While Athens has many easily identifiable qualities that attract and retain individuals from all walks of life—a great university, low cost of living, a vibrant arts scene—there’s something about the Classic City that remains inexplicably appealing and difficult to pin down. Those drawn to our town because of the latter of those three conditions often feel this indelible, indescribable quality most strongly—or at least it’s made the most evident through their expressions and media, their photographs, poems and songs.
Armistead Wellford feels it as much now, in his Richmond, VA home of nearly 15 years, as he did living off Barber Street during the early ’80s. “There’s something about Athens—it’s so life-giving and spiritual to make music with musicians down there,” Wellford says by phone one afternoon. He bristles with excitement while reminiscing about jamming with his friends, Athens’ musical legacy and even the distinct smell of Georgia pines.
Wellford’s band Love Tractor, one of Athens’ seminal rock groups of the early college-radio boom, has slowly been picking up steam again over the past few years, reuniting in various incarnations and using various names, seemingly under the presumption that something new and exciting is on the horizon. Then again, maybe it’s just good to experience that hard-to-describe Athens feeling every once in a while.
Talk of re-releasing at least the band’s first two albums has been intermittent, as it was before We Love Tractor’s 2015 AthFest performance. The group, driven by Wellford and original Love Tractor guitarist Mark Cline, also included a who’s who of Athens rockers: former Glands drummer Joe Rowe, Drive-By Trucker Jay Gonzalez and Elephant 6-er Bryan Poole. By Wellford’s account, “That helped get the core three together, because we had such a fabulous kind of real Love Tractor show.”
The process of corralling the band’s three original members—Wellford, Cline and Mike Richmond—has proved difficult, with each living in a different state up and down the East Coast. As the core trio makes strides towards playing together again, reissuing its back catalog and even working towards new material, distance and dynamics have proven to be a hurdle. “Stuff just keeps getting in the way,” Wellford says.
Yet they keep inching closer. Last August, the trio reunited for the first time in years, alongside members of We Love Tractor, to play Athens Popfest. “[W]e were playing basically the order of the first album,” Wellford says, referring to 1982’s Love Tractor. “We changed it up a little bit,” he continues, “but it sounds just like it, except for even better.
“Those guys have instinct that you can’t really get with musicians in other places,” Wellford says, grappling with how to best describe Athens’ elusive quality and draw. “We’re from the vintage Athens scene, but it seems like all the bands that have come out of there, especially the Elephant 6 collective, [have] all been interesting and original, and everybody’s trying to sound different and unique,” he continues. “It’s such an Athens thing.”
The core threesome will reunite again this week for two shows—one at Atlanta’s Vista Room with Southern new wave stalwarts the Swimming Pool Q’s and an Athens show at the 40 Watt Club with alt-rockers Magnapop—making yet another move towards some big 2018 happenings.
In addition to the continued talk of reissues, Wellford and Cline both indicate that a fresh album is in the works for release next year. “We have a few songs we never released, so we want to go in and rework those a little bit,” says Wellford. “We all have some music that we can bring in and put it in the cooking pot, put it through the Love Tractor mill,” he adds.
But again, getting them all together in the same room will be crucial to the development of the material. Wellford stresses the importance of being in the same room together when playing and recording, as opposed to emailing tracks back and forth. “I know we can do this over the computer, but I’d just like to get us into a room the old-fashioned style and jam it out,” he says. “When we get together, exciting stuff happens. That’s why I want us to get into a room if we’re going to do new stuff, because all these surprises happen.”
As Love Tractor finds renewed purpose and spirit, one thing becomes clearer about that peculiar Athens feeling: Whatever it is, it doesn’t have to go away. “We are focusing on the early years of Love Tractor because it’s so present now,” Wellford says. “There’s something about the energy of that, playing. I just warp back to being 22 years old again. It just evoked this feeling.”
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