John Bell reclines in the energy room at Cedar Heights, the wellness center he and his wife Laura own and operate in Clarkesville, Georgia. Our cells graze on the room’s detoxifying bio-regenerative energy field, currents of sub-atomic genius vibes passing through our hungry molecules.
The voice of Widespread Panic, JB is a mountain neighbor, lives a couple of valleys away from me (give or take a holler), so he’s kind of a regular in these parts, at the coffee shop, the occasional party, or the grocery store, which he calls, “my French market.” He isn’t a rock star, he’s John, or JB. He’s the guy who takes care of the garden at Cedar Heights. But this is official business, and I’ve brought the tape recorder, which he mocks.
Knowing John is a baseball fan (though probably not as big a fan as his bandmate, JoJo), I’ve brought a copy of Georgia Trend with a story about Hank Aaron that I’d written, told him how geeked I was to finally meet the Hammer, figured he’d understand the significance.
“People that try to make a mark in this world, they’re the beginning of the ripple, and to get to meet them, that’s got to be a freak show,” JB says, and he’s right. It’s probably as big a freak show from either side of the line.
So now we’re talking about Andy Griffith, because the last time I saw JB (before the energy room) was February at a show in Sautee, when he performed with Col. Bruce Hampton and the Quark Alliance — we got started talking about The Andy Griffith Show, so we got back into Mayberry in the energy room:
“I grew up watching it and it was in the realm of, you know, Leave it to Beaver and stuff like that. These were like our first lessons beyond our family and moms and dads about right and wrong, and how to conduct ourselves.
“Um, I don’t want to get too philosophical, but with Andy there was this simplicity about getting along and humor in general, and the writing. Man, the writing and acting, especially Don Knotts. There was something really happening there, and it resonates with me now, the way Don Knotts could deliver a line, even if it was scripted, with such great timing and inflection. That’s what we try to do musically, that’s been ingrained.”
No, JB isn’t a one-bullet Barney with a guitar, but he makes a good point. Timing and inflection. And improvisation.
“Those old shows, the ones in black and white, you can see the improvisation and you’d think, ‘wait, Don couldn’t have done that on purpose, that had to be a timing and improv thing.’”
Improvisation has been so much a part of the Widespread Panic thing, and it gets taken for granted as something that just happens, I think. But these guys are like paramedics, you know, trained professionals.
“It’s really about listening and playing off each other, so there is a musical conversation, and you’re not just trading licks,” he says. “You’re not just mired in a bunch of gobbledy-gook. You really are focused and, hopefully, entering a higher level of conversation.”
And this gets to the ‘jam band’ label. It’s not something Bell is particularly fond of, because of what it’s evolved or devolved into. Like, take ‘Republican’ for example. The Republican Party used to be the party of Lincoln. There was some depth and compassion there. Now it’s the party of Palin and Beck, bumper-stickers and Fox News. I’m just saying. All labels are like that, JB agrees, “like Republican or Democrat.” ’Nuff said. Back to the ‘jam-band’ label. It bothers JB.
“When we were younger, we’d be sitting there, look at each other and just say, ‘let’s just jam,’ which is a way to say, ‘let’s just experience each other musically.’ That’s what ‘jam’ means to me. It’s a beautiful sentiment,” he says.
“Beyond that, it’s become a hackneyed phrase that has a bad rap out there for people stumbling around, not really playing nicely with each other.”
My good friend Bill Cochran has seen Panic about 200 more times than I have, and he saw the Grateful Dead many times. He’s often told me that there are two voices that have had the capacity to easily elicit tears and laughter for him, to elicit emotions with sound: Garcia’s and Bell’s.
For me, Bell’s voice is sometimes like the devil on my shoulder, laughing and cajoling. Other times, he is the compassionate bard singing with a broken heart, eliciting tears. There is a range that I’m still discovering, so I asked him about his voice and how he’d describe it.
“I don’t know how to describe it,” he says. “But I sing with whatever color the song needs, and that could be different pitches, different flavors, soft and pretty, or guttural. So I guess I’m more like a Mel Blanc.”
Nice reference to Mel Blanc, I tell him, the multi-faceted voice of Warner Bros. cartoons, another nod to our shared experience of the TV age.
Now, because this already is getting long-ish and I’m hoping to actually keep your attention (and JB and I spent a good bit of time in the energy room, so there’s a lot of good stuff he shared) we’ll make this a serial story. This is Part I. Just wanted to get us all started, what with Wanee firing up now and Panic starting its spring tour there this weekend and all. More than likely Part II will be next, unless we choose to skip it and forge on ahead to Part III.
Until then, see you ’round the bend.