Can you believe it has been ten years since Mike Houser died? What began thirty years ago as a pair of guys who liked to play music together – John Bell and Mike Houser – has grown exponentially into one of modern Southern culture’s musical mainstays. Sadly, Houser succumbed to pancreatic cancer in 2002, but he’s still with us in a lot of ways— from his brilliant playing on Widespread Panic’s albums and in concerts to those stickers with his sitting-down-to-play silhouette that I see on the back of a car every now and then.
I first saw Widespread Panic live back in the early 1990s at an outdoor venue in southern Montgomery County called Sandy Creek, which was basically an open field down a one-lane dirt road, and at the time I had no idea who they were. I had seen this bright orange poster on a phone pole for a band that was playing out there and decided to go. Shows at Sandy Creek always made for a good time. Bringing your own cooler was easy enough, and the crowds contained an unpredictably eclectic mix of rednecks, stoners, college students, bikers, undercover cops and other sundry characters. But Sandy Creek is closed now, and I don’t remember much about that show at all . . .
My second Widespread Panic show came almost ten years later, in May 2001, the week before my wife and I got married, at Montgomery’s Garrett Coliseum, an agricultural arena with horrible acoustics. The sound was terrible up in the seats, but not knowing this, my then-fiancée and I had not bought floor tickets, thinking that in a small venue just about any place we sat would be fine. We could see well enough from where we sat, but the music arrived to our ears as an indecipherable scramble of sound and the vocals were totally incomprehensible, too. We couldn’t even tell what songs we were hearing, and eventually we got up and left before the show was over, since there was no buying floor tickets on-site. (You made your bed, now lie in it.) On the way out, I stopped and bought the tee-shirt from the show, which I can’t even wear anymore; since I was completely unaware then that my new marriage would be packing some pounds on me in the coming years, I now have a shirt that fits like me like a Hooters’ waitress— only I don’t look like a Hooter’s waitress in it.
Widespread Panic’s first album, Space Wrangler, came out in 1988, but I didn’t buy it until much later. In ’88, I was a fourteen-year-old who was just discovering music, putting far more energy into digesting the classic rock bands of the 1960s and 1970s. All of my focus was on Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath and Jimi Hendrix or on then-new Sunset Strip metal bands like Guns N’ Roses. Widespread Panic, which was then simply called Panic, had begun forming a few years earlier in Athens, Georgia. By 1988, as Widespread Panic was really emerging, I was playing junior high football, and trying to learn to play the guitar. By the time I saw that show at Sandy Creek, alternative and grunge music were in full swing, and all the cool kids were cutting off our hair, growing hair on chins, and tying our flannel shirts around our waists. (We didn’t have to switch over to torn jeans, combat boots, and tee-shirts with rude slogans, because we already had that down.) It would be a couple of years before I would latch on to Widespread Panic.
I didn’t really take notice of Widespread Panic for another year or so. In 1994, the song “Can’t Get High,” from their Ain’t Life Grand album, got a little bit of air play on rock and college radio, and it seemed like all the college kids who got sick of grunge got hooked on this nouveau hippie thing: Panic, the Black Crowes, Blind Melon. I remember hearing the DJ on Auburn’s student station WEGL talk about Widespread Panic, and thinking, Heck, I remember them. I was about twenty years old and midway through college. I can remember damn near everyone I knew having copies of that album, then Bombs & Butterflies and Light Fuse, Get Away and ‘Til the Medicine Takes in their CD collections in the mid- to late-1990s, all of those worn-out discs laying in a pile right next to other worn-out copies of Nevermind and Ten. The college-hippies were wearing their blue-butterfly tee-shirts around campus with their cut-off cargo pants and Birkenstocks, a hippie-wanna-be pipe-dream that was a preamble to graduating, donning a suit and going on job interviews.
In an article in one of my old Relix magazines from October 1999, writer Wright Thompson pretty much lays out the late-’90s Widespread Panic craze:
The inability to nail down a solid definition or description of Widespread Panic is a large part of what inspires people to follow the group all over the country. Individual people have a myriad of different reasons for seeing the band. “If you ask five different people, you get five different answers,” [bassist Dave] Schools said. (17)
Later in the same article, Thompson writes a little more about their exponential growth in popularity:
What started out with two people [a singer-guitarist, John Bell, and a lead guitarist, the late Mike Houser] driving around the Southeast has transformed into a thriving community, complete with print publications, radio shows, Websites, and the always powerful word of mouth. (17)
As for me, my favorite Widespread Panic song is easily “Tall Boy.” Wait, or maybe it’s the live version of “Travelin’ Light” on Light Fuse, Get Away. But then again, I also really like the album version of “Ain’t Life Grand.” And “Waker” on Live in the Classic City. And “Big Woolly Mammoth.” And— dammit, I can’t pick one! I like so much of their music . . . Apparently, so do a lot of other folks, even Georgia’s state legislature:
Although, I do have to admit that I’ve gone through spells with Widespread Panic. After losing interest sometime in the late ’90s, I picked them back up again Don’t Tell the Band and Live in the Classic City. At some point in the early 2000s, a lot of bands, Widespread Panic among them, began releasing what seemed like a lot of albums, mainly live ones and from-the-vault recordings, about the same time my wife and I began having kids, and the money just wasn’t there to keep up. I managed to get a handful of things from that flood of releases; some of my favorites are Live in the Classic City, the first of moe.’s multi-disc Warts & All sets, and a LivePhish set from Halloween 1999.
I jokingly declared in 2011 that I desperately needed to go to a Panic show that year to keep up my tradition of seeing them live at least once every ten years . . . but that didn’t happen. I had actually had an offer of tickets to the show that became the three-disc Live in the Classic City CD, but I had something else going on, and couldn’t go. I’m ashamed myself of every time I think about the times that I have turned down concert tickets, including an offer to go with friends to a Grateful Dead show in Birmingham in 1994, only a few months before Jerry Garcia’s death . . .
At this point, Widespread Panic is just as much a part of Southern culture as Lynyrd Skynyrd ever was. Just like we all can sing along to “Sweet Home Alabama,” just about any shaggy-headed frat boy on just about any college campus across the Deep South probably owns at least one piece of Panic merchandise, albeit a tee shirt or one of those white oval-shaped WP stickers. Whether he has actually seen a show or not is a little more iffy.
Once, this girl at the high school where I teach tried to go scuttling past me into homeroom when I noticed her Arm & Hammer take-off “One Arm Steve” tee-shirt. I could tell when she saw me looking at her that she probably just knew I was going to give her a tardy and a scolding. But instead I waited until she grabbed the door handle to the room next to mine and I sang, “One Arm Steve, yeah he threw me out the door . . .” She looked at me, first surprised, then relieved, smiled and went on in. I was just thankful she didn’t have on a shirt that would have had me singing “Flat Foot Floozie” to her!
All this reminiscing has me thinking that it’s about time I picked up a new Widespread Panic album. Their umpteenth album, Wood, came out a few weeks ago, on October 16, and that may be the one. The newest music from the band that I own is the one track on the compilation CD from the 2004 Bonnaroo, which opens with them doing “Tall Boy” with Dottie Peoples and the Peoples Choice.
I can’t believe it has been ten years since Mike Houser’s death, or that it has been twenty years since my first Panic show. RIP Sandy Creek, and RIP Mike Houser. There are a whole bunch of us who miss you both.