Photo of Chad Evans (left) and Wes Griffith (right) with Mama Louise Hudson by Kirk West
All other photos by Dylan York
The leaders of The Moonhanger Group, which owns and operates several downtown Macon restaurants and venues, recently made an executive decision in their customary way. The shoptalk, over libations on the The Rookery’s front patio, had turned to naming their latest enterprise, a taqueria adjacent to the Cox Capitol Theatre.
“I like ‘The El Camino,’” says Chad Evans.
His partner, Wes Griffith, shakes his head and points out, “But that translates as ‘The The Camino’—‘the-the way.’ That doesn’t make sense, and people will think we’re making an error in the language.”
Chad: “That’s the point! It’ll get people riled up, and they’ll talk about it, and that’ll generate extra publicity.”
Just crazy enough to work—The El Camino it is. At the risk of killing any buzz among irate grammarians: These guys do know better. Both Evans and Griffith majored in comparative literature. They also understand what plays in the mid-state. The duo came together in 2009 to purchase and revamp The Rookery, and they since have been building an empire that is revitalizing downtown and restoring Macon’s status as a music hub. As Moonhanger, they took over operations at the Armory Ballroom, converted the second story of The Rookery to Dovetail—a high-end locavore restaurant—and then began managing the Cox Capitol Theatre.
In addition to getting The El Camino ready for a 2015 opening, Evans and Griffith have purchased and restored the legendary H&H Restaurant, which closed at the end of last year, but Moonhanger proudly re-opened it on August 13. All of this development is coalescing into something this slow-paced city, located in the sweaty navel of Georgia, has not enjoyed consistently since the glory days of the 1970s, when Capricorn Records conjured up a funky, tie-dyed Camelot: a “scene.”
“I like the word ‘pilgrimage,’ and I think of Macon as a place of pilgrimage,” Evans says. “Moonhanger wants to preserve, celebrate and build on the history here in a way that is fresh and relevant enough to resonate today.”
In other words, they want to boogie a few dance steps farther than William Faulkner’s famous axiom about the South went—that the past is never dead, or even past: They want to give Macon’s music history a rocking future, too.
More than the Bottom Line
Evans, 39, grew up in nearby Fort Valley, where his family runs Georgia Bob’s BBQ Company, and as a singer/songwriter, he fronted the critically revered band Hank Vegas. His co-conspirator, Griffith, 37, is the scion of an accomplished clan in Macon, and he dreamed of becoming a writer, studying poetry under longtime state laureate David Bottoms, whose breakout book was Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump.
“Chad and I are kindred spirits,” Griffith says, “because we were both literature majors, and when you study and write poetry, you develop a strong sense of place and you tend to be a romantic. I think it’s our English backgrounds, and his work as a singer/songwriter, that drive us to preserve the cultural lore, which is what Macon is all about. We’d both rather be part of something special than in a business that focused only on the bottom line.”
Evans adds, “We want to be cultural ambassadors more than anything else.”
The two met sometime after the millennium, when a vanguard of other likeminded, high-energy, progressives-who-party were arriving with a combination of financial and social capital. “We suddenly had a peer group that was brimming over with optimism and ideas for what Macon could become,” says Evans, who was written up at the time as the “new breed of Dixie hipster” in The 11th Hour. It was that alt-weekly’s publisher, Brad Evans (no relation), who brought the Moonhanger entrepreneurs together when they all bonded at a CeeLo Green gig in an East Macon shopping center nightclub.
“The crowd I hung out with around Chad was all art-school kids and Jerry Reed, and Wes’s crew was all old-school Macon and Dr. John,” Brad Evans recalls, summing them up in cultural-signifier shorthand. “We spent a lot of time dreaming about Macon together. Wes has business acumen and impeccable taste, and Chad is a talented musician who has understood the food world since he was old enough to spit. By showing that a downtown business can succeed with great live music and farm-to-table experiences, they’ve gotten other people involved and created a culture. They’ve already made a few dreams come true in the process, and they’re really just getting started.”
An Expanding Empire
The team’s first project together was the purchase and revitalization of The Rookery. Chad Evans says the landmark tavern, which opened in its current incarnation in 1976, was a “sleeping giant that needed to be loved.”
