In her book Cool Town, Grace Elizabeth Hale offers a history of the Athens, Georgia, music scene, how it came about, thrived and then served as a model for other towns beyond the pale (and free from the dilution) of the mainstream music industry. As an undergrad at the University of Georgia in the 1980s, Hale was immersed in the Athens music scene at its peak, when R.E.M., the B-52s, Pylon, Vic Chesnutt, Love Tractor, Chickasaw Mudd Puppies and many others ruled the roost. Veteran rock journalist Parke Puterbaugh spoke with Hale about her book and her Athenian experiences for PKM.
Grace Elizabeth Hale is a historian and professor whose specialties are 20th- century Southern history and various forms of cultural history, including photography, documentary film and music. She holds the august title of Commonwealth Professor of American Studies and History at the University of Virginia. But if you were to rewind back to 1982, you’d find Hale as a newly arrived student at the University of Georgia, where she became an enthusiastic observer and participant in the fun and fecund Athens, Ga., music scene.
That was the period of time and the place that she documents with intelligence and affection in Cool Town: How Athens, Georgia, Launched Alternative Music and Changed American Culture, published last year by the University of North Carolina Press. In the book, Hale makes a deep dive into the circumstances that germinated not only the two Athens bands known well to any sentient rock fan – R.E.M. and the B-52’s – but also many other deserving acts that acquired cult followings but didn’t find similar levels of national recognition, such as Pylon and Vic Chesnutt. The list of deserving acts that poured out of Athens during those years lends support to the audacious claim of the book’s subtitle.
Hale comfortably wears the dual hats of historian and fan as she guides readers through the streets, clubs, hangouts and record stores of downtown Athens, as well as the libraries and classrooms of the University of Georgia, where knowledge was gained and friendships were struck. Impeccably documented and well-argued, Cool Town is a fun read for any fan of alternative music and the era in which it rose out of such unlikely places as a Deep South college town to challenge the increasingly stilted status quo of mainstream rock in the late 1970s.
Perhaps the most surprising revelation to come out of Cool Town is that it wasn’t only David Bowie and Lou Reed who were taking a walk on the wild side by mingling music with gender-bending sexuality. One of the key figures on the Athens scene was Jerry Ayers, who was a musician, actor and writer but mainly someone who turned lifestyle into an artistic statement in its own right. As Hale writes, Ayers “modeled the essential bohemian act – he made his life into art.” Ayers moved from Athens to New York City in 1970 and, for a spell, became one of Andy Warhol’s “superstars,” transforming into the character Silva Thin. When he moved back to Athens, he subtly steered its bubbling underground scene.
Writes Hale: “Life, he suggested by example, gained its meaning not from work or school but from aesthetic expression. In this way, [he] was more than a local star. He made Athens the place to be a star.”
Ayers moved from Athens to New York City in 1970 and, for a spell, became one of Andy Warhol’s “superstars,” transforming into the character Silva Thin. When he moved back to Athens, he subtly steered its bubbling underground scene.
Ayers’ story informs many of those that follow, including such seminal Athens bands as the B-52’s, R.E.M., Love Tractor and the Chickasaw Mudd Puppies. The University of Georgia art department figures into the scene’s development as well. Some interesting mojo was transpiring in this out-of-the-way university town, predicated on high-toned aesthetic precepts, thrift-store bohemia, a love of rock music’s less-traveled byways and a feisty do-it-yourself spirit. I discussed the Athens scene and Hale’s book with her by phone.
PKM: The subtitle of your book makes the bold claim that Athens is the town that “launched alternative music and changed American culture.” If this were a doctoral thesis, how would you defend your premise?
Grace Elizabeth Hale: (laughs) I think Athens was key in taking this punk idea that anybody can play and showing that anybody can do it anywhere. I’m not suggesting that nobody tried to make underground music – what was later called indie or alternative music – in other places. I think that Athens is the place that makes it clear—mostly through the career of R.E.M. but not entirely—that you can make music that reaches an underground or even a mainstream national audience anywhere. And that these kinds of cultural transformations and bohemian cultures we think of as really only occurring in certain urban spaces can actually flourish anywhere. Athens is the most important example, but not the only example.
