Athens Music Today
With the City Series, TIDAL investigates the local music scenes of U.S. cities. Enlisting the expertise of a locally-based music writer, we explore the past, present and future of music in each town. In this installment of Athens, GA, Gabe Vodicka details the sounds of the Athens scene today.
Once you dismiss metropolises like New York, L.A. and Austin, you’re hard pressed to find a city as musically radiant as Athens, GA.
With a mere 115,000 person population, the Southern college town perspires with quality music – notably in the realms of rock, pop and country – as it has done consistently for decades.
Though it’s best known by outsiders for the 1980s college-rock scene that spawned R.E.M. and The B-52’s, Athens’ music community is as fertile today as it has ever been.
And once you get past the more recent marquee names, like Drive-By Truckers, Kishi Bashi, Reptar and of Montreal, the local scene continues to thrive, thanks to a bustling network of musicians, clubs, promoters, labels, festivals, media and a truly unique resource center.
Rock and roll is Athens’ bread and butter. But some of the most exciting sounds being made in the Classic City aren’t guitar-based at all.
The 2012 arrival of musicians Grant and Rachel Evans—the latter of whom records as acclaimed synth-drone outfit Motion Sickness of Time Travel—and their Hooker Vision label was a shot in the arm for Athens’ avant-garde music scene, which has blossomed over the last two years.
Along with local fixtures like Killick and Don Chambers, a tight-knit group of young, like-minded musicians and performers has surfaced. Support from the University of Georgia’s student-run radio station, WUOG 90.5 FM, as well as various open-minded venues, has put experimental music in the town’s ear.
Athens’ hip hop community has also seen substantial growth over the last few years.
Though it has long been overshadowed by nearby Atlanta, the Rap Capital of the South, Athens’ scene is booming in its own right thanks to a cabal of strong-willed MCs and producers, as well as the work of key promoters and increased attention from local media.
Along with the rise of MCs like Tony B, Blacknerdninja, Dictator and Versatyle tha Wildchyld, Athens has produced some noteworthy producers, including StackboyTwaun, whose distinctive work can be heard on Atlanta rap trio Migos’ recent hit, “Fight Night.”
In addition, the Athens Hip Hop Awards, which will celebrate its third edition in 2015, has helped to shed light on the city’s rap community.
Of course, Athens remains a rock town first and foremost, and there’s a ton of good stuff happening in that realm. Groups like Pinecones, The Powder Room, Muuy Biien and Grand Vapids are part of the most exciting crop of rock bands the city has produced in years.
The Live Scene
The amount of live music that occurs on a nightly basis in Athens is, frankly, astounding.
Athens’ music scene revolves primarily around its small downtown. The city’s most famous venues are the 40 Watt Club—which began in a shoebox of a loft apartment on College Avenue and moved several times before settling at its current location on Washington Street—and the Georgia Theatre on Lumpkin Street, which was gutted by fire in 2009 but re-opened in 2011.
In many ways, the 40 Watt is the prototypical American rock club; its barebones setup and grungy vibe are part of its charm. The Theatre, as it’s called by locals, has a larger capacity and a more modern feel, including a rooftop bar that hosts shows in the warmer months.
Both clubs continue to act as launching pads for up-and-coming local acts, as well as in-demand destinations for popular touring artists from all over the spectrum.
In addition to those two bastions, Athens has experienced a veritable venue boom over the last decade.
New stages have popped up left and right, like the one at The World Famous, a tiny, lived-in space that also operates as a bar and restaurant. Live Wire, formerly New Earth, features folk, jam and electro acts from out of town on a regular basis. At Little Kings Shuffle Club, touring punk acts share bills with buzzworthy local rockers. Townie hotspot Caledonia Lounge is an Athens favorite, where you can catch anything from metal to hip hop.
Hendershot’s Coffee Bar, on the edge of downtown, hosts early-evening acoustic shows and slings coffee and beer. Nearby, Go Bar regularly books experimental acts and DJ nights. The scrappy Hi-Lo Lounge has brought rock music and tasty pub grub to the hip Normaltown neighborhood.
Athens quiets down dramatically in the summer, when UGA students ditch town and their professors go on vacation. But folks make it a point to get back for AthFest each June.
The hyper-local music and arts festival, which began in 1997, continues to be a one-stop-shop for folks looking to catch up on what’s been going on in Athens music while also enjoying regional and sometimes national headliners. In addition to two outdoor stages, dozens of bands play the fest’s “Club Crawl,” which takes place in various downtown venues over the course of a weekend.
AthFest is presented by parent nonprofit AthFest Educates, which awards grants for music and art education to instructors in Athens’ public schools.
Other notable music festivals have emerged of late, including the Athens Americana Festival, which, as you can probably tell by its name, showcases local and regional roots-music artists.
Last year the fest’s lineup featured North Mississippi Allstars, Shonna Tucker, The Dirty Guv’nahs and local bluegrass heroes the Packway Handle Band.
Athens Intensified, in autumn, aims to present a carefully curated lineup of national and local talent—the most recent installment was headlined by firebrand rapper Killer Mike, indie-pop legends Cibo Matto and hip hop pioneer The Egyptian Lover, to give you a sense of the fest’s variety.
And the uber-ambitious Slingshot Festival, which takes place in March, seeks to connect musicians with visual artists and tech visionaries while also partnering with local leaders in higher education with the ultimate goal of transforming Athens into a center for global culture.
For its size, Athens has managed to sustain an impressive festival culture; those four major events have continued to increase in scope and look to build on past successes in 2015.
The Support System
Athens’ deeply embedded DIY spirit ensures that there are dozens of independent record labels operating at any given time. A few of those outlets have been particularly active and influential over the past year.
The only label of its size and stature that currently operates in Athens is New West Records, a national powerhouse with offices also in Austin, TX and Burbank, CA
In 2012 New West launched an Athens-centric imprint called Normaltown Records. The company has partnered with a growing list of local and regional bands to help promote and distribute their music, including New Madrid, Ruby the Rabbitfoot, White Violet and Lilly Hiatt (daughter of legendary singer-songwriter and New West mainstay John Hiatt).
Further underground, but just as vital to the scene, are experimental-minded outfits like Grant and Rachel Evans’ Hooker Vision, or Quality Faucet, started by members of local indie-pop outfit Reptar.
Small indie label Cohosh has put out releases from Athens rock groups like Nurture and The Powder Room. The Happy Happy Birthday to Me imprint focuses mainly on indie-pop, but it’s also home to snarling local doom-punks Muuy Biien and avant-garde rockers Tunabunny.
Then there are mainstays like Mazarine, Cloud Recordings and Orange Twin—the latter of which is not only a label but a conservation community on the edge of town, run by Laura Carter of Elf Power. (Orange Twin has occasionally functioned as a concert venue, hosting outdoor summer shows by artists like Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and reclusive guitar wizard Jandek.)
Aside from its record labels, Athens is home to a world-class musicians’ support center, Nuçi’s Space, a nonprofit that offers both practice and performance space, as well as providing legal advice and mental and physical health assistance for musicians in need.
Finally, the aforementioned WUOG dedicates a sizable portion of its on-air playtime to local sounds, providing an invaluable springboard for countless artists.
Gabe Vodicka is the music editor at Flagpole, the Athens, GA alternative weekly newspaper. He has contributed writing to publications that include Tiny Mix Tapes, Creative Loafing and The Portland Mercury. He plays guitar, cooks, drinks beer and lives in Athens with a wonderful wife and two temperamental cats.
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