Providing an intimate glimpse into the private lives of local musicians, Jason Thrasher’s new photography book, Athens Potluck, is a stream-of-consciousness exploration that embodies the interconnectedness of the scene. Thrasher, who has produced band photos and music videos for years, knew he wanted to approach the Athens music scene with special emphasis on individuals. But after living in town and getting to know its residents for over 20 years, how would he narrow down and select his subjects? His wife Beth’s idea was to choose the first musician, who would select the subsequent artist, and so on. Each musician was also tasked with coming up with five or six questions to ask their invitee, and these handwritten interviews effectively serve as personal introductions, as if facilitating a getting-to-know-you conversation between the reader and her Potluck guest.
Remarkably, the book successfully manages to avoid getting locked into any one particular genre or friendship circle, reflecting not only how diverse the music scene is here, but how open-minded and considerate people are of others’ projects. The book bounces between rock, jazz, experimental pop, folk and punk, dropping into the lives of Julian Koster (The Music Tapes), Patterson Hood (Drive-By Truckers), Jason Griffin (Apparition), Dave Marr (The Star Room Boys) and Andy LeMaster (Now It’s Overhead), among others. Even the late Ross Shapiro (The Glands), who initially dodged several requests, eventually acquiesced.
“I feel that this book is just a story of Athens. It’s not the whole story. There could have been a thousand other versions of this,” says Thrasher.
The title was inspired by “The Last Potluck,” a recreation of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece that Thrasher created featuring Vanessa Briscoe Hay’s band Supercluster, which can now be seen hanging at White Tiger. The title also speaks to the collaborative nature of the project; creatively, each musician brings something to the table when they invite the next participant. Coincidentally, Hay was selected as the 33rd and final person, reaching the magic number Thrasher had kept in mind as a reference to 33 1/3 RPM records.
“I’m very lucky that I was in the right place and in the right mindset to capture this when I did. As an artist, I’ve always wanted to focus on the personal and the local,” he says. “I love Athens and the creative spirit of this place. I tried to make this book about the bigger picture of Athens, but also really wanted it to be about the individual[s] and the relationships they have to each other. It was really the stories that each person wrote that really helped push it to another level.”
The concept and method of how musicians would be selected dawned on Thrasher’s wife the same day he was shooting a band photo of Elf Power. He realized how exciting it would be to start with Laura Carter out on the Orange Twin compound, and so the project was launched.
Coincidentally, it was years later, as they were eating dinner with Carter and her father, that she told the story that would become included in the book. This new idea of having each musician write his or her own story solved the challenge of how to allow personalities to shine through, while also avoiding the humdrum of straightforward biographies. While some musicians offer origin stories of how they came to live in Athens, others choose to share fleeting memories—not unlike meeting someone in person for the first time. (It should come as no surprise if you’ve met him, but proof of how many lives painter, musician and dance machine Vernon Thornsberry has touched is evident by how many tales he appears in.)
Nearly all of the photographs appear to have been taken during daylight hours and in private spaces or places of personal significance. In a social-media-driven culture where live performances can be documented and shared in real time, this collection intentionally sets out to offer something different: rare access to the musicians’ lives when they’re not on stage.
There are, of course, plenty of beautiful portraits with instruments, like Andrea DeMarcus of Cicada Rhythm leaning against her towering stand-up bass, Jill Carnes of Thimble Circus smiling beside her miniature piano and Kevin Sweeney of Hayride playing guitar in front of a wall of amps. Just as many reflect the characters’ other roles and interests, such as a tender shot of Jim Wilson chatting with future wife and Avid Bookshop owner Janet Geddis, as well as a tremendous studio shot with Art Rosenbaum, standing peacefully in the eye of a storm composed of paints in every color of the rainbow, miscellaneous supplies and a monumental work in progress.
“I really just wanted to photograph them in their homes. I thought that by going into their personal spaces, I would find things that would relate to the history of Athens, and that would help tell a bigger story,” says Thrasher.
Pictures are unlabeled in order to keep the design clean, but it’s not difficult to discover recurring images that imply synchronicity and add to the underlying awareness of how undeniably interconnected the music scene is. Musician, artist and Elephant 6 co-founder Will Cullen Hart, who appears on the cover of Flagpole this week, can be observed not only on his designated pages but also on Carter’s, due to his colorful paintings that hang on her wall.
“If you look closely, you’ll pick up on details like Jeff Mangum’s suitcase from the first Neutral Milk Hotel tour, or Andrew Rieger’s journal with a list of every show he’s ever seen, or a beautiful photo of Michael Stipe’s parents,” says Thrasher. “I was also able to reference other Athens artists, like Terry Rowlett and Cindy Jerrell, and Georgia legends, like Howard Finster and R.A. Miller.”
Several years in the making, Athens Potluck is hot off the press from locally based Deeds Publishing and ready to dig into. During a celebration on Sunday, Nov. 12 from 1–4 p.m. at Nuçi’s Space, a handful of the musicians will read their contributed stories. Hosted by the Willson Center for Humanities and Arts, the event is part of UGA’s two-week Spotlight on the Arts festival that highlights performing, visual and literary arts. (See The Calendar for complete listings.) On the following Thursday, Nov. 16 from 6–8 p.m., the Athens-Clarke County Library will host Thrasher as part of its Cafe au Libris series.
Though closing out the book with Hay felt like a natural and meaningful stopping point, Thrasher hopes to one day create a second installment.
“How could I not keep going?” he asks. “Vanessa just told me who she wants to pick, and I can’t wait to meet and photograph her.”
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