PKM: R.E.M. made a determined stand early on that they were not going to relocate from Athens to New York or L.A. I thought that was important, because you subsequently saw a decentralization of the music industry, which allowed light to shine on scenes from all over the country. Bands from certain college towns decided that their lives in those places were preferable to moving to the big music-industry capitals.
Grace Elizabeth Hale: In part what makes Athens a super-important example of this is because it’s in the South. That proved it can truly happen anywhere, because there was a sense of the South at this time by many music critics and fans from elsewhere that this was a place where it absolutely could not flourish.
R.E.M. talking about Athens intercut with live shots of Athens, B-52’s, R.E.M. and Patti Smith:
PKM: I’d make the counterargument that the South was and always has been the cradle for much popular music – rhythm & blues, soul, rock and roll – and was therefore a natural habitat.
Grace Elizabeth Hale: I don’t disagree with you across the long history of pop music. You’re right, absolutely. The South is a natural habitat. But it was not seen as a natural habitat for young people making that kind of music at that moment. Reading all the early post-punk era music criticism, it seems to me pretty damn clear that part of what made these Athens bands so successful is that there was just such a “Gee whiz, how can these people be from a small town in the South?” factor going on among journalists and music critics from other places. What I love about some of the early B-52’s coverage, and this goes for R.E.M. too, is that you can just see them playing these journalists and music reporters.
PKM: What was it like for you, being trained as a historian, to write a book about a scene in which you were both a witness and participant?
Grace Elizabeth Hale: One thing that made it less complicated than it might’ve been is a lot of time has gone. I haven’t lived there for a while, and I’m not the same person I was then, so I have a distance on those memories. But I do think it was a real strength to have had a connection, because it’s hard to know how somebody with no sort of knowledge of Athens would know how to start. The stuff out there about Athens is largely fictional, even when it’s branded as nonfiction. For me it ended up being a really nice combination of having some knowledge, knowing enough about the myths, narratives and figures and who to talk to and where to start. That was all really helpful.
PKM: In the book you refer to the “myth of the Athens scene.” What is that myth? What did people get wrong, or what made it a myth?
Grace Elizabeth Hale: I think it was this myth of amateurism, that there was no kind of knowledge in terms of craft or how the music industry worked or even in terms of the history of pop music or rock ‘n’ roll. That there was a certain kind of amateurism and even a native Southern eccentricity, which I think I verges on stereotype. I think that’s the myth, and the reality is a lot more complicated and, as it usually is, more interesting. There were absolutely amateurs but there were also people with huge amounts of knowledge. The Athens scene was not as isolated or amateur as the myth suggests. These were not just Southern idiot-savants who just happened to come up with something original.
Reading all the early post-punk era music criticism, it seems to me pretty damn clear that part of what made these Athens bands so successful is that there was just such a “Gee whiz, how can these people be from a small town in the South?” factor going on among journalists and music critics from other places.
PKM: It stems from that stereotyping of the South, like the kid playing the banjo in Deliverance or something.
Grace Elizabeth Hale: Exactly! So you know what I’m talking about. I remember when I first left the South, when I first went to grad school or traveled to Europe, I would meet young people my age and their attitude was, “Oh my gosh, you can speak and walk at the same time, and you’re a white Southerner!” They had this totally bizarre and stereotypical attitude that we were all a bunch of complete and total idiots. I had a woman say things like that to me in grad school. I was like, “I cannot imagine another group of people in America that you would feel it was okay to say the things you said to me about being a white Southerner. I really cannot think of any other group of people that you would stand there and pretend to be educated and spout such stereotypes.”
PKM: One of the most important aspects of the Athens scene is that wasn’t just alternative music. It was alternative everything, including lifestyles. For instance, it was a place that allowed gay people to live an “out” lifestyle at a time when that was not at all easy in the South. Within the B-52’s, for instance, the three male members – Fred Schneider, Ricky Wilson and Keith Strickland – were gay.
Grace Elizabeth Hale: For sure. That’s a part of the story that even people who were fans of Athens music don’t know. I don’t think people have a deep understanding of the Athens scene and how much of it is queer, gay and what people now call non-heteronormative. To me it was important to tell that story. I find that a lot of people I deal with in my world as an academic historian have a sense of the South as hostile to gay people. And I think it’s really interesting at a time when most places in America were extremely hostile to people who weren’t straight, Athens was much less so. That all these early bands had members who weren’t straight, to whatever degree they were or were not totally out, is a key part of the story.
