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On The String: A Pilgrimage To The Other Athens Of The South

The local music section at Wuxtry Records could fill some other record stores.

Since R.E.M. and the B-52s broke out in the early 1980s, changing the landscape of rock and roll when it badly needed a shake-up, those bands’ hometown of Athens, GA has been a place of myth and mystery to me. I pondered the record sleeve of R.E.M.’s Murmur album, wondering about that railroad trestle to nowhere, covered in kudzu.

My curiosity only grew over the decades as so many bands and artists – Drive-By Truckers, Widespread Panic, Of Montreal, Vic Chesnutt, Lera Lynn, and others - broke out of the small but mighty Athens scene. I swore I’d visit one day, but 40 years later, while I lived in the “Athens of the South” (Nashville) and had even visited Athens, Greece, I’d not made it to that elusive college town just east of Atlanta. Enough was enough. I made a plan, and that’s what led to this music city postcard, Episode 288 of The String.

While Athens and Nashville have limited connections, my first contacts there comprise one of the strongest. WMOT listeners will be familiar with New West Records, one of the standout labels of Americana music over the past 25 years. The company is headquartered in Nashville, but its owner, George Fontaine, lives in Athens, as does his son George Jr. They tend to personal boutique labels – Strolling Bones Records and Normaltown Records respectively - that tap the Athens scene to varying degrees. Normaltown is a historic working class district of the small city. I visited their office – “New West Athens” George Sr. called it – to get oriented and to hear the Fontaines tell me about their view of this unique and improbably potent music scene. George Sr. first.

“I get asked this question all the time. What is it about Athens? I mean, it's legitimate. There's something about the way the city and the school meld together. It's not like any place I've been before. And so there's some weird creative wellspring that just keeps working here, for whatever reason.”

I ask George Jr. if, given the huge impact of R.E.M. and the B-52s, people in Athens regard the city as a nexus point of college rock, later called alternative and indie? He said there’s probably something to that.

“I've had different radio programmers tell me that back in (the 80s and 90s), they would look at what WUOG was playing as to what they should be playing on their radio stations. So really, a lot of that kind of bubbled out of the city and went wider from there.”

George Fontaine Jr. and Sr. at the Athens headquarters for three labels - New West, Strolling Bones, and Normaltown.

Whether it was the small-town factor at work or an incredible coincidence, the Fontaines had two of their labels’ artists playing live shows on the nights I was there at the city’s two most storied venues, the 1,000 capacity Georgia Theater and the 40 Watt, a little less than half that size. At first I thought I’d missed my chance to see a band at the famous 40 Watt, because the headlining “act” was something called Classic City Wrestling, a full-on semi-pro match in a ring built that afternoon in the middle of the club’s floor. But it turns out the promoter who’s building this new franchise weaves music into the experience, so on stage, playing before, during and after the matches, was country rock band The Pink Stones, Normaltown recording artists, playing up on the stage. That’s how Episode 288 starts.

I caught up with their leader Hunter Pinkston before the night’s campy fun. He told me the music scene over the years has alternated between lean times and busy times – and that since the pandemic, Athens has been especially vibrant, and the clubs are full.

“You have, every year, however many new, hip, young kids moving here to go to school that are eager to see music. So new bands start from that, and it just cycles. And then some people stay around. Some people move, you know? I don't know why or how we ended up staying here for so long, but all of us fell into (it). I have a job here. Music is kind of my main thing, but I work here. So it's like, why would I leave?”

Velena Vego, talent buyer for the 40 Watt Club

The Pink Stones, the wrestlers, and every other act that graces the 40 Watt six nights a week is there because of its veteran talent buyer Velena Vego, one of the most influential figures in Athens music. She came at age 19 to be in a band and played the early locations of the venue. Then she shifted her focus and made herself useful at the club. Before long she was the band booker and has been now for 33 years. She brought in touring acts before we’d all heard of them (Nirvana for $1,500!) and gave every Athens band you’ve heard of today early opportunities while they were developing.

“All of them had very small audiences at first, but we truly believed in them, and we did not care, and we just loved them so much. And so they continuously came and played for us. And that's why I think we get so many underplays (when big acts play small venues). When I go, ‘I can't believe you're playing the 40 Watt again,’ they're like, ‘Why wouldn't we? You gave us our start.’”

