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John Bell with his band, Widespread Panic
Widespread Panic plays four shows at the Fox Theatre.

Q&A: Widespread Panic’s John Bell rediscovers 30 years of history

Widespread Panic’s John Bell cofounded the iconic jam band in the mid-’80s when he and the late Michael “Mikey” Houser were at the University of Georgia. Today, Widespread Panic is still going strong. The band’s current lineup — bassist Dave Schools, drummer/percussionist Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz, keyboardist John “Jo Jo” Hermann, guitarist Jimmy Herring and drummer Duane Trucks — will join Bell for three nights at the Fox Theatre, December 29–31.

ArtsATL recently caught up with Bell to discuss the band’s founding, how it came to sign with the iconic Southern label Capricorn Records in 1991 and what 30 years of squirreling things away in storage can mean when you have the time to rediscover what’s stored there.

ArtsATL: Earlier this month, you were invited to Macon to be a part of an all-star lineup with the reopening of Capricorn Studios. Widespread Panic was signed to Capricorn Records in 1991. How did that happen?

John Bell: Phil Walden, Jr. — who was our age, and at UGA at the same time — heard our new single, “The Coconut Song,” and that caught his ear. He then started watching us and told his dad, Phil Walden, Sr. [founder of Capricorn Records], about us. At that time, Capricorn Records had not come back into being, but they were working on it. Though we were hopeful something would come of the Capricorn possibility, we still went ahead and did a little single with a local Atlanta company called Landslide Records. We had no contract with Capricorn, yet, and that’s all we could do at the time. A little later on, Phil, Jr., actually became our manager and told us he really, really liked us and not to be surprised when his dad “came a callin’.” When they got the company up and running, they did call, and I believe we were the first artist to sign with the new Capricorn. Bam. Boom. That’s how it happened.

John Bell performs at Atlanta's Fox Theatre.
Bell at last year’s New Year’s Eve concert at the Fox Theatre (Photo by Josh Timmermans)

ArtsATL: In giving your acceptance speech at Widespread Panic’s induction to the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, you said, “This could have closed up just as innocently as it began.” Is this how you felt when things were in limbo back then, before the band was signed to Capricorn?

Bell: Absolutely. You know, when you’re a band and you haven’t gotten a lot of recognition — regardless of whether you’re just starting out, or have been at it for a while — one of the biggest shots in the arm is when someone other than someone from your organization believes in you. And that can be anyone from a club owner to fans who happen to show up. But feeling someone has your back and gives you support can help you with the question, “Am I being over-confident, and is this just a pipe dream?” To get back to your question regarding the significance of Capricorn, it was a major label deal; it was seven records, an old-time deal with a pretty sizable chunk of change in the way of an advance with each record. Having that guarantee of seven to 10 years of stability behind you and a working machine was huge. With that salvation, we were able to keep doing what we were doing — which was to try to stay on the road. We love to make records, but it would be weird to us to live this life without being a road band. It’s what we always wanted to be.

The cover of Widespread Panic’s debut album on Capricorn Records

ArtsATL: What did it feel like to be part of the celebration of the reopening of Capricorn Studios?

Bell: Well, there was a lot to think of, as you’re talking going back 29 years ago when Panic’s affiliation with Capricorn began. But what struck me first was that I was the “baby” of the group [chuckles]. Ultimately, it was a great honor to be there. The [Capricorn roster] set list was part of my years growing up when I didn’t really know what I was going to be doing for a living. I was listening to Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” and Wet Willie’s “Keep on Smilin.” Those songs that were played that night were the songs which were inspiring me when I was young and wanted to be a golfer. And another real personal experience which came that night came through our manager, Buck Williams. Buck used to live in Macon and worked for the booking agency for the Allman Brothers Band. So to go around town with him and hear him share all that he was reminiscing about the town back in its heyday was really neat. There’s so much history there.

