The Lake Oconee area undoubtedly has plenty of activities for locals and visitors alike. Golf, farmers markets, museums, watersports, and campgrounds are all within easy reach, but for those fans of music looking for a day or night out, three of Georgia’s most revered music hubs are just a short drive away.
Macon’s musical history and influences are second to none, spawning three Music Hall of Fame members who are still inspiring music today. Augusta is home to the incomparable James Brown and keeps the creative musical energy flowing freely through it streets and clubs. Athens’ reputation for being thriving hive for creative music has not dwindled since its heyday. Dozens of venues around Athens give hundreds of bands exposure week after week, some of which are becoming household names.
Georgia as a whole boasts an incredibly strong musical tradition, so having these three distinct and diverse music scenes within easy reach is something of which Lake Oconee residents should take “note.”
“Roam if you want to”
Over the years, Athens has earned the monikers of “Liverpool of the South” and “mother of modern music.” While other cities across America like Detroit, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle, have left their footprint in music history, the small northeast Georgia college town of 120,000 has definitely carved itself out a place in music history.
While music, of course, existed for decades, the scene that began to flourish and put Athens well on the road to iconic status began in the 1970s when college house party bands burst from fraternity houses and small lounges to the national stage. Granted, the two most notable bands associated with Athens are R.E.M. and the B-52s, but the music scene proved not to be a flash in the pan. National, albeit diverse, acts such as Widespread Panic, Drive By Truckers, Matthew Sweet, Bubba Sparxx, and Danger Mouse all cut their teeth in the Classic City, as well.
Like the bands associated with Athens, a couple of historic venues are the first in many lists of places to see great music. The 40-Watt Club is synonymous with R.E.M.’s history and still brings in major national acts. Even before its devastating fire in 2009 and subsequent rebirth, the historic Georgia Theatre has been a staple for diverse live music.
Located in another historic building is The Foundry, which also brings in a wide array of both local and national acts. Hendershots Coffee is yet another venue providing jazz, classical, bluegrass, experimental, and even poetry performances throughout the week.
The 2,090-seat Classic Center is also notable for hosting major musical acts, such as Tony Bennett and Willie Nelson, as well as touring Broadway musicals and symphony orchestras.
The largest annual event in Athens is undeniably the three-day AthFest which premieres top talent in the region on various stages throughout Athens and promotes the non-profit AthFest Educates to increase awareness and funding for youth arts.
2016 will mark the 20th anniversary of AthFest, and to commemorate the event, AthFest Educates will partner with local artist David Hale and the Lyndon House Arts Center to dedicate a mural, which will be created by Athens youths. The mural will be permanently displayed on the outside wall of Philanthropy at the corner of Pulsaski and W. Washington Streets, which is where AthFest’s main outdoor stage is located. This year’s AthFest will take place June 24–26 throughout downtown Athens.
Another popular family-friendly music event is the Sunflower Music Series held at the beautiful amphitheater and lawn of the State Botanical Garden of Georgia. Guests are invited to bring blankets and picnics to hear music under the stars from this year’s line up of Athens’ own Randall Bramblett, Klezmer Local 42, and 5-8.
One interesting ongoing event for music buffs is the Athens Music History Tour (visitathensga.com). Initiated by the Athens Welcome Center, a guided tour is available by appointment for groups, or visitors can download a map of more than 30 points of interest and make their own way to discover the roots of Athens’ music legacy.
“Get on up!”
Arguably no city in Georgia is more closely associated with an artist as Augusta is with James Brown. The Godfather of Soul and “hardest working man in showbusiness” began performing in a band at age 13, and the rest, as they say, is history. Today, the Augusta Museum of History hosts a permanent exhibition covering Brown’s life and career.
Other notable Augusta-raised musicians include famed international opera star, Jessye Norman; both Charles Kelley and David Haywood of the country group Lady Antebellum; and rock guitar veteran, Steve Morse.
The historic Imperial Theatre has roots dating back to the early 20th century, and it also became James Brown’s rehearsal space before his tours. Mainly built as a movie house, it closed in 1981 but reopened in 1985 after four years as a performing arts venue. Today it is Augusta’s premier entertainment space for music, orchestras, ballets, and film.
