7/27/06 Interview w/ George McConnell


an interview with george mcconnell
by Jonathan Kiersky

An Interview With George McConnell Normally, either Michael Saba or I would do an interview of one of the members of Widespread Panic in the present. Instead, though, this time I’m going to reprint an interview I did with George McConnell three summers ago right before Panic played Red Rocks along with some of the pictures that came from the weekend. I did the interview for a magazine I wrote for in Denver with George because of both of our obvious Memphis ties and because McConnell had been one of my personal favorite guitar players before he had been added as Panic’s guitarist. Of course, with the recent news that George McConnell will be stepping down after the summer tour is finished due to a chronic wrist problem, this will be one of the last shows to see George with Widespread, an unfortunate situation after all of the good times put in by him as both a fan and as Michael Houser's replacement. As a fan myself, it will hurt even more.

Before his gig with Widespread, George was an integral part of both Beanland, The Kudzu Kings and the local Memphis music scene. The other reason I wanted to do the interview with George was due in large part to former Widespread Panic co-founder Michael Houser’s unfortunate and far too soon passing. Part of me wanted to explain George McConnell to all of the Panic fans in Denver and those that would be in town for the shows, the other part of me wanted to depict what George (and JoJo Hermann) meant to a high school kid back in those days.

Beanland was, as many of you know, a big part of this city’s music culture for a period of time and The Kudzu Kings were a subsequent huge part of the Memphis scene. Many of us can remember the days when either one of those bands were on the stage at some bar and the great music that came out of those nights. George McConnell was also the first guy that I saw live (post going to concerts with my parents) that I went home, looked at my guitar in the corner of my bedroom and said ‘I might want to leave this to the professionals’. So, when I looked back at this interview, I saw a lot of what had been and still is on my mind about George McConnell, Widespread Panic and Michael Houser. In this form, and with the pictures that were taken at Red Rocks that weekend, here’s George McConnell in his own words.

JK: When did you know that you had officially been named the new guitarist for Widespread Panic?
GM: You know, I’m not really sure when they officially released it. When I was first going out on tour, it was more just to help out. That was pretty much how it was put at the time. Then, when they first went into the studio for a couple of weeks by themselves, you know, just to kind of hash things out, talk things out and really talk about everything. When they invited me to the studio it was before I was officially invited to join; to record with them on Ball.

JK: Describe the feeling of going from the Kudzu Kings (a bar band) to Widespread Panic. Quite a contrast, I would imagine.
GM: Yeah…it’s (laughing)… it’s an amazing and incredible road thing that they have put together. I’ve been playing with bar bands my whole life and to see this- the thing that really impresses me is it’s something they’ve done on their own, it’s something they’ve invented on their own and organically it’s grown on it’s own. The word ‘family’ keeps coming up over and over again with everybody. It’s such a family organization with the crew and everything to JB and those guys on the stage and they really feel strongly about that. Everybody feels really involved, like you’re really contributing to it so it’s a real family atmosphere- it’s a real support group. In a way, it makes it kind of easy to get in front of a big audience. I’ve been an audience member at Panic shows so many times, to be honest, I just feel like I’m one of the fans that is happening to play guitar. I still have to remind myself, ‘Man, you’re not a fan with a really good seat. You’re supposed to be playing guitar. Quit yelling at JB, quit yelling at Dave. Quit with the, hey JoJo that’s great!’ It’s been a really funky change, to be blunt about it. It’s been a big jump, in that regard. The way the guys and crew have been, it makes it really easy to just feel like I’m playing for those guys and, in a sense, I feel like I’m an audience member. In being an audience member, I know how connected the audience is to each other and they know more information than I do, to be honest with you. So, they all knew what was going on and what was happening even before Mikey had passed and I think everyone understood. Because of this, I didn’t feel tremendous pressure when I was first playing and then later on I did. But, I felt like with the Panic audience- they all know so well what’s going on with the inner workings of the band because there aren’t any big secrets with the band.

JK: How long has it taken you to learn the seemingly endless number of Panic songs and are you finished?
GM: I have not come remotely close. I’m about, as numbers go, the setlist is 350, 400 songs and I probably got 200 that we’ve been playing- maybe more than that. There’s a top ten list that the band has me learning and then I have a top ten list that friends and audience members are asking me to get down. All I want to tell the fans is we are going to pull out the older songs, just be patient (laughing).

