Editor's note: This is part of the Missourian's "SEC Road Trip" special section.
ATHENS, Ga. — A little piece of the Athens art scene, made for and later torn from the University of Georgia campus, now rests nearby on an old southern farm.
The same day in 1952 the university unveiled sculptor Abbott Pattison’s “Iron Horse,” a hefty statue of sheet steel and avant-garde, Georgia students swiftly defaced it with yellow paint, carved profanity into its flanks and pummeled it with flaming mattresses and car tires. It was reported that cries of “Burn that horse!” echoed throughout the night.
The university removed the horse and hid it behind a barn later destroyed by a tornado. The Iron Horse was forgotten in the woods until years later, when an agriculture professor at the university asked if he could place the statue on his farm. It has rested there, in harmony with the desolate field surrounding it, ever since.
Athens has old Southern roots. Drive an hour in three directions that don’t include Atlanta and the hills are rolling, the livestock roaming. Confederate flags ride the wind. But the isolated university and the influx of youth spawned a thriving music scene. In the '70s and '80s, Athens gave rise to the likes of the B-52’s, famous for “Love Shack” among others, and R.E.M., who are credited as pioneers of the transition from punk to alternative rock. For now, the city of just more than 115,000 people has remained what long-time resident Jeff Griggs calls, “the seed of culture in an otherwise cultureless wasteland.”
The beat of Athens' heart
Athens is a clash you can taste. It’s on your plate at the The Grit, a restaurant on the edge of downtown with a core menu of traditional southern fare: collard greens, okra, corn bread and the likes. In addition to those foods, on the menu are tofu, fried plantains and falafel — The Grit is and always has been purely vegetarian, with many vegan options.
The restaurant has been an Athens favorite — with inextricable ties to the town’s music scene — for three decades. It bustles with students and townsfolk alike, and at a bar full of sweet tea pitchers and microbrew taps, a sharp-dressed businessman has lunch beside a man with cut-off jean shorts and tattoos for sleeves.
Downtown Athens and the University of Georgia are in close proximity. They are also stark contrasts of each other.
The University of Georgia got its charter in 1785, making it the oldest public university in the country by some definitions (a few others began actual operation before Georgia). Its buildings, particularly the soaring antebellum estates of North Campus, reflect that history.
There, between classes, Georgia junior Zach Lewer relaxes on a wooden bench in front of the Herty Field Fountain. The school’s first football game was played on Herty Field, which is now freckled with students napping or studying. Lewer asks about the recent Bulldog news: Two cornerbacks and one safety were arrested recently. Even in late March, Georgia football is on everyone’s minds.
That side of campus runs right into downtown Athens. On a football weekend, the scene spills into downtown until it’s so packed you can hardly move, Lewer said.
Three black columns with an arch across the top symbolize the gateway between North Campus and downtown. Passing under it rather than around, it has become a rite of passage for Georgia graduates. Rumor has it that passing beneath The Arch before graduation puts one’s reproductive future in jeopardy.
Noticing someone has indeed just crossed beneath it, a nearby student turns his head and yanks out his headphones.
“Dude,” he said before chasing his bus, “You’re gonna be sterile.”
Downtown Athens has 62 bars, and 61 more restaurants that double as bars, in one square mile — that has long been rumored to be the highest concentration in the country. That same square mile hosts live music every day of the year at dozens of venues.
Most nights, The Georgia Theatre is the thumping heart in the center of Athens.
A century ago it was a YMCA. Later it became a movie theater, and in 1989 it became a concert venue. It reopened last year after a fire gutted it in 2009. It now has three tiers and a popular rooftop bar.
Tonight, Greensky Bluegrass, a band from Kalamazoo, Mich., plays to a small but energetic Wednesday crowd. Most everyone has migrated from the top balcony to the dance floor by the middle of the show.
When Greensky Bluegrass first started touring, they went anywhere they were wanted, banjo player Mike Bont said before the show. Athens welcomed them. After playing smaller venues since 2005, tonight is their first time in the Georgia Theatre.
“We’ve always wanted to play here,” Bont said. “We were so disappointed when it burned down. R.E.M. played here. It’s got such history.”
The green house on Milledge Avenue where the B52’s played its first gig — a Valentine’s Day house party in 1977 — is still there. As is the sign above Weaver D's Delicious Fine Foods that reads “Automatic For the People,” the line R.E.M. made famous as the title of its eighth album via $16 million in sales. All that remains of R.E.M.’s first show is a church steeple, a lonely rise surrounded by parking lot.
On the corner of Clayton and College Avenue is Wuxtry Records. R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck once worked there. It’s where he and Michael Stipe met.
Inside Wuxtry, Gordon Lamb helps his friend, store manager Mike Turner, stuff records for a local band preparing an album release. Lamb is a 23-year veteran of Athens music.
“Ostensibly I originally moved here to go to school,” Lamb said. “But really, I moved here for the music scene.”
For the past 10 years, he’s written a music column for the local magazine Flagpole, and before that he spent more than a decade working various jobs, playing in bands, putting on shows and putting out fan zines. Asked about the current landscape of Athens music, and Lamb spouts off a half dozen bands he’s excited about: Gripe, Muuy Biien, TunaBunny, the Grass Giraffes and Reptar. Turner chimes in and says Reptar could be the next band to break out nationally. That’s out of a list of about 700 local bands the Flagpole publishes every year. That doesn’t count many of the veteran bands who don’t bother registering for the list anymore.
