We’ve gotten off the mark again. First it was Andy Griffith. Now we’re talking about golf, a game John Bell used to love. The clubs haven’t quite gone to cobwebs, living always at the ready. There’s the big event every year, Hannah’s Buddies Charity Classic in Orlando, which Bell started in 1999 as a way to help his goddaughter – Hannah – and children who, like her, have spinal muscular atrophy. He plays then, and he raises a lot of money for the cause (more than $2 million so far).
“Oh, I’m set up like I can play at any minute, have the clubs, et cetera, but I don’t play much,” says JB, who admits he only keeps score, “until the rails fall off. ‘Rails fall off’ – I think I just coined a new phrase.”
The guy can play, though. Used to score in the 70s way back when golf was what he wanted to do.
“The golf game went to hell because I was having too much fun playing music and being a kid,” he says. “I took something like 15 years off, when I didn’t play golf, and every year I was like, ‘this is my year, I’m gonna take some time and go out there and get some kind of regular game going.’”
Even on off-days during a Widespread Panic tour, when there are choices, golf usually isn’t one of them.
“Golf, now that’s a choice that will kill your whole day. It can make your day, but it will kill the day,” he says. “Its something like a seven-hour stretch, between splitting the hotel, playing golf, coming back, and you know, you might want to rest because you might have just played four days in a row, and there might not be a decent golf course around.”
Note to self: I know what he’s talking about, but ‘decent’ probably means something else for him than it does for me. I’ve played and enjoyed some significant goat ranches over the years, golf courses mainly in the sense that someone charges you for playing golf and a pasture has been broken up into nine or 18 (usually nine) parcels. I’ll bet that JB has never played a round at Uncle Remus Golf Course in Eatonton, Georgia, where majestic mangey fairways run parallel to train tracks and a prison yard, finishing on lush, ankle-deep greens. To me, at six bucks for nine holes, that was a ‘decent’ course, designed by a guy named Bubba (no lie, it was) and well-suited to my ‘game.’
“But on those days when we do get to go out and play, it’s a gas. JoJo has come out. Todd has some out. But they … they’re not golfers, they don’t have a childhood connection to it like I do. “Now Garrie (Vereen), our equipment manager, he’s got a natural swing that will blow you away. I played with him the first time and I was like, ‘damn, how long have you been playing,’ and he’s like, ‘this is my third time.’ He swings at it naturally. So does Laura (his wife, the counselor). She swings at it naturally, has a beautiful swing, and she never played.”
From golf to business, two subjects that go together like Biscuit and gravy (Hi, Biscuit!). The business of Widespread Panic started in 1987, when the band incorporated. Bell remembers making about 68 bucks a week, then getting his first raise, to something like $87 a week.
When the band signed its first record deal with Capricorn, the company had Warner Brothers’ backing, “and they were in good, high-fallutin shape, cashwise. And that trickled down to us. So all of a sudden we had freedom, because as far as a little breathing room, you felt to some extent that you’d made it, had some stability, financial stability. We were very grateful for that.
“I was also grateful for meeting a lot of people who’d been in the business a long time, hearing their war stories and getting a feel for that inside scoop that I hadn’t been privy to, ’cause we’d been doing our thing our own way for four or five years up to that point.”
The band discovered how entrenched the music industry was with itself, a situation that wasn’t conducive to letting a band be itself.
“That’s still true today. You have folks that say there’s a formula, a way to do things, the way things are run, a ‘this is the only way I can sell it to the other people down the line’ kind of thing, and you’ve got some of those people working on your behalf!”
JB’s response to that down-the-line kind of thing?
“Quit ramming the formula down my throat, I’m trying to be myself. The band was and is trying to be itself in the midst of all of the ‘this is the way its done and you have to do this.’ What a drag, but it comes with being involved with major record companies. So, we just created a company, our own record company. It’s like a firewall.”
It’s a layer of protection from some unwanted outside influences. And as a band, as a de facto board of directors, as executives of their own firm, they’ve had to step up as protectors. They run a company, and feel a sense of loyalty to the employees that so many CEOs and leaders in the USA cutthroat business model of people-are-as-expendable-like-paper-clips can’t seem to grasp.
When Mikey died, for example, Bell not only lost one of his oldest friends, his first bandmate. Personally, it shook him to the core, like it did everyone else in the band’s family. But it also shook the foundations of the band’s business – how do you keep on keeping on when one of your founders, one of your key executives has gone? Panic was a full-fledged company with employees to take care of, people with livelihoods and health plans. They talked about stopping and they talked about keeping the thing going and Bell says he didn’t feel like he had the luxury of doing something else. So they kept the business going, the band kept playing.
“It was easier to keep going to be protective of our own sanity,” JB says, “so we could let the profundity of Mikey’s passing sink in slowly while we were still going through the rhythm.”
It’s almost 25 years since the first ‘official’ Widespread Panic gigs, longer since JB and Mikey got together and started playing, and Bell says he’ll always feel close to the guy he was, playing dark corners for 20 bucks a night, the guy in front of a young, road-hardened band traveling light in an Oldsmobile.
“You should always keep yourself in a place where you remember back to the time you were playing in a bar, and it’s just the band and the bartender and you look at each other and go, ‘y’know, we’re playing better than we ever have and nobody is here to check us out except that guy behind the bar, and we should tip him!’ You remember that,” he says, “because the doors could close one day, and if you can remember how good it feels to find the magic moments with each other playing music, the friendships, the crap and the forgiveness that comes along with it all, then all of a sudden you find yourself now, in this moment, without regret.”
He pauses and adds, “For the most part.”