6/7/05 Interview w/ George McConnell (MP3 edition)

Widespread Panic Interview
By Aaron Davis

Listen to Planet Jackson Hole's telephone interview with Widespread Panic guitarist, George McConnell - recorded June 7, 2005.

Part 1 - 5.2 mb

Part 2 - 5.8 mb

Part 3 - 4.8 mb


June 2000 Interview w/ George McConnell

Panic Striken
by Jim Urbanek

George McConnell didn’t just fall off the beer truck. He got off intentionally. When he was in high school, McConnell (BA 86) quit working for his dad’s beer distributorship in Vicksburg to pursue an interest in music that was quickly becoming a passion. It was his brother, Bob, who encouraged him, and 25 years later McConnell is living his dream as a guitarist and vocalist for one of the most famous “jam bands” ever, Widespread Panic.

Though the Atlanta-based band has been touring for nearly 20 years, McConnell has been with the group only since 2002, beginning as a temporary replacement after original guitarist and singer Michael Houser became ill. Houser died as a result of complications from pancreatic cancer in August 2002.

“I’d known the guys since we were in bar bands,” McConnell says of the group, which today also includes John Bell on vocals and guitars; John “JoJo” Hermann on keyboards and vocals; Todd Nance on drums; Domingo S. Ortiz on percussion; and Dave Schools on bass. “I didn’t really know them that personally, but [Houser’s death] appeared to be a sad, terrible shock to everybody.”

Though he’s the first to say no one can replace Houser, McConnell was excited and grateful when the band invited him to stay. His transition was smooth and met with hospitality appropriate to their many years of friendship.

There was life for McConnell before Widespread Panic, however. He started the Oxford band Beanland with Bill McCory (BBA 87) in the early ’80s after they met in an orientation line at Ole Miss.

“In the early days of Beanland, we would come and open for those guys [Widespread Panic] at the Cotton Club [in New York],” McConnell says.

Current Widespread Panic keyboardist Hermann was also a friend from McConnell’s Ole Miss days and played with Beanland in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

“By then Beanland had turned into an electric band with a drummer, bass player and everything,” McConnell says. “So we’re a four-piece band, and we heard about this guy who was always playing that old, raggedy, out-of-tune piano in the Hoka. We went down there to hear this guy, and he was playing old ragtime stuff; Scott Joplin, a lot of Professor Long Hair, Jellyroll Morton and that kind of stuff. We were like, ‘Wow, who is this guy?’”

Beanland recorded a couple of records before Hermann joined Widespread Panic in 1991. After Hermann left, McConnell opened Django’s Guitar, a store on the south side of the Square in Oxford, and played in the Kudzu Kings band. The guitarist says he felt like a kid in a candy store when the call came from Widespread Panic and he began touring with the band.

"I’d never been on a big bus before,” he says. “I’d never been at any of these big places, and we were playing sold-out shows all over the country. We played two sold-out shows in Madison Square Garden.”

McConnell says the day-to-day grind of being on the road, in the bus, in and out of hotels, and waking up not knowing where you are is balanced by the fact that the band is such a good group of guys.

“I really can’t say enough about what good guys they are, and I think that’s why they’ve been able to get along for these many years,” he says. “They are genuinely good friends and get along with each other beyond these concerts, which is a rarity. Think about the Beatles, one of the greatest bands of all time, and they were only together for about 10 years.”

McConnell’s favorite thing about being in the band is creating music. With such a large repertoire, the band doesn’t play the same set every night, typically going three or four shows before repeating a single song. The artist says he believes that is a big part of keeping the fans coming to concerts.

“They [Widespread] have about 11 or 12 studio albums out now, and about three or four live albums, and a list of 50 or 60 cover songs,” he says. “It’s not like most rock and roll bands that do the same set night after night, city after city. The fans never know what we’re going to play. It’s like anything could happen.”

McConnell, who still lives in Oxford, doesn’t slow down much during his rare time off. After getting some much needed rest, he will spend a week visiting his favorite restaurants, pubs and places like Faulkner’s Woods. But before long, you’ll find him in Proud Larry’s, guitar in hand, playing with good friend and fellow guitarist Daniel Karlish in a group called Drunk and Disorderly.

Then it’s back to the grindstone and one sold-out show after another. Constant touring is hard on the mind and the body, but McConnell and the rest of Widespread Panic keep it fresh and fun, all the while managing to turn out new albums on a regular basis. The group released three in 2004 and a live album titled Live at Myrtle Beach on Widespread/ Sanctuary Records in 2005.