The crowd presses forward as four musicians stroll onstage, check wires, and tune guitar strings. The look of band members is effortless rock and roll, but their actions are all business. When the silent signal comes, they look up for the first time. If they recognize faces in the crowd, they don’t let on. There is a count, a drumbeat, and the music blasts in earnest as the audience really gets into it.
This sequence unfolds all over Athens on any given night, but this particular show is unique. This band has never played before, is rocking out in the late afternoon, and each member’s mom is in the front row. This is Camp Amped, and it is happening at Nuci’s Space, a creative and vital non-profit organization in downtown Athens.
The name, Nuci’s Space, is important, as it always prompts the question, “Who is Nuci?” The Nuci Phillips Memorial Foundation is named for a young guitarist in the Athens music scene who ended his battle with severe depression by taking his own life twenty years ago, in 1996. The story changes focus after that tragic day, becoming a testament to the energy and passion of one young artist and how that passion came to benefit artists he would never meet.
Growing from the vision and determination of Linda Phillips, Nuci’s mother, Nuci’s Space opened in downtown Athens in 2000. Its stated mission is to “prevent suicide by providing obstacle-free treatment for musicians suffering from depression and other such disorders, as well as to assist in the emotional, physical, and professional well-being of musicians.” The Nuci Phillips Foundation has succeeded in establishing a place for the members of this vibrant music town to find refuge, treatment, guidance, community, and kindred spirits. Nuci’s Space has spent sixteen years nurturing the Athens music community, creating a powerful legacy to one young man. Linda Phillips explains, “All of us who love Nuci keep him in a very special corner of our hearts called Nuci’s Space.”
“Nuci’s Space” is clearly spelled out in white on a deep blue building that forms part of the Athens landscape on the corner of Oconee Street, but many passers by have no doubt wondered what is happening in there. From the second you approach the place, the answer is obvious: Music happens there. In the breezeway outside the entrance, rock show posters flutter against one another, proclaiming gigs to come. Stepping inside, you are greeted by a platform stage, scattered black leather couches, and the kind of worn Oriental rug that covers the floor of countless semi-finished basements in America. Similar carpets are layered in each practice room of Nuci’s Space, particularly under the drum sets, which stand ready for use.
A fragment of a song floats through the air even at lunchtime on a Wednesday, because these rehearsal spaces are available at affordable rates to any local musician, and are used throughout the week, on into the night. An army of amplifiers and microphone stands marches along one wall. A red sign offers “Fresh Hot Coffee,” and the silhouettes on the restroom doors are a man and woman, each holding and electric guitar. Nuci’s Space is the clubhouse every aspiring rocker seeks and rarely finds outside his or her own garage. It is a home designed for musicians, understated and welcoming. Even if you have never played a lick, something in the air of Nuci’s Space will make you think that you’d like to try.
Less apparent from the garage band vibe of Nuci’s Space is the organization’s rock solid commitment to the emotional and physical health of the people who play there. Simply put, “the focus of Nuci’s Space is the well-being of musicians.”
Those at Nuci’s Space know that the life of a struggling musician can sometimes present challenges that are difficult to surmount on one’s own. Founded on the conviction that pursuing a passion for music should not necessitate sacrificing good health, Nuci’s Space is committed to providing specific services to individuals in need. There is a counseling advocate in-house Monday through Friday or by appointment, and any person on staff is glad to talk through problems and help find solutions.
Debbie Watson, Youth Programs and Development Coordinator, says they do not turn anyone away, even if that person is not a musician, but instead, “if we don’t have [the specific help needed], we’ll reach out to the community.” Nuci’s Space has developed relationships with area counselors to provide access to mental health professionals without stigma and at a low cost. In addition to its focus on mental health services, Nuci’s Space finds ways to help provide basic medical care to local folks as well. Dr. Kip Hicks at Athens Nurse’s Clinic sees uninsured musicians by appointment twice per month. Five Points Eye Care Center in Athens offers low-cost comprehensive eye care through Nuci’s Space. There are even custom-fit earplugs available to musicians at a reduced price. The people at Nuci’s Space are proud of this nuts and bolts dedication to the needs of the individual, and are passionate about the impact it can have.
This nurturing spirit toward Athens musicians fuels Camp Amped throughout the year. Camp Amped is arguably the most fun youth outreach program in Athens. The program provides a safe and encouraging space for teens to create music, learn the music business, and open up about their lives. Camp staff is headed up by Dan Nettles, lead instructor since its inception in 2007, and includes an impressive and eclectic roster of established Athens musicians: Joe Rowe of The Glands, Jaoy Gonzalez of Drive By Truckers, Thayer Sarrano, Hank Sullivant of Kuroma and The Whigs, Peter Alvanos of Elf Power, Claire Campbell of Hope for a Golden Summer, Ted Kuhn of Antlered Aunt Lord, and Seth Hendershot.
