Sprawl may be paving over much of our red clay, but around Lake Burton and the five smaller bodies of water that make up the densely wooded Tallulah River Watershed in northeast Georgia, nature usually prevails, one way or another.
Rather than chop down an ancient sycamore that is growing tall through the middle of the deck at Laurel Lodge Restaurant, the proprietors have built a hexagonal bar around its broad base, so the invitation “Meet you at The Tree!” usually means some fun with guitars, grilled trout, and “artisanal, micro-distilled” (translation: legal) moonshine.
“No matter what the season, things fall from the upper branches of the tree, but people don’t seem to mind,” says one of the establishment’s owners, Lee Thomas, who is also deputy commissioner of the Georgia Film, Music and Digital Entertainment office. “We have the occasional sighting of a black bear, too, which I enjoy—we are on their territory, after all.”
And bears aren’t the only head-turning wildlife.
Lately the area has amped up its music scene with a growing roster of artists who can choose among newly renovated venues.
“There’s definitely been a change in energy,” says troubadour Philip John Brooks, an expat Englishman who entertains regularly at The Chophouse at LaPrade’s Marina and at Sugar Mill Creek RV campground, which features a lively, low-slung alfresco bar. “I’ve lived here for more than 40 years and played in the area for eight years, and there is much more going on now than I’ve ever seen.”
Both Laurel Lodge, with its rental cabins out back, and LaPrade’s, on the 62 miles of shoreline, have been around since the 1920s and ’30s, serving as shady, breezy bastions of “Old Georgia,” where the gentry could fish in the 2,775-acre Lake Burton and escape the miasmic heat of the southern parts of state. “We found some old log books and sign-in sheets in the attic, and there were all kinds of notable folks, including ‘Mrs. James Carter,’ from before our former president was governor,” Thomas says.
Old Tree, New Life
In its earlier incarnations, the lodge also functioned as a lumber outpost and a school band camp, with a pavilion out back for concerts, before operating as Joni’s restaurant in the 1990s. It later closed and fell into disrepair, and Thomas, who had enjoyed family vacations on the lake, felt a sentimental calling to revive the place and make use of her Rolodex of friends in the entertainment industry. Roxie Watson, Hannah Thomas, and DeDe Vogt are among the acts who have echoed off The Tree, and once the pavilion is restored to accommodate a crowd of a couple hundred, expect other marquee names soon.
LaPrade’s, too, has enjoyed an eye-popping growth spurt in the past five years. Once a sleepy marina with a country kitchen known for its fried chicken, it now looms over the lake as a complex with a grill and gift shop on the lower floor and fine dining upstairs. Country star Alan Jackson, who lives nearby, is a regular diner. But aside from Brooks, the entertainment is mostly locavore, like the trout—Jeremiah and the Bullfrogs, Fiddlin’ Mitch Patterson, and the Mike Watson Band.
Brooks’ repertoire includes originals about growing up in an English fishing village—think Roger Whitaker—but when he takes the microphone at Sugar Mill Creek, the watering hole for the peripatetic Winnebago crowd, he plays primarily covers: “I do ‘King of the Road’ and ‘North to Alaska’ a lot,” he says with a laugh. And he has penned the joint’s anthem: “Sugar Mill Creek / there’s a party going on there as we speak.” Regulars have learned to sing along and demonstrate the lyrics.
They also welcome the local fauna.
“Dogs, dogs, dogs! I love the fact that the venue is so dog-friendly, which tells you how laidback the atmosphere is,” says Atlanta vocalist Heidi Pollyea who plays guitar and keyboards at SMC on weekends. “And the crowd has helped me develop the audience-participation aspect of my playing—they love to sing along, especially as the night gets later.”
L5P in the Boonies
Another new spot livening up the route to the lake district is the Grant Street Music Room, which manager Bob Fortin describes as “a dash of bohemian Little Five Points in the middle of nowhere.” This venue, tucked into the Old Clarkesville Mill and decorated in a style that could be described as “Stevie Nicks Gypsy Chic,” showcases regional and touring acts heavy on progressive twang such as the Rev. Jeff Mosier, Ralph Roddenberry, American Anodyne, The Corduroy Road, The Fiddleheads, BlueBilly Grit, and The Packway Handle Band.
“We have a restaurant and lounge, but our primary focus—our serious passion—is music,” says Fortin, a longtime impresario and proud Deadhead who has managed The Grapes, among other groups. “We’re a listening room for serious players, and occasionally the crowd feels moved to dance.”
In fact, if you want to observe hipsters clogging, sans-crinolines, outside of the county fair, check in at Grant Street around midnight when The Corduroy Road plays.
“As business owners, we want this area to stay as unspoiled and authentic as possible,” Thomas says. “The proximity to nature is what makes it special, along with the down-to-earth people who live here. This place is insular in the best sense of that word, and we want to preserve that, while offering first-rate music and celebrating the talented artists who bring it.”
Adds Brooks in an English accent that has picked up some high-lonesome notes: “The place is becoming quite vibrant, but it’s still rather cozy at the same time, you know?”