The Augusta Entertainment Complex includes the multi-purpose 8,000-seat James Brown Arena and the 2,800-seat Bell Auditorium. Major musical acts coming in 2016 include Frankie Valli, Steve Miller Band, Boston, and ZZ Top.
Overlooking the Savannah River is the 1,600-seat Jessye Norman Amphitheatre. Throughout the year, the site hosts a wide variety of music festivals and concerts.
For smaller venues, Soul Bar is a DJ-driven bar with local favorite “80s nights.” Sky City’s 500-capacity club brings a wide range of music to its stage, and the Country Club has been voted “Best Live Music Venue” by fans.
In 2008, the first Westobou Festival opened in Augusta and continues today as a five-day exhibition of music and arts. This year’s festival will take place Sept. 28 through Oct. 2. This year’s lineup has not been finalized, but past artists have included Amos Lee, the Avett Brothers, Shawn Mullins. and Ben Folds.
Held during Master’s Week, the Rock Fore! Dough concerts raise money for the First Tee of Augusta, a youth-focused program which uses golf to teach leadership and life skills. This past concert featured Darius Rucker and Charles Kelley, along with other acts throughout the day.
The family-friendly, alcohol-free Augusta Music Fest is held on Memorial Day Weekend on the Augusta Commons with musical acts from several genres featured. This year marked its third festival, and it will surely meet its fourth in 2017.
Taking advantage of the canals around the area, the Augusta Canal National Heritage Area offers a unique musical experience aboard a 49-passenger boat for a Moonlight Music Cruise. Every Friday evening, guests can bring their own refreshments aboard for the 90-minute cruise featuring local musicians.
“… born a ramblin’ man”
Rarely has one city produced such influential talent and three Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members, hence its motto, “Where soul lives.” What the music world knows now as rock & roll, rhythm & blues, funk, and southern rock were largely shaped by three notable talents from Macon: Little Richard, Otis Redding, and the Allman Brothers Band.
Little Richard’s musical talents and flair for showmanship helped influence several genres, from rock and roll to funk to rhythm and blues. In 1986, he was included in the first group of inductees in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and he is also in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, as well as being a recipient of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award.
Just as influential was Otis Redding, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame in 1989, as well as the Songwriters Hall of Fame and recipient of the Grammy’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Called by some as the “King of Soul,” his lyrics and style influenced such international acts as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin, as well as American artists Etta James, Aretha Franklin, and Marvin Gaye.
The Allman Brothers Band is most closely associated with the genre of southern rock, but has always imbued echoes of blues, jazz, and country. Their influence helped bring other southern rock acts to the forefront, such as Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the Marshall Tucker Band. Founder Duane Allman is consistently named in the top ten of “Greatest Guitarists of All Time” lists, and in 1995, the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The Cox Capitol Theatre opened in 1916 as a movie house but today is a completely modernized concert hall, bringing in a steady flow of local and national talent, such as Steve Earle, Chris Robinson, and Tinsley Ellis.
Grant’s Lounge, which opened in 1971, is largely considered the place that southern rock became a genre. The Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Wet Willie came through Grants Lounge on their way to fame, and throughout the years, it remains active in the music scene.
Voted by many to be the best live music venue in Macon, as well as the best overall bar, The Hummingbird Stage and Taproom brings in fresh talent and makes people later say, “I remember seeing these guys at the Hummingbird!” Jason Isbell, Dead Confederate, Bottle Rockets, Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ and Billy Joe Shaver are just a few of the notables who have played The Hummingbird.
The Big House is a museum dedicated to the Allman Brothers Band. The 18-room house was where the band slept, wrote, and rehearsed during their early years, and it has since been restored to showcase the band’s instruments, clothes, photos, and a collection of other memorabilia in a state-of-the-art interactive experience.
Macon’s premiere music festival is the Bragg Jam, which will be held downtown on July 30. Starting at 3 p.m., more than 80 bands will be performing throughout town, and the Festival also promotes local arts and kids activities, all benefitting local causes and charities.
Marking what would have been Otis Redding’s 75th birthday, Sept. 9 will be the official naming of Otis Redding Day. The weekend of events will culminate on Sept. 11 with a tribute concert featuring Redding’s sons singing with The Reddings, as well as other Macon musical talents throughout the day (otisreddingfoundation.org).
Written by Phil Pyle