The B-52’s give a television news reporter a tour of Athens in 1989:
PKM: To that end, you cite the art department at the University of Georgia as being an incubator for that sensibility.
Grace Elizabeth Hale: It was almost less the art school, in terms of the classes going on there, and more the kind of community that happened in Athens because of the people the art school collected: professors, former students, grad students, undergrads. You really have to give some credit to Lamar Dodd, who was the long-term head of the art school. He was extremely ambitious. He wanted the art school at Georgia to be a big, important place and he knew that meant he had to go bold, given what he was starting with. He seemed to be much less homophobic than other administrators at big state universities.
Part of the problem in talking about all this is there were people who never officially came out. I can’t really talk about that in my book. It’s not for me to out them. So I had to be somewhat vague sometimes. But it’s pretty clear that Dodd hired people that he knew were gay and didn’t care. He created the art school as a separate school and not just another department. The point being there was more space there for that community than there would’ve been even in other Southern college towns.
The art school at the time also had a kind of anti-art-school bias, that you don’t need to have been studying this or doing this for years. We don’t need to pay all this attention to craft and canonical knowledge of the past. We just need to have some practical instruction and be bold enough to give it a try.
I don’t think people have a deep understanding of the Athens scene and how much of it is queer, gay and what people now call non-heteronormative. To me it was important to tell that story.
PKM: Which carried over into “do-it-yourself” approach of forming bands and making music in Athens. Who or what do you think of as Ground Zero for the Athens music scene? Was there an event that marked its birth, like the first B-52’s show on Valentine’s Day 1977?
Grace Elizabeth Hale: I would pick not so much an event but a person, and that would clearly have to be Jerry – later Jeremy – Ayers. I don’t think you get to the Athens scene without the performance-art antics of Jerry Ayers, the B-52’s and their friends. There were some really interesting connections. Jerry Ayers, Ricky Wilson and Keith Strickland went to New York to hang out at Andy Warhol’s Factory. Jeremy became a part of Warhol’s scene and brought that knowledge back to town with him. They were very consciously trying to create their own version of that in Athens.
PKM: You used a quote from the Village Voice in your book calling the B-52’s “the first modernist objectification of rock and roll and its assorted pop culture.” The B-52’s were all about surf-rock guitar, cheesy organ sounds, bouffant wigs and dancing the “Rock Lobster.” They tapped into a lot of pop-culture referents.
Grace Elizabeth Hale: Especially the way Kate [Pierson] and Cindy [Wilson] drew from both the earlier history of pop music and girl groups but also the more sort of avant-garde, Yoko Ono kinds of things. You know, that high-low fusion was so much a part of Warhol and pop art. Bringing that kind of serious and not-serious activity to what they were doing at the time was interesting.
PKM: I’ve often thought that a music scene can only be as good as its record stores. In Athens you had the Wuxtry, a legendary store at which Peter Buck worked prior to and even after R.E.M. formed. What was it like back in the day? Was it your typical independent college-town record store?
Grace Elizabeth Hale: Absolutely. It was dusty, crammed full of shit, just overflowing with records. You know, that kind of atmosphere. I feel so sorry for young people because they’ll never know record stores because they don’t have to. They can get everything on their computer, on Spotify, on streaming services. You remember how hard it used to be to find stuff? You had to dig, you had to work at it. And there was a kind of intellectual capital those record store guys and record collectors had. I interviewed tons of tons of guys in Athens who have such happy memories of Pete Buck turning them on to music, hanging out in Wuxtry and hearing what he was playing, just how thoughtful and how unlike the stereotypical asshole record store guy he was. He was in the sense he had the knowledge, but he didn’t need to put other people down.
PKM: Like the clerks in High Fidelity.
Grace Elizabeth Hale: Which is a stereotype that has truth in it. I remember going into the Princeton Record Exchange and going, “Oh my god, I’m just trying to buy something. You really don’t have to be that rude.”
Peter Buck was a gregarious, warm, talkative-as-heck guy. Like I said, I talked to countless people about being sheepishly new in Athens and trying to find some new music, and a few conversations with Pete and a few purchases set them on a whole different path. I think the fact he brought that knowledge into R.E.M. was so important to that band’s history.
