Cue It Up

Georgia's Inseparable, Incomparable Tradition of Smokin' Music & Smoked Meat

Painting of Robert "Barbecue Bob" Hicks by Savannah musician Georgia Kyle Shiver.

Painting of Robert “Barbecue Bob” Hicks by Savannah musician Georgia Kyle Shiver

Smoke. Primal smoke. Ceaseless heat rising from a fire. Along with strong drink, it warps the vision of all gathered ’round. A hog—half feral, its forebears brought to the New World by Spanish explorers—turns slowly over the pit, flames flashing up from the embers, lapping at the dripping grease. The meat soaks up the rich, faintly sweet scent of damp hickory as sauce-sticky fingers drag along rusted guitar strings, and wild moans and hollers echo in the sweltering Georgia night. From a distance, silhouetted against the firelight, men and women flail ecstatically, made limber by jolts of mason-jar moonshine, their bodies fortified by heaps of steaming pork shoulder, their souls nourished by the company of friends, family and, of course, the music.

“If you start cooking food over a fire, and people smell it, something primitive draws them in,” says Josh Skelton, Bearfoot Hookers drummer and captain of the Athens chapter of Meat Week, an organization celebrating all things ’cue. “And when people come together, they need entertainment—that’s where the music comes in. The barbecue is a gathering point.”

And because classic Southern barbecue takes so long to prepare and requires constant attention, once the meat is smoked to perfection, explains Glenn T. Eskew, professor of Southern history at Georgia State, it is celebrated. The sheer quantity of food requires a large crowd to consume all that’s cooked, “so it’s only natural, he says, “for there to be alcohol present and music performed—special eating involves entertainment.”

Beyond the backyard

The backyard barbecue is deeply ingrained in Southern culture, transcending race, though its importance to black society in the segregated, post-Reconstruction years cannot be overstated. “There was nothing else to do,” explains blues musician Tony Bryant, son of Cora Mae “Sweet Petunia” Bryant, and grandson of Curley Weaver, “The Georgia Guitar Wizard.” “Black people were only allowed to do certain things, go certain places, so they created their own juke joints. They couldn’t go to the ballgame or picture show or downtown, so they started having barbecues and fish frys.”

Naturally, these events attracted talented performers. Bryant’s mother Cora Mae once told Lance Ledbetter, head of archival record label Dust-to-Digital, that when she was 16, she attended a barbecue in downtown Atlanta where her father, Weaver, performed with fellow blues legends Blind Willie McTell and Washboard Sam. Cora Mae, who died in 2008 at the age of 82, was a blues artist herself, her earliest memories all-day barbecues with her father, buck dancing while he and his friends swapped songs.

Athens musician and barbecue lover Redneck Greece

Athens musician and barbecue lover Redneck Greece

But music and barbecue weren’t only coming together in backyards. By the 20th century, barbecue restaurants began cropping up all over the South. It was simple enough to start one—all you needed was a pit and a pit boss. If business really got cookin’, maybe build a corrugated-iron wall around the place, or add a cement-slab dance floor. Because barbecue was so popular, juke-joint owners followed suit, smoking meat on the side so their patrons could feast on plates of ribs while popping nickels in the jukebox and sipping tall boys. “Owning a night club can be a bugger to make a living, but sell some food and you might pay the bills,” says country musician Greg Reece, who’s been playing Georgia ’cue joints for years as his alter-ego, Redneck GReece. “It has a lot to do with what folks can afford. Black or white, us poor people will not be denied food and fun!”

The distinctive music and cuisine served up at these barbecue shacks and backyard parties—from Weaver’s generation to Reece’s—could have only come from the singular environment of the American South. “We invented blues, country and jazz, then put them all together and invented rock ’n’ roll,” says Bearfoot Hookers bassist Jon Tonge. “And we invented barbecue, too. All these things—gospel music, bourbon, reckless superiority complexes—were born of the same cultural influences, at the same time, in the same place, of the same people. A bunch of folks in the New World, and in the South it was hot and sweaty and, at times, weird and isolated. The music, people, food and culture reflected that.”

Culinary and musical cross-pollination

The X Factor, Tonge says, was the brutal, unjust imposition of slavery. “Why didn’t these things come from the North? It lacked the cultural dissonance of the South. There were different cultures there, too, but it was basically Europe condensed to neighborhoods instead of countries. And they stuck together—Little Italy, Chinatown. The cultures weren’t mixing so much as existing in protected enclaves. But in the South, it was up close and personal in ways that were twisted and cruel. In the same houses, same farms, same beds. One preparing food for the other. This utter mixture of vastly different cultures was unique in the world, and this is what came out.”

