Widespread Panic founding guitarist Michael Houser passed away 20 years ago today. Here are some of his fellow musicians’ recollections that we ran shortly after his death due to pancreatic cancer on August 10, 2002.
Col. Bruce Hampton:
[Hampton, who passed away in 2017 was the frontman for Aquarium Rescue Unit and later with The Fiji Mariners, The Codetalkers and many other groups. ARU and Panic had a long history together and both toured with the HORDE Festival in 1992 and 1993. Hampton appeared on stage with Widespread dozens of times, dating back to 1989.]
There was probably no better spirit anywhere. The courage he showed was just unbelievable. He was an inspiration to everybody. Its a tough time to talk about it, but he was just an amazing guy. I’ve known him 17 years and I wish I got to hang with him more. We went to ballgames together when neither one of us was working. He was just a quiet, courageous guy, to say the least. I don’t have the guts to face what he faced. I talked to him about 3 months ago. We were the ones crying and he was the one keeping everybody above water. Hes probably the strongest person I’ve ever encountered. He did everything in a quiet way. You just don’t find people like him. They don’t make that type anymore.
[The Phish guitarist guested with Widespread Panic on 10/16/01 in Seattle and 11/11/93 in Los Angeles. Phish and Widespread also played four shows together on the first leg of the inaugural HORDE tour in July of 1992 and opened multiple shows for each other in the early 90s.]
Michael Houser was truly one of the kindest and most beautiful people that I’ve ever met. I say that from the deepest part of my heart. He was unique. The first time I met him was backstage at the Roxy in Atlanta when Phish was opening for Panic. Dave Schools brought me into the dressing room and there he was, kneeling in front of his wife Barbette, who was sitting in a chair. They were holding hands and he was just lost in her eyes, radiating love. I’ve never forgotten that moment. She was pregnant with Waker at the time and it was like they were actually glowing, not even aware of all the noise and commotion around them. Just at peace, floating. He was capable of that kind of emotion and it was beautiful. Just a rare, beautiful thing. I know that people who love his music already know this. We’ll all miss him terribly.
[Haynes (Gov’t Mule, The Allman Brothers Band, Phil Lesh Quintet, Warren Haynes Band) collaborated with Panic numerous times over the years, dating back to July of ’91 in Colorado.]
Mikey was a wonderful spirit. He was one of those guys who was always in a good mood and was always making other people feel better. Musically, he was always exploring. It was all about trying to find some new territory and innocence really took over his musical style. I remember playing with them in 93 in Virginia and it was Freddy Jones Band, my band, Dave Matthews Band and Widespread Panic, and that tells you how long ago that was. I got up and played Low Spark of High Heeled Boys’ for about 45 minutes and it was great. I remember Dave Schools coming up to me and saying you know, Mike does his thing and his thing is like stream of consciousness. He just plays and you just join in there with him. He was trying to prepare me for the fact that it wasn’t going to be like a traditional [jam] it was just going to be like bobbing and weaving and musical conversation. When we got done everyone was smiling and hugging.
Aside from being a stylist on the guitar, Mike had a cool songwriting style as well. His overall sound was such a big part of Widespread Panic. His approach to guitar was a little different than the average person and that helped make Widespread what it was. It was the sum of all those people, but he was a really big part of that sound. Again, he was such a wonderful person to be around, that plays into the music as well. Your spirit comes through your music.
We’ve lost a lot of great people recently and the older we get, that’s going to happen more and more. We just have to seize the day and take advantage of the opportunities that are here now and live life to the fullest. Not to say, to excess, but just enjoy your life and be thankful for the friends you have and the experiences that you’ve had because you never know. We always learn from these kinds of experiences.
Rev. Jeff Mosier:
[Mosier, who played banjo for Aquarium Rescue Unit and later founded Blueground Undergrass sat in with Houser and the band a few times, including an appearance alongside Col. Bruce in August of 2000 at Oak Mountain Amphitheatre in Pelham, AL. Mosier credits the members of Widespread for the existence of BGUG, as their encouragement motivated him to form the band.]
