Ah, Athens, Georgia. You can’t help but speak of it by its full name. It means a lot of different things to a lot of different people but 99% of those things involve music, art, politics and football. Invariably, Athens, appears on several “best of” lists each year: Best Place To Retire, Best Music Town, Best College Town, etc. And each of those lists mentions that Athens birthed R E.M., the B-52’s and Widespread Panic—but that’s usually where it stops. Outside commentators tend to lock this continually refreshed music scene into some silly time-warp where the only bands that exist are ones who have retired or passed their silver anniversary…but it’s not like that at all! While the storied music heritage is central to Athens’ identity, at any given time there are over 400 bands making names for themselves at Athens venues, the numbers of which have positively exploded in the 25+ years since Widespread Panic took its first wobbly steps.
The above statements notwithstanding, Athens’ unofficial spokesman and decades long fellow-in-the-know William Orton “Ort” Carlton famously said in the 1987 film Athens, GA: Inside/Out, “The B-52s started the music scene as we think of it.” While in many ways that is true, the music of Athens, Ga. actually reaches back over 200 years. Before the Civil War, the town was a destination for itinerant troubadours and in the early 20th century, the popularity of Monroe Bowers “Pink” Morton’s namesake theatre made the city a stronghold of Black entertainment. During the frat-rock era of the 1960s, popular local bands like The Jesters entertained throngs of University Of Georgia students with R&B and beach music. By 1976, when The B’s struck the first chords of a musical revolution, punk had taken root in the United States and the musicians and artists of Athens, Ga. were making their own scene as they went along. If it was exciting and you could dance to it then, by golly, it was good. This is, of course, all a gross oversimplification. The Athens, Ga. music scene is as full of nooks and crannies and as many hotly debated secret histories as the city itself.
So while “Best Of” lists are flattering, they tend to be long on superficiality and short on substance. Sure, it’s nice to be recognized, but it’s better to be loved and to this end, the following list is a cultural starter kit for those wanting to get into the meat-n-bones of “The Classic City.” Given the mood-driven nature of such things, this list might be populated by entirely different items if written tomorrow or yesterday, but that fact doesn’t make any of these things less essential. To twist a phrase, we’re just gonna need a bigger list.
1. Eat Local
This is so simple and easy to do in Athens. Independently owned restaurants populate almost every section of town (including the food court at our lovably shabby Georgia Square Mall). You can chow Chipotle anywhere, but there’s only one town in the world with a Weaver D’s Delicious Fine Foods, The Grit, Dondero’s, Ike & Jane, Big City Bread and so many other locally-owned spots.
2. Go See a Live Show
The only way to experience the music scene is to dive in. Live music happens literally seven days a week for most of the year, and that’s pretty staggering for a town that’s still relatively small in a lot of ways. There are standards like the Caledonia Lounge, Georgia Theatre and 40 Watt, but in the past several years, loads of reinforcements have arrived. Among them are The Green Room, The World Famous and The Hi-Lo (located in the rapidly hip Normaltown district). Even the plethora of student-oriented bars often regularly host local DJs and singer-songwriters.
3. Visit the UGA Campus
For history buffs, the University of Georgia, the first land-grant chartered school in the United States, has much to offer. Some like to stroll through beautiful North Campus, located just past the famous 150-year old black iron Arch. Others like to ring the always-available victory bell behind the university Chapel (the tradition of ringing the bell after Bulldogs’ victories began in the 1890s), and still others prefer to simply gaze upon the ginormous Sanford Stadium from the vantage point of the bridge on Sanford Drive. Do yourself a favor and duck into the main library and the Richard B. Russell Building Special Collections Libraries and reserve time to explore the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the Walter J. Brown Media Archives and Peabody Awards Collection.
4.Overwhelmed? Don’t Know Where to Start?
Head to the Athens Welcome Center at 280 E. Doughtery Street. The people there are super nice and helpful. They’ve got information on several walking tours and guided excursions. Many Athens residents have never been here but they’d be surprised by how much good information they found if they did.
Gordon Lamb writes for Flagpole, penning its “Threats and Promises” music column, and is the founder and organizer of Athens Intensified, the annual fall music festival.