Music Features

Community Members Share Memories and Reflections on Atomic and Caledonia

As if we haven’t been through enough already this year, Caledonia Lounge and Atomic vintage have both permanently closed on West Clayton Street. These two neighboring businesses provided distinct spaces for people to experiment, share their creations, be playful, find community and ultimately become their most authentic selves.

Below, musicians, artists and community members share their favorite memories and reflections on what these special places meant to them.

ERIKA RICKSON: You stare down the room like the barrel of a sonic shotgun. A barista-by-day transforms into an electric deity. Look left, then right for comrades whose presence ensures a psychic revival. Lights down. Amps buzz. Those who live for a moment passing scream “DRIVE! DRIVE!” Feet lift. Fists clinch with anticipation. “EVERYONE HERE…HOLD TIGHT!!!” Punch the air and transcend your mindless job, empty wallet and mortality.
Loudly unspoken was the inevitable post-pandemic Caledonia show. We knew it would heal our collective despair with symphonic feedback between the amps and the howls of who we used to be. Now a void leaves an incalculable loss. For those who’ve had their egos shredded, but were rebuilt as vicious performers on that stage, the wound is deeply personal. Our friends became our heroes. Thirty minutes at a time, we were our most authentic selves, destined to do this forever. 

JENNIE CAIN: I have too many favorite memories of Atomic and Caledonia to enumerate them here. I find that, when I think of Atomic, I feel like I’m wrapped in an iridescent, gossamer blanket woven out of starstuff and champagne. I think of all the shining human beings dancing their truth in public. I think of all the people I watched blossom into their truths—maybe for the first time in their lives. I think of the first time my fat, gorgeous body was accepted and valued as I walked in one of many fashion shows. 
Atomic the shop is closed, but I take this warm, loving blanket with me into the world and I’m grateful to have it. I’m wearing it out into the world like a cape. Thank you, Stephanie. Atomic Forever. 

ABBY KACEN: The creative community in Athens has been the launchpad for my artistic endeavors over the past several years. Atomic and Caledonia especially made this place its own special something with the people and cultures they brought together through the arts. Had it not been for these places, I don’t think I’d have taken up a lot of new opportunities just by selling some zines at Atomic or felt the same inspiration through the bands I saw playing at Caledonia. In my time living here, all I’ve ever sought out or tried to cultivate are safe places where cool weirdos could hang out and make stuff free of judgment or harassment. These establishments were accessible and welcoming to all kinds, and that’s what made them totally sick. Our community needs to channel that now more than ever and help support the businesses and organizations that are still here. 

GENE WOOLFOLK: Well, this fucking hurts. I feel like I just lost an old friend. The amount of blood, sweat and tears I put into that place was worth every fucking moment. The good, the bad. It was my home. A massive sector of my life. It was real. I did a lot of growing up in that room. Hell, I met my partner-in-crime in that room! 
I want to send a gigantic shout out to all the bands and musicians that made my Caledonia experience possible. Your patience with me and commitment to the devil’s music has not gone unnoticed. 
I want to thank Bryant for helping convince me to move from Atlanta to Athens. I’ll never forget when he called me on my 25th birthday to tell me I got my first shift at Caledonia. Here we are, 11 years later, the job I have had the longest of any job is now gone but ya know…sometimes other people need to “survive” while others suffer. Late capitalism. America. C’est la vie. Thanks for the memories! 

META: I have had many of the best times of my life at Atomic and Caledonia, literally. These places have shaped me into who I am today and cradled me as I have come into that. From my first drag performance at Caledonia to the last Friday at Atomic, Steph and Bryant have seen and kindled every evolution and provided me with the space to explore fashion and art and music and performance. They breathed life into what was my favorite little corner of Athens. They gave me and my peers truly safe spaces, and I am so thankful. I will never be over this loss and its circumstance, but I know we will see many beautiful births in our community as time treks on. In the meantime, I want to express my ever-expanding, unwavering, outstanding love for Atomic and Caledonia, for Steph and Bryant. 

