Musicians rarely gush about the crystalline, pin-drop acoustics of a school lunchroom.
The cafeteria-turned-theater of the Sautee Nacoochee Center, though, has become one of the Southeast’s most venerated venues.
“It’s definitely at the top of my list, for so many reasons,” says DeDe Vogt, Atlanta’s multi-instrumental stalwart, just before taking the stage with folk-rocker Caroline Aiken. “There’s something about this old wood that resonates just right; the warmth and intimacy of the room; the dedication of the audience; the way the artists are always treated with appreciation and respect in every detail.”
Adds Aiken: “It’s a quiet room where you can hear the plink and strum of every single note with total clarity. That’s the kind of room—and the kind of audience—you look for. We call it a ‘telling’ room, which means that as musicians, we’re really challenged to rise to the occasion.”
And rise they do, cheered on to an emotional, powerhouse encore by a packed house of about 110 rapt listeners, who leave dabbing at tears, too stunned for much chitchat afterward.
All in all, it’s a typically transcendent Saturday night at the Center, the hub of this pastoral crossroads, population 4,000, about an hour north of Atlanta in a historic district of farmhouses ranked in The 100 Best Small Arts Towns in America. Everything in this Appalachian bohemia—from the music to the tomatoes at the Center’s potluck dinners—feels organically grown, toxin-free and lovingly tended. It is the one spot in the mountains where you might see a mud-spattered pick-up truck loaded with hay and plastered with lefty, rainbow-flag bumper stickers, parked for a concert of the Northwinds Symphonic Band.
“We’re a lot like Cicely, Alaska, in ‘Northern Exposure’—full of quirky, curious characters,” says Tommy Williams, the Center‘s sound technician, adding, “Honestly, I think one reason the acoustics are so good is that the room was built before people really gave much thought to things like that; it just happened to have good ratios of space in the right places. But then we had an acoustician enlarge and curve the ceiling, using steel bars to keep the walls from falling in.”
Rescuing a gem
The Center had functioned as a rural schoolhouse in the 1930s before closing and falling into disrepair. In the 1970s, a group of back-to-the-land artisan types formed the Sautee-Nacoochee Community Association, working from the mission statement: “To nurture creativity and to preserve and protect the beloved resources of the Sautee and Nacoochee valleys and surrounding areas.” Among their many volunteer-driven projects was the transformation of the school, with a painstaking eye for sentimental detail. Some of the original glass panes where students had etched their names and other graffiti decades ago are still in place.
Today, the Center is a rustic complex of the theater (stocked with comfy bucket seats scavenged from a defunct movie house), art galleries, a dance studio, a local history museum, a larger gymnasium/auditorium that seats 300, and The Folk Pottery Museum of Northeast Georgia. A recent addition is an outdoor stage with a panoramic view of the mountains and a yard that can hold about 1,000 fun-seekers, some of whom camp out for music and arts festivals that strike that rare balance of kid-friendliness and happy-hippie hedonism.
“Someone just decided one day that we needed an outdoor stage,” Williams says. “As we were building it, people would stop in their trucks and ask, ‘What else y’all need? Want some of this lumber?’ So a roof got donated, and it all came together piece by piece, a community effort, as usual. But the stage is only one foot off the ground, so the artists who are performing are still very much connected with the crowd, which is important.”
Festivities have been amped up recently by the Center’s arts programming director, Tommy Deadwyler, a professional events planner and garrulous impresario of large-scale gatherings. “I was having parties of 200 people at my house, so I decided to move them to the Center because it has bigger dumpsters,” he jokes. “For awhile, our music programming was geared toward an older audience, but we’ve made a conscious effort—and I think we’re succeeding—in offering something for everybody, for all ages, including events for special-needs kids.”
An amplifying effect
Until recently, the vaunted “Evening Star” series, which showcased the likes of Ellis Paul, Sloan Wainwright and David Olney, aired on Georgia Public Radio. The concert format is looser now, but still bustling and eclectic.
“Sautee doesn’t have a single, signature sound like Macon or New Orleans,” says Center member Jerry Grillo. “Folk, blues, jazz, bluegrass, hip-hop, gospel, grunge, jam bands, classical, our own community chorale—I’ve heard sounds from all of those, and some genres or labels I’ve forgotten. That musical swirl and experimental freedom—looking to the past and to the future—is a big reason I plan to stay here for a while.”
While acts skew toward the rootsy, they are not rigidly confined to high-lonesome twang, like most north Georgia jam sessions. Col. Bruce Hampton often brings his hip, Dixie psychedelia to the scene; and Widespread Panic’s John Bell, who lives nearby, is another regular, as are Randall Bramblett and Tommy Talton.
“This year, our focus is to celebrate Georgia musicians,” Deadwyler says. “We want to give them as big a stage as possible.”
The Sautee Jamboree, scheduled for September 24 and 25, will feature The Indigo Girls, Michelle Malone, Sonia Leigh, The Mosier Brothers with David Blackmon, Roxy Watson, Shane Pruitt Band, and Lingo, among others.
“This place was once isolated, and in that time, either you made your own music or you went without,” says Lisa Q. Mount, a banjo player and the director of Sautee’s community play Headwaters: Stories From A Goodly Portion Of Beautiful Northeast Georgia. “People here listen so attentively that it has an amplifying effect, and I don’t just mean that musicians get louder. They expand; they increase in amplitude in this wonderful exchange between artist and listener. ‘Sautee’ means ‘trading town,’ and there are metaphors to be extrapolated there.”
For event information, visit snca.org.