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Tracing the Athens-Omaha Connection Ahead of Conor Oberst’s 40 Watt Show

On Oct. 14, Conor Oberst—best known for fronting the indie-emo outfit Bright Eyes—returns to Athens. Oberst is touring behind his most recent album, Salutations, which features full-band versions of tracks from last year’s deeply personal Ruminations. Oberst is no stranger to Georgia or the Classic City—he gives a shout-out to the light shows at Stone Mountain Park in the Salutations track “Napalm”—even though his hometown of Omaha, NE is more than 1,000 miles away.

In fact, Athens has a deep history of exchanging music with Omaha. Although there’s a vast distance between the two cities, a strong connection exists between their artists, producers and fans.

Tracing the Connection

It starts with Saddle Creek Records, originally Lumberjack Records, an Omaha label established in 1993 by Mike Mogis and Justin Oberst. The label showcased the Western-influenced “Omaha Sound” of artists such as Bright Eyes, Commander Venus, Slowdown Virginia and Polecat, while its current roster hosts a multitude of well-known groups like Hop Along, Sam Evian and Big Thief. The artists who came out of Saddle Creek originally had a massive influence that stretches across genres, as evidenced by Oberst’s many ventures, including Desaparecidos, the Mystic Valley Band and Monsters of Folk, as well as his solo work.

While Saddle Creek stands on its own as a pillar of indie importance, the Athens connection lies with Andy LeMaster, co-founder and co-owner of local recording studio Chase Park Transduction. In high school, LeMaster was in a Toccoa-based band called The Remedy with Clay Leverett and Casey Scott. They released a split in 1994 on Athens-based Ghostmeat Records before renaming the group Drip. Drip released two LPs on Ghostmeat, then disbanded in 1999. After the breakup, LeMaster and Leverett formed the twangy, poetic Now It’s Overhead. Other members of that group included Alabamians-turned-Athenians Maria Taylor and Orenda Fink, who starred in another Athens-based band, the dreamy synthpop duo Azure Ray. Scott went on to join Bright Eyes, playing bass and percussion on multiple albums from 2002–2016, and also played in Desaparecidos with Oberst.

Meanwhile, Azure Ray and Now It’s Overhead signed to Saddle Creek, becoming two of the first non-Nebraska bands to do so. Fink moved to Omaha and married another Saddle Creek musician, Todd Baechle (now Todd Fink) of The Faint. As an engineer, LeMaster began working on many Saddle Creek releases, including albums by Bright Eyes, Fink and Now It’s Overhead. Taylor signed to Saddle Creek as a solo artist, and collaborated with Bright Eyes, Michael Stipe and David Barbe. Taylor is no longer on Saddle Creek—she started a label of her own called Flower Moon Records—but is a part of a new duo project with LeMaster. Her latest single also features vocals from Oberst.

Speaking of Oberst, there is plenty of Athens-Omaha crossover within his discography, starting with Bright Eyes. The 1998 album Letting Off the Happiness was recorded at Oberst’s house in Omaha and at Chase Park Transduction. It features of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes on “angelic” backing vocals and Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeremy Barnes on drums. Bright Eyes played with R.E.M. on the Vote for Change tour in 2004, and supported R.E.M.’s tour in Australia the following year.

There’s more! Athens guitarist Taylor Hollingsworth has played in the Mystic Valley Band and with Maria Taylor. Alex McManus, an Omaha native, played on multiple Bright Eyes albums and toured with Athens’ Vic Chesnutt. The confessional singer-songwriter Simon Joyner is hugely prominent in the Omaha music scene—his work directly inspired Oberst and McManus—and has performed many times in Athens, most recently at a pop-up performance at White Tiger in 2016.

Athens and Omaha have a clear creative connection. Prominent figures in each music scene trace influential interactions to the other, and the two cities continue to share a mutual respect and admiration. In an age of increasing disconnect, it’s important to celebrate these connections. After all, as Oberst reminds us in “Bowl of Oranges”—a song he wrote in Athens, by the way—we should aim to see the beauty in things both near and far.