Photo Credit: Faye Webster with art by Kelly Ahrens
Former UGA placekicker Billy Bennett had a memorable tenure as a student athlete between 2000-’03, becoming the first of only three SEC players with more than 400 career points. It was quite the run for a local athlete who went from playing on Fridays for Athens Academy to an important role on a great Dawgs team in 2002.
In the years after graduating, Bennett discovered a passion and talent for music, applying his competitive drive to engineering others’ music and writing his own psychedelic-inspired material. This identity change from jock to audio wiz came about in a uniquely Athens way, allowing Bennett to be the toast of both fraternity parties and album-release shows at the 40 Watt.
A child of the South, Bennett grew up in a household that revered Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. By the time he played for coaches Jim Donnan and Mark Richt, his own musical tastes had become admittedly mundane. “Radiohead and Coldplay were about as indie as I got,” he says.
Fortunately, Athens’ legacy of outside-the-box musicians coexists peacefully with its proud football traditions, meaning Bennett was a few new friends away from expanding his own creative horizons. “When I started hanging out with the Whigs guys, they started showing me Pavement and bands like that on a little more offbeat path,” he says.
Another chance meeting that wouldn’t have happened for a kicker in Auburn, Tuscaloosa or Knoxville inched Bennett closer to his future career path. “I was at a Glands show on the Chi Phi lawn one night around 2003,” he says. “It might’ve been the summer after my last season of football. I met Dave Barbe there. I heard he had a studio, so I told him I’d like to come by and take out the trash, make coffee and do whatever and watch him. He knew what I was getting into, but I didn’t quite know what I was getting into. We exchanged numbers, and the first thing he called me on was an R.E.M. iTunes original session.”
An internship at Barbe’s Chase Park Transduction turned into an extended stay there, positioning Bennett to begin an unlikely post-football career.
Eventually, Bennett developed a working relationship with indie stars MGMT, moving to New York and working as the band’s live sound engineer. He also engineered the band’s second album, 2010’s Congratulations. “[T]heir first record was a worldwide smash success, and the second record was pretty widely panned, because the band had evolved beyond a lot of the electronic hits,” Bennett recalls. “They’d gotten into stranger song forms and out-there musicianship. Those guys are so beyond the norm as far as talent.”
In 2013, Bennett moved to Nashville at the behest of his Whigs pals. He’s currently an adjunct professor at Belmont University, sharing nearly 15 years of hands-on experience in audio engineering courses. “I’d never taught before, but I needed a break from the studio hours,” he says. “Going in at 9 in the morning and leaving at 10 or 11 at night was wearing on me a bit.”
Bennett records his own music, with recent singles “Patchwork Man” and “Centimental” teasing a sunshiny, psych-pop vision. Despite the presumed divide between college football and underground rock fans, there’s some temptation to try bridging that gap. “I’d like to find a way to cross-promote them, but every time I do it seems a little forced,” he says. “Like, ‘Oh, maybe I should put out a record and sell it at the Georgia game.’ But are those people even going to like psychedelic, Harry Nilsson-like Beach Boys pop?”
Plans are in place to record songs this fall for an EP. In the meantime, Bennett spends his Saturdays enjoying the Dawgs’ current playoff run, despite tempered expectations. “I hedge my excitement, because I’ve seen it, and I’ve been on those teams,’ he says. “We’re great, and everyone has the talent. It seems like you’ve got to have a little bit of luck involved, unless you’re Alabama, to go all the way. I’m just along for the ride, man. I think every year we’ve got a shot.”
Hear Bennett’s music on Spotify or at billythemusical.bandcamp.com.