By Jason Frye | Photography courtesy of VisitAthensGA.com
Something is in the air around Athens, Georgia, and it’s been there for a while. This college town in the rolling foothills of Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains has a reputation for generations of musical acts that have helped define genres, drawn hordes of fans for can’t miss shows, entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and influenced the next wave of local bands.
Yes, something here inspired the likes of R.E.M., the B-52s, Widespread Panic, Neutral Milk Hotel, Drive By Truckers, Vic Chesnutt, Danger Mouse, of Montreal and too many more bands to name. They’ve played the stages of 40 Watt Club and Georgia Theatre and AthFest, the town’s three-day music festival; dined on soul food at Weaver D’s; shot videos and album covers here; and roamed the streets perfecting that riff, that lyric, that beat.
Visit this hip college town any weekend and you’ll find plenty of live music to keep you dancing till dawn. You’ll also find one of the best ways to steep yourself in the town’s musical past, present, and future with the Walking Tour of Athens Music History, which leaves from the Athens Welcome Center.
In many ways, Athens feels like any other college town. There are bars catering to the just-turned-21 crowd, upscale restaurants — 5&10, The National, Last Resort Grill — to celebrate graduation, craft breweries (don’t miss Creature Comforts), and the requisite record store and vintage shops. But the music provides a differentiator.
In Athens, as in most college towns, you can hear live music any night of the week, but here there are more than 30 venues around town, not counting house parties, street performers or impromptu jam sessions that spring up. From acoustic singer-songwriters to endless open mics to college bands and national touring acts, the town’s awash in tunes.
On the Walking Tour of Athens Music History you’ll find yourself standing in front of — or inside, if your timing’s right — some of the most important venues in the development and continued evolution of what’s become known as “that Athens sound.” 40 Watt Club, the longest-running music venue in Athens, has been at five other locations around town (don’t worry, you’ll pass most of them on the tour) and still fills a calendar with exceptional acts from up-and-comers to the marquee names nearly everyone would recognize.
A block up from 40 Watt stands the Morton Building, an important structure to Athens’ well-known indie-alternative music. The building is also important to African American music and performing history because it is one of the first African American constructed, owned, and operated theatres in the country. It opened around 1910 as a Vaudeville theatre, and from the 1920s to the 1940s, the likes of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Bessie Smith performed here. Bands like the B-52s practiced here, and R.E.M. shot portions of the video for “The One I Love” here. Today, the venue hosts performances throughout the year and Flagpole, Athens’ alternative newspaper, holds its awards in this historic room.
The walking tour covers plenty of ground relating to two of Athens’ most well-known bands: R.E.M. and the B-52s. From passing by their former homes to strolling by the sites of their first (or last) Athens gigs, you’ll learn more than you thought possible about these two bands. Your tour guide may even point out a trio of sites any R.E.M. fan will recognize: the kudzu covered field and the railroad trestle that illustrate Murmur, R.E.M.’s first album. The third site is Weaver D’s Delicious Fine Foods, a soul-food lunch spot that was the inspiration for the name of R.E.M.’s 1992 Automatic for the People.
Weaver D’s catch phrase, “automatic for the people,” is echoed through the restaurant whenever customers order. This is one of the can’t miss places to eat in Athens, and not because of its part in the town’s musical history. The fried chicken is just that good.
You can stop in Athens any time and get an earful of music, but if you want to ensure a full slate of tunes — 100 bands, a trio of stages, every venue in town hosting late night shows and dance parties — then make your way here for AthFest, always the third weekend in June. The three-day fest draws thousands to see the headliners, support the local acts, and find what’s new on the musical horizon.