The Capricorn Revival show on December 3rd is ridiculously stacked with talent.
From the standard-bearers of Macon’s musical pedigree like Jimmy Hall, Tommy Talton, and Musical Director Chuck Leavell to the vanguards of today and tomorrow in the shape of Brent Cobb, Marcus King, and Duane Betts, there’s magic but also history about to be made.
Thirty years ago, John Bell walked into the classic Capricorn Studios with his band, Widespread Panic– and he’s as excited as the rest of us to see (and hear) what the future holds.
AI- I was going through some old interviews to prepare for our conversation today and I ran across a few where you briefly talked about your early days with Widespread Panic in conjunction with Macon. And I know you’ve still got a lot of friends here. Can you share a little bit about those days? Who y’all were running with and where y’all were hanging out?
JB- Oh, let’s see. Boy… Well, we were playing… I wouldn’t say it’s a regular gig, but it came on the radar a good bit. A place called The Rookery?
I’m sitting right above it right now.
It’s still in existence?.
It’s still in existence. We’ve got to stage down there and everything.
Yeah, we had a buddy and some other fellas that lived in a big house on High Street, I think right across from a little park. Those guys took us in. So that was our lodging– sleeping bags on the floor and a lot of ping pong and beer through the night. It was pretty fun. We were young and we bounced back with 30 minutes of sleep and go do it again. But that [gig] was a big deal. The Rookery would give us dinner and a little bit of cash– and anything was something big back in those days.
You’re going to be in town here shortly for the big Capricorn Revival show. I was pleased to see you on that bill and I really wasn’t sure how to tackle that history, but I knew I wanted to ask you about Johnny Sandlin in particular, who you worked with on several records at a time in your career when you were really coming into your own as performers and artists. How instrumental was that time in the studio with Johnny to the development of Widespread Panic?
We were introduced to Johnny through Big Phil Walden and the resurrection of Capricorn Records at the time– ’cause he was with the old gang. It [was] a great experience! Here all of a sudden, we’re in there working with a legend! We had some of our own chops that we brought from doing our first record at John Keane’s studio in Athens, but this was our first time with a new producer. You got to see kind of the same stuff but a little bit different– a different set of ears and a different demeanor. It was a time that we were really just thrown into it and excited about whatever we were doing. Johnny would… He was real cool cat. He just sat back and had a great ear. We had a lot of fun. We would do preproduction over at his place in the studio behind his house. Then we went to Kiva Studio, Emerald Studio in Nashville. We were up at Muscle Shoals for one album. Johnny was our key to learning a lot about the history. Ee even took a day and went and recorded a song or two over at Sun Studios in Memphis.
I don’t think I knew that.
Yeah! He was all about having fun too!
So you got to make that loop of classic studio rooms! Do you feel the ghosts in those rooms when you’re there?
I feel something! (Laughs)
Another thing you’ve got going on– bringing back, actually– Hannah’s Buddies, your golf tournament and concert to raise funds and awareness for Spinal Muscular Atrophy. What made this a good time to bring that back?
My schedule with Widespread Panic has slimmed down to about 35 shows a year as opposed to 80 or a hundred. So that opened up a little more time. And Hannah– who, obviously, the event is named after– our god-daughter, just graduated from NYU music school which is pretty hip. Upon first diagnosis of SMA, [we] didn’t know if we were going to have much time past 13 or 14 years old. She’s just taken the world by storm! Now she’s a college graduate! So she’s back from New York and she’s able to attend her own benefit.
Will she be able to perform?
She doesn’t play. She’s in a wheelchair and limited use of her hands, but [she] is very musically inclined with her sensibility. She writes columns about bands. She’s written for several local newspapers, and obviously, her work up at NYU.
Who’s going to be playing with you at the golf tournament and who’s going to be on stage with you coming up on that show?
