Widespread Panic released their first album in 1988, several decades after the first jam bands rose to prominence. Their approach was initially labeled by critics as simply more of the same jam-band fare, despite delivering a melodic punch of Southern-rock with hints of jazz, blues, and even Celtic folk. Widespread Panic were not The Grateful Dead, and they dabbled in several different stylistic areas than the jam-band greats, but it was hard for them to evade the comparisons at first. The jam-band label should imply a tireless touring ethic and a multitude of improvisational ideas both in studio and on stage. However, due to the countless number of middling Grateful Dead imitators throughout the past and present, it’s hard to take every artist within the jam-band scene seriously. As a result, it wasn’t surprising – even in the late ‘80s – that the jam-band classification would be looked upon as a negative, rather than as an embracing of a band’s consistent delivery and wide variety of influences. Widespread Panic persevered through these impatient stereotypes and became one of the best jam-bands alive in the post-Grateful Dead era. Much of this can be attributed to their wide variety of influences, which help comprise their twangy, ambitious, and occasionally comedic sound.
Founded in Athens, Georgia, Widespread Panic immediately showed a separation between themselves and contemporary jam-bands with their 1988 debut, Space Wrangler. Rather than following the route of a group like Phish, who safely played by the Grateful Dead aesthetics of psych-rock and even space-rock, Widespread Panic stayed true to their Southern roots by focusing more on past greats like the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd. They were also fond of contemporaries like the late Vic Chesnutt, whose crafting of lyrically inspiring Americana helped make Widespread Panic one of few jam bands with an actual dedication toward lyrical content, some of it even veering toward the humorous. For example – “Contentment Blues”, a standout on Space Wrangler, is essentially a tribute to chicken: “Got a bucket of fried on the bench beside me, enough chicken for one man’s needs / Life’s been getting a little bit easy lately, been swingin’ from tree to tree.” Such tongue-in-cheek lyrics over rousing blues-inspired arrangements help make Widespread Panic’s sound so unique, despite the fact that their stylistic labeling is often quite the opposite. In an interview with Panic bassist Dave Schools, he noted the influence of contemporaries: “I don’t know how much emphasis on what the craft of songwriting was about until we met people who we considered to be great songwriters like Vic Chesnutt,” he said. “Once we were exposed to [Chesnutt] the studio experience became something totally different.”
Inspiration can often come from unconventional places. Schools also noted how authors like Mark Twain inspire their songwriting through writings that are simultaneously dark and humorous. “You want to talk about art form that also has social conscience then read Huckleberry Finn,” he explained. “Other than McCarthy—there is some humor in his work but it’s very dark—I love the humorist essays.” It goes to show that even non-musical artists can impact musicians, even those as diverse and stylistically breathless as Widespread. Of course there are obvious influences like the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers inherent in their sound, but it’s the other names like Twain and Chesnutt that are especially interesting for a group of Widespread Panic’s nature – constantly engaging and musically diverse, and still chugging along today and selling out shows to enthusiastic crowds. With eleven full-length albums and hundreds of performances available as bootlegs, it’s doubtful that many will ever hear Widespread’s full body of work. For those that have dug in deep, their consistency is surprising; it’s the sort of consistency that is absent among most contemporary jam bands. Such is the reason why Dave Schools is so reluctant to attach the label to Widespread Panic. “We want to shake free of that name, jam band. The jam band thing used to be The Grateful Dead bands,” he said. “We shook free of that as hard as we could back in 1989.” With their influences stretching as far as their repertoire, classifications are best accomplished on a track-by-track basis for Widespread Panic, a group able to combine a plethora of influences into one engaging and original sound.