And there was a kind of intellectual capital those record store guys and record collectors had. I interviewed tons of tons of guys in Athens who have such happy memories of Pete Buck turning them on to music, hanging out in Wuxtry and hearing what he was playing, just how thoughtful and how unlike the stereotypical asshole record store guy he was.
In the same way, Fred Schneider of the B-52’s worked for years for Ort – Orton Carlton, who’s this total character around town. Ort collected old records and eventually decided he might as well open a shop and sell them because he had so many. He was constantly going around the countryside and buying old records that were not in any way, shape or form limited to rock. So while Ort was going to junk stores, thrift shops and yard sales all over the Southeast, Fred would be back in Athens manning the shop. It was called Ort’s Oldies.
PKM: So Fred Schneider had some record-store experience, too?
Grace Elizabeth Hale: He absolutely did. He had that experience, but it was much broader in terms of genres than the Wuxtry. Danny Beard [of DB Records, an alternative label] opened Wax ‘n’ Facts in Atlanta, and it was based on Ort’s Oldies. Fred really acquired an encyclopedic knowledge. His friends would come by to hang out, and he’d just play records all day. They were also inspired to go to the university’s music library, where they would check out all kinds of weird records. So there was a lot of that kind of knowledge in the B-52’s.
PKM: You noted that campus libraries were accessible to the townspeople of Athens, and that seems important.
Grace Elizabeth Hale: It was just very easy to get access to materials. Anybody could come in and use non-circulating materials. As for materials that didn’t leave the library, like films and some of the recordings, there were spaces in the library where you could watch the film or listen to the recordings. Anybody could do it, no ID required. Back then that was everybody’s Internet, having access to all of this incredible information in the library, from old bound periodicals to recordings from around the world to classic films. So that was hugely important through all the years of the scene.
PKM: Do you think the city of Athens and the University of Georgia properly appreciate the music scene these groups put on the map?
Grace Elizabeth Hale: I don’t think that they did until much later. There was a really antagonistic relationship between the city—and also the university to some degree, in terms of the administration—and the scene. The higher-ups at the university had absolutely no interest in and not much knowledge of the scene, and in fact saw these folks as a problem: “We need to reign them in over at the art school.” That, of course, changed over time.
I have two 20-year-olds in my house who were still sophomores in high school when I was working on this book. The University of Georgia started sending them recruiting materials, and right there at the top, right under “Go to a football game at Sanford Stadium!” was “Stroll through the bohemian streets of downtown Athens and catch a band at the 40 Watt!” That was one of their main recruiting pitches, which was a complete change from what it used to be.
PKM: All of the things they disparaged, they now embrace.
Grace Elizabeth Hale: Exactly. When I started this, there was no attempt to collect any materials at the university library, and that has changed. In fact, I’ve actually helped them collect materials now, and that’s great to see. Also they now have a very well-respected music-business program that [musician and producer] David Barbee runs, which has been going on for ten or fifteen years. There are all kinds of institutional connections and recognition now. But that’s all fairly new.
PKM: The scene is defined in the public mind by R.E.M. and the B-52’s. What do you think are the most underrated Athens bands that ought to be paid more attention to?
Grace Elizabeth Hale: The obvious answer is Pylon. They do get some attention paid to them by a certain kind of music fan. I think their music is still super-fresh and great to listen to. It sounds like it could’ve been made today. They toured with Gang of Four and played with R.E.M., B-52’s and Talking Heads, but they certainly didn’t become household names, so that would be one obvious answer.
There are other bands who had much less success that are really terrific. A favorite of mine is the Squalls. They played up and down the East Coast, especially the Southeast, and developed a fan base in Washington, D.C. and other places. But they never really had a record label or moved up to any sort of level. Really fun band. They also were a little bit older and had jobs and couldn’t go on long tours. That was part of their problem.
A guy who’s a critic’s darling but I don’t think enough Americans know about is Vic Chesnutt. He is absolutely brilliant, one of the most brilliant songwriters ever to live in America.
PKM: What a fascinating story. I think he deserves to be talked about as a literary figure, as well as a singer-songwriter. He’s definitely due for discovery by a broader public.
“Strange Language,”-Vic Chesnutt:
Grace Elizabeth Hale: I absolutely think so. He was a very talented writer. He had critical attention, including a fantastic interview with Terry Gross on NPR. He’s not an unknown figure, but he never got the wider audience he deserved. Then there’s other bands that have never really been heard of at all