Head west on I-20 from Atlanta and you’ll be astonished at how quickly the city’s iconic skyline diminishes, how the trees start outnumbering the buildings and how, when the traffic finally dissolves, the markers of the modern city melt away and transition into a distinctly old South, rural setting. In many ways, West Georgia still bears the weight of its once dominant agricultural economy. Grazing cattle dot the expanses of pasture you see along the highway. Old tattered barns rest under the looming shadows of ancient oak trees.
A trip from Atlanta to West Georgia is like stepping directly into the past. Back to the days of county fairs, country picnics, and fiddling competitions. Back when soul-lifting harmonies echoed out from tiny churches on Sundays. Spend any time here and you’ll see how these idyllic foothills left such a lasting impression on local folk musicians like A.A Gray, John “Doodle” Thrower and Uncle John Patterson; or how, from these close-knit farming communities, a distinctive form of early American religious music known as the Sacred Harp took root and flourished.
And yet, the west Georgia region can be a bit of a contradiction. While retaining much of its old-time, small-community feel, Carrollton (the county seat of Carroll County) is also a bustling college town. Home to the University of West Georgia, a vibrant liberal-arts university, Carrollton and its historic Adamson Square downtown area serve as the area’s cultural epicenter. It’s a place where funky eateries, dynamic nightlife and an eclectic underground music scene have been quietly thriving for decades.
Whether you’re new to the area or just looking for a weekend getaway, consider this your West Georgia music primer:
The Alley Cat
120 Newnan St.
For the more sonically adventurous traveler, Carrollton’s Alley Cat is a must. A funky and eclectic eatery by day, the Cat transforms into a crowded, dimly lit bar by night where musical performances of all sorts take place, from post-rock instrumentalists Hail the Titans and Japanese experimental popsters Elekibass to Carrollton bands like gypsy-jazz-swamp-rockers Mayhayley’s Grave and indie-femme-folk darlings The Opposite of Hee Haw. Whether it’s touring acts passing through on the way from Birmingham to Atlanta or all-night freeform jam sessions, the Alley Cat has been the scene lynchpin for West Georgia musicians for the past seven years. The photo above of the Alley Cat were taken at a recent beer dinner hosted by the restaurant by Schellie and William the husband-and-wife team behind Six Hearts Photography. The pair originally met at the Alley Cat.
Established in 2012, the Amp hosts a annual free summer concert series from May to September featuring both local and nationally touring acts. The covered outdoor venue has quickly become a favorite among locals and visitors for live music, family movie screenings and a host of community events, including West Fest, the annual May concert that benefits the Boys and Girls Club of Carroll County.
Mill Town Music Hall
1031 Alabama Avenue
Since opening in 2012, Mill Town Music Hall has hosted concerts by country, gospel and bluegrass acts including Loretta Lynn, Ricky Skaggs, The Charlie Daniels Band, Travis Tritt and more. Randall Redding developed the venue to present family-friendly entertainment and boost local tourism, and his plans include the additional of the Harold Shedd Gallery, an exhibition that will honor fellow Bremen native and Georgia Music Hall of Fame inductee Harold Shedd, a producer and studio owner who played an essential role in launching the careers of Alabama, Shania Twain, Toby Keith and more.
Holly Springs Primitive Baptist Church
It’s easy to miss the tiny white structure nestled on a hill between Bowdon Junction and Bremen off Highway 27, but for decades, folks have trekked from near and far to Holly Springs Primitive Baptist Church to participate in Sacred Harp, the oldest surviving American music form. With roots tracing back to colonial-era New England, the choral music of Sacred Harp is also referred to as “shape-note” singing because it uses geometric shapes instead of traditional notes to denote places on the musical scale. The singing is assembled in the nave of the small church—generally 20 to 30 people in rows around four sides of the so-called “hollow-square”—with a participatory audience of upwards of 80 or so seated in the pews. The song leaders take turns standing in the center of the hollow square and lead the song of their choice. The leader calls out the page number of his or her song, and within seconds, every singer finds the page and launches into a wordless, “fa-sol-la” version of the tune (a rehearsal of sorts) and then immediately they spring into the song proper, at full, resonate volume. The sound is primitive, direct, and unabashedly democratic. Hugh McGraw, who grew up in and lives in Bremen, is recognized as the foremost expert in and promoter of Sacred Harp. He led the Sacred Harp Publishing Company, which is located in Carrollton, for 45 years and is featured in the documentary Awake My Soul. Sings at Holly Springs Primitive Baptist Church are open to the public and occur twice a year, one on the first Sunday in November and the other on the first Sunday in June. For more information on Sacred Harp sings in Georgia, visit AtlantaSacredHarp.org.
The Thomas A. Dorsey Birthplace and Gospel Heritage Festival
Villa Rica, GA
Held the last weekend in June, the festival recognizes Villa Rica native Dr. Thomas A. Dorsey, often called the “Father of Gospel Music.” A pianist, composer, music director and pioneering music publisher, Dr. Dorsey wrote “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” and “Peace in the Valley” among many other hymns and gospel songs. The festival in his name generally take place at The Mill amphitheater downtown and at Mt. Prospect Baptist Church. A highlight of the festival is always the performances by the Thomas A. Dorsey Birthplace Choir, which formed in 1994 to pay tribute to Dr. Dorsey and honor the legacy of gospel music. With approximately 40 members, the Choir has traveled extensively around the country to perform.
Little Big Jam
325 Daniel Road
Each year in October, Little Big Jam takes over a pristine 100-acre pasture in Bowdon to present three nights and four days of “organic, local, free-range music.” With weekend passes at just $20, free camping and a communal atmosphere, it’s no wonder a Facebook fan declared after the 2014 festival, “I will be going to this event for the rest of my life!”