Catching Up with Widespread Panic’s John Bell

The jam-band frontman on his new festival, favorite Southern eats, and the art of making a set list

The Athens, Georgia-bred band Widespread Panic first performed together in 1986 at what was then known as the Mad Hatter Ballroom. Now, more than thirty-two years later, the iconic Southern jam-band’s lead singer and rhythm guitarist, John Bell, just completed his 3,000th documented WSP show (along with band’s co-founder and bassist, Dave Schools) at their new Trondossa Festival, held earlier this month at Riverfront Park in North Charleston. We caught up with Bell ahead of the band’s summer gigs, which kick off in June, to learn about his plans for the next fest, how the band builds their set lists, and why barbecue sauce is like a fine wine.

What exactly does “Trondossa” mean?

The name is derived from a song that we were introduced to by Colonel Bruce Hampton. As much as I can interpret it from that song, Trondossa means a longing to do the right thing in a romantic sense. JoJo, our keyboard lyricist, first identified it as a great name, and it stuck.


How did the festival’s alt-country element—Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price—come about? That seems new for Widespread Panic.

Well, Sturgill and Margo and those groups were attractive for exactly that reason—because their sound made for a totally new and fresh element.


Did you grow up attending music festivals? What significance do they hold for you?

I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and went to a lot of concerts as a kid. Music was happening there all the time. The festival scene was mostly local bands getting together and that was pretty hip—a lot of blankets and frisbees and open space. Also, when I was 13 or 14, I attended the World Series of Rock—Bob Seeger, Peter Frampton, some other cats—and that was down at our municipal football stadium.

In recent years, festivals have evolved as a gathering place for bands who usually don’t get to see each other play because everyone’s on the road working. It’s also a way to fit a lot of music into one space in a very saturated format.


What is your most memorable live-music experience, as a performer or audience member?

Oh, wow. Probably when I saw Leonard Cohen perform a few years before he passed away. I dug it because the show was so well orchestrated, but also because it was just so good. And it was a particularly great night at the Fox Theater—some real magic.


Do you have a favorite Southern food town?

Charleston is definitely up there.


Where did you eat while you were in town?

I went to one place I’d heard rave things about but, ironically, the music was a little too loud for me, so we went to the Ordinary instead, had some oysters and some shrimp and met a couple from Florida who were up here having a good time and celebrating their anniversary.


Do people recognize you wherever you go?

Well, people know we’re still around and they know where to find us.


And your voice—it’s so distinctive. Has anyone ever recognized your voice while you were doing something totally mundane—like ordering a pizza?

Well, I ordered a pizza the night before the festival started, when I got back from the hotel after a night out, but my speaking voice doesn’t seem to draw people out that much.


Photo: Andy Tennille

Members of Widespread Panic.

How do you approach a set list for a festival versus a concert?

It’s the same in that we look at it for the ebbs and flows of the songs. But the one difference is that we play the really nuanced and soft songs fewer and farther between—at an outdoor festival, as opposed to a concert, you’re reaching out a little more to pull people in.


Your wife, Laura, recently opened a wellness center in Clarksville, Georgia. Does that ethos translate to Trondossa at all?

We definitely strive to create an experience where people can comfort their souls—where they can be free-thinking and free-wheeling, where they can escape.


Is the next Trondossa Festival already in the works? What’s the long-term plan?

Our loose plan is to leave Charleston feeling like we want to do it again, that we did what we came to do, and then to move Trondossa to different locations throughout the year. I’ll update you when that plan becomes a little less “loose.”


Fair enough. Okay, a few more food questions…

What is your preferred barbecue sauce?

Now, see, I groove on them all. Barbecue sauce is like wine to me. With chicken, I like white sauce. With pork I go for a vinegar base—with some spank to it.


Fried chicken: hot or regular?

A little spicy. These days, I mostly eat fish…but I remember the meat. And I still smoke chicken for my dogs.

Watch Widespread Panic’s G&G Back Porch Session below.