Widespread Panic's Last Run?

Hollis Bennett
by Matt Hendrickson - June/July 2011

Singer John Bell ponders an end to the band’s wild Southern journey

Click here to see a video of Widespread Panic preforming in Louisville, Kentucky

In 1986, John Bell and Widespread Panic  played their first gig at what was then known as the Mad Hatter Ballroom in Athens, Georgia. Twenty-five years later, in early February, the band played the same spot, which is now a posh, renovated theater called the Classic Center. In between, Widespread has become nothing short of a Southern rock legend, packing stadiums from coast to coast and selling more than three million albums. But that wild Southern ride is winding down. The band will tour off and on for the rest of 2011—including a headlining stint at Bonnaroo in June—before taking an indefinite hiatus beginning in 2012. Over the course of two interviews—one backstage before a show at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium; the other while sitting on a glider chair in the lawn and garden section of his local Lowe’s—Bell, Widespread’s lead singer and rhythm guitarist, opened up about the band’s past and his green thumb.

Now that the band is into its twenty-fifth anniversary year, do you find yourself reminiscing a bit more?
If you would have told me that I could be viably working the country for twenty-five years, I would have thought that was impossible. I was more concerned about going to Waffle House. But I definitely notice that we’ve started thinking about the past more than usual. It’s triggered our memories. I’ve gotten a lot of e-mails from people who were with us in the beginning, then went and did their own thing. Old friends who let us crash on their floor, some people we haven’t heard from in twenty years. Then you remember, “Oh yeah, he saved my life.”

In your opinion, what are some of the seminal moments in the band’s career?
Probably the Athens show where a hundred thousand people showed up to a street show to celebrate the release of our CD [1998’s Light Fuse, Get Away]. The cops and the city fought us tooth and nail the whole way. It hit the papers and then it caught even more attention. Macon city officials called us and said, “We’ll do it. Don’t worry about all that stuff.” So that forced the hand of Athens. The mayor was for it all the time; it was the cops and the fire department. It was hard to believe. Here’s a town where every football Saturday there are eighty thousand drunken fans. How can you not be prepared for a concert like this? And of course, there were only six incidents and no arrests.