Singer finds 'natural adventure' on course

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Every time he takes a stage with Widespread Panic, and that's some 250 times a year, lead singer John Bell must make the familiar music new. His legions of "Spreadhead" followers expect each evening to be a completely authentic experience of Southern jam music that Bell and company started in Athens two decades ago.

To see how he pulls it off musically, watch Bell, 46, play golf. He's on the same quest for the real, only with a club and a ball.

He's out to discover what the environment, his intuition and the moment create.

"This is fun," he says, smiling, as he tees off at Druid Hills Golf Club last week, having driven down from his home in north Georgia. Widespread Panic is on a break between the release of the new CD "Free Somehow" and headlining the Bonnaroo fest in mid-June.

His first drive is average, but he doesn't try another. Unlike most casual golfers who skirt the rules, Bell treats each shot as a unique personal challenge. As in a concert, there are no do-overs. His music, golf and life are played in real time.

Bell is not bothered by marking a 10 (that's not a typo) as his score on a single hole. He does that twice. His sunny disposition does not waver.

Don't call him a purist, though.

"I'm more of the Pigpen of golf!" he says. His flannel shirt and jeans are gone, replaced by an untucked polo shirt, pleated trousers and a Panama hat taming his shoulder-length graying hair.

Evolution of Bell's passions

Golf gave rise to Bell's musical style. His music, in turn, transformed golf into a new quest.

He learned the game as a kid in Cleveland, where by age 10 he had already played some of the best courses in Jack Nicklaus country. By 17, he had already shot 74, almost par.

He was a "feel" player, driven not by technique but by a vision of how a ball should move between grass and sky. He's still that way, as shown by his best shot of the day.

About 20 yards below the mounded second green, he putts perfectly to a few feet from the cup. It's the kind of creative shot that Tiger Woods pulls off in the British Open, one that most golfers would never think of trying.

As a kid, golf was Bell's opportunity to conquer; team sports had little room for a free spirit.

"In organized sports, they just kept me on the team for entertainment," he says.

He still uses the grooved blade putter from his tempestuous teenaged years ("I had to climb a few trees to get it back," he says of the times he launched the club in disgust). And he still twirls the putter in his hand as he bows to line up a putt, tuning his instinct as he reads the slope.

When he was in high school, his family would drive from Ohio to golf vacations in Sea Island, and that exposure led to Bell attending the University of Georgia. By then, music had replaced golf, partly because a bad sunburn had messed up his swing.

Part of what carried over to music was his belief in his own style. "I was lucky. There were 12 guys in my high school that sang just like James Taylor," he says on the ninth hole. There, he needs four shots to get out of the pine needles and ends up with a quintuple-bogey 10. That gives him a 53 on the front nine, 17 over par.

"That was intense!" he says.

Why no club throwing now?

He explains as the back nine gets underway.

'Like rock and roll'

As Widespread Panic began to build an appeal akin to the Grateful Dead, Bell put up his clubs for 15 years, and when he returned, the music had erased his golf ego.

Jamming night after night, extending the songs depending on the vibe from other musicians and the crowd, had transformed how he viewed golf. The two became so intertwined that on show days, he'd play a round then perform in his golf clothes and spikeless shoes.

He rates Woods as golf's equivalent of Delta blues guitarist Robert Johnson.

"Golf is so much like rock and roll," he says. "Anything can happen. You try to do your best, but you're constantly having to make adjustments. It doesn't even have to be with the music on stage. It could be the bus breaking down." Each shot, like each note he played to his audience, reminded him he was truly alive. A good stroke or sound was pure surprise that often transported him into new space and time.

"It's like you get lost in the woods," he says on No. 15 tee, about to do just that. "We start out wanting to do a one-hour set. Then you look up and it's gone 1 hour, 20 minutes. You've lost your way. Time kind of loses its value, becomes distorted. You know what you want and you play and you feel it, and that's the ultimate confirmation that it's happening. You get your brain out of it and you stay in it. You know what song you're singing, but you're lost in it." His drive hooks into the trees.

"Oh, that's beautiful," he says. "This is going to be cool." "Being the ball" is a state of mind most golfers joke about after the catchphrase from the movie "Caddyshack." Bell, though, was serious. He studied "The Rules of Golf," akin to curling up with the Georgia Code, and metaphysical books such as "Golf in The Kingdom" and "The Legend of Bagger Vance."

"There's magic to be had by if you play the ball as it is," he says as he makes an 8.

"I do it because the game opens up and has a more fascinating quality if you play by the rules ... and you've had your natural adventure."

His score irrelevant, Bell is free to absorb everything else on the course. At Druid Hills, Bell notices turtles sunning, a lizard smushed by a golf cart ("poor little dude") and a gingko tree. He talks of the tomatoes, sunflowers and custom rain barrels that he and his wife Laura arranged at their Clarkesville farm.

"This is one of the most pleasant rounds of 110 I've ever had," he says on the final tee.

Make that 111. He was higher than the standard of par by almost 40 shots. Not that it matters to an artist with a self-described "maverick edge."

For 4 1/2 hours he has been nearly anonymous. He has left no trace of his path, carefully repairing all of his divots and ballmarks. But his zen is soon broken.

A few steps off the final green, he is approached by an incredulous club member who has seen about 15 Panic shows.

Brent Dundun, 32, asks Bell to sign a scorecard, and Bell is cool with that. The round ends with a benediction.

The fan: "Rock on man."

John Bell: "Dig it."