John Bell: A Choice Companion



John Bell has been traveling for the better part of the previous night and most of the current day. He’s somewhere between Chicago and Upper Darby, PA. This is just part of another summer voyage with his band, Widespread Panic, when he gives Glide a call.

Every Panic fan knows the band’s legacy, has felt the tragedies, knows the song rotation cold, can talk album shop, and for the most part, has accepted Jimmy Herring as their mighty new lead guitarist. However, what few know is that that Bell (JB to most) is perhaps even more humble than most would assume.  In a week when he’s released a decade spanning album, thrown out the first pitch at Wrigley Field and played Radio City Music Hall, he still jokingly admits he doesn’t think he’s really made it yet. 

A band that he started as a duet between himself and Michael Houser, has now become one of America’s biggest touring attractions, playing the largest venues and as a testament, has held the coveted headlining spot at Bonnaroo more times than any other act. Although Panic still suffers a bit from ‘southern jamband’ syndrome, its earned a huge devoted following that has lasted the better part of the last twenty years. Panic is currently writing another chapter in their long history by doing it their way.

Fresh off the mound at Wrigley, Glide had the rare honor of holding a candid conversation with JB.

First off, was that your fastball or splitter at Wrigley?  (JB threw out the first pitch on July 15th at Wrigley Field in Chicago for a Cubs / Astros game – click here to watch a clip)

That was my ‘let it go and pray that it makes it to the plate’ ball.  (laughs)

It wasn’t a bad toss.

It got there.  But it’s a good feeling to stand on that mound.   That’s the first time I’ve stood on a real live pitcher’s mound. 

Further than you expected from the plate?

Well, you know, it doesn’t look that long when you start…I warmed up a little ‘cause I hadn’t thrown a ball in about ten years.   So I was trying to throw it at the strike zone when I was warming up with one of the crew members, and ah…you gotta start it a little higher (laughs).  Unless you really got some heat, and I definitely don’t have that.

We talked to JoJo (Hermann) a couple of years ago about his devotion to the Mets.  Do you make it to games at all when you’re out on the road?

A little bit…mostly minor league games.  But when the opportunity arises, we’ll go check it out.  That’s really…that’s America for ya.  When you’re looking at that crowd, nobody’s excluded – old people, young people, rich people, poor people…all colors…that’s the audience.  You see it a little bit at other sporting events, you know, like football, but not at concerts, usually that’s kind of a one-sided demographic. 

I’ll agree with you there.  Let’s move on to the new record, Choice Cuts.  What was the song selection process for that? 

Oh, it just popped up.  I think I just sent an email around, said ‘here are my suggestions,’ and Dave [Schools] said, ‘well, let’s get some live stuff in there,’ since we did one of those live records, and we just kinda subbed out a couple tunes like that.  And then there were just one or two time considerations to the….megabyte limit.  But after that, it was a very simple process.  We took more time doing the artwork than we did about song selection. 

Are you comfortable calling that batch a Greatest Hits collection?

Oh no…if we were comfortable doing that, we would have called it that (laughs).  When we were on Capricorn we did a European release that was in that same vein, so we kind of strayed away from those songs too…that were basically radio-friendly cuts in our eyes.  And on this one, we dug a little bit deeper for stuff that was overall, just a solid track.

Going back to ’91, shortly after you signed with Capricorn, Billy Bob Thornton actually made his directorial debut with Widespread’s Live At The Georgia Theatre.  Obviously he was a relatively unknown artist at the time, but I wanted to get your thoughts on working with him back then.

He was funny.  He’d met us out on the road with Tony To who was working with him.  I mean, I don’t know the difference between producers and directors…one of them was one of those (laughs).  But they filled those roles and they were working together.    And they just came out with a little 8mm over in ah….I don’t know where we were playing, and just kind of got a feeling of what we were about.  And Big Phil Walden – I just call him Big Phil ‘cause his son, we called him Little Phil – he was a big film buff and I’m sure he knew about Billy Bob and that’s how he made that connection. 

And so Billy’s out there wearing some horsehair boots – cowboy boots on…I just remember everybody remembered his boots (laughs).   

You know, he’s just really straight ahead…looks you in the eye, and he just had that spark.  When you’re around some personalities, and there’s just something going on in there, and you’re like, ‘damn,’ you know.   I mean, he was impressed with what we were doing, but we imagined ourselves small potatoes.  You could tell he had things brewing.  And he showed us his character Karl [Childers] from Sling Blade.  He goes, ‘I got this idea, check this out.’  And he stretches out his neck, and does the little voice like that (doing a rough imitation and laughing).  And we were all like,’ ok.’  (laughs).  And then when it came out, ‘oh yeah…he showed us that.’

