. It’s important to come back to the family. They treat me like one of the crew. Panic is my comfort zone, my main squeeze, my home team.