ArtsATL: You mentioned that Panic always wanted to be a road band. Panic’s fan base is tremendously loyal, as a large number of fans travel city-to-city, state-to-state and even to other countries to experience your shows. When you’re playing before fans with this level of commitment to your band, do you feel things are operating at an elevated frequency?

Bell: Yes, when things are going well and you can perceive it correctly, you do feel it. Basically the difference between believing it’s possible and being in the middle of revelatory confirmation — you don’t have to even ask. You go, “Oh, yeah, we’re here, at this spot, and we’re all in it together.” It doesn’t happen all the time. Sometimes you can get in your own way. It could be real buzzy out there, but you could get in your own head and not be able to claim witness to that. But when the feeling happens, it’s usually the whole thing. You can tell, intuitively, when everybody’s listening to each other and everybody’s communicating on the same wavelength. And the audience catches into it. That’s when you get that nice positive feedback. Of course, there are ebbs and flows, but you know it on the nights you’re riding that wave all night without hiccups.

ArtsATL: How does riding the wave all night without hiccups translate to you in your playing?

Bell: It’s kind of wild. You come to the party — you come to the evening of music — with a certain set of skills and knowledge of the songs. But you can’t make something happen. And if you bring that element in of trying to make something happen, it kind of works against you. For me and in my experience, there’s got to be an element of submission to what’s possible where you’re letting it happen and not necessarily trying to make it happen. But while that’s going on, you’re also trying to stay aware and present as possible — and contributing properly — which goes back to the listening thing. But you are riding a wave. Being there and then knowing when to let the wave take you — that’s a process as I see it.

John Bell performs at the Fox Theatre with Widespread Panic.
Bell says the Fox Theatre has been a special place for him since he first went there for a concert as a UGA student. (Photo by Josh Timmermans)

ArtsATL: From where within you are the random raps you do onstage accessed?

Bell: Oh, gosh, I actually wish nobody had ever even mentioned it, because now I have to fight the self-awareness. Years ago, people started mentioning it. They’d say things like, “What were you talking about then?” And I’d say, “Oh man, I don’t know. I just had an image pop up, and I just started reporting on it.” And that’s really what happens. It’s something I learned in a writing class way long ago with a certain guest professor. It was really more an exercise of cracking into your subconscious. The goal was to write from a place of inspiration and truth without, again, trying to force something or make something up. As to where it comes from, it comes from a place in the imagination where a series of images are getting played out and the characters in the song take on a life of their own. 

ArtsATL: Since Panic has now somewhat lessened its extensive touring schedule, has being home more brought any fun surprises to you?

Bell: I had 30 years of being gone and having to put everything away, get in a suitcase and split for two to three months at a time. I acquire a lot of stuff, whether it’s for projects or collecting antiques or stuff like that. So what’s been happening in the past three years is I’ve been going through box after box after box of memories of things I’ve just had to put away. Everything went from a bag to the closet and then on to the storage — not to be seen again for 30 years as I was off to the next gig. So that’s proven to be really kind of emotional but fun. Like on a rainy day, I’ll go to the storage place and just start sorting through stuff, and you just have memories coming at you. So that’s surprising and really kind of neat. Maybe I’ll eventually whittle down my number of storage spaces [chuckles].

ArtsATL: Widespread Panic takes the stage, again, at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre for a three-night run beginning December 29. Many years ago, I heard you say, “You can’t really beat the Fox for beautiful.” Does that still hold true for you? 

Bell: Yes, it is a beautiful place. I discovered it in my freshman year at the University of Georgia. It was nothing to pop over to Atlanta to see big names there. I remember going to see Jefferson Starship and striking up a conversation with the guy next to me who had seen the band at Woodstock. I thought that was neat. Then, a little later, I realized the ceiling, and saw the stars were moving and twinkling. Then periodically, the clouds would float in. It’s a beautiful place, for sure [chuckles]. And we’re real excited to play there.