It’s been said Fiddlin’ John Carson (1868-1949), America’s first country music star, carried around his favorite instrument—a Stradivarius clone brought to the north Georgia hills from Ireland by his grandfather—in a flour sack. It’s a plausible enough story, given the circumstances.
In 1911, following a trail blazed by countless Appalachian families seeking employment in the newly industrialized urban centers of the South, Carson moved his family to Atlanta where he and his eldest son had found work in the Fulton Bag & Cotton Mill. Carson, a child prodigy and multi-time state fiddle champion, along with his wife and nine children, took up residence in the town that had been constructed especially for the mill workers.
Cabbagetown was populated by some 1,500 inhabitants ensconced in identical row houses and small cottage-style homes crammed into about six square blocks adjacent to the textile factory. For the Carsons, it would seem, the Fulton Bag & Cotton Mill provided not only a welcome paycheck in difficult times, but also a steady supply of readymade violin cases.
In the summer of 1923, an entourage from New York-based Okeh Records arrived in Atlanta with one of the first professional portable acoustic recording machines. In a makeshift studio, engineers captured on wax cylinder the 54-year-old “linthead,” John William Carson, performing “Little Log Cabin in the Lane” and “The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster’s Going to Crow.”
During the ensuing two decades Okeh sold hundreds of thousands of “hillbilly,” “country” and “old-timey” records by Carson and his cohorts while countless millions of Americans also listened to the music on a newfangled contraption called radio. Many of those broadcasts originated from the studios of WSB, the south’s first radio station.
Unfortunately, the fiddle-playing Georgian’s music career was cut short by the Great Depression and the fickle taste of the listening audience. Carson died, nearly destitute, in Atlanta in December 1949.
In 1984, Fidddlin’ John Carson was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. A few years later, the ramshackle mill town he once called home once again played a pivotal role in nurturing an extraordinary outpouring of music.
A latter-day renaissance
In the mid-1980s, a combination of factors created a fertile proving ground for music making in Atlanta. Economic conditions sparked an influx of public and private funding for the arts. Young, independent promoters, such as Rob Gibson and Steve Harris, who launched Quantum Productions and Windstorm Productions, respectively, brought an eclectic blend of world-class musicians to the city. On the street, an assortment of venues catered to enthusiastic audiences.
Downtown, the industrial districts had yet to transmutate from postmodern wasteland to mixed-use cosmoplantation. Ad hoc art shows and concerts, officially sanctioned and not, were staged in abandoned schools, bank vaults, warehouses and factories, such as the Pillowtex in Castleberry Hill, the Mattress Factory on the east side and 800 East near Little Five Points.
“There’s never been anything else like it in my lifetime and there’s definitely nothing approaching it today,” says Jeff Clark, editor of Stomp & Stammer and radio host who has been covering the Atlanta scene for the last two decades.
Not least affected by this mini-Renaissance was Cabbagetown.
When the Fulton Bag & Cotton Mill finally closed for good in 1978, Cabbagetown was bereft of opportunities and left to devour its own. However, one of the descendants of the original Appalachian residents, singer/songwriter Joyce Brookshire, stayed put and set about reinterpreting the traditional music that had been brought to America by her forebears. In 2005, Brookshire released Cabbagetown Ballad, (EMWorld), a 16-song collection of bluesy, folksy songs that she described as “the closest I’ll ever get to writing my memoirs.”
Brookshire was the exception. By the late 1980s, for many disaffected offspring of the “linthead” generations, it was time to move on and those who could afford to escape did. At first, in light of the neighborhood’s reputation as a depressed, desperate and even dangerous part of town, no great rush ensued to “gentrify” the growing number of vacated dwellings in Cabbagetown.
Up from the underground
Inevitably, though, “Somebody plays the pioneer,” says Kelly Hogan. “One person gets the machete out, finds a place to live and the rest follow.”
Two decades ago, Hogan’s classically honed vocal chords imparted a torchy, sophisticated Southern resonance to the music of The Jody Grind, a quartet led by guitarist Bill Taft. During The Jody Grind’s memorable, though tragically short-lived stint as darlings of the Atlanta indie/underground scene, the band recorded two albums, One Man’s Trash Is Another Man’s Treasure (1990) and Lefty’s Deceiver (1992). In between releases, Hogan, a native Atlantan, moved to Cabbagetown.
“The first place where I lived was this little duplex-type row house with a great view of the [Historic Oakland] cemetery,” says Hogan, who today resides in Evansville, Wisc., when she’s not touring as a backup singer with Neko Case’s band.
