So you’ve arrived in Athens. Or so you’ve been here for a while. Either way, it’s an impressive feat to not have heard about what’s become known as the Athens music scene. Since the early ’80s, musicians from Athens have become heroes for generations raised on speakers and headphones.
The fact of the matter is, there’s no one way to define the music scene of this town, other than to say that the charm of the town and almost everything unique about Athens centers around or has its genesis in our community of musicians.
If there weren’t as many musicians in town, would you find as many unique and creative restaurants? No. Staffed heavily and driven by musicians with a need for flexible work schedules, the personality of Athens’ numerous restaurants would wither if given only apathetic college students to recruit.
If there weren’t as many musicians in town, would you find as much public art of such high quality? No. That many musicians are also visual artists should surprise nobody, and the number of musicians in Athens has created a culture accepting of and hungry for art; in few other places in America will you find as much art in bars, cafÃ©s, restaurants, bookstores, etc.
And if there weren’t as many musicians in town, would the University of Georgia – Athens’ other driving force – attract increasingly brighter students? Arguably, no. The Athens music scene (which initially grew out of the University’s art school crowd of the late ’70s) has earned our city a reputation as a prime location to cultivate an active and artistic life; drawn by Athens’ status as such, innovative, creative and bright students find a town that nurtures intellectual growth for four (or five, or six) years highly attractive.
There’s no one easy place to start learning about the musical history of Athens. Or at least, that was the case until recently. For a long time those curious would have to rely on a scattering of newspaper and magazine articles, brief mentions of Athens in television retrospectives and, most usually, the oral history told second- or third-hand over pints at a bar. Two important but long-elusive documents of Athens music history, however, have recently re-entered the sphere of easy accessibility.
The influential but underviewed 1986 documentary Athens, Ga.: Inside/Out turned many music fans onto what was going down in this modest Southern town. Out of print for years, hard-to-find and available only on grainy VHS, the film was recently reissued on DVD. Any desire to understand the local music scene will be well-served by a screening of Inside/Out. Though the film is at times rough, unfocused and meandering, it provides a window into “a community within a community within a community,” as directory Tony Gayton called the Athens scene of the time. Its interviews with R.E.M., the B-52’s and Pylon, among other seminal bands, are invaluable.
Also long out-of-print was the 1991 book Party Out of Bounds: The B-52’s, R.E.M. and the Kids Who Rocked Athens, Georgia. Atlanta’s Everthemore Books has put Party Out of Bounds back into print on something of a supply-meets-demand basis, printing copies as people request them. Rodger Lyle Brown’s narrative document focuses on the period between 1977 and 1984; reading it, you’ll witness the establishment of a community that would make the environment of Inside/Out possible. The book wisely focuses not just on R.E.M. (as too many books ostensibly about Athens do), and provides an insider’s-eye-view look at the ins and outs of the social tanglings of influential musicians in their youth.
Having looked into Athens’ Point A, how to connect the dots to today? Simply put, this’ll take a little more effort on your part. A staggering number of local musicians who’ve been involved in the scene over the past decades still live, work and create music in town. None is overtly conspicuous, however, and there’s a good chance that the waiter at the vegetarian restaurant or the desk worker at the library played with a wildly popular act.
A quick stop at any local record store – and Athens has many comprehensive ones – offers resources nearly unlimited. Clerks are knowledgeable about local music, frequently playing in bands themselves. They’ll be able to bring you from the New Wave pop-rock of the early ’80s through the more laconic tunes of later that decade, past the heavy, grunge-influenced bands of the early ’90s, the psychedelic pop experimentalists of the mid-to-late ’90s and up to the current day. At that point you’ll find yourself amidst an eclectic and ever-changing mix of funk, reggae, punk, folk, jazz, rock, pop and more. You’ll find yourself picking up the weekly Flagpole just to see what new bands are playing out. You’ll find yourself looking forward to summer’s AthFest, the free downtown music and arts festival. You’ll find yourself intrigued, stimulated, entertained and enthralled, and you’ll find yourself in Athens.
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