Cozy in the cramped corner of your favorite venue, you can feel the anticipation, hanging in the air, heavy with the weight of hundreds of years of tradition. There’s something magical about the musical hum of a plugged-in amp when the show’s about to start, even more so when the band has its own buzz. A homegrown group generally garners glowing reviews, but there is an added level of expectation for such an acclaimed act if it’s coming out of Athens, Georgia.
This unassuming metropolis towers like a giant in the halls of American music. Athens, before it was Athens, was home to a variety of peoples and tribes like the Creek and the Cherokee. Music played a central role in American culture even then, just as it did in ancient Greece. and just as in Athens, Greece, this Georgian tradition has expanded and improved all thew ay tot he present day. After the city of Athens, Georgia, was officially incorporated in 1806, it experienced a steady increase in both population ad prestige. The University of Georgia drove much of this expansion by maintaining a cultural base for the city while providing a steady stream of youth to produce and consume new music. Bu there was something in the air of Athens above and beyond that of your standard college town.
Prolific performers, nurtured in this lyrical atmosphere, rose up and started to earn Athens its place of prominence on the national stage as early as the nineteenth century, exporting talents like Bob Cole, a central figure in black American musical theater for a country recovering from the effects of the Civil War. In the early to mid-twentieth century, Athens played host to the most famous musicians around, from Louis Armstrong to Duke Ellington, and blues, country, and early rock and roll found support and innovation whenever they were in Athens’ vicinity in the century to come. But it takes a leap to the 1980’s to come upon those bands and musicians whose names and works are spoken with awe and respect and whose legacies have cemented Athens as a mecca of American music.
The bands that grew out of the 40 Watt Club or the Georgia Theater, on the same stage as masters like Jimmy Dorsey or Gregg Allman, shared an eccentric sensibility along with their strong American musical influences. “Rock Lobster” and “Love Shack” are the signature songs of the B-52’s, the first group to erupt onto the Billboard charts in this particularly Southern rock and roll style. These songs in particular highlight the irreverent humor and style that Athens seems to bring out in its bands. Unusual vocals, unconventional songwriting, and a refusal to give in to pop music’s conventions all played a key role in the Athens sound.
It would be folly to try to list the hits of the next band, as R.E.M. has more songs you know that I have words left to write. But with hits like “Losing My Religion” and “Radio Free Europe” these indie rock megastars to the baton from the B-52’s and ran right into an untapped vein of Athens-flavored music that took the airwaves by storm. Eschewing the formulaic songwriting that often leads to uninspired pop, Michael Stipe and the rest of the group craft songs that have a flow all their own. These powerhouse bands alone would have left a permanent mark on the American Cultural Landscape Map (currently in production) if they were all that Athens had to offer. But they aren’t, not by a long shot.
Athens, with the help of Olivia Tremor Control, Neutral Milk Hotel, Vigilantes of Love, Danger Mouse, Of Montreal, Drive-By Truckers, Modern Skirts, Bloodkin, and many, many other bands (seriously, check out the lineup for AthFest or the next couple shows at the 40 Watt Club or the Georgia Theater—it’s ridiculous), has kept on producing bands with the kind of unique style and piercing insight that will always be in style. The next time you hear a song on the radio that seems a little strange, a little silly, and completely captivating, you may well have heard the newest sensation out of Athens, Georgia.
The Athens music scene may be content to fly just under the radar of constant national attention, but there isn’t a city out there that has so consistently been a unique, popular, and influential center of musical expression in the United States. The generations of inspiration and whatever special something is in the air on a cool spring night have created a foundation of excellence that bands continue to launch off to this day. No music tour of the South would be complete without a lengthy visit to Athens, Georgia.