The Georgia Theater has a remarkable history that owes a lot, again, to George Fontaine. When he lived in Athens as a young man in the 1970s, he was inspired to put together a consortium of investors to bring the old showplace back from the dead. It hosted every important Athens band and legions of important touring acts coming through for decades. Shockingly, most of the building was gutted by fire in 2009. But the city rallied, with the help of a fund-raising concert by The Zac Brown Band, and it reopened with even better amenities in 2011. I thought of all that commitment as I took in a Friday night show by songwriter/band leader Spencer Thomas.

Spencer Thomas leads his band on stage at the Georgia Theater

Thomas has been a hired member of Athens breakout band Futurebirds for about four years, but he’s always had his solo career top of mind. And on this evening, he was releasing his album The Joke Of Life on Strolling Bones Records. Both Fontaines were at the show, hanging out together, which struck me as charming - not your usual rock and roll father/son situation. On my final day in town I got to interview Spencer about his experience with the city.

“Nobody is unapproachable, no matter how far everybody climbs. I can meet Mike Mills (of R.E.M.) at Flicker Bar and have a nice conversation with him, and he doesn't tout one thing about what he's achieved or done. He's just there hanging out like everybody else. Or David Barbe, or anybody from the Drive-By Truckers. And it's so nice to be a part of that, and to have etched a small mark of my own history in Athens, knowing the richness of its culture.”

Brian Powers
David Barbe

That brings us to David Barbe, who’s emblematic of Athens’s small but impactful recording scene. He’s been in town more than 40 years and besides his years as a punk rocker, band leader, bass player, and record producer/engineer, he’s the current director of the UGA Music Business Program, a vital cog in the Athens music wheel. But I find him at the studio he co-owns, Chase Park Transduction, a workspace for Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes), Kevn Kinney of Drivin and Cryin, Bettye LaVette, Athens staple Bloodkin, Kelly Hogan, and the mighty Drive-By Truckers. Barbe has produced a number of the Truckers albums, and he spoke about his early days when he caught its founding songwriter Patterson Hood as a solo artist.

“I went because he's a nice guy. I went to his show and realized this guy's just a great songwriter, and of course, his partnership with (fellow songwriter Mike) Cooley is incredible. They have had an impact on the scene here, because they have been so huge. They're such a great part of the community. But, I mean, Patterson, especially when he lived here, was all about the cool stuff that goes on here.”

No trip to Athens would be complete without an R.E.M. pilgrimage. That band changed my outlook on music, the South, and even myself in the early 1980s. I had lunch at Weaver D’s, the soul food restaurant with the sign out front that inspired the title of Automatic For The People. I saw the bell tower that’s left behind from the demolished church where the band gave its first public performance. And in the radio episode, you’ll hear me seek out what’s left of the trestle from the Murmur cover.

For even better perspective on how R.E.M. shaped Athens, GA, I got time with their lifetime friend, advisor and legal counsel Bertis Downs. He reminded me that the band never moved away. They’re hometown guys, and they stay involved. They’ve stayed humble, right down to where they live.

“It's good to have a home base,” says Downs. “The houses that the guys live in, and myself, were all bought in the mid 80s. It's not like they were doing fabulously well and had all kinds of money. But they were doing well enough to buy a modest house in a modest neighborhood, which they still live in. And I do too. When they considered moving to a bigger metropolis, the idea of being able to live on a quiet street in a nice college town, walking distance from downtown with a music scene? You can't replicate that other places.”

Bertis Downs

Also in the hour, join me for a visit to the famous Wuxtry Records, the jam-packed store that’s been doing business on the same corner since 1976. I meet shopkeeper Robert Brown. And I sit down with local concert booker Troy Aubrey, who for 20-plus years has been curating Athfest, an annual music and arts event that just took place a week ago as of this writing.

Finally, some bonus content that couldn’t get packed into the hour. Randall Bramblett is a longtime New West Recording artist, a keyboard and sax player, a brilliant singer and songwriter, and a veteran sideman from the southern rock and blues scene. He’s the longest-standing Athenian that I met, as he moved to town in 1970. He was a member of Sea Level with Chuck Leavell, the band that played opening night of the refurbished Georgia Theater. He’s toured with Gregg Allman, Traffic and Widespread Panic. He’s one of my favorite all-around artists, so it was a treat to sit outdoors with him and have the following conversation.

A conversation with Randall Bramblett

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of <i>The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org</i>