He was one of the sweetest, nicest, most unassuming, egoless cats you’ll ever meet. The reasons for him dying at this age are going on in another department of the universe, because we are certainly not able to understand it in this department. Aquarium Rescue Unit played with Panic in 89 and 90 and I’ve played with them a ton of times. Panic welcomed me and they always made me feel like I could rock as hard as anyone. When you’re a banjo player, you need to have that. I give them credit for helping me understand that I could rock. The last time I played with them at Oak Mountain, while they were filming their video, I stood there right beside Mikey and he just had pure joy in everything he did. That was his home, sitting in that chair. He wasn’t outgoing and he never really got that much into the press, but if you knew him and his wife, you’d just see that he underpinned the vibe of that band. He was one of those guitar players that always played in the music and was never written up for his ability, like a Jimmy Herring, but he underpinned the bands entire sound. Mikey represents the most pristine of all support musicians. Even though he was a fundamental part of the band, he was just an incredible supporter, not only in his stage presence, but by letting JB and Dave do their thing. Kind of like Mark Vann, you don’t really notice it until he’s gone.
[Leftover Salmon’s versatile co-founder (mandolin, fiddle, guitar) sat in with Widespread Panic a number of times during Houser’s tenure with the group, joining them in October of ’96, June of ’97 and twice in July of 1998.]
We did some touring with Panic and I got to sit in with them a bunch, which was really great. When I’d sit in, I’d sit down with Mikey and he’d show me the chords to the tunes. I remember one time in particular, sitting on his tour bus, just the two of us and we just really connected. I remember him telling me that in high school he was the only musician that could play all of Freebird. He knew the whole solo and I just thought that was really cool and really funny. He said that was his claim to fame in school and we were laughing about that. It’s hard to imagine the band going on, in their case and in our case because the sound changes so much when you lose someone so integral to the band. It’s really tough at first. Somehow, the music does go on and the energy goes on. I think the people that leave us, that’s what they would want; for the music to go on and for the fans to keep supporting the band even though it’s not the same and you really miss those people. I really feel that there can be a new birth of a band. The music can be reborn. It’s really, really tough and there’s no way to replace those people and I don’t think that’s the idea, but we need try to keep the music going. That’s all we can do is keep moving ahead. Life goes on.
[Count M’Butu (Aquarium Rescue Unit, Derek Trucks Band, Parliament Funkadelic) passed away in July 2021. He appears on Panic’s Live in the Classic City, recorded on April 1, 2000 in the band’s hometown of Athens, GA. He jammed with the band many times, starting in the mid 90s].
During the HORDE tour, I got a chance to know him and hang out and listen to their music. I really liked his approach to music. To me, music is like having a conversation. Playing with Michael was always easy. When I’d work with him, we’d sit down in the dressing room and talk about the show and then we’d just go on the stage and do it. I call it to conversate and that’s something that he was really good at; communicating with other musicians. He was really special.
[Lewis, who co-founded the Dirty Dozen Brass Band has joined Panic on saxophone numerous since 1998, when DDBB opened Widespread’s Halloween show in New Orleans. Lewis also appears the band’s 2000 live album, Another Joyous Occasion.]
He was one of the nicest guys I ever met in my life. He was a beautiful human being, really soft-spoken. It is really a great loss to the music world. We did quite a few gigs with Widespread Panic. Every time we played together, Michael would always be the guy to show us the parts. He wasn’t loud, he just had a nice warm sound. Great musician. We’ve been tripping out ever since we got the news. [Sunday] night we were in Nashville and we played a song for Mike. Everybody in the audience got real quite. We played Big Chief. You know, he was a lively guy. We didn’t want to send him out on a sad note, so we sent him out on a happy note. He was so well-loved.