Dissonance of football
By now, there are few people in Athens’ vast music scene Lamb doesn’t know. So when he thinks of how to sum up Athens, he knows it’s best done in the form of Jeff Griggs. Griggs, 35, has played drums in upwards of 70 different bands in Athens and is a diehard Georgia football fan.
In that regard, he’s a self-described anomaly.
“I would like to tell you there’s a really harmonious relationship between the artistic community here in town and college football fans,” he says, “and that before R.E.M. was breaking up they were working on a concept album about Matt Stafford throwing passes to A.J. Green and stuff, but it’s really not the case.”
Most people like Griggs stay clear of the stadium on game days. He’s tired of fans coming in, renting the town and not cleaning up after themselves, he says. Most people on the western edge of downtown – the “rock 'n’ roll side of town,” as they call it – don’t fit in with the football scene, and they’re aware of it. He sees a friend passing by the Caledonia Lounge, where we’re seated outside, and takes a chance illustrating his point.
“Hey, why don’t you go downtown on gameday Saturdays?”
“Because it’s crazy.”
“Right. And because you don’t want to be accosted by some guy poking his head out of a red pickup truck,” Griggs says. “That’s every weekend.”
It’s for that reason that Griggs, who was more excited to spot wide receiver A.J. Greene downtown than he was Rock ‘n' Roll Hall of Famer Michael Stipe, calls Athens “a music town with a football problem.”
Football and music also harmonize in Athens though. Griggs has found himself explaining “third and 7” situations to artistic rockers in the band “of Montreal.” Lamb remembers one season he went to almost every home game. Even Mike Turner, who Griggs knows and says would burn down Sanford Stadium if he had his druthers, remembers the Bulldogs had a particularly bad season that year. The Georgia Theatre doesn’t host concerts during games and instead shows the broadcast on a screen over its main stage.
In Athens’ most storied music venue, The 40 Watt Club (named for the lone bulb that lit its original location), most staffers watch every Bulldogs game. Last year, for Georgia’s home game against Auburn, the club hosted tailgating and a party bus to take people to the game.
The club’s owner, Barrie Buck — the former wife of R.E.M guitarist Peter Buck — attended the University of Georgia during its last national championship win. She was classmates with running back Hershel Walker, and her roommate dated basketball star Dominique Wilkins. She remembers tailgates on North Campus, which have since been banned.
Though contentious at times, she’s watched the music scene and the football scene — namely, the public drunkenness and downtown mess that accompany both — find a way to coexist.
“Somehow it has tacit approval from everyone in town,” Buck said of the public drinking during football games. “But they can’t say anything about messy rock ‘n’ roll fans, because we’ve been dealing with the others.”
That, and it’s an economic boon to the bars and clubs that keep many musicians employed and provide them a place to play.
“I don’t follow the games,” said Randy Smyre, 38, who works a tattoo parlor next to The 40 Watt and plays bass in a band called Guzik. “But I do appreciate the enormous benefit. Financially, it helps this town a lot.”
Every year, as they would be in any college town, the music and football scenes are renewed with 5,000 new freshmen.
It’s kept Athens reinventing itself, and it’s made Athens a place people can reinvent themselves That’s what 49-year-old Ken Nations is doing now that he’s retired from the military. He’s returned as what he calls an entrepreneur to the place he earned both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. He’s looking for projects and trying to launch an Athens writer’s guild. He’d like to write a book about Athens.
It’s not the first time he’s reinvented himself here.
Fresh off a bike ride and resting on the curb, Nations recalls the first time he ever visited Athens, when he was 16. He and his friends got into some trouble in Atlanta, and they were afraid to go home for fear of their parents’ punishment. So they drove to Athens. He remembers they all cut off a quarter inch of hair and, using Vaseline, pasted it on their upper lips. They got into every bar they wanted and even saw a show at The 40 Watt.
Nations thinks the Athens he’s always known may not always exist that way, though. Both Atlanta and Athens have unfurled in major urban sprawl. What was once a lonely road separating the two by about 70 miles is now a highway with strip malls and housing developments.
“The day will come that Athens has to change because it will be a suburb of Atlanta,” Nations said.
“Oh, God. That’s what everyone’s been predicting for years,” Griggs later said of Athens becoming an Atlanta suburb. “But I hope not.”
Athens has fought for its identity before.
Randy Smyre remembers a decade ago, when the rock ‘n' roll side of downtown was downtown. But steady gentrification and businesses catering more to college students and football fans relegated businesses like Smyre’s to the outer edge. But it’s still there.
There’s a fight going on right now. Plans to build a Walmart near downtown have spurred protest all over Athens. Nearly every downtown businesses has a sign in the window that reads “Live Better. Buy Local. Say no to downtown Walmart.”
Atlanta sprawl would be a different kind of invasion though: gradual and impervious to protest. The two continue to creep toward each other, threatening the isolation that gave rise to Griggs’ cultural oasis.
“I would think that it will still be able to retain its identity if that ever happened,” Griggs said. “It’s like the moon to Atlanta’s Earth, and never the twain shall meet.”
Supervising editor is Greg Bowers.