30 Years Of Widespread Panic: Duane Trucks Learns Not To Slip

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Widespread Panic’s formation and JamBase senior writer Chad Berndtson recently spoke with members of the band for a full feature being published tomorrow. Each day leading up to its publication, we’ll be sharing portions of Chad’s chats with the members of Panic, continuing today with drummer Duane Trucks revisiting the challenge of becoming the full time man seated at the kit. Head here to read frontman John “JB” Bell’s thoughts on setlist construction and head here for thoughts on Red Rocks from bassist Dave Schools.

The way Duane Trucks sees it, drumming for Widespread Panic mashes all of the influences he’s had since he was sponging up music as a kid — and packages it in one, highly eclectic band for which he now sits behind the kit.

“When I was 16 or 17, I listened to almost nothing but straight-ahead jazz: mid-60s Miles [Davis] and Wayne Shorter and [John] Coltrane, that’s all I wanted to do,” Trucks said. “I wanted to learn the heads and be part of a group and improvise and listen. But as I got older, I moved toward songs that are really important to telling a story and relating to an audience, and from there I of course got into [Led Zeppelin drummer John] Bonham and [Pink] Floyd and The Who and everything. So for me, now, I’ve been dropped into a band where all of these things are very important to what we’re doing. We can play a Vic Chesnutt ballad, and then a super heavy rock tune, and maybe improvise between those two songs for 15 minutes if we want. I can be a sensitive song drummer and then a fake John Bonham on the next song, or be even a fake Tony Williams. This is the best of all those worlds.”

As with a majority of well-known Southern musicians in the jam scene, Trucks grew his true listening skills during time spent under Col. Bruce Hampton.

“Even though it’s fun, it’s a challenge — these are a lot of different hats to put on,” he said of Panic’s vast catalog. “But this is what Col. Bruce would always beat down our throats. He’d explain that you’re not playing music if you’re not listening. Man, that could not be more true, even if you don’t get that right away. If your eyes are open and you’re really listening, you’re making everything better.”

When he joined the band was was first tossed into the deep end, Trucks said he and his bandmates focused on learning Panic’s most technically difficult material first.

“There are songs like ‘Conrad’ and ‘Driving Song’ that have these weird tempo shifts, and that’s not stuff you master until you’ve been playing it for years and years,” Trucks said. “Those are fun and definitely rewarding when you get through them — you give yourself a ‘Yes, I made it through!’ But some of my favorite tunes are the groovier tunes. ‘Bust It Big’ has such a hip melody — that and ‘Greta’ are some of my favorites to play because JoJo [Hermann] has such a cool thing going with those. And some of the JB tunes like ‘Hatfield’ are in my favorites, too. ‘The Protein Drink’ > ‘Sewing Machine’ thing is also one of the most fun to play. Whenever that one pops up I’m psyched.”

The rhythm section rapport came quickly, he said, especially with Dave Schools, with whom Trucks already has a working relationship in Hard Working Americans.

“Dave is one of those strange-bird bass players you don’t see that often,” Trucks said, “He’s as solid as they come in terms of a pocket bass player, but in the same breath, he can stretch out and get as weird as anyone. With him right off the bat, it was comfortable stepping-in. But that’s true of all of them. I had Dave to look to, and also to Jimmy [Herring], who had to do the same thing I did, with the fast learning of all this material, 10 years ago. Any questions I had, Jimmy had a lot of answers — he could clear something up like, bam, this is how it goes and this is this and that is that.”

How much of himself to inject into what Widespread Panic does and what Panic fans have come to expect is, as it has been for any player in Trucks’ position, a tricky balance.

“First and foremost it was about making sure I respect the 29 years of music that came before I got here,” he said. “I wanted to learn the way Todd [Nance] has played this music. You can play any way you want to but if a band has been playing a certain way for that long and you don’t respect what came before you, you’re really making a big mistake. I know his parts well, and if I’m going to deviate at all from those parts, I have to pay respect to them first. I think that’s what helped everything gel, and is also important to making everyone else in the band feel comfortable, and smoother for me.”

As Schools sees it, there was no need to pussyfoot. The bass player simply laughs when asked what the band did to ease Trucks’ transition.

“We threw a banana peel in front of him and said, ‘don’t slip,’” Schools said. “We did the same thing for Jimmy. That’s how it’s gotta be.”

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Chad Berndston

Chad Berndtson is a JamBase Managing Editor and writes about music and technology for various publications. He lives in New York; drop him a line at cberndtson[at]gmail[dot]com

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