Arts & Culture
Where do music, food, and football come together? Athens, Georgia
Photo: Terry Manier
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.
Music may still be booming in Athens, but the food and arts scenes are also humming
Farm to table is practically a restaurant cliché at this point, but the folks at the Southern-accented Farm 255 walk it like they talk it. The majority of the food on the daily menu is raised or grown at their Full Moon Farms, just outside of town. Start off with the Bloody Mary made with heirloom tomatoes (when in season) before digging into reasonably priced entrees like a grass-fed steak or the Harvest Plate, an all-veggie entree of the produce picked that morning. 255 W. Washington St.; farm255.com
Five & Ten
Since its opening in 2000, the Five & Ten, located southwest of downtown in the Five Points neighborhood, has become one of the South’s best restaurants. And self-taught chef Hugh Acheson’s American cuisine with French and Italian flourishes hasn’t lost a step. Case in point: His Frogmore Stew (with a leek and tomato broth that makes it akin to a Southern bouillabaisse) is one of the few dishes to remain on the menu since opening day. You’ll sop up every delectable drop. 1653 S. Lumpkin St.; fiveandten.com
Don’t let the vegetarian menu scare you away from this two-decades-old Athens institution—R.E.M.’s lead singer, Michael Stipe, is the restaurant’s landlord—because the zesty food will make a convert out of any carnivore. The falafel is light and greaseless, the homemade veggie burger sublime, and the Grit Staple—pinto beans, brown rice, and onions under a blanket of melted cheese—a simple but oh-so-satisfying blast of protein. 199 Prince Ave.; thegrit.com
Out too late checking out the latest and greatest Athens bands? Soak up the night before with a breakfast at this welcoming joint, east of downtown. The pillowy biscuits are the size of a softball. If egg dishes such as the killer salmon Benedict aren’t your thing, try the Chocolate Cake for Breakfast: a Bundt-style cake topped with espresso drizzle and vanilla whipped cream. 197 Oak St.; eatatmamasboy.com
Hugh Acheson also has a stake in the National, a light and airy spot located in the former plant of a tire manufacturer. The changing menu is decidedly more Mediterranean than the Five & Ten—lima bean soup with chorizo, trout stuffed with spinach and feta—and if you’re there for lunch, there’s a mind-blowing turkey burger special with green chilies and smoked cheddar that should be afforded a regular spot on the menu. 232 W. Hancock Ave.; thenationalrestaurant.com
Athens resident and self-proclaimed Professor of Soul Food Dexter Weaver serves up down-home cooking that is, according to his mantra, “Automatic for the People” (yes, R.E.M. used the slogan for the title of the 1992 blockbuster album). You can’t go wrong with lunch or an early dinner of perfectly fried chicken and sides like the secret-recipe three-cheese mac & cheese and the squash casserole. 1016 E. Broad St.; 706-353-7797
The Caledonia Lounge
Located in a space that formerly housed one incarnation of the 40 Watt, the Caledonia has assumed the throne as the premier place in town for local music. Most of the bands tend toward the indie rock sound, but if it gets too loud, there’s a scruffy patio near the entry that can provide a respite from the noise. 256 W. Clayton St.; caledonialounge.com
40 Watt Club
The mother of all Athens’ live-music venues is still the preeminent place to see national and local acts. Owned by Barrie Buck (ex-wife of R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck), the large square room, which used to be a furniture store, is comfortable even when packed, with some couches and chairs to relax on. 285 W. Washington St.; 40watt.com
Once named the Best Bar in America by Esquire magazine, the Globe may not live up to that lofty title, but it is one of Athens’ most comfortable places to grab a drink. With English pub crossed with Southern shack decor (comfy couches, bicycles hanging from the ceiling), the Globe attracts a mix of university people (both professors and students) as well as locals who order up rare brews like Tusker Lager from Kenya at the horseshoe-shaped bar. 199 N. Lumpkin St.; globeathens.com
