City Portrait: Athens, Georgia
Where do music, food, and football come together? Athens, Georgia
I discovered Athens in Minnesota. I was only ten and living in a small farming town thirty-five minutes from the Twin Cities. It was the day before Thanksgiving in 1981, and I was hanging out at a friend’s house. His older sister was way into music—and thus became my earliest rock-and-roll guiding light—and she kept playing a certain song over and over again. I meekly knocked on her bedroom door. She opened it a crack. “What?”
“Who is this?” I stammered.
“It’s this band, R.E.M. They’re from Athens, Georgia.”
“I really like it.”
“Yeah, it’s great. I’m going to see them tomorrow night in Minneapolis.”
Door slammed. After she left, I snuck into her room and found the 45 still in the record player. R.E.M.’s “Radio Free Europe.” I made a mental note, went home, and immediately called my local radio station begging to hear the song. After an hour, I heard that kick-kick-kick-crash drum opener, the sparkly, ringing guitars, and lead singer Michael Stipe’s mumbled vocals. I pushed record on the cassette player and in just under four minutes, I had my own copy. I probably listened to the song twenty times in a row. My musical nut had been cracked wide open.
While Minneapolis had its own fabulous music scene in the eighties, Athens went toe to toe and became to me this mythical beacon calling me to the South. It was the epicenter for bands like Pylon, Love Tractor, Guadalcanal Diary (okay, they were technically from Marietta). In devouring every article I could find in Rolling Stone, it seemed all the groups got along and everyone was welcoming and friendly—a collage of arty types who had an air of being courtly Southern gentlemen and women. R.E.M. was on their way to becoming one of the biggest bands in the world, but instead of talking trash about them, most of the community was thrilled. When I finally made it to Athens for the first time in April of 1990, my visit coincided with the legendary 40 Watt Club’s opening in their current home in a former Furniture Mart building on West Washington Street. “If the 40 Watt ever closes,” says Patterson Hood, the Drive-By Truckers frontman and unofficial Athens musical mayor, “I’ll put a for-sale sign in my yard.” I couldn’t get into the Pylon show, but after begging and pleading (and flashing my Minnesota driver’s license), I was let in to see the garage rockers Flat Duo Jets. The club was heaving with rabid fans. “Athens is more home to me than my hometown,” Hood says.
Beyond the Music
Of course there’s more to Athens than music; there’s also that little college called the University of Georgia. The gorgeous redbrick buildings of North Campus spill into the funky downtown, which is mostly blissfully free of chain stores (Starbucks, be damned!). The campus rolls down the hill to the east of Lumpkin Street, becoming more of a mishmash of architecture in South Campus, until the Himalayan-size decks of the 92,000-seat Sanford Stadium loom before you. Ah, the Bulldogs. The legend of Vince Dooley still looms large, despite his long-running feud with the gruff university president Michael Adams—who fired Dooley and survived a no-confidence vote by faculty in 2004, making him as popular in Athens as the parking tickets issued by the ever-vigilant police. Dooley, the former athletic director and football coach—who brought UGA its second and last national title in 1980—remains an active member of the Athens community, enjoying his second calling as a respected horticulturist.
The blossoming restaurant scene has become a source of local pride as well. What was once a bastion of burrito, pizza, and BBQ joints (R.I.P., Walter’s) is now as cosmopolitan as nearby Atlanta. Kick-started by the vegetarian joint the Grit—whose building is owned by Michael Stipe—the food rush shifted into overdrive with chef Hugh Acheson and his now iconic Five & Ten in the city’s thriving Five Points neighborhood southwest of downtown. The art scene has flourished as well, with numerous galleries featuring local artists and the 2002 opening of ATHICA: Athens Institute for Contemporary Art in the Railroad Arts District.“The one progression that has taken place in the last few years is that artists are starting to view themselves as part of a cultural industry that is no different than any other vital growing industry,” says Laura Nehf, president of the Athens Area Art Council.
Keeping the Beat
But make no mistake, it’s still the music scene that is the engine of the Athens bus. Music author Richie Unterberger once said, “Athens is a sleepy town where it’s difficult to imagine anyone working up a sweat, let alone playing rock music.” And it’s true to a point: Yes, you can live well pretty cheaply in Athens—it’s often mentioned as one of the best places to retire due to the low cost of living and cultural offerings. But sleepy doesn’t mean lazy. The local alternative weekly Flagpole estimates there are more than four hundred bands grinding it out in Athens. And it’s not just indie rock, there’s the hard-driving Southern sounds of the Drive-By Truckers, the flamboyant David Bowie disciple Kevin Barnes and his fellow merrymakers in Of Montreal, the alternative bluegrass stylings of the Packway Handle Band, and the honky-tonking Kinchafoonee Cowboys (the last two are some of the headliners of June’s AthFest, a music and arts festival that began in 1997 and last year attracted more than 60,000 people to downtown).
And while walking the tree-saturated streets of the Boulevard and Normaltown neighborhoods this spring, I heard the sidewalks rumble. Out of the low-slung bungalows, I heard various bands practicing—one that sounded great, a few that were decent, and some that should definitely keep their day jobs. But the spirit was there, a creative ribbon that lasted through the night, when I ended up at the Caledonia Lounge, hanging out on the patio talking with new friends and old, each with that hazy Southern charm, but genuinely interested in conversation. Inside as the band took the stage, I was served a beer by the guitarist in one of my favorite new Athens bands, Maserati. I was dumbfounded, but that’s Athens, where everyone’s doing what they need to do to keep the creative juices flowing. And again I felt like I was home. I may not live there now, but I will someday.