For the two weeks of Camp Amped, teenagers walk and talk with rock musicians as rock musicians, and then put everything on the line in front of a huge crowd to play a live show. It doesn’t get more real than that. Camp veteran Parker Allen says, “When you finally get up onstage after the two weeks of preparation, you get a feeling like no other. You have a sense of nervous excitement. You can’t wait for it, but you also can’t bear it because it will be over soon.” For the campers, it can be the best two weeks of the year.
Summer session for Camp Amped actually begins in January with auditions. Camp leaders look for proficiency on instrument or vocals, allowing prospective rockers to show their stuff on more than one instrument if they can. Judging by the wait list for the summer sessions of 2016, there is no shortage of talented kids from which to choose.
Young artists come to Camp Amped as guitarists, bassists, drummers, vocalists, keyboardists, and saxophone players, but they leave as rockers. Through donations and grants, Nuci’s Space is able to offer scholarships for Camp Amped so that every aspiring rocker has a chance to make it. Each session welcomes twenty kids into that blue building, from rising sixth graders through rising twelfth graders, and then the awesome begins.
At its core, Camp Amped is designed to nurture and protect the emotional health of teens. It does so through the process of making great music and a curriculum that builds confidence and self esteem. For those two weeks, each kid is made a member of two separate bands. Nettles meets the teens and forms these new rock bands with specific purposes in mind. Older musicians are often teamed with younger campers to encourage teens to become leaders within their group. By creating and practicing music with their band mates, teens learn communication, conflict-resolution, and self-confidence.
The connections begin with rock and roll, as Everett Vereen, a fourteen-year-old Clarke Central student explains: “One thing you always have in common is music, and it’s a good conversation starter.” From there, the conversation can go anywhere. Throughout the day there are large group discussions on the aforementioned carpets. There are specific classes about the discipline of practicing, the art of recording, how to charge for a gig, and even how to handle the breakup of a band. Camp staff members also talk openly about depression and suicide, and allow teens to share their struggles in a safe context. Perhaps there is something magical about sharing stories on the floor next to a full drum kit, because connections are formed in this place that establish a foundation for good emotional habits during what can be a tumultuous time. Each day holds an hour-long session titled “Survival Skills for Creative Minds” where Watson says they talk about issues in a way that is like sharing with friends.
There is perhaps no greater testament to the success of Camp Amped than the reports from the teens themselves. For some, Camp Amped marks the first time a young musician plays in a rock band, or shares their talent with peers. For others, Camp Amped is the motivation to practice and improve throughout the year.
Vereen admits, “Going into camp, I thought it would be one of those music camps where you fumble around with an instrument and play a mediocre AC/DC cover. Camp Amped is the visual interpretation of cranking up the amp to 11.”
The program also earns high praise from parents and families who see an increase in confidence when their teen plays in the Grand Finale. One mother writes of her daughter, “The minute she walked in last year, she felt like she was home.”
Aside from its summer sessions, Camp Amped also has after school programs in the fall and spring. Each session leads to a Grand Finale, where each teen performs with their two bands in front of Mom, Dad, and everyone. It’s a watershed moment, the culmination of hard work, and also the bittersweet end to an important shared experience. Most kids know they’ve changed, growing a little bit closer to the rock star inside. Looking back on her time at Camp Amped, Hannah Meachum says, “As a girl at camp, I really feel like I have the power to be just as great at what I do as anyone else does. During camp, I feel very energetic and ready to shred, which is normal for me, but I feel more so than normal during those two weeks.” The program epitomizes what Nuci’s Space is all about: musicians, community, sharing, emotional health, serving others, and rocking out.
If you spend time in Athens, you are increasingly likely to hear the sounds of Camp Amped. Summer campers take the stage at Athfest, fall campers rock the Wild Rumpus parade, and spring campers make themselves heard at the Twilight Criterium. If you were at a certain recent Drive By Truckers show, you saw the Camp Amped Band open the show.
Nylist Cheerleader, another band of Camp Amped kids, is on the rise. Zenith Blue has played onstage at the 40 Watt Club. Connor Byers, also a Camp Amped alum, recently held his album release party in Athens, the poster for which is still fluttering on the bulletin board outside the door of Nuci’s Space.
Written by Susan Detrick-Atchley
Photographed by Terry Allen