When New West Records closed on the building at 399 Meigs St. in 2009, it was another step in the Texas-based label's long-standing relationship with Athens; aside from the fact that owner George Fontaine is a UGA grad, the label is known for working with several local bands, including the Drive-By Truckers, and was instrumental in helping to develop the university's Music Business Program.
The label initially envisioned the former Salvation Army space (and, later, an unofficial—and unpopular—fraternity house) as a distribution office, as well as a place for its artists to rehearse, camp out while working on new material and crash when passing through on tour. But recently, it has taken on a new identity.
In September, 399 Meigs hosted Centro-matic frontman Will Johnson and songwriter Anders Parker on the duo's Living Room Tour. New West employee Tommy Robinson, who, along with local promoter Jay Steele, booked the show (the two work together under the name Athens Provisions), says utilizing the space for this new purpose was a gradual, but inevitable, decision.
"It kind of evolved into, alright, maybe we'll do some shows," he says. "And now [that's] full-on what we're doing, basically."
The initial experiment inspired them to keep going. "For me, it's kind of a selfish feeling, with our space," he says. "I'm like, this is so awesome to have at our disposal."
Though there exists a hint of the sort of is-it-or-isn't-it legality that has doomed DIY venues in the past, Robinson maintains they're in the clear. Due to zoning restrictions, 399 Meigs can't make money from concerts; likewise, all tickets must be sold by the artists themselves (bands keep all profits).
"We're, I think, intimate by choice," he says. "We're not making any money off the space." Rather, the venue, which officially seats 65, provides a chance for folks—including the hosts—to catch a special performance from an act that might otherwise decide to skip Athens altogether.
"It was kinda like, alright, this is perfect," Robinson recalls thinking. "The artist can get all the money, and we get to see an unbelievable show."
The venue's second-ever public performance will occur Sunday, Nov. 18, when Nashville-based guitarist William Tyler will appear along with local musician and historian Art Rosenbaum. It's an interesting lineup. ("Jay and I work well together," Robinson notes, while admitting that their tastes are different, something that's sure to make for more intriguing match-ups going forward.)
Upon examination, though, Sunday's is an oddly perfect pairing. Rosenbaum's encyclopedic affinity for traditional sounds is a nice match for Tyler, who is known for backing bands like Lambchop and Silver Jews but has recently made a name for himself with a flurry of captivating solo instrumentals. His virtuosic and organic style draws equally from Appalachian folk and modern composition. Both musicians will undoubtedly be a nice fit for the cozy, wood-paneled room.
More fascinating bills are in the works. On Dec. 4, severely underappreciated dark-country troubadour Richard Buckner will perform, and Robinson hints at a holiday benefit show featuring an unnamed heavyweight. ("I'm hoping it's someone really great, but I can't really say that right now, 'cause he hasn't even confirmed.")
As for the space itself, "We're almost there," he says. "We're almost where we want it… We're still kinda fine-tuning the sound. Taking on a full band in that room is gonna be interesting."
Robinson balks at the notion of one day transforming 399 Meigs into a more conventional venue. Instead, he is excited to provide a chance for all involved to experience something truly out of the ordinary. "It's so cool to me, because the best shows I've ever seen were always like when you got to see somebody you would never see in a 200-person room."
This isn't the only new local venue that aims to offer that experience. The owners of The World Famous, which will soon open on Hull Street downtown, hope to bring in well known touring acts to perform scaled-back sets in a sit-down environment.
The question remains whether Athens is willing and/or able to support these new businesses—and, in many cases, pay double or more what they would to see a show in most of the other venues around town.
Robinson is encouraged by the fact that the Johnson/Parker show, for which tickets were $20, was a success, saying, "We're gonna help promote these shows and do it the right way, instead of hoping something happens."
Indeed, these new venues seem linked primarily by their organizers' proactiveness and their unspoken desire to bring Athens into a new era.
"I grew up in Chattanooga, grew up a Dawgs fan," Robinson says. "I moved to Austin… and got a job at New West. So, when they asked me to move back here, I was kinda like, man, I love Austin, but I like the job, [it'll] be closer to home; I've got a kid now.
"[But] I got here, and I've honestly just been blown away. I'm like, how the fuck does a town this small have all these great places to see music? Things are very well supported. I love it here. And to [see] that these places are popping up, man, it's just gonna get…"
He pauses. "It's a really good sign."