John Bell

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Widespread Panic’s John Bell performs during a three-night run at the Classic Center in April 2000.

Photo by Kim Bancroft

“The band house…that’s where the earliest memories came from and where daydreaming and living in the moment didn’t necessarily cancel each other out.

We were (at the time) four guys living on King Avenue with a kitchen full of band gear and a lot of time on our hands. At one point in the day, we’d wake up, go into town for food and adventure (sometimes work). Then we’d find each other again—most likely at the Uptown Lounge or back at the house.

We put on our least scratchy albums—I remember Warren Zevon and R.E.M. being the most resistant to damage. If someone had an inspiration we’d make our way to the kitchen, play off each other and see what would come of it. A lot of kidding around, a lot of beer.

Friends would stop by on a whim. If there was enough whimsy in the air that night, all of a sudden we’d be hosting a party. I don’t think we ever planned a party because so many spontaneous gatherings erupted. Fun for us, but we lived next door to a city councilman, so Athens’ finest routinely and politely stopped by for a visit as well. We could ask 10 to 20 people to lower the overall volume, but if there were more we’d usually have to shut our doors and turn the lights off for the night.

Returning home after one of our first road trips—probably to Clemson, Greenville and Charlotte—our next-door neighbors on the other side commented on how much our playing had improved. They didn’t know we had been out of town, letting another Athens band, the Landsharks, use the house for practice.

Kyle and Duck at the Uptown introduced us to Sunny and gave us our first piece of rock ‘n’ roll security—a regular Monday night gig for what came through the door—$1 cover. That was a big deal. Playing a whole night in front of people was a lot different than being back at the house. Our first show was over, and we still owed the bar for our drink tab. Mike’s sister bailed us out on that. Later, Kyle said free draft beer could be part of the deal. We were honing our negotiation skills.

Early one summer UGA was in between sessions, and the town was empty of students. It was lucky for us though, because with the kids gone the locals came out, and we were maybe the only game in town. About 300-plus folks came through. Widespread Panic was on its way… to Waffle House. ‘The Girl’s House’ had us over for dinner on Sundays. Chicken wings. These were good friends that lived together on Buena Vista Street and looked after us. Mondays we ate yellow food (Waffle House). The rest of the week was ramen noodles, apples, hot dogs and an occasional pizza. Candles replaced electricity, blankets replaced gas, and the landlords were mostly patient. We were having a blast.

One day Sam, our manager-to-be, came to the house to hear us. He took an interest and helped us incorporate. The lights, heat and phone came back on line. Recordings were made, we stayed on the road for longer and more distant stretches, signed some contracts, leased some buses, got married, and raised families.”

—John Bell, lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist, Widespread Panic