Musician Jackie Greene

Portrait by Jay Blakesberg

He’s with the band: When The Black Crowes kick off their new U.S. tour on April 2, Jackie Greene will be joining the legendary rock group on stage as a guitarist and backup vocalist. We catch up with the singer-songwriter about hitting the road with the Crowes, growing up in the foothills, moonlighting as an artist, and why Picasso is the Bob Dylan of painting.  

The Black Crowes recently ended their two-year hiatus and are embarking on a new U.S. tour starting in April with you as a guitarist. How did that come about?

We all know each other pretty well. I’ve played with pretty much all the members of the band in different musical configurations. They were in need of a guitar player and came to me some months ago and asked me to do it. I was elated at the opportunity.

You’re also in a band with [Grateful Dead founding bassist] Phil Lesh, who is friends with [Crowes lead singer] Chris Robinson. Did you get to know Chris through Phil?

Yeah, I met Chris through playing with Phil, and now I’ve played with Chris a bunch of times. He, [Grateful Dead founding guitarist] Bob Weir and I have an acoustic trio. I’m in another band with [Crowes drummer] Steve Gorman and Joan Osborne called Trigger Hippy. And Adam, [the Crowes] keyboard player, comes out and plays with Phil Lesh and Friends sometimes. So it’s all like a big hodgepodge of musical orgy-ness.

Were you a fan of The Black Crowes growing up?

Yeah. Not to make the Crowes feel old or anything, but when I was younger, back in the early ’90s when I was like 13, I was a huge fan. They were a rock and roll band, and still are, and rock and roll was what my friends and I liked. There was a lot of other sort of cheesy stuff happening, but they seemed like a real authentic, loud rock band with awesome guitar playing. I mean, Chris has been an influence on my singing for some time.

So it’s like a full-circle moment for you.

It is, yeah. I was flattered they asked me [to tour with them] and excited and nervous—you know, all the things that come with a brand-new project. Basically, it’s how I felt when I started playing with Phil seven years ago. [At the same time] I’m a little older now, so I see this as a challenge and I’m more excited rather than freaking out about it. I’m 32 now and I’ve been doing this [playing music professionally] since I was 20.From left: Jackie Greene, The Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson, and Bob Weir, founding member of the Grateful Dead, perform last May in Chillicothe, Illinois. (Photo by Mike Wulf/Newscom/Cal Sport Media)

Time does fly. It’s weird because I see people in their early 20s who are starting out, and I’m like the old guy now, and I’m not even that old. Like this woman named Crystal Bowersox—I guess she was on American Idol or something—out of the blue, she started asking me for advice on producers and songs and stuff. She messaged me on Twitter and we struck up sort of an online friendship—my first record is one of her favorite records. I told her about Steve Berlin [of Los Lobos, who produced Greene’s American Myth and Giving Up the Ghost albums], and she ended up having Steve produce her latest record.

That’s cool. Are you hoping to join The Black Crowes as a permanent member?

I don’t know if that’s even on the table. We’re just going day by day. I am definitely enjoying being part of the group for this period of time. So whatever it turns into—if it turns into something larger, then great. If not, then we’ll have a really good time with the time that we have. We’ll have to wait and see. I would just say that I’m pretty excited for this tour and I know it’s going to be great. It’s going to be f--king awesome.

What about your solo career? Are you working on a new album at the moment?

I was working on it in the summer and then I stopped working on it because I wasn’t really satisfied with how it was going. I ended up scrapping it because I was only stoked on about half of the songs. I’ll probably do some recording during the breaks in the Crowes’ schedule, but I’m not in too much of a hurry because I’m still really busy. I’m busier now than I’ve ever been, really. It’s just that I’m not busy recording.

I am releasing a Record Store Day single [on April 20]. It’s a little 45 but then there’s going to be a download card for like six or seven songs—live recordings from the last couple years. So people can look for that, probably at The Beat.

Something that many people may not know about you is that you also paint.

