By James Calemine
(Published in the Official 30th Anniversary Georgia Music Hall of Fame 2008 Almanac)
Through triumph and tragedy in the last 22 years, Widespread Panic never wavered in their mission to share their soulful music with anyone willing to listen. Few authentic artists achieve the level of success as Widespread Panic—a band that ignored fickle music trends and record industry snares—and survive to now keep eternal company with diverse luminaries such as James Brown, Otis Redding, Gram Parsons, Blind Willie McTell, Ray Charles, R.E.M., Indigo Girls, Dottie Rambo and Ma Rainey.
The Athens, Georgia, band originated in late 1985 when eventually inseparable songwriting guitarists Michael Houser and John Bell realized their musical bond served as a strong nucleus for a powerful group. Soon they recruited bassist Dave Schools and drummer Todd Nance—one of the South’s most formidable rhythm sections of all time. Next, percussion powerhouse Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz joined, and several years later gifted keyboardist John Hermann permanently joined the group. Each member exists as a talented songwriter and instrumentalist in his own right. The brutal musical honesty of Widespread Panic earned them a right to build a small empire in a shallow and vacant industry, but it also allowed them to survive.
Widespread Panic served as the mother lode band on the resurrected Capricorn Records in the early 90s. Panic’s amalgamation of rock, blues, country, R&B and jazz allowed them to transcend all musical boundaries, which resonated with their loyal legion of fans and musicians alike. The band’s success emanates from their Zen-like ability to write, record and tour in their own indefinable creative mystery. They never compromised. In 1998, Athens mayor Gwen O’Looney gave Panic a key to the city before a record release party in the streets that drew an estimated 100,000 people.
For the last decade, Widespread Panic has remained in the Top 50 of touring bands. They’ve sold over three million albums and gross over twenty million dollars a year through touring. Panic’s discography includes 19 CDs—10 studio discs, one compilation and eight live releases. In 2000, the band began their own record company. The group made videos (Panic’s 1991 Live at the Georgia Theater served as Billy Bob Thornton’s directorial debut) and appeared on worldwide broadcast shows such as David Letterman, Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien. An essential fact to always remember about Widespread Panic is the generosity they extend to charitable organizations, family, friends, fans and fellow musicians in each respective community. The band’s annual sold out New Year’s Eve shows at Atlanta’s Philips Arena and Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado always provides musical testimony on the amount of people their music inspires. They remain to this day as respectful, humble and down-to-earth as they were in, say, 1984.
When founding guitarist Michael Houser died in 2002, the band spent several years reeling in the wake of his sad passing with an un-wrecking courage to continue their musical journey. Auxiliary members Randall Bramblett, George McConnell, John Keane and Sam Holt filled in on musical duties during this difficult transition. Guitarist Jimmy Herring joined the group in 2006. Herring’s contributions and sheer talent fit perfectly in Panic’s rare chemistry evident on the group’s 2008 studio release Free Somehow, and ongoing live performances. Free Somehow contained three singles that appeared on the charts—a first for the band. Now, it seems Widespread Panic begins the second half of their indelible journey.
Widespread Panic exists as a sacred link to The South’s forgotten, overlooked and glorious traditions such as songwriting, storytelling, collaboration and a strong voice for the unspoken. From the beginning, their brotherhood remained so strong they never felt behooved to reveal individual songwriting credits on original material. They never played music for shallow accolades or constructed an ego trip mentality on surrounding parties-involved. Panic’s music serves as a sonic medicine for all the lives they’ve touched in the last two decades. Their songs allow everyone to revisit their past, and outline riddles of present day circumstances that provide a mystical glimpse into the unknown future.
Safe at home—where they belong—in the prestigious sanctum of The Georgia Music Hall of Fame, Widespread Panic’s musical soul will always remain preserved in a perpetual state of grace…