JK: Who were some of your influences?
GM: Probably one of my first really early influences was the Allman Brothers. That made a huge impact on me. It was really before I knew that much about music. The twin guitar thing that Duane (Allman) and Dickey (Betts) did- I just love that. What really tore my head off was his slide guitar playing. That was my first real exposure to it. At that time, the Allman Brothers were all over major radio, which was kind of cool to have a southern band kind of get out and do music that I knew and grew up on. Growing up in the south, you grow up listening to the Blues music the same way other kids grow up listening to lullaby’s. At the same time, I was a huge Rolling Stones fan, a huge Led Zeppelin fan. I remember being 6 years old and hearing ‘Hey Jude’ when it first came out on the radio- that was just awesome. The same thing with Led Zeppelin with ‘Stairway to Heaven’ the first time it was on the radio and ‘When the Levee Breaks’ and how heavy that was. I can’t equate it to anything- it’s maybe like when kids first heard Eddie Van Halen finger tap or, for modern kids, the first time they heard Nirvana. That’s kinda what the stuff was back in that time. And all of Rush’s early stuff- there was a grip of incredible music at that time. My more recent hero’s are Warren Haynes, but he’s not really a recent one- I’ve been fond of Warren’s music forever. I think one of the big, more recent freak-outs has been The North Mississippi AllStars. Luther Dickinson just blows me away. Those guys are just phenomenal to me. So is Derek Trucks. He blows me away.

JK: What do you bring to Panic musically?
GM: I’m more of a Rhythm and Blues type player. But, I had other influences. I had a phase in ’78 when the Sex Pistols came through and I just about threw away all of my other records. I was just like ‘F%#(!’- I was in love with Punk rock. The Clash and Black Flag were huge influences. There was no way I could get away from the R&B side with James Brown, Al Green, Ray Charles around, as well as all of the blues players. I had that big Punk rock period and from that I still have to tell myself- ‘hold on George, calm it down’.

JK: What was the mood during the recording of Ball ?
GM: There was not one facet of their lives that was not affected by Mikey’s, first of all getting sick, then his eventual passing. Nobody in the band thought that Mikey wouldn’t finish that tour (Summer 2002) and if you listened to Mikey- he was going to finish the tour, no two ways about it. You know, there’s a lot of dark material, very introspective material on that record. But, the feeling in the studio was not exactly that. There were a lot of stories told, I’ll put it that way. There were a lot of great stories told. I’d be sitting there and all of the sudden some of the guys would start laughing about something and someone would ask ‘what are laughing at?’ “I’m thinking about this time Mikey did this….’ or ‘the time this happened to Mikey.’ A lot of clinking of glasses. The attitude (in the studio) was more of a good drunken wake.

JK: Why, with Ball, did you guys choose not to play your songs live before recording them, as Panic normally does?
GM: You know, I can’t answer that. I had assumed we would be recording some of the wealth of old material that hadn’t been recorded- Bayou Lena, Old Neighborhood, and whatever else cause those are really strong songs. But, they made that decision on their own before I was involved. They called me up and said ‘why don’t you come down and play some guitar on this record.’ It wasn’t anything major at all. That’s how the situation was at the time. When I showed up, it was kind of like ‘well, teach me the songs’ and they said, ‘well, teach us the songs.’ I said ‘What?!’ They said, ‘Come on in, we’ll show you.’ After thirty minutes, they’d say-‘ Okay, that’s a good part right there or this other part works.’ Meanwhile, I’m thinking ‘Holy S&%#! That’s what we are doing!’ That was my first day in the studio, going- I’ve talked about this, dreamed about it and half scared about the whole situation.

JK: Not too many people in Colorado know about Beanland, JoJo and your band from back then.
GM: We started Beanland as a four piece- a drummer, a bassist, and two guitarists. JoJo was moving down south and on his way to New Orleans, he stopped in Oxford, Mississippi to see some friends. But, I think he stopped because his money had run out. He was playing the piano for tips in this place called Hako. We were playing on Thursday nights at this Oxford bar and all of our friends kept saying ‘there’s this incredible piano player that’s playing at the Hoka late night and his name is JoJo.’ So, we go down there and, man, he was playing Professor Longhair and all of this incredible piano stuff. Basically, we said ‘hey man, we got this rock band, we like what you’re doing and we’d like you to come jam with us sometime.’ I think we had one practice with him and after the first two songs, we all kind of looked at each other like it was just like getting drunk and falling off of a bike- it was that simple.

JK: What is your feeling about the fans?
GM: It’s such an incredible feeling because the Panic audience- it’s the best in the world, no two ways about it.

JK: Last year’s Red Rocks show was a poignant one for many reasons. You seemed to take the situation very well, all things considered. The thing that I was most intruged by was the way you seemed to play right off of Mikey?
GM: I learned all new definitions of courage and strength from Mikey. I was blown away by his generosity and his courage was just amazing, particularly about the whole Red Rocks thing. That was one of the neatest things to me about the band was Mikey’s sound. It was so original and so unique. If you heard Mikey play on any record, you immediately knew it was him. It was like hearing Neil Young, you immediately knew it was Neil Young. Mikey just had his own completely original thing, which every guitarist strives for- that original sound. Man, I got to tell you- those guys are so welcoming about it. It’s such a relaxed thing, they make you feel real comfortable about playing with them. Over the years, I’ve sat in with them a bunch of times, like at Red Rocks, and they’ve always been encouraging like ‘hey man, go for it. Don’t worry about it, you can’t mess it up any more than we’re going to mess it up.’