JOE ELDRIDGE: I was heartbroken to hear that Caledonia was dissolving. I’ve been going to that club and seeing shows in that space for over 33 years. As Caledonia, it served the community with which I identify (the punk/metal underground) immensely. My record store/brand [Shadebeast] sponsored many shows there, and out of town bands were always blown away by the hospitality and enthusiasm of our scene. The sound system and sound people there were the best. Bands one would think were too big for that space, like Goatwhore, Torche and Toke, delivered devastating shows and the PA handled it, and board runners made it sound good. Other clubs to serve our music will no doubt surface, but the Caledonia leaves a legacy and a big hole in a lot of our lives.

LUCCA CARVER: The smell of cigarettes always takes me to sitting at the door of the Caledonia with Gordon while he nurses a pack of smokes and we pontificate about the merits of Lou Grant. Bryant would step away from the bar to take a smoke break and I’d peer at the band playing. That stage is magical. I’ve seen so many amazing performances on that stage, and playing on that stage taught me how to perform. It’s extremely unforgiving—the sound is always impeccable—so if you mess up, it’s always on you. I was always intimidated by that room. I’d played shows where I knew I messed up and spent the rest of the night in my car an anxious wreck. But in the past year of playing I feel like I finally conquered it. I charmed the spirit of that stage and now it’s graces are with me always. 

WILL INGRAM: Caledonia was transformative. When you’re new in Athens, the gap is pretty small between reading about hot bands and getting in the pit with them. With the best back porch area in town, Caledonia was the perfect spot for meeting fellow fans, bands and freaks (the lovely staff very much included). It was my favorite place to play, but the biggest impact was seeing so many bands that had changed my life…for like $5! I owe a lot of friendships and experience to those buzzy nights.
Atomic was an incredible gem in an otherwise bleak world. Not only were the wardrobe and record options brilliantly curated, but Stephanie and the gang gave local artists and designers a stage from which the curious public could discover them. It’s hard getting by as an artist, especially when starting out, and Stephanie took risks putting people on and believing in them when they may have doubted themselves. 

JORDAN STEPP: When I walked into Caledonia, I felt like I was going home. The uneven parking lot led to the gates where I’d hang my arms, laughing with Gordon as he’d tell bad jokes, his cigarette smoke swirling. I’d dodge puddles in the patio area, listening to the sound coming from all of downtown, the dim lights guiding me to the unassuming entrance. I miss the feeling when that heavy door would open in the winter and I’d be blasted with the sound and heat generated by the music loving souls within. Bryant would be at the bar and Gene would be making the bands on stage sound better than they had any right to be. I could navigate to the frigid wall across from a merch table, sink into the darkness and just cease to exist. We were so fortunate to have Caledonia and the wonderful people who worked there.

DAVID BARBE: When Karen and Kaya opened the Caledonia, I was lucky enough to be in one of the bands that played that night, August 12, 1999. I played bass in the Tom Collins with Kyle Spence on drums, and Fran Capitanelli on guitar and vocals. The Glands headlined that night.  Hamtramck opened. From the outset, the club was fantastic. Lots of great shows, and always a good hang. 
For a few years in the early 2000s, I played a series of Monday nights on the deck out back in the fall with The Quick Hooks. I celebrated my 40th birthday at one of those. In 2012, I played an unrehearsed Buzz Hungry reunion there. At AthFest 2017, I unveiled my new collaboration with New Madrid (Inward Dream Ebb) at the Caledonia. Later that year, I got called onto the stage by Linqua Franqa, who free-styled to me, totally overwhelming me. And it’s not even about me being on stage there. I saw so many great shows there. Had so many great times there. And I always felt right at home.
The Caledonia only seemed to get better as it aged. After Bryant Williamson bought it, he and the crew that settled in perfected the club with some personal touches. The Airstream as a green room was a masterstroke. As an engineer myself, I so deeply appreciate how great they got it sounding in there. Gene, Amber, Bryant (and I’m sure I’m inadvertently leaving people out) all had found the magical balance. The bartenders always made me feel welcome. How would it be possible not to be glad to see Chris McNeal handing me a High Life? The presence of Sloan Simpson recording shows. Gordon Lamb at the front gate was the ambassador of the indie music scene. If there is a heaven, I fully expect to see Gordon manning the pearly gates.