Yeah, I paint with watercolors and oils, and if I go on the road, I’ll do a lot of marker drawings with a sketchbook. I’ve been doing that forever, but I was embarrassed about it and I never planned to show anybody anything until a couple of years ago when a woman named Nora Murray, who is now my art dealer, convinced me to let her take [my pieces] and do shows. She used to [represent] Jerry Garcia’s artwork and discovered that I had a garage full of paintings and she liked them.
So far it’s been great. People are excited to see that part of me. I’ve had art shows and I wear a nice jacket and act like I know something about painting. It’s a fun extracurricular thing for me to keep me out of trouble. We’ve shown in Aspen, D.C., New York and San Francisco. We should have some in Sacramento. I don’t really like to do [exhibits] in galleries, necessarily. I like to do them when I’m playing a show. It takes the right kind of venue. It has to have a separate space where no one is going to spill beer on [the paintings].

Have you had formal art training?

Not really. When I was a kid, I wanted to draw comic books. I had a copy of Gray’s Anatomy and stuff like that, but I just learned by doing. I did take charcoal classes at American River [College] back when I was 18 or so. I like charcoal because it’s messy. It’s usually how I start paintings.

How would you describe your artwork?

I’ll do some stuff where I try to make it realistic—a lot of it is definitely figurative—but most of the stuff that I do now is mind-bending. Some of [the paintings] are abstractions and surrealistic, and a lot of them are experimental, too. It’s kind of hard to explain. Picasso definitely [is an influence]. For me, Picasso is like the Bob Dylan of painting because he pioneered a lot of different things and his output was just huge. He also got to be famous in his lifetime, and rich, and I think that’s pretty cool.

You also started playing piano when you were little and you didn’t have much formal training there either.

I started playing when I was—well, for as long as I can remember, before I could touch the pedals. I had some formal lessons for about a year. Same with the guitar—I had formal lessons for about a year and then my guitar teacher told my mom that I shouldn’t take lessons because I was figuring things out on my own anyway. Everything from then on has been self-taught.

Didn’t you declare to your mother that you wanted to be a rock star when you were 7 years old?

Probably. I [do remember] deciding that I wanted to play music for a living pretty early on, like when I was probably a freshman or sophomore in high school.

High school meaning Oak Ridge in El Dorado Hills, right?

Yes. I grew up in Cameron Park [in the foothills] and I moved to Sacramento when I was 18, right after high school. Then I moved to San Francisco when I was 24. And two years ago, I moved to Lodi.

Why Lodi?

So I could make noise [playing music] at night and not bother anybody. I’ve got two acres. I have a little farm. There’s nothing growing on it—well, I have a garden, but I’m a terrible gardener, so everything dies.

I believe that you still have family living in Sacramento.

Oh, yeah. My mom lives in El Dorado Hills and my brother [Alexander Nelson] lives in Fair Oaks. He’s in a band called Walking Spanish and he’s my retirement plan. He can make all the money and then pay my rent and stuff.

So how often do you get back here?

Pretty often when I’m off the road. I’ll stop at my mom’s for dinner. And if I have to get a haircut or something, I’ll go to Sacramento and see Shannon at Maverique [salon]. My dentist is in Sacramento too, Dr. Huppert—I’ve never seen another dentist in my life.

Do you have any favorite record stores in town?

I like The Beat. Their vinyl selection is incredible. I’ve gotten a bunch of stuff there like some early Ben E. King records and a Grant Green [album] called Feelin’ the Spirit, which is hard to find on a record.

Any favorite concert venues?

For venues, I don’t. There really isn’t a great place to play in Sacramento for my band because we don’t sell enough tickets to fill up Memorial Auditorium, but we sell too many tickets [for a small club]. There’s no in-between [venue]. Hopefully, someday I’ll build one. We do an outdoor concert every year [in the summer] that benefits Fairytale Town. For us, that’s been the best [local] venue. We can fit a couple thousand people in [Fairytale Town], and it’s great. We can help out a cause, it’s all ages, and it’s outside so people can bring wine and cheese. We’re going to do it again this year.

You’re on the road so much. Is there something special about playing in front of a Sacramento crowd?

Yeah, it’s hometown love. You get to see people that you saw at your first show. When I play these various hometown concerts, I see kids who are like, “I saw you when I was 12 at Concerts in the Park. I had my mom drive me there. I love you, man. You’re awesome! I’m going to college now.” And you’re like, “Oh my God, I’m old.” But it’s pretty cool. S