“I remember coming to Woolworth’s as a kid and having the awareness that The Rookery was an important place because musicians hung out there,” he says. After its heyday, when Tom Waits and Rickie Lee Jones famously passed out in booth No. 11, the nightspot had lost its luster along with its younger patrons. Evans and Griffith gave it a facelift and a new menu, with pub-grub items named after Georgia music-makers. You can get the “Big O Burger,” garnished with an onion ring symbolizing the “O” in Otis Redding; the Allman Burger, with those talismanic (but psilocybin-free) mushrooms; and the Gram Parsons Cosmic Club.
“The Rookery is our starting spot for the ‘Free Birds and Night Owls’ Friday night walking tour,” says Jessica Walden, a founder of Rock Candy music tours and part of the Walden musical dynasty. “While they’re learning about music history, visitors love to get an Allman Burger and grab a drink to go—the city lifts the open-container laws until 10 p.m. on Friday nights. So that brings more foot traffic downtown. It’s a full circle thing for all of us—we’re friends who are working together to see that Macon gets its proper reckoning.”
Then came Dovetail, which Evans and Griffith opened in 2012. Among its first fans was Macon native and world-class violinist Robert McDuffie, who closed the bar down at 2:30 a.m. one night, catching up with his old high school friend Mike Mills, of R.E.M. The New York City-based founder and namesake of the Robert McDuffie Center for Strings at Mercer University’s Townsend School of Music has even treated lucky diners to several impromptu violin performances.
“I’ve always romanticized my hometown, which has such ‘good bones,’ as they say, and I admire the passion and investment of the Moonhanger guys because they’re so committed to doing the right thing for everyone here,” McDuffie says. “Plus, you never know who you’ll run into at the bar.”
Notes Evans: “Harrison Ford has been in, and during the filming of Need for Speed, Aaron Paul came in every day for a double chocolate milkshake.”
Around the corner from Dovetail and The Rookery sits the Cox Capitol Theatre, an entertainment venue that opened in 1916 and for almost 60 years served as a movie theatre and hub of downtown Macon. It then spent three decades neglected until a local revitalization effort opened it to the public again in 2006. Management, however, had changed hands frequently until last fall when Moonhanger took over operations and began booking acts including Lucinda Williams, Marty Stuart, Dickey Betts, Bootsy Collins, and The Black Lips on its stage.
“Moonhanger’s new role with the Cox comes at a pivotal time,” says Sean Pritchard, managing partner of TheBlueIndian.com, an indie-music blog, and business manager of the International Cherry Blossom Festival. “This market is often overlooked by promoters in favor of Athens or Savannah, but there are countless resources here that can make Macon a live music destination. We’ve already seen a number of national-level acts through here since Moonhanger took over, and I would expect that to only increase.”
Keeping the Spoon Greased
Evans’ and Griffith’s business-minded preservation efforts are now extending to The H&H, a soul food joint founded in 1959 that has long functioned as a starred destination on Georgia’s music map. Its big-hearted proprietor, “Mama Louise” Hudson, famously took pity on some “skinny white boys” who seemed broke because they all were shyly eating off one plate. She discreetly ladled out free food for “Macon’s first hippies,” who would become the Allman Brothers Band. When the players became famous, they brought her on tour as the band’s chef, and she is credited in the liner notes of Idlewild South as “Vittles: Louise.” Since then, countless other ax-slingers, trailing long, cornsilk hair, have visited from all over the world to order the fried chicken and greens, hoping to ingest some of that fatback-seasoned mojo.
Much to the sadness of Macon and music fans far and wide, Hudson, now in her early 80s, quietly closed the doors of the venerable H&H last fall. Enter Moonhanger with a plan not only to reopen the restaurant but to keep Hudson—who by now is revered as Southern Gothic royalty—in her favorite spot at the fryer. Expect H&H standbys to remain on the updated menu alongside more farm-to-table items. “Think of it as a cleaner greasy spoon,” Evans says. “We’re keeping it authentic, and you’ll still be able to get your catfish.”
“I think those boys will do good with the place, but I still want to work,” says Hudson, during her recent 85th birthday party celebration. The Blind Boys of Alabama had just popped in to the H&H to serenade her with “Happy Birthday.” “I love my sweet babies, and I love feeding them.”
It is unclear if she means the Allman Brothers, musicians in general, or whoever is hungry. Not that it matters. So many dreams need to be fed, and the new owners understand that mission. Given the thought that went into The El Camino’s handle, how did they come up with “Moonhanger”?
“That’s part of Chad’s pre-game huddle speech whenever we’re about to do something,” Griffith says. “He encourages everybody involved to ‘Go hang the moon!’ And he’s totally serious. We worried at first that it might sound corny, but we’ve decided it works for what we hope to accomplish.”