You actually would have made a great addition to that Sling Blade band, along with the cast of Dwight Yoakam, Col. Bruce Hampton and Vic Chestnutt. 

Oh yeah…I think there was a scheduling thing, or Phil had somebody in mind.  But thank you, that’s very nice to say.  I don’t know what I’d do.  But if I was to do any acting, I’d like to do something bizarre like that.  No love scenes (laughs).

Back to the initial signing with Capricorn.  When the deal was being finalized, did you have any reservations about moving your in-house operations to a label?   Or were you excited to finally get the coveted record contract?  

We’d been in negotiations with another major label for about a year, SBK.  And these were two different stories.  SBK, they were the ‘tell you anything, let’s just sign you, and if you hit, you hit…if you don’t, you don’t, we don’t care.’  And Capricorn…they were courting us properly, and it was a whole different vibe.  We felt that there was something there, something personal that we could work on, there was going to be a relationship.  But we felt great.  That’s the kind of thing we were looking for.

And you’re working on some new material now? 

Yup.  It’s in the can.  We should hear the next stage – Terry’s [Manning] finishing things up as we speak.  And I was the last one to hear anything when I went in to do vocals.  So yeah, we’ve got something new all ready to go.   We’re not bringing that stuff out on stage.  We brought a couple tunes out, but the remainder of it, nobody’s heard. 

Performing at Bethel Woods [this week], a new venue for the band, but one that’s built on the original Woodstock site…does that hold any significance for you?

Sure, yeah man.  I’m still kind of stuck in that era for what turns me on musically.  Not necessarily that scene, but the musicians that were involved there and the stuff that I was watching on TV as a tike, going ‘wow, something’s going on there.’  Those were some of my early inspirations.   [So playing there] is really hip.  It’s like playing Radio City Music Hall…you go, ‘wow, you’re lucky to be here.’

So here we are, 40 years later, Woodstock to Bonnaroo, and we’re once again in a somewhat relative time of war and social movement.  Do you think as a music community, from artist to fan, we’ve helped move things forward at all?  It seems we’ve been striving for cultural movement for a long time.

I think they are going ahead inevitably…whether people get on board early and believe that’s the way to do things, or if it becomes a matter of necessity.  So yeah, we’re moving forward.  Personally, it wouldn’t hurt to move a little faster, but I think folks get in their comfort zone, and to some degree, unless you’re pushed by necessity, whether its financial, physical comfort, or pending doom, people won’t get off the couch right away.  But there are some answers and solutions still out there…but it takes that hundredth monkey.  And I see a lot of those hundredth monkeys out there, they’re conservationists and thinkers and visionaries since the 70s.  And all the materials out there, if you just want to dabble and find out, it’s sitting there in the bookstores and the magazine racks…Home Power magazine.  And you got stuff like An Inconvenient Truth…Larry David’s wife put that thing together with Al Gore, and that’s pretty hip.  It’s happening. 

You’ve raised quite a bit of money for SMA (spinal muscular atrophy) research, and you’ve done so without much fanfare.  Do you think an event the size of Live Earth loses some of its integrity when it reaches that magnitude?

I think any voice that’s lending itself to that discussion and that debate is good.  It’s easy to get cynical and talk about, private jets that flew all the people there and the pollution and you know…the carbon imprint tiles by the light show and everything.  And I know Fox News was very excited to spark the TV ratings and viewership (laughs).  But, you gotta start somewhere.  Raising awareness that way is a lot better than starting a war.  But I personally don’t need to get political, ‘cause I’m just a guy in a rock ‘n roll band. But I don’t groove on legal murder either or whatever you want to call war so…

The H.O.R.D.E.-era, the jam explosion of the mid-90s was when Widespread Panic and all these similar improv rock bands started to really take off.  And now just 10 years later, Panic is pretty much the last man standing. To what do you attribute your longstanding success and longevity as a band?

I don’t know…just taking first things first.  That’s the way it’s always been, the band acting like a band and writing songs together.  And then other stuff happens in the wake of that.  We’ve been way more song and camaraderie focused than we have been career oriented.  The career comes as a bi-product of what you do musically.   And if that’s a secret, then that might be one of the elements. 

Has the Myspace, iTunes, file sharing climate we’re in now provided some revitalization to the band? 

I think Panic has kind of ridden the fence in that respect.  Like even when it started with the, to a much smaller degree and a more primitive degree, the situation of trying to sell records but also allowing fans to come in and tape the show and trade tapes.  And you know we went around and around with the record companies on that one!  (laughs)  And it’s the same debate, ‘is this helping or is it hurting?’  And obviously I think it hurts record sales, but at the same time, before we ever had a record out, it was also helping establish somewhat of a fanbase, or at least some folks that heard about the band and had a little curiosity and they’d come and see a show, which was basically keeping us alive…and it still is.  The live shows, that’s pretty much our niche, although I love making records, and I love all those producers who we’ve been exposed to and all those experiences. 

