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Widespread Panic's Michael Houser: Eight Years Gone

Michael Houser: The Quiet Genius: Eight Years Gone
By James Calemine

Eight years ago Widespread Panic’s founding guitarist died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 40. It doesn’t seem like eight years since he’s been gone…

Houser proved the quietest member of the group, but his songwriting and guitar playing served as the backbone to Panic’s indelible sound. University of Georgia students John Bell (English major) and Michael Houser (chemistry) struck up a musical kinship around in the early 80s. Bell, from Cleveland, Ohio, and Houser from Boone, North Carolina, began playing guitars, listening to music and writing songs together. They met English major, bassist Dave Schools from Richmond, Virginia, in 1984.

Chattanooga, Tennessee, native Todd Nance joined the band in 1986 after his first show. Sunny Ortiz joined the same year. These five guys served as the nucleus of a brilliant musical odyssey and never wavered in their vision. Todd told me in 2008 about how Widespread Panic formed since Todd knew Houser before anyone else in the band: “So, Mikey went to UGA in 1980–we didn’t see each other until 86 so he and JB (John Bell, Panic guitarist) met each other in 83 or 84. They met briefly and exchanged some ideas and then they didn’t see each other for a while and then they got back together and started playing a little but Mikey would write songs and JB would do them. They’d been together about a year and Dave (Schools) came down from Richmond, which was 84 or 85. So, they had this three-piece, and they didn’t quite consider themselves a band yet. They went through different drummers.

”The reason I fell into it so easy was because Mikey and me really learned music together–he taught me how to play guitar. His compositions made sense to me…where other people’s made no sense at all… for good reason. They were getting frustrated and Mikey said, ‘I know a dude.’ Mikey and I had actually gotten into some trouble together back in Chattanooga and we weren’t really allowed to hang out with each other. He called my Mom–he still had my number–and she gave him the number where I was in Atlanta. I was in Atlanta living in a condo and I couldn’t play because it was too loud–I hadn’t played in almost two years, and two weeks later, I’m playing a gig. That’s when we became Widespread Panic. It was like February 6, and then Sunny came along a few months later–so we’ve had the whole band-with the exception of JoJo…”

Michael Houser played his last show with Widespread Panic in July 2002. He died on August 10, 2002. Six weeks after his sad passing, Door Harp was released. Door Harp contained 14 original Houser compositions recorded at John Keane’s when Houser knew he was dying. On Door Harp, Houser played guitar, mandolin and piano, while John Keane assisted on pedal steel and guitar. It’s one of the most soulful, sad and memorable instrumental albums you’ll ever hear. In 2006, another Houser disc was released, Sandbox, that exudes more of an upbeat, Panic-sounding collection also capturing Houser’s undeniable talent.

Houser insisted Panic continue once he was gone. After four years as Houser’s stand-in George McConnell was replaced by Jimmy Herring as Panic’s new guitarist in 2006. Since then, the band sounds rejuvenated almost as if they are finally beginning to become accustomed to Houser’s passing. Mikey always treated me, like everyone else, with extreme kindness. And so, eight years gone…here’s to you Michael "Panic" Houser…The flag flies at half mast...

As a footnote, Jerry Garcia was born August 1 and died on August 9...


Six Degrees of Swampland: Widespread Panic

Swampland Interview with WSP's Todd Nance

Swampland Interview with WSP's Dave Schools

Swampland Interview with WSP's Jimmy Herring

Swampland Interview with Panic Archivist Horace Moore



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