The South’s foodways were an expression of this multiracial population—the bread from Native American corn, the okra from Africa, Europe’s pigs slow-roasted in the barbecue. “The same might be said of Southern music, [which is] a hybrid expression of the South’s multicultural heritage,” Eskew said during his recent lecture at the Madison opening of traveling Smithsonian exhibit New Harmonies: Celebrating American Roots Music. “The African kora transforming into the banjo, making new harmonies in the hands of Appalachian farmers, and the European coronet, achieving new harmonies when played as a horn on the streets of New Orleans.”

Eskew also spoke of black and white Southerners meeting late-19th-century European immigrants who played in German brass bands and Italian wind ensembles. “A distinctly Southern way of playing trumpets, trombones and clarinets developed,” he said, “as jazz appeared in port cities such as New Orleans and Savannah. To the harmonic traditions of Europe, black and white Southern jazz [musicians] added a heritage of syncopation from Africa and an American sense of improvisation.”

In Georgia—particularly Atlanta, which has always been a major transportation hub—this cultural exchange was accelerated, having a profound impact on the flow of ideas and, thus, the state’s music and food. Influences were coming from the north, south, east and west, as well as from overseas, straight up the S&A rail line from the port of Savannah.

Georgia blues musician and historian Danny "Mudcat" Dudeck at Atlanta's Fat Matt's Rib Shack. Photo by Tim Song

Georgia blues musician and historian Danny “Mudcat” Dudeck at Atlanta’s Fat Matt’s Rib Shack. Photo by Tim Song

“Delta blues—because of the isolation—might be more pure, but Georgia blues is the opposite” says longtime Atlanta musician Danny “Mudcat” Dudeck between forkfuls of brisket at D.B.A. Barbecue. “Even before recorded history, Atlanta was a crossroads because of the geography. Peachtree Street was a ridge—animals used it, it was a trade route for the Indians. When Europeans came, they used it, too, and now it’s an actual road. And being a railroad hub, Atlanta has always been a place to pass through. Now, we have the busiest airport in the world.

“[But even back in the first half of the 20th century], Atlanta was a big recording town—people came from Texas, Memphis, Florida, and South Carolina to record here. Blind Lemon Jefferson, people like that … bringing with them their different influences. And it’s the same with Georgia barbecue—we don’t just have one style, we have all the different styles.”

Mudcat is on to something. Each of the states surrounding Georgia has its own signature barbecue tradition—Tennessee’s dry rub, Alabama’s white barbecue sauce and tangy tomato-bases, South Carolina’s mustard sauce and North Carolina’s vinegar. But in Georgia, while there’s no defining characteristic, you can get it all—even authentic Texas-style beef brisket. And those same geographic and cultural factors that led Georgia musicians like Blind Willie McTell to play a diverse mix of blues, ballads, rags, religious songs, hillbilly music and the latest Tin Pan Alley hits are also responsible for the state’s wide-range of barbecue options.

The guitar-slinging pit boss of Buckhead

No one exemplifies the connection between Georgia’s world-renowned musical tradition and its delicious smoked-and-sauced meats quite like Robert “Barbecue Bob” Hicks.

He was born in Walnut Grove, Ga., in 1902, into a Jim Crow South that didn’t offer many prospects for young black men. He was born, more or less, at the same time as the blues. While a boy, he moved to Covington, in Newton County, where he and his older brother, Charley, fell under the tutelage of their friend Curley Weaver’s mother, Savannah “Dip” Weaver, who played guitar and piano. “The style she taught [the boys] was a banjo style,” Mudcat says. “It was a percussive technique called ‘frailing,’ and the guitar was in open-G tuning like a banjo.”

In 1905, before Curley was born, and when Bob was just three, a musicologist named Howard W. Odum came to Newton County and spent several years collecting lyrics, eventually publishing his discoveries as an anthology of folk songs. “I think that Odum coming to town and putting together that book,” Mudcat says, “gave people like Bob and Curley the feeling, ‘Hey, there’s really some value to our culture [and where we come from].’”

Blues pioneer Robert "Barbecue Bob" Hicks was discovered by a talent scout while working a Tidwell's, a drive-in barbecue restaurant in Buckhead.

Blues pioneer Robert “Barbecue Bob” Hicks was discovered by a talent scout while working a Tidwell’s, a drive-in barbecue restaurant in Buckhead.