MONTU MILLER: We found our first downtown home at Tasty World; Murphy Wolford gave us a platform when no other venue would respect hip-hop and let us perform. Caledonia Lounge eventually stepped up, giving us another stage to rock. There is no doubt Caledonia Lounge was a special space, where so many hip-hop shows could be unapologetically loud and proud. Caledonia Lounge will genuinely be missed; another piece has been taken off the board. But I hope people understand the same thing that happened to Caledonia Lounge has happened to so many Black businesses in downtown Athens. There are only two Black businesses left from the vibrant Hot Corner where Black people flourished and played a vital role in the heart of the city. No doubt, Caledonia should be mourned, but let us also continue to mourn the district of businesses that are always forgotten, The Hot Corner.

AC CARTER: I want Bryant and Stephanie to know this: they helped shape a community that was very inspiring and transformative for my time in Athens. They were some of the first folks I met, and knew that I would be hanging in their spaces more often than anywhere else in town. Some of my best shows happened at Caledonia, like opening for Molly Nilsson or the drag show with Taylor ALXNDR. I even got to perform a live-action music video shoot, which is so very special. I don’t know of another venue that would let me do that. Caledonia was also the home for Ad•verse, which now…I don’t know what I will do. It won’t be the same. I also loved going to Atomic. My best statement pieces are from Atomic. I loved getting to pose for their Instagram stories, they had some incredible vendors, and the staff was so super duper amazing. Athens has lost a slice of culture.

TROY AUBREY: When I moved to Athens in the fall of 1988 to attend UGA, the 40 Watt was located in the space that the Caledonia has occupied. I saw some amazing shows there that have always endeared me to that location. Dreams So Real, Mr. Crowe’s Garden, Five Eight and much more so I will always had a soft spot for that location. Recently though, I was devastated to hear the news that the doors have permanently closed. Bryant and his team did an amazing job with the venue over the years and were certainly the pulse of Athens music. They gave so many opportunities to Athens talent as well as regionally and nationally touring acts, many of whom could easily have played much larger venues.  That’s a testament to Bryant and his ethos.  He always took care of the bands/acts and had an open door to almost anyone that wished to play there. The Caledonia was also an integral part of AthFest every year and always had capacity shows that were curated by Bryant and his team. The AthFest club crawl will look a lot different now that the Caledonia has closed. I will miss the venue and I commend Bryant and team for a job well done.  Even though Athens will have a giant void now that you are gone, you will always remain in our minds as a successful music venue with a ton of heart and soul! Thank you for the years you gave us.

DREW KIRBY: After experiencing the total luxury of traveling and performing music all over the place, I would consistently, with a biased sense of hometown umbrage, call Caledonia the “BEST SOUNDING SMALL ROOM” in the country. Unquantifiable, but I stand by it! Caledonia was a place you could get 80 people into and it would feel like a barnburner—in that sense, it was a place that could literally shepherd you through the process of actualizing your ideas, capabilities and dreams in real time. 
When I arrived in Athens 2011, I was 17 and already hearing (particularly after the closure of Schoolkids Records downtown) that Athens was effectively “dead”…fat chance! If there’s anything to take from this wave of COVID closures, it’s the value and importance of just showing up, being present with your neighbors and coworkers and community members. The best years of my life so far were a fairly direct result of this simple exchange of energy and effort.
Bryant helped me adjust my amp settings at the very first Mothers full-band show (Cloud Recordings fest 2015). He said it was too muffled, and he was right! And, as we ended up playing our debut as a unit for a host of the Elephant 6 illuminaries I’d grown up listening too, I was very thankful he’d spoken up, entirely out of goodwill. The first time I ever played Caledonia on a Monday school night in 2013, Gene literally climbed out of the soundtower in the middle of our set to plug my pedalboard power into the same power outlet as my amp, thereby eliminating the gnarly buzz of a “ground loop” that I neither understood nor cared to deal with in my youthful indignation. Again, those with the knowledge give you game; I’m realizing you have to try and pay that same effort forward. 
I can imagine in my mind loading into the back door of Caledonia on Clayton Street, then popping next door into Atomic; starting in the front right corner with the discount music gear, then deeper into the coats and trinkets, around the back corners filled with records and vintage tech, soaking in the ephemera, the delicate articulation of each indie retailer’s booth arrangement. The corner of Clayton and Pulaski will never be the same, but LEGENDS NEVER DIE! 
Lastly, wanted to shout out Sloan Simpson, Mike White and Gregory Frederick as voluntary scene shepherds. What an incredible gift that so many of our greatest nights and real, breathing beating lives are preserved to share for-functionally-ever.