“Rock ’n’ roll doesn’t need to be reinvented, rock ’n’ roll is about keeping it alive, and honoring it. Widespread Panic? Those guys are a really good rock ’n’ roll band, but they’re not some rock band who sings ‘We’re gonna rock you all night …’ They are a slow moving locomotive: steady, and always there for the people who love them.” — Billy Bob Thornton
Widespread Panic, in many ways, serves as the doppelganger of every garage, indie rock or frat band ever. They came together at the University of Georgia in the mid-’80s as a way to have fun, and they made spending money playing music. Today, they’ve weathered the death of bandmates, years of relentless touring, side projects, the record for most sold-out shows at Denver’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre (61) and now the pandemic lockdown.
With little fanfare, they settled into being the band Billy Bob Thornton, who directed their “Aunt Avis” video and a documentary during their early days on Capricorn Records, describes above: lean, musical, true.
“The first time Mikey (Houser) and I got together, we played a little bit,” says lead singer and guitarist John Bell. “We went our separate ways for about six months. When we got back together, we realized we really liked what we were doing. It was more than just being in a band or playing with some other guy. There was chemistry.”
“JB picked me up at the dorm,” bassist Dave Schools remembers. “I went and played some songs with them. The way Mike Houser played the guitar, there was something very special right away.
“There was a house on King Avenue in Athens. They didn’t have a drummer, and I didn’t know they were looking for me to be a metronome. So I just followed them around on my bass. We found this guy Joel Morris, who made a single with us. Then we met Todd Nance, who’d been playing in a country cover band, so we had to peel the carpet off his drumheads.”
In Athens — a creative hub that’s given the world R.E.M., Pylon, Vic Chesnutt, the Indigo Girls and the B52s — Widespread Panic didn’t fit. With influences ranging from Black Sabbath to James Taylor, the Guess Who to Talking Heads, they played a fair amount of reggae, originals, and covers culled from their own record collections. If the 40 Watt Club was the place to be, the upstart Uptown Lounge (once the Paris Adult Theater), became the harder edge alternative where Black Flag, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and R.E.M. and Roger McGuinn disembarked.
“Monday was always TBA,” Schools begins, “so we said we’d take it. We weren’t trained musicians or been in a lot of bands. So we had to finesse it as a rhythm section. We’d do crazy, off-kilter things with time changes.”
“We wrote a lot of original songs,” Bell continues. “But some songs were so much fun. They’d strike such a chord, you’d want to experience it more than just listen. They’d be up and dancing. The lesson we learned: If our girlfriends were on the dance floor, then more people got up, and suddenly, the dance floor’s packed. We’re winning.
“We didn’t have an ‘A Game,’ we were just bringing a game. We might have a dulcimer player one time, then another week a guy with spoons.”
Schools laughs, explaining, “It was the kind of dancing that was ‘nobody’s really paying attention, so I can boogie.’ It was an escape more than to put people on display, a real freedom. And those endorphins are a big deal! By doing our own thing, we made them feel like they could do their own thing. We created a safe zone for the audience.
“It led to an attitude of ‘this is where the wild things are.’ It’s a club for people who can’t get into other clubs.”
It was fun. It was also the boilerplate for every young band — delivering flowers, rolling burritos, switching majors, booking their own gigs on the road. As Bell says of the first few years, “We printed our single, put up our own posters, called up and got our own gigs, drive all over (the South) and then fight the owner to get paid all the money he said he was going to pay us.
“Some bands get scooped up in their infancy, get big advances and have to start worrying about (maintaining) all that. We gave ourselves paychecks: $64.88 a week for two years. Our first raise took us up to $89. We were frugal, but we were also able to let the music take us and lead us.”
Where the music took them was John Keane’s barn to record Space Wrangler, which contained “Travelin’ Light,” “Porch Song,” “Chilly Water” and “Coconut.” Tinsley Ellis took the band to indie Landslide Records. It was 1988, the renaissance of a new kind of Southern rock, and the band, named for Houser’s panic attacks, was suddenly outselling everyone.
An eclectic, unconventional sound defined them. Based in the South, they were the antithesis of Southern rock. Jazzy in places, they worked from a strong blues base. They offered folk overtones, world music echoes, but always a muscular approach that encouraged playing. Held together by Bell’s voice, an instrument that could be bold or frayed, depending on the moment, connected with audiences.
“If one of their songs lasts 25 minutes onstage, they’re not just meandering. Like the Allmans, they followed the song with intention,” Thornton says, thinking back to the molten musicianship he encountered. “The Allmans played jazz and blues. It was very elegant. They were like carriers of a torch that was lit back in the ’60s — they were just silently moving along, captivating people doing exactly their own thing.”
Their success drew attention. The band met Phil Walden Jr., whose father was relaunching his iconic Macon, Georgia-based label, at a frat party. Charles Koppelman’s SBK Records, home to C+C Music Factory, Wilson Phillips and The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles soundtrack, came calling. Suddenly, things were getting serious: the promises, the wining and dining, the large money being bandied about. Schools laughs about how top heavy it was. “Winterland wanted to give us a really crappy deal to sell really crappy merch, so we kept it in house. SBK drops a contract on us the size of a phone book that was costing us a fortune to try to understand.”
Bell recognized the trap. “It was 1990, and it took us a year and half not to sign with them. Phil (Walden Sr.) brought a lot of his old ways of doing things with him – and he liked music that went all over the place.
“When we got some outside people – a manager, a record company, a booking agent – it felt like maybe this was gonna work. We were having some success touring, so there was some sense of development. For the audience. It was always about ‘do it for the audience.’”
