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Published: 2002/08/25
by Chip Schramm

Mike Houser, the Anti-Rock Star

It's hard to separate the personal from the
professional, when the subject of a writer's work lies
so close to home. Walking the tightrope between
objective music reporting and personal reflection is a
formidable task, now more than ever. When Michael
Houser passed away 2 Saturdays ago, the world lost a
kindred sprit, a great musician, and a spiritually
unifying force. At age 16, I heard the song "Walkin'
For Your Love" for the first time and was immediately
hooked. I have never instinctively loved a band's
music on the first listen like I did Widespread
Panic's before that day or in any time that followed.
I can still remember that trip on the county roads of
rural Alabama like it was yesterday. Driving up
through Coosa County, passing through towns like
Sylacauga up to our final destination on Cheaha
Mountain I saw parts of the state that the casual
traveler would never visit. And that seems like a
fitting analogy to the influence Mike Houser had on
music fans all over the world.

Mike Houser was the anti-rock star. Always shrinking
from the spotlight, never wanting to take credit for
more than 1/6th of his band's success, and almost
hiding behind his mask of wavy blond hair, he was not
the most flamboyant entertainment personality. But
those who were dragged by their toes into the sea of
music and family surrounding the band were privy to an
experience that really can't be measured or described
in absolute terms. He played his role in the band
with a sense of irony that was mysterious and magnetic
at the same time. He was the lead guitar
player, yet seemed content to sit down, stage right,
to reel off his solos instead of jumping around front
and center demanding attention. And his style was so
unique, so inimitable, that it couldn't be compared to
anything else. Sometimes crunching aggressive rock
chords, other times working his way through a minor
scale with eerie meticulousness, and even using
bluegrass changes to link passages in his songs, Mike
mixed up his tricks without ever betraying that
influences that inspired his playing.

Those that knew him personally have made well known
his loyalty to his wife and dedication to family. But
even for those that only saw him in a concert setting
could tell he was far from a wanna-be American idol.
His one vocal track on Till The Medicine Takes,
arguably the strongest album Widespread Panic
released, is a song titled and inspired by his own
son, Waker. Almost everything the band produced had a
positive influence at its core, from a charity poster
they produced, encouraging children to read (a
pro-bono effort) to the songs themselves, full of
meaning and inspirational in every sense of the word.
In the end, Mikey's inspiring tunes of hope and love
are what kept things together and lended a lasting
legacy. On the spring tour especially, "This Part Of
Town" seemed to be the rallying cry for everyone who
had a heart in his or her chest.

Ultimately living life the right way and giving so
much while expecting so little is what helped Mike
Houser foster a legacy. "Don't stop the train." That
quote is the symbol of his unselfishness and
dedication to his brothers on the team. The band will
go on, and what stations it ends up passing through,
only time will tell. But in the last 2 tours he
performed, Mikey espoused the attitude that Widespread
Panic lived on for over 15 years: doing things on his
own terms. Illness surely challenged his body, but it
couldn't temper his spirit. He enjoyed 2 big runs at
his favorite venues, Oak Mountain and Red Rocks, and
lead the pack at Bonnaroo, the greatest music festival
our scene has witnessed to date. He responded by
putting in some of the best performances of his career
and walking offstage with no regrets.

Michael Houser is and was Widespread Panic. He will
be missed.

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