When Mississippi native George McConnell broke out of the local scene and became a member of one of the most popular jam bands of all time, he didn't forget his roots.
A self-described "river rat," McConnell grew up in Vicksburg listening to everything that floated his way, from local bands like Little Red and the Reversibles, and Rufus McKay and The Red Tops, to New Orleans musicians The Meters and Professor Longhair.
If McConnell's name sounds familiar, that's because he got his start in the Oxford-based roots-rock jam-band Beanland. From 1986 to 1993, Beanland played various clubs around the Southeast, including Jackson clubs W.C. Don's, George Street and Hal & Mal's. At the same time, a similarly styled band out of Athens, Ga., was playing the same venues, going by the name Widespread Panic.
By 1993, Widespread Panic had a steady following and several releases to their name. Beanland had opened for Widespread at the Cotton Club in Atlanta and members of both bands had become fast friends. But soon co-founder John "Jojo" Hermann left Beanland to join Widespread as their keyboardist. After Beanland ended, McConnell ran a guitar sales and repair shop in Oxford and in his spare time played with the Kudzu Kings.
"After about six years, I got tired of the retail business and was playing songs with this guy named Daniel Karlish. … I was just strumming and singing songs that I had written and decided to close up the store," he says. "We had about a month (until closing the store) when I got the unfortunate news."
Widespread lead guitarist Mikey Houser had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
"Being old friends with the guys, they asked me to come out, just in case Mikey got a little too ill during one of the shows, which unfortunately happened, and we finished out that tour. A little bit after that tour after everyone had gone home, that was when Mikey passed. The guys went into the studios by themselves and after a couple of weeks asked me to come down. After that I was pretty much with the group," McConnell remembers.
When asked if he ever wishes to go back to the old days playing shows around Mississippi, he says: "In Beanland we had a pretty popular thing going, but a thousand people would be a big show. I'm not going to lie to you; I get stage fright every night."
Fortunately, McConnell chooses to concentrate on the band's music rather than how fans have reacted to his replacing the man who fans worshipped.
"I don't ever give too much thought to that kind of stuff," McConnell says. "My main concern is if the guys in the group are happy. Not to be negligent of the audience or their wishes, but if we were just trying to go up there and recreate the past, I think they would see that. It would not be interesting to them. I think that what first drew the audience to this band was the honesty of the music."
As this will be the band's first Mississippi show since McConnell joined the group, he is eager about his homecoming. He says: "The first band I saw in the Mississippi Coliseum was Kiss in '76 or '77, and it was amazing."
But McConnell says he's not a rock star. He adds:"All my friends and family say, 'Man, you're the same old goofball. Maybe now you can afford to buy us a beer.'"
Widespread Panic plays at the Mississippi Coliseum, Oct. 21, at 8 p.m.. Tickets are on sale now at the Coliseum Box Office, at all Ticketmaster outlets, online at ticketmaster.com or by phone at 601-355-5252.