Interview: Widespread Panic’s John Bell Keeps His Shiny Side Up

According to John Bell, the title track of Widespread Panic's eleventh studio album, Dirty Side Down, arrived almost as an afterthought.

On the group's final day of recording, guitarist Jimmy Herring and his guitar tech, Eric Pretto, arrived at the session on motorbikes. "I was feeling pretty rock and roll now that we had a motorcycle in the band," says Bell, who proceeded to write a song that offers a low, rumbling invitation to join or continue a trip long in progress, the trick being "to keep your shiny side up and your dirty side down." While writing the song, Bell says he came to the realization that "riding a motorcycle is like skiing. It's not about getting from point A to point B but more about the road itself. While I was writing it, though, I felt like Brian Wilson sitting in his bedroom writing songs about surfing. I mean, I ride a bike and that's about it."

Turns out that the idea of keeping your shiny side up, by doing good works and generally maintaining a positive presence in an uncertain world, is an essential part of John Bell's core philosophy. This might have something to do with the Bio-Regenerative Scalar Wave Energy Field he basks in at the holistic wellness center he built with his wife, Laura Bell. But I suspect it goes deeper than that. John Bell and Widespread Panic have long mixed their exotically finessed Southern-rock sound with social service, as the band's lead singer and primary songwriter recounted during a recent phone chat from his mountain home in Georgia.

HeadCount: I couple of years ago I read that you and your wife were building a wellness center together. Is it finished? What’s happening with it?

John Bell: My wife is a therapist-counselor, so she works out of the Cedar Heights Center in Clarkesville, Georgia. She does family counseling, stuff like that. We have yoga and meditation classes, too. It’s one of those old houses where you couldn't use the second floor back in the day because it was too hot, being in Georgia. But we created a huge room upstairs to facilitate 40 people sitting down or 12 to 15 people doing yoga and stuff like that. This quarter we’ve programmed classes about infant massage, cooking, creative writing, and photography.

We've got an energy room where you just sit down on these lounge chairs and experience a bioactive field that recharges your body on a cellular level. It originated back with Tesla and his discovering scalar waves. We have 16 computers lined focusing on a center spot in the room and creates this field. It’s pretty intense. It knocks down all the electromagnetic fields, which is kind of counterintuitive considering all the electricity bouncing around in there. I’d say 95 percent of the people who use it start feeling it within their bodies within five minutes. We’ve had folks in there for two hours. It’s way beyond my comprehension as to how it actually works. But if you wanted to check it out, so it doesn’t sound so strange or mystical, there’s a picture of it on our website. It's called the Energy Enhancement System, and you can find a more thorough explanation of how it works on their website. Folks come in there with old injuries, even a broken ankle as a kid, and they start feeling the pulse on it. It detoxes you, so we put people in there with a lot of water and recommend they take a salt bath afterward.

Are you a yoga devotee, too?

I am engaged but not currently practicing. I have a little routine I use on the road. It helps me wake up in the morning and feel like I’ve done something.

Does the Cedar Heights Center dovetail with your work with Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) through Hannah’s Buddies?

Hannah’s going to make her first visit up here in June, and we’re pretty excited about that. We have a handicapped ramp and it’s open for business. We’ve had folks come in and use the Energy Enhancement room with their autistic children, as well as a lot of folks with cancer and other pretty serious illnesses.

Tell us about your work with Hannah’s Buddies and SMA.

On our goddaughter Hannah Elliot's first birthday, we had a party. All the other kids were walking, but Hannah was still kind of crawling and even dragging her knees. Her dad said, "You know, that looks weird." So her parents got it checked out and found she had spinal muscular atrophy, which was a gene common to both parents that had popped up in their little girl. Since we were Hannah's godparents, and good friends of her parents, we wondered what we could do. It turned out to be pretty easy to put together an annual event that combines a golf tournament, a silent auction, and, at the end of the evening, a concert. We just had the 11th annual Hannah's Buddies Charity Classic in Orlando in February [the event's performers included Bell, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Col. Bruce Hampton, and Jimmy Herring], and we've probably raised nearly two and a half million dollars for SMA research so far.

Does Widespread Panic have a philanthropic foundation or anything of that nature as a band?

We do a Tunes For Tots concert every year in Atlanta. It's usually before our New Year's Eve run, only at a smaller venue with a bigger ticket. That brings in about 150 grand and all the money goes to various Georgia school systems for their music and arts programs – because that's the stuff that's getting cut. It’s really a shame. Recess and art were just about the only things I had fun doing in school. It seems counterintuitive to me not to want to expose kids to their own creative abilities, to help them discover where their creative talents lie and nurture that. I'd think that might prepare you for a happier, healthier, more successful life than a lot of other stuff they’re pumping into you.

We’re also involved with rebuilding the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans as part of Brad Pitt's Make It Right project. We donated a house down there, and our fans got together and started their own foundation to raise money to help build other houses down there. There’s only so much you can do as a business. But when the fans get in on it, every little bit starts to count and adds up to make a huge impact.

Any other worthy projects involving Widespread fans?

I like what they’re doing with the Make It Right Foundation, but there’s also a group called Panic Fans for Food that started collecting food and cash donations in the parking lots at concerts, then delivers them to local food banks. But that’s blown up into something else. The guy in charge got a real job at a local food bank in Ashville, North Carolina. Now we network with other food banks around the country through our website, which shows where we'll be participating in food drives, and we print it on the ticket and stuff. As soon as you get the ball rolling, and people show up aware of what’s going on, the effort is minimal. You come into town, the kids know about it, they bring stuff, and the local food bank is ready to receive it. When you have so many people involved, any individual effort is minimal. That’s probably the best, when fans start something on their own and it takes off. We’re beginning to ask around and see if other bands would be interested in joining in. It’s having a good effect. With the economy the way it is, way more people are visiting food banks than ever before.

I'd imagine the BP oil spill is probably a big concern for you as a Georgian if or when it gets picked up by the Gulf Stream.

I’ve got friends in the shipping business down in Mobile, Alabama, and they’re sea creatures who love the beach and have always been attracted to the ocean. It’s really heart breaking to see it spread every morning, It's been more than a month now and they still haven’t capped the thing? It’ll be wack when the Bahamas has a problem because the oil's floated all the way over there. It concerns me, but mostly it just breaks your heart. It’s going to take years and years to alleviate the damage, and I assume there’s going to be some permanent damage, too.

You must feel the red-state blue-state divide pretty sharply down there sometimes.

There are some pretty colorful characters where I live. But I usually find that political disagreements tend to drop into the background when you meet people one-on-one.

Widespread recorded two albums with the late Vic Chesnutt as the band Brute, and you included Chesnutt's "This Cruel Thing" on Dirty Side Down. What made you choose this particular track and what's your favorite memory of Vic?

[Co-producer and engineer] John Keane played us a couple of tracks from some demos Vic had recorded with him but never finished. "This Cruel Thing" spoke to us on a personal level, and it also seemed to have something to say about war and the world at large. At one point during a Brute concert, Mikey [Houser, Widespread's late guitarist and co-founder] nodded at him to take a solo. Vic began dancing around the stage in his wheelchair, just looping and circling. We're a pretty static bunch, even though we have the use of our arms and legs, so it was pretty ironic that Vic was doing all these Spirograph moves all around us while we just stood there. And he knew it.

Read any good books lately?

I discovered the Ringing Cedars series in a health-food store a while back. I'm on the seventh book.