So far, JoJo [Hermann] from our band is gonna play with me. Jerry Joseph is going to play and Joel Byron. He’s with the Widespread Panic outfit, but he usually works as a luthier and guitar technician. He’s really talented too. He’s played with me before at Hannah’s. That’s going to be one aspect of the music for the evening– the four of us just kinda sitting around and swapping songs for about an hour or so. And then we’ve got lots of other surprises…
Ah, okay. Well, you knew I was fishing! You have cut your touring time down quite a bit. What are you doing when you’re not out on the road? What hobbies keep you entertained?
Man… I’m rediscovering every project that I started and never finished for the last 30 years (laughs)! Basically, I mean, check it out– Laura and I’ve been married 27 years. We’ve been together 29 and half that time, I was on the road. So we’re getting beautifully re-acquainted in a new way ’cause we get to spend all of our time together now. I mean, she works and I piddle around the house, but it’s a really neat and refreshing thing to have. But I wouldn’t really… You asked about a hobby and that’s not cool– describing your marriage as a hobby (laughs)! You know, I like playing golf. I like a lot of yard work, a lot of gardening stuff. I really enjoy it. I used to work in a nursery when I was just starting out in music and just getting out of college, and that kind of just stuck with me. And then I just daydream and goof around and write songs.
That leads me into my next question, the writing songs part. It’s been quite a while since Widespread Panic has been in the studio. And so knowing that you are writing new songs, a lot of people– not just in Macon– say that Widespread Panic in the Capricorn studios on Broadway has been a long, long, long time coming. Has there been any discussion about that yet? Or do you anticipate there being some discussion of bringing the band into the main studio, the classic studio?
We hadn’t discussed that. We really kind of just became aware of this resurfacing, refurbishing, and resurrecting of Capricorn Studios when Chuck Leavell let us know that he was doing this. There was part of this show that we were going to do in Macon that was to draw focus to the 50th anniversary of Capricorn– but I’m really looking forward to seeing the joint. That was the first real studio that we worked in. Even before we did our record with John Keane. But check this out… So we go in and it was just a little one-off for a couple days in Macon. Phil Walden Jr. had become, I don’t know if he was our manager yet, but he was showing interest– and this was part of like a good faith kind of thing, bringing us into the studio. This was all pre-anticipation of Capricorn settin’ up shop again. I remember looking down at one of the reels of tape at the end of the session and it said, “Widespread Panic,” and it said, “Managed by Phil Walden Jr. and produced by Otis Redding [III].” Otis had been called in to work the knobs on that session –and that felt pretty cool, you know? Generationally, to look at it with those names attached to your own. But again, man, we were just starting out. So everything felt special.
What’s your philosophy on studio recording now? Is that something that you feel that you or the band needs to do? If you debut new material now, it’s live and it doesn’t take long for those songs to become part of the fans’ consciousness. So do you even feel compelled to get back in the studio in any capacity?
I wouldn’t say compelled, but you could ask any of us– to probably different degrees– how important they feel it is and basically how much fun it is to go and record. ‘Cause it’s a little different beast. You’re still playing together and you’re still creating music and you’re trying to create shapes and movement and paint a picture– but you’re not doing it on the fly. I mean, you have the choice to do it on the fly, you know, do live in the studio– but you also have this ability to embellish and– dare I use the word– perfect… But let’s say tweak. You get in there and you can tweak some things, and it’s a different way to express yourself and present music. It really provides a lot of good balance for the whole musical experience as a performer.
With the exception of this Capricorn Revival coming up and Hannah’s Buddies, the rest of your year and into 2020 is dominated by residencies in Atlanta, Mexico, New York, Chicago. Tell me what the next big thing coming for John Bell and Widespread Panic is?
I don’t know, man– you just called it! Right now it’s the holidays and then we’ll see each other again for New Year’s. And the cycle will begin.
Well, I hope when you get to make your trip down here for the revival, that it gets something woken up and Macon brings some good memories back. And we can look forward to seeing some project come through the newly renovated Capricorn Studios for Widespread Panic.
That would be cool. Yeah, I’m looking forward to walkin’ through old memories. I haven’t been in Macon in a long time, so this’ll be fun.