Widespread Panic: Tickling The Truth

By: Dennis Cook

Widespread Panic by Eden Batki
There's an oft-quoted (and misquoted) line from Henry David Thoreau's Walden: "I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life." Widespread Panic surely embodies that lusty, meaty sense of purpose, especially if you expand the quote to the lines that directly follow it:

"...to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion."

Within Panic's corridors lies the tangled and tender bathed in the light of truth. They are a bastion of hope for lovers of thinking person's rock 'n' roll, especially if they like a little BBQ and whiskey with their philosophizing. The part of Thoreau's quote that's often overlooked is how messy life is in his formulation. Panic doesn't miss that, and even revels in the greasy grab of it all. On some base level, WSP is about personal and creative freedom, doing things their own way for good or bad, so it's fitting their new album is titled Free Somehow (arriving February 12 on Widespread Records).

Their tenth studio album since debuting in 1988 with Space Wrangler, Free Somehow is the first recording session for guitarist Jimmy Herring and their second time at bat with producer Terry Manning (Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top, George Thorogood). We had the good fortune to sit down with the beatifically grizzled John Bell to discuss studio work versus the live experience, Herring's growing role in the band, the wisdom of Col. Bruce Hampton and much more.

JamBase: One of the things about hard touring bands is that their studio albums are frequently just time markers, a set of songs to add to their setlists, many of which may already be familiar to fans. I never get that sense with Widespread Panic. You seem very serious about your studio time.

JB by Michael Saba
John Bell: Oh yeah, we love going into the studio. It provides a lot of balance in the songwriting and performing worlds. We enjoy being on the road a lot, and there's a great luxury to being able to play the songs and leave them out there just the way they were. Then you go to the studio and you get to feed that hunger for, I don't know if I'd call it perfection, but we get to linger over a song and mess with it in a studio kind of way. It's like the difference between doing quick sketches and sitting down to get all the colors just the way you want them in a painting.

JamBase: For some reason, my mind always goes to sculpture with studio work, setting something in marble or metal. That's different than the ephemeral nature of live music, where you put the thing out there and then it's gone.

John Bell: Well, there you go. It's a balance thing, too. The two worlds within a world feed each other, and it's nice to sit down with someone like Terry [Manning] or John Keane, to have an outsider involved. There's a whole new batch of jokes [laughs]. It's very helpful to have another pair of ears and ideas that aren't in the thick of things with band relationships.

Something about that extra set of ears allows a conversation to happen about what's not working that wouldn't happen under other circumstances.

But it's based on the same stuff in the way we trust each other as band members. We can have our own differences or idiosyncrasies within the band but when an outsider's around it'd be like a big gang up, don't mess with my brother kind of thing. With that in mind, there is a trust factor that has to enter into it that's recognized, earned and mutual. Somebody as talented as John or Terry Manning, well, we need to earn their trust, too, because they've seen it all.

It's great to have that kind of wisdom imparted to your music. You're borrowing their life experience when you work with guys like that.

Jimmy Herring by Michael Saba
It's hip. They've got really cool tricks that'll make you go, "Wow." It's really fun in the studio. There's a lot of seriousness but also a lot of joking around, and a lot of watching people bring all their strong points together into the mix. That's where it really shows where everyone's got a different gig where they're really strong. I'm amazed by the way Jimmy Herring plays guitar.

Playing with you guys in the studio has brought out a new side of him.

I'm hoping that he's getting to know us, and we're getting to know him, and in so doing we get to rediscover ourselves individually in each other's company. That helps the musical contribution take on that little spark.

He's such a gifted player that it would be easy for him to overplay but he's so incisive on Free Somehow. He seems to know exactly what needs to be done on each piece.

Yeah, I like him, too {laughs].

[Laughs] Sometimes it's best just to cut to it! He's got a daunting task integrating himself into the huge Widespread Panic catalog. I just spoke to Luther Dickinson and he told me that seeing the size of the Panic songbook made him feel less daunted by The Black Crowes songbook he's learning.

There's a bunch of songs, probably 200 that stay in fairly heavy rotation. Man, another thing is Jimmy's work ethic, and he's already figured out what works for him. He's right there applying himself, not only knowing the tunes but also helping the songs come to life and adding his own signature to them.

Continue reading for more with John Bell...

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