You’re in a unique position, because as the industry grapples with declining album sales – down 15% already at the mid-year mark – your tried and true method of the touring machine keeps a revenue stream coming in that a straight recording artist is unable to generate as easily.

Yeah.  But I feel fortunate, ‘cause if the fans weren’t coming out, participating…then we got nothing.  At least along those lines.  We’d probably still be playing music, but this way we get to make a living and a rock ‘n roll experience out of it. 

With Jimmy [Herring] coming aboard last year, how has the dynamic in the band changed over the last six months or so…if at all?

There’s always a shift in dynamic with a change in personnel. Whether it’s a substitution or just losing somebody, which is another reason for substitution, but all I can say is…things feel very upbeat and Jimmy is getting to be exposed to a band that really welcomes his creative input.  [Fans] have been watching him apply himself to our songs [live], but what they haven’t seen is what we did together in the studio.  So we’re firing on all cylinders and it feels great. 

Looking at your albums over the years, are you somewhat relieved you never had to deal with it, or are you still chasing that “Touch of Grey” moment when everything explodes?

I swear to God, we look at every album…every song we approach, it’s discovered because we found some magic in there that everybody felt, ‘this is something, I really dig it.’  If something turns into that ‘Hit,’ I would love the reason to be because it really was a good, solid song all the way around – musically, the way it’s constructed, and lyrically.  Because we’ve felt good about all the songs we’ve written (laughs).  We put that energy behind every song we write, so I would hope that if and when that day comes, we’ll just take it in stride. 

Looking back over the years, was there a definitive moment, or event in your career when you realized you’d really “made it?”

No, not at all.  I don’t even feel that way now.  I think if you start thinking that way, you’re getting off the mark.  I mean….everybody’s definition would be different.  And I don’t think you really know till the end….and we’re not there. 

You’re not spring chickens anymore, and I imagine it isn’t getting any easier to get out of bed after these long shows.  Is it getting harder to be a rock ‘n roll guy? 

Ah….you learn tricks (laughs).  It might even be a little bit easier.  You know, you learn a few things, you slow down on some of your….chosen recreations.  I don’t find it any tougher than I used to.  I miss being home.  When we first started out, home just represented a lot of back rent (laughs).  We were all living together.  So I miss Laura, and I miss the things I get to do when I’m home.  But as far as….when you get on stage, boy it’s the same as it’s been ever since that first time. 

Being such a strong songwriter yourself, who are some of your songwriting heroes?

Just popping it off the top of my head…Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison…some of that early Grateful Dead stuff I thought was great.  The stuff that Jerry was singing especially.  I’m just a slow, bluesy, ballad-y kind of guy.  That’s the stuff that I used to stand up for and start dancing to (laughs).

JJ Cale is another great one…obviously we do a number of his covers.  He sends us a bottle of bourbon and thanks every once in a while. And we’ve played with him on stage…he’s a great guy. 

Your voice is signature at this point.  How did you develop such a distinct sound?  Is it a work in progress or does it just come naturally?

If it was a little kid asking me that question, or somebody the same age as when I started, the first thing [I’d say] is to just go ahead and sing.  Make your joyful noise.  ‘Cause it probably ain’t gonna be pretty right off the bat. 

I started out doing a lot of covers.  I’d go and buy sheet music and songbooks and copy what I’d heard on the radio, and I think my personal experience was that I was kind of doing a Rich Little thing.  I would copy the character of those voices that were in the songs.  I think that repetition…probably cultivated some degree of control over the sound I would make.  And when I started writing my own songs, I knew the difference between my own voice and just ripping off somebody else’s style.  And so from there, I go through changes and find different pockets to explore – different voicings that are still my own, but its kind of like pulling different characters out.  You know, (singing) I got my pretty voice…I got my lawn mower voice, and all that stuff (laughs).  Whatever seems appropriate for the song at the time. 

With everything you have going on…any solo work a possibility?

If I had time.  But personally, everything I do creatively, I throw that into the band.  And when I’m not being creative in that respect, I go into another arena…whether it’s gardening, or just being a husband, or painting or something like that.  So anything I do musically, Widespread Panic is as much time as I like putting forth to that end.  But you never know, I might get a wild hair up.  I’ve got my own studio, if I spend enough time in there and cultivate some songs…but see, then the first thing I’d do is say, ‘guys, here’s some stuff.’  And then the next thing you know, it’s a Widespread Panic song.

Live photos by Michael Saba

Archival photos courtesy of widespreadpanic.com

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