As teenagers, Bob and Curley began venturing to nearby towns, putting all those lessons from Dip and the other local bluesmen they’d met to use. “Barbecue Bob and my grandfather used to play house parties in Covington and Walnut Grove,” says Weaver’s grandson Bryant. “They did a lot of traveling together. …Come to find out, on down the line, Barbecue Bob’s aunt is related to my mother. So we was all in the family.”

In 1925, the notoriously morose Charley Hicks—who’d begun performing under the ironic moniker “Laughing Charley Lincoln”—became the first of the three boys to move to Atlanta. He got a job, got married and played music on the weekends. The more outgoing Bob followed Charley 18 months later, eventually landing a job as a barbecue chef at Tidwell’s, a drive-in ’cue joint in Buckhead, which was still a suburb at the time. It’s a mystery how Bob made it to work so far away—according to census data, he always lived in Edgewood, Old Fourth Ward or other downtown neighborhoods. Most of what we know about Bob’s stint at Tidwell’s comes from Living Atlanta: An Oral History of the City, 1914-1948, in which historian Clifford M. Kuhn interviews Bob’s sister, Willie Mae Jackson. In the book, Jackson recalls her brother playing for tips at Tidwell’s as people ate their barbecue sandwiches.

And it was at Tidwell’s that Bob was discovered by Columbia Records talent scout Dan Hornsby in 1927. Hornsby, a musician himself, had the idea of putting Bob in that stark white chef’s outfit for his publicity photo and calling him “Barbecue Bob,” and Bob—seeing the potential to cash in—was a good sport and went along for the ride. The first song Bob cut for Columbia, “Barbecue Blues” (which, incidentally, has nothing to do with barbecue) was an instant hit—at 15,000 copies becoming the label’s best-selling release up to that date. (You can now find the song on Barbecue Any Old Time: Blues from the Pit – 1927-1942, a fantastic new compilation from North Carolina’s Old Hat Records.)

Commercial success gave Barbecue Bob some leverage. Soon, he was able to bring his brother Charley in for a guest spot on gimmicky talking blues “It Won’t Be Long Now,” which did have plenty of barbecue references in it. The song became an even bigger hit than “Barbecue Blues,” and Bob now had the clout to line up solo sessions for Charley and Curley, who launched careers of their own.

A few months after “Barbecue Blues” was cut, Bob was summoned to New York for a few sessions, and ended up staying at the apartment of popular blues singer Mamie Smith. While there, he tried heroin for the first time. “He was in New York for four days to record a bunch of songs,” Mudcat says, “and most of it comes out, and is very successful. But he got a taste, and it eventually became his downfall.”

Four years later, at the age of 29, Barbecue Bob died of pneumonia after a bout with the flu. “He was in a weakened state,” Mudcat says, “from living too high.” Before he died, though, Bob managed to cut just shy of 70 sides, putting Georgia blues on the map, and paving the way for fellow legend Blind Willie McTell, who would end up taking Bob’s place as Curley Weaver’s closest collaborator in the decades that followed.

Cue to the rescue

In the 1940s and ’50s, Blind Willie McTell and Curley Weaver spent much of their time wandering Atlanta’s Ponce de Leon corridor, busking for booze and spare change. Their favorite spots were by the old Ford Factory on Ponce: Ray Lee’s Blue Lantern Lounge (now a bar called The Local) and a drive-in barbecue joint called the Pig’N Whistle (now a Krispy Kreme).

Atlanta's Pig N Whistle. Photo courtesy of the Atlanta History Center

Atlanta’s Pig N Whistle. Photo courtesy of the Atlanta History Center

In Living Atlanta, McTell’s wife, Kate, explains that Pig’N Whistle was frequented by Atlanta Crackers fans coming and going from minor-league baseball games at Ponce de Leon Park. “[People] would stop in to get something to eat. They would be all white,” she said. “Me and [Willie] would be the only blacks there. He would go every night through the week, and Saturday after three o’clock … And he would play blues, classical, spirituals, hymns, anything you could name, he’d hit it.”

In 1950, Weaver and McTell even recorded a single for Regal Records as the Pig’N Whistle Band—“Love Changing Blues” b/w “Talkin’ to You Mama,” their final recording together.

Four decades, later, in the same town, Mudcat would find himself chasing the ghosts of Hicks, Weaver and McTell, busking on the same street corners they used to haunt. Ultimately, it was Fat Matt’s Rib Shack that gave him his first indoor gig, though like Barbecue Bob at Tidwell’s, he worked for tips alone, stealing about the room like a Twain-penned scoundrel, making his way from table to table, hat serving as a collection plate as he rattled through his tent-revival shtick: “Brothers and sisters, people learn greed, they kill one another, maim, commit war, rape the land, lie and betray all for money. And as highly experienced professionals, we will take this burden—those evil $5 bills, evil $50 bills, evil $200 bills—for you and burn through it all before the sun comes up!”

