It’s Saturday night in Waycross, and Will Walton is in the wake of a disaster. Two evenings prior, an electrical fire burned the local solo artist’s home to the ground. He and drummer/roommate Jacob Robson lost everything in the blaze—including their band’s gear. To make matters worse, they’ve got a gig tonight at Waycross hotspot Cypress Creek for which it looks like they’ll now have to play air guitar. But most of the musicians in town have grown up together, so when calamity strikes, the tight-knit scene pulls together. The other artists on the bill—Hayshaker, and Ty Manning of The Bearfoot Hookers—loan Walton and his band their equipment, no questions asked. Later, between songs, Manning asks everyone to dig deep, soliciting $300 in donations from the supportive crowd. “We’ve been through deaths, marriages, divorces, babies being born, tornadoes,” explains Hayshaker’s Laurie Rider of the Waycross music scene. “It’s family. There’s this big wheel and you keep it going. We all inspire each other to be the best we can be.” Her words rings true. Despite the still-smoldering tragedy, once the music gets cooking at the Creek, you can see the strife melt away. For a few hours at least, everybody’s losing themselves in the ecstatic music, the crowd dancing wildly, offering their sweat as fuel, begging for something between transcendence and a plain-old good time. Which is exactly what they get. You’d think a night like this would be an anomaly in such a small, out-of-the-way town. (Located in Georgia’s southeast corner at the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp, Waycross is the 50th largest city in the state, with a population of less than 15,000.) Really, though, it’s just another weekend. Uncommon local talent Credit the gang of top-notch musicians and songwriters who call Waycross home: Sean Clark, the scene’s workhorse, playing either solo or with his bands Jack Cadillac and The Georgia Pines; the husband-and-wife-fronted Hayshaker; local supergroup The Newfanglers, resident music historian Billy Ray Herrin (who also owns music store/recording studio Hickory Wind); Walton, Gram Griffin and Corey Bradley. And to support these songsmiths, a cadre of roving hired guns; skilled musicians who can be found backing just about anybody in town on any given night: drummer Lee O’Neal, keyboardist Scott Nicholson, bassists Paul Lee and Jesse Herrin, guitarists Josk Kirkland, Reid Bennett, John Pope and Jody Perritt. Even elder statesman John Carter—of ’90 Georgia roots-rock staples Allgood—lends his guitar chops on occasion.
And then there are those who grew up in Waycross and have moved away, spreading the town’s swampedelic fusion of Southern American roots music to the far corners of Georgia but still making it back home enough to be part of the local scene: country-soul belter Abby Owens (Macon); funky alt-Americana outfit Blackeyed Katy (Valdosta); guitar-slingin’ Southern rockers the Laney Strickland Band; beer-drinkin’ gospel progenitors The Bearfoot Hookers; buzzy young psychedelic folk rockers The Woodgrains (all in Athens); and recording engineer Will Thrift, who’s now working for Atlanta’s esteemed Doppler Studios. Several of the artists who’ve left Waycross have had local and regional success. The Bearfoot Hookers have won several Flagpole music awards. Abby Owens has earned fans in Kevn Kinney and former Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell, the latter producing her most recent album, Indiantown. In 2006, sidemen O’Neal and Lee even sold an instrumental track they’d recorded to the Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown. Unfortunately, Brown passed away before he had a chance to add his vocals. But the most important figure performing in Waycross today is a man of whom very few have heard. A treasure waiting to be discovered, a diamond in the swamp, the king daddy of ’em all—Dave Griffin.
“I call him ‘Uncle Yoda,’” Clark says of the scene’s wizened, Tom Petty-and-Townes Van Zandt-channeling spiritual advisor. “He’s the head Jedi around here.” Though Griffin has only released one solo album (2010’s impressive American Spirit), the 57-year-old songwriter has a deep catalog of unrecorded classics, and has been a huge influence on other artists in town—from thirtysomethings like Clark to relative youngsters like 19-year-old Woodgrains frontman Dylan Crosby. “Dave’s the best songwriter I know,” says Crosby. “Words ain’t big enough to describe his writing—you just have to listen.” Even with all the adoration, Griffin remains sincerely humble. “I’m learning from these [younger] guys,” he says, “I started writing some serious songs because of them. We feed off of each other, and we’ve all got each others’ backs.” The ghost of Gram It’s now well after midnight. The party has moved from Cypress Creek to the home of local music aficionados April Herndon and Michael James, who are hosting an all-night oyster roast and guitar pull. As if a scene straight out of late-’70 Nashville-outsider music doc Heartworn Highways, songwriters perch on split logs in their backyard, surrounded by friends, shrouded in bonfire smoke, cradling acoustic guitars and passing around mason jars full of moonshine. Sometime after 4 a.m., Dave Griffin starts strumming a fan-favorite of his, “Curl Up and Die.” There are no less than five people picking along, including Clark and Nicholson, and Perritt on dobro. Crosby, Rider, and a half-dozen others add layer upon gorgeous layer of vocal harmonies, and Griffin’s anguished, reedy drawl seeps through it all like swampwater: “Your Daddy is home and the full moon is falling, stop weeping, stop weeping, your cryin’ is done.”
So what is it about this place—where did all this great music come from? “A lot of small towns in Georgia have a bar where people play music,” says Bearfoot Hookers bassist Jon Tonge, “but the difference between that and a true scene is having an enduring place that supports and fosters original music. For the last decade, Cypress Creek has been that for Waycross.” “Whether they’ve been here for years, or it’s just teenagers coming up, graduating high school, we try our best to support all the local musicians,” says Lita Osburn, who runs the family-owned Cypress Creek Bar with her brother Larry. “The young ones started out at the Creek, and the old ones were friends who came in and shared their music with us to where we fell in love with all of them.” Beyond that and the inexplicable, there’s the undeniable influence of Waycross’ one claim to international musical fame—legendary country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons. You can hear it in the spirit of all the Waycross bands, over the bar chatter at the Creek, through the songs of Dave Griffin, in the name of his nephew Gram, and in all the late-night fireside jams—hell, every once in a while, it’ll even creep up, tap you on your shoulder and ask for a pull of moonshine. “I can only fantasize that Gram’s ghost is lingering here,” says Owens, “and that all the musicians of Waycross are his angels doing his work in music.” “The fact that we’re so in the middle of nowhere,” adds Clark, “and there’s somebody like Gram from here—its gives us all hope; if he can do it, we can do it.”