Widespread Panic dropped in 1991. With “Pigeons,” “Walking For Your Love,” “Barstools and Dreamers” and “Love Tractor,” the album delivered another cache of live jewels. Things were falling into place in a meaningful way, and the band was cementing an undeniable live following.
And it was undeniable. Whether the critics got it (they didn’t), whether they fit into a genre niche (they didn’t), whether they ever had a hit (that didn’t happen either), WSP forged a bond with an audience seeking rock intensity, who bought into an eclectic frame, but especially, those looking to foment, churn and let go. They played three hundred dates almost every year, bringing songs together in soundchecks or backstage areas as they took those moments and did what they did best — play, explore what the ideas might contain and see where they could push the envelope.
Percussionist Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz and keyboardist T Lavitz of the Dixie Dregs had fleshed out the original incarnation. By 1992, JoJo Hermann had replaced Lavitz, and WSP solidified into the band most people know. For a band touring intensely, they still released albums at a furious pace: Everyday (1993), Ain’t Life Grand (1994) and Bombs & Butterflies (1997).
When they got the crazy notion to host a free show in Athens to celebrate 1998’s Light Fuse, Get Away, their first live album, they drew anywhere from 80,000 and 100,000 people to the rustic college town. They also headlined two nights of the inaugural Bonnaroo Music Festival in 2002.
Neither a cult band nor a niche band, WSP was evolving into a subculture of its own. As Schools marvels, “How many bands with no hit single are around 25, let alone 35 years later?” So passionate were the fans for the fun, the music, and the good vibes that the community developed its own code. “Our fans have their own rules: We want to leave these venues cleaner than we found them,” Schools explains. “We might have a production assistant take some tickets to the parking lot and say, ‘If you wanna pick up some trash, we’ll give you tickets to the show.’ …They look out for each other, take care of each other.”
Even as the band and their fans hit their stride, Houser, the guitar witch of many tones and styles, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2002. He stayed on the road, savoring the waves of unthinkable success, but died in the fall of that year. His death left a hole and a reckoning that stays with Bell to this day.
“I had to process that one for a long time,” admits the singer with the shapeshifter voice. “And I probably will for a long time. I’ve written a couple songs with him in my mind – ‘May Your Glass Be Filled,’ ‘Jamais Vu,’ ‘Casa del Grillo’ – and I hope he likes them.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been 18 years …”
Bell’s voice drifts off, but ultimately, the power of the music and community rises. “Jimmy (Herring)’s been with us longer, at this point, than Mikey. And working with a different person, with a different mastery of his instrument, adds newness. Meeting a new person on a musical level and creative level is eye-opening.”
The band played on, performing tactical live releases and Panic en La Playa destination shows. Then, Duane Trucks joined the band, adding a renewed energy. Together, they play selected dates and continue writing and – while COVID rages – livestreaming to their fans to keep the music breathing.
“It’s not fun to keep going when your lead guitar player’s gone home to die of cancer,” Schools admits. “We had to get through so many changes. You ask yourself, ‘Can this all continue to evolve and go forward as band members pass away, new members come in, or even our fingers get to where they don’t do what they did?’ Instead of devolving into a piece of nostalgia riding out their career, which doesn’t honor anyone, it feels to me like we’re looking for something more – still – in the music.”
Bell embraces the restlessness and ever-morphing sound. “It’s survival. When you’re doing 300 gigs a year, to play the same songs the same way, it wouldn’t work.”
A man of many voices, the vocalist owns that he can be guttural, howling and at times, solid in the middle. Neither inherent nor calculated, his sound comes from some kind of alchemy in the moment, a combination of his physicality, the audience’s spirit and some undefined “X” in the air.
“The voice and the song can change from night to night,” he explains. “The mood and the place, how you’re feeling … it happens in the moment. What’s the mood of the band? The audience? Because certain sounds and approaches color a mood or offer translucence.
“And you throw a little prayer out there, give it over to improvisation, who the character is in a moment – because they can be comical, serious, a recognizable inspiration or just the moment.”
Laughing, he pauses, debating whether to continue. “And some voices … they’re more available to you on some nights. You have to honor that, too.”
There is also a continuity to them, beyond the band of buddies tapping a vat of music from James Brown, Nelly and Funkadelic to Bloodkin, David Bromberg, J.J. Cale and Neil Young.
Like Young, their restlessness pays off. The band remains curious and engaged, not staying still. The larger fellowship remains engaged and interested, too.
“Even though the business is important, one day you realize that you’ve grown up, and there are people who’ve been with us, who helped us keep our work going,” Schools testifies. “But just as importantly, our music is their life. Their life. It’s theirs as much as ours. You want to hold that up.”
Though isolated in different cities, the separation from one another may be fueling another creative rebirth. Bell, who admits being self-critical, has been giving himself the time to really hone his work. “Life As A Tree,” a far-reaching song about changes in time, questions life as a rock star, the reality of lives beyond the footlights and ways to seek grace in others.
“It has the feeling of being complete,” Bell volunteers. “Lyrically, I chose the right words, and it still conveys what I was trying to convey. The twists and turns, they come together and say things, exploring with respect to the song.
“We haven’t recorded it yet, only played it live a couple of times. But …”
But, the shy frontman can’t bring himself to strut, even about a song that speaks truth to the journey and ethos that has buoyed their music and built a fanbase with zero hype. For all the undulations within the music, the truth is simple – and the message clear.
Well, nobody’s perfect, what fun would that be We make our own movies, and star in them too
It takes two to tango, and billions for the big dance
We’re lucky if we find just some of them who
Take all souls for who they are, and take us, too
This life is too short not to dance in those shoes …
— John Bell/Widespread Panic