“I didn’t do it as regularly as guys like Bob and Blind Willie did,” Mudcat says, “but they’d play drive-ins, and people would hire ’em for parties later that night and take ’em back to their house. I’ve gotten plenty of jobs from barbecue places, but it seems they were doing it nightly.”

The good thing about playing restaurants, says Redneck GReece, who has sustained himself with ’cue gigs for years, “is that it will always get you fed, even if you don’t get paid worth a shit. Barbecue is the real meal. … Jot Em Down [in Athens] was my house gig for about 50 cholesterol points.”

Bearfoot Hookers frontman Ty Manning—also a Jot Em Down Barbecue veteran—echoes Redneck GReece, pointing out the connection between soul food and the hard-living rock ’n’ roll lifestyle. “Southern food, and the eating habits around it, go hand in hand with Southern music and the partying habits of the musicians,” says Manning, whose band’s first gig, at a backyard barbecue, involved drinking whiskey from a turkey baster. “It’s all about alarming excess, and no fear of damaging the body. And both usually end up causing regret the next morning.”

Smoke-fueled camaraderie

Mark Sultan, aka “BBQ” of The King Khan & BBQ Show, believes that good barbecue sates the immediate need for soul and flavor. “When I haphazardly chose the name ‘BBQ,’” says Sultan, whose band was featured in 2009 Atlanta music doc We Fun, “It was an attempt to somehow bridge my music and its delivery to the feeling I got from the food.”

Former Bar-B-Q Killers drummer Arthur Johnson suggests it’s the lack of pretension surrounding “really good and honest” barbecue places that attracts musicians. “And musicians, if they’re lucky, get to travel and eat at a lot of different places, and if you’re a Southern musician,” he says, “this will make you really miss Southern barbecue joints, and if you’re a Southeastern musician like me, you really miss Carolina and East Georgia barbecue. … All I need is some tasty chopped or pulled pork with a bottle of Johnny Harris’s, a bottomless bowl of Zeb’s delicious stew and a big loaf of white bread to soak it up.”

Back in the ’80s, Johnson and the Bar-B-Q Killers were interviewed for music documentary Athens, GA Inside/Out at the now legendary Walter’s Bar-B-Q (note the shared spelling preference). Closed long ago, Walter’s was the favorite ’cue joint of R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, and the band recorded the chiming “Walter’s Theme” in tribute, releasing it originally as the B-side to the “So. Central Rain” 7-inch.

David Barbe—who also pulled a short stint in the Bar-B-Q Killers, and now runs UGA’s Music Business Program and Chase Park Transduction studios—was also a loyal Walter’s patron. “Walter was a great guy,” Barbe says. “Incredibly friendly. The place really had a vibe about it. There would be a good mix of people in there—businessmen, townies, laborers, white, black—and since it was so small, any conversation became a group conversation.”

Like Walter's Bar-B-Que, Jot 'Em Down in Athens was a favorite of musicians. Both restaurants are closed now.

Like Walter’s Bar-B-Que, Jot ‘Em Down in Athens was a favorite of musicians. Both are closed now but hold fond memories for many.

Just like all those old backyard barbecues, trips to Walter’s were underpinned by a deep and enduring sense of community—of people coming together around two of the most simple and rewarding pleasures in life: carefully labored-over, lovingly prepared food—regional food full of character, nuance and the flavor of tradition; and soulful, heartfelt music—delivered with passion, threaded together by timeless themes made fresh by the perspective of one’s own life and times.

To make barbecue—authentic, low & slow Southern barbecue—you’ve got to get up early, just as early as those musicians have stayed up late. As the all-night party recoils in anticipation of daybreak, the howls become whispers. The crackle of the fire turns to scattered pops and hisses, last night’s embers cooled to a dusty grey, the once-steady plume of smoke now a thin wisp climbing into the gradually lightening sky. Rib bones—some half-eaten, some picked clean—are scattered about next to an empty mason jar. And the guitar is back in its case, awaiting the long, sobering walk home.

At a crossroads on the edge of town, the bluesman, in yesterday’s clothes, ambles by the pitmaster, who is piling hickory between sips of black coffee. Silently, a torch is passed. The bluesman disappears down the road, and the pitmaster sparks the fire for a new day. Rack after rack of ribs are laid gently on the smoke-shrouded grill, and the music begins, not too fast, not too slow—quarter notes sizzling to a steady 4/4 beat.

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