Next door and sharing the cemetery vista were Brian Halloran, who played cello in the Opal Foxx Quartet and Smoke, and Tim Campion, drummer with Insane Jane, Blood Poets and Smoke, among others. Both Opal Foxx and Smoke were primarily vehicles for showcasing the songs and singing of Benjamin, the singularly monikered, uniquely gifted and endearingly unhinged drag diva from Jonesboro, Georgia. The latter part of Benjamin’s life was movingly chronicled in Benjamin Smoke (2000), a documentary by Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen. Much of the film was shot in Cabbagetown where Benjamin (born Robert Curtis Dickerson) lived for several years leading up to his death in 1999.
Two shotgun shacks down the street from Hogan lived Robert Hayes, the bassist for The Jody Grind. Hayes’ roommate, a beguiling, reluctantly budding singer/songwriter named Chan Marshall, was taking the first tentative steps toward the formation of Cat Power.
Taft described a typical interlude at the Hayes/Marshall residence: “Chan would sing for Robert but only if he was in a different room. Robert was reading a lot of John Fante at the time—Ask the Dust—so he would stand in the kitchen, playing his upright bass, talking about Arturo Bandini. Chan would stroll in, never talking, followed by someone, usually a girl wearing a shower curtain and nothing else. ’Where’s Chan?’ shower curtain girl would ask. Hayes would point in the direction of the hall with his bass. I’d be sitting there thinking, ‘So what if I wasn’t in Paris in the ’20s hanging with Gertrude Stein and Hemingway? I’m in Cabbagetown in the ’90s.’”
The prime mover?
“It was definitely a salon of sorts,” Hogan says, pausing to ponder an appropriate qualifier, “a peg-legged salon.”
“It’s all JT’s fault,” says Taft. For the record, JT wholeheartedly concurred.
In 1986, John D. Thomas was an editor at Creative Loafing, the Atlanta arts and entertainment weekly, when he and a buddy, Eric Kaiser, moved into a one-bedroom apartment above the Boys Club on Carroll Street, the main drag in Cabbagetown.
“There were a few artist-types living there already, but we pretty much popped that cherry for the music scene,” says Thomas, who in life and print wielded an edgy wit with an abundance of self-referential attitude.
“We moved there because it was cheap, dangerous and cool,” Thomas says. “We were too young and stupid to be afraid of all the sketchy drug deals and almost constant car and scooter theft.”
Thomas and Kaiser soon moved from their one-bedroom hovel into a dilapidated house at 711 Wylie Street, which over time would attain legendary status as a practice hall, crash pad and party central for Cabbagetown scenesters. Once the base of operations was established, the next step was to form a band.
Thence came The Chowder Shouters: JT on pawn shop bass drum and household utensils; Kaiser on percussion, which were usually beer bottles struck with a hammer, with predictable results; and Bill Taft, the only member of the trio who actually knew how to play an instrument, on guitar and vocals.
The Chowder Shouters erupted like an ingrown blackhead on the Atlanta music scene. The trio made their unofficial debut on the sidewalk outside the famed 688 rock club playing the only song they had rehearsed, “Amazing Grace,” over and over while Jonathan Richman performed inside. The Chowder Shouters released one vinyl LP, No Tongue Can Tell How Bad I Feel (Landslide)—a guitar thrashing, nail-scraping stompfest augmented by feverish meditations on the weather, wrenches and taxes—before melting into the ether.
“I think our band was part scam—we were terrible in many ways and basically didn’t play all that well—and part genius,” Thomas says. “We developed a raw DIY sound soaked in sadness and despair that was years ahead of bands like the White Stripes and Black Lips.”
Seeds take root
From a musical perspective, whatever impact the Chowder Shouters might have exerted on their peers or subsequent generations is debatable. Clearly, though, history will show that JT & Co. blazed a trail that was followed by a variety of performers pushing a variety of agendas.
In 1992, James Kelly, a behavioral psychologist who grew up in Nashville where his father had aspired to Grand Ole Opry fame, moved to Cabbagetown. In pursuit of his own dreams as a singer/songwriter, he formed Slim Chance & the Convicts. For more than a quarter-century, Kelly has mined his Scots-Irish roots to produce a distinctly contemporary body of work based on traditional American country music.
When Slim Chance & the Convicts began performing regularly at local hangouts, especially Dottie’s and the beloved Austin Avenue Buffet, a slew of bands followed suit, among them, Jennie B. & the Speedbillies with Jennifer Brown on vocals, and Greasetrap (later, the Lost Continentals), which featured another female crooner from Cabbagetown, Amy Pike-Taylor, who can be heard today with The Bonaventure Quartet.