What Stumptown Coffee is to Portland, Jittery Joe’s is to Athens. It started as a tiny shop next to the 40 Watt in 1994 but has since expanded into locations around Georgia as well as one in Dallas and New York City. But Athens is home, and at the Broad Street headquarters you’ll find them roasting small batches of the world’s best beans into their intoxicating blends. Offerings vary, but you can’t go wrong with the zippy Whoop-Ass in a Can. 780 E. Broad St. and five other locations in Athens; jitteryjoes.com
While it may look like a dive from the outside, the Manhattan is cozy and welcoming, a favorite place for locals to grab a drink before or after a show. The prices are cheap (mixed drinks go for $4), but you would be remiss in not ordering the house specialty: Maker’s Mark bourbon with spicy Blenheim Ginger Ale. 337 N. Hull St.; 706-369-9767
The Melting Point
Located in an old foundry where blacksmiths once made the UGA arch, the Melting Point attracts an older, more sophisticated crowd enticed by tremendous jazz, country, and bluegrass bookings like singer-songwriters Todd Snider and Loudon Wainwright III. 295 E. Dougherty St.; meltingpointathens.com
Foundry Park Inn
For years, this was the only place worth staying at downtown, but it can be a mob scene on weekends. Still, the staff is very accommodating, and there are a nice pool and spa as well as the Melting Pot venue right across the parking lot. 295 E. Dougherty St.; foundryparkinn.com
Yes, it is part of a chain (owned by Holiday Inn’s parent company), but the Indigo delivers a much-needed hip hangout downtown. It’s a LEED-certified green hotel, with each of the 130 rooms containing dark wood floors, plush beds, and the standard accoutrements (free Wi-Fi, etc.). In a nod to the city, it displays works by local artists in the Gallery. It also presents national acts such as Corey Smith and Holly Williams in the Rialto Room club downstairs. 500 College Ave.; indigoathens.com
Athens is chock-full of thrift stores, but this ramshackle boutique is a notch above. Intermingling within the racks of clothes are antique record player cabinets, funky lamps, and jewelry. 260 W. Clayton St.; 706-316-0130
Channel your inner rock fan by browsing through the T-shirts at this vintage store located next to the National. Many touring bands dump off extra merchandise left over from time on the road. There are classic tees from Athens legends R.E.M. and the B-52s, as well as other eighties icons such as the Replacements. 224 W. Hancock Ave.; gigworn.com
This high-end gift store carries popular national brands, but its strength is representing the local artist community, usually featuring fifteen to twenty artists at a time. Current highlights include colorful but tasteful tie-dyes from Athens textile guru Anita Heady that can be used as curtains or as vibrant table runners. 146 E. Clayton St.; 706-354-8631
Junkman’s Daughter’s Brother
This 15,000-square-foot emporium is consistently voted one of the top twenty-five independent stores in the country. It’s easy to see why: It has everything from the latest outerwear to a huge selection of posters and artwork to a giant selection of costumes to suit any need. This is one you’ll need to see for yourself. 458 E. Clayton St.; 706-543-4454
As legend has it, this is where Peter Buck—then working as a clerk at the store—met future bandmates Michael Stipe and Mike Mills. And it’s still the place to pick up CDs of local acts as well as rare classical and jazz albums. And unlike at most indie record stores, the staff is immensely helpful to both tourists and regulars, befitting the no-attitude vibe that Athens fosters. 197 E. Clayton St.; 706-369-9428 wuxtryrecords.com
SEE & DO
While the Georgia Museum of Art on the UGA campus is closed for a two-year expansion, ATHICA: Athens Institute for Contemporary Art ably fills the void with eye-popping exhibits, such as current works from sculptor and video artist Casey McGuire. The museum houses a commercial gallery and is part of the Railroad Arts District, a giant converted raw factory space with studios for local artists. 160 Tracy St., Unit 4; athica.org
Flagpole’s Athens Music History Walking Tour
A meticulously researched walking tour is a must for even casual music fans. See the site of the old church where R.E.M. held their first practice. And the still-operational Morton Theater, one of the first African American–owned and –operated vaudeville theaters, which morphed into a practice space for various bands in the eighties and nineties. flagpole.com/guide
Museum Mile Tour
This historian-guided tour is a two-hour exploration of Athens’ four unique house museums. In each fully restored house, you will see a different era of Athens history, from the 1820 Church-Waddel-Brumby House, to the 1840s Taylor-Grady House, and the 1850s Ware-Lyndon and T.R.R. Cobb Houses. 280 E. Dougherty St.; athenswelcomecenter.com
State Botanical Garden of Georgia
Three miles south of the UGA campus—but owned and operated by the university—is this gorgeous 313-acre complex with a dozen separate gardens. Wander around the more than five miles of walking trails or, better yet, take a 1½-hour tour to make sure you don’t miss a single plant. 2450 S. Milledge Ave.; uga.edu/botgarden
Four Athens locals who bring as much as they give
A Band’s Best Friend
Simply put, the Athens music scene would not be what it is today without Jared Bailey. Like many longtime residents, Bailey came to Athens for college and never left. After graduating in 1983, he worked at various clubs, even eventually becoming a part owner of the 40 Watt Club. In 1987, he launched Flagpole, the Athens alt-weekly. For Bailey it was a vehicle for promoting local bands. In 1997 he launched AthFest, a downtown music and arts festival that drew a modest crowd of 1,000 its first year. This year’s extravaganza—to be held June 23–27—is expected to draw more than 60,000. And while Bailey has firmly left his mark on Athens, he’s still driven to do more. He’s running for a spot on the county commission, with one of his objectives being to create a government agency to advocate on behalf of the music and arts communities. “All of these great artistic cities like Austin and Seattle have these in place,” he says. “Why shouldn’t we? We’re smaller but just as mighty.”
The Man Behind R.E.M.
After thirty years together, R.E.M. is synonymous with Athens. And since their inception in 1980, their career has been guided by Downs, the band’s lawyer and manager. And unlike most bands that become superstars, R.E.M. has stayed true to their roots. Most of the band members as well as Downs make Athens their permanent residence. The band’s headquarters is still on College Avenue in a nondescript building that holds countless photos, platinum albums, and other memorabilia. Downs is actually a rabid Georgia Tech fan, growing up in Atlanta, but attending law school at UGA. People put up with his allegiances because the band and Downs remain active in local social, political, and education causes as well as investing in the city (Downs is part owner of the National restaurant). “This is our center of gravity,” says Downs, the fastest-talking man in the South. “I can’t imagine leaving, even when the band decides it’s done.”
The Chef on a Mission
With his much-lauded Five & Ten restaurant, Acheson single-handedly put Athens on the foodie map. But that was never the goal. “I just wanted a community restaurant that serves as a teacher,” he says. “It teaches the customer about new foods, and it teaches us about the never-ending story that is good food.” So far, Acheson has earned straight As. Born in Canada, he bounced around the country cooking in various restaurants—including a stint with Gary Danko in San Francisco—before settling in Athens, where his wife is originally from. He’s since formed a mini-empire with the Five & Ten, the National, a wine store, a cookbook deal (coming in 2011), and his first foray into Atlanta, Empire State South, a meat-and-three set to open in August in Midtown. But don’t expect Acheson to leave Athens for big-city lights. “Athens is a true Southern town,” he says. “And the history of food is here in the South. They serve the pretty stuff elsewhere.”
The Celebrated Potter
Though she works in Athens, Wood spends most of her time in the country, wandering around her thirteen-acre spread south of town and driving back roads in search of inspiration. In the course of her thirty-five years in Athens—she came to UGA’s art school to paint—she’s become one of the most respected ceramic makers in the world, firing up dinnerware, bowls, and serving platters, each painted in her trademark vibrant colors and designs. She employs eight people in her studio east of downtown, sometimes filling more than a hundred orders per week. And though she gets her clay from a supplier in Asheville (“All of the Georgia clay was used up by the folk potters,” she says), she’ll never leave Athens. “I thought about New York, but the rustic South is what gets me going,” she says. “I just like to sit on my front porch, watch the sun go down, and listen to the birds and crickets.”