Collectively, the alternative country music movement that originated in Cabbagetown was deemed Atlanta’s “redneck underground.” The tag came from Deacon Lunchbox, a poet and spoken word performer who was killed in a 1992 car crash that also claimed the lives of Jody Grind bassist Robert Hayes and drummer Rob Clayton.
Coming from a completely different end of the musical spectrum, between 1985 and 1989, occasional Cabbagetown resident Glen Thrasher (who played drums in the first iteration of Cat Power) produced a series of multi-day “Destroy All Music” festivals. Together with Ellen McGrail, Thrasher was the founding host of “Destroy All Music,” which can still be heard weekly on the Georgia Tech student station (WREK, 91.1 FM). He also published 17 issues of a fanzine called Lowlife. As much as anything, Thrasher’s endeavors focused on the primacy of improvisation and the subversively playful and occasionally insidious relationship between art, artists and audience.
The four DAM festivals showcased mostly local artists playing noise, no wave, improv electronic and acoustic jazz, and many largely unclassifiable perturbations of sound and music. Bands such as Accidents of Culture, Bruce Hampton (from the legendary Hampton Grease Band of the late 1960s-early ‘70s), Dairy Queen Empire (led by Grace Braun, later truncated to DQE), Freedom Puff (with Benjamin and Debbie Richardson), Flatbush, Cake, King Kill/33, Nature Protein Biscuit, Tinnitus and Klimchak. Many of the band members either lived or practiced and hung out in Cabbagetown,
“Every city has its little duct-tape-on-the-shoe, terrarium ‘hood,” says Hogan. “Usually, it has to do with low rent.” It also has something to do with proximal interaction in the pre-Internet era.
Oraien Catledge, whose book, Cabbagetown (1985, University of Texas Press), illuminates the character of the mill town’s original Appalachian inhabitants in a series of stark yet sympathetic black-and-white portraits, put it this way: “They didn’t have computers; they had a front porch.”
Which is not to say that the myriad bands linked in some way to the Cabbagetown alternative music scene—bands like Chant (featuring the dearly departed founder of the Bubbapalooza Festival and Cabbagetown resident, Greg Smalley, on guitar), Dirt, Seersucker and Rock*A*Teens (Kelly Hogan’s notable post-Jody Grind venture with then-boyfriend, Chris Lopez, ex-DQE drummer and photographer extraordinaire, Chris Verene, and Justin Hughes, currently with Lesbian Afternoon)—were doing something reactionary, revolutionary or even particularly innovative.
“When you’re talking about rock music, you’re never going to get too far away from kids with that rebellious, let’s-do-our-own-band-and-who-cares-if-we-suck attitude,” Clark observed.
Instead, regardless of who did what when, the planets aligned, the gods decried and out of the creative milieu that swirled around Cabbagetown in the late 1980s and early ‘90s came a kaleidoscope of musical conjugation.
“In a way, they were making the sonic equivalent of folk art, although I don’t think anyone was consciously thinking about that,” Clark says.
These days, although a handful of the same musicians still reside in Cabbagetown, the scene has changed. Beneath the twin red brick exhaust stacks of the original Fulton Bag & Cotton Mill sits an upscale loft community with a security gate and a spectacular skyline view of downtown Atlanta.
Most of the houses have been refurbished, the yards neatly coiffed and the shabby, but homey, variety stores where you could buy plastic Jesus statues, voodoo incense, Moonpies and pickled pigs’ feet are now foodie havens and art galleries.
“Present day Cabbagetown is nowhere near as fertile a place for making music as it was, mainly because it’s no longer cheap to live there,” says Chad Radford, an Atlanta-based music writer. “It still has a lot of character, but there aren’t any young acts coming out of there.”
In 2007, Radford produced a 7-inch by Hubcap City (aka Hubcap City from Belgium), yet another musical experiment-cum-field-trip-adventure spearheaded by Bill Taft. One of the tunes on the record, “Sally,” a blowsy, melancholic lament played on cornet, guitar and percussion, is reminiscent of something that might have been heard on the radio, say, around the 1920s or ’30s. It was recorded live at Sylvester Cemetery in East Atlanta at the gravesite of Fiddlin’ John Carson.
“Some people might say there is no more Cabbagetown,” says Taft. “Not so, I would retort. Cabbagetown is just a metaphor for the ongoing creative process. Like energy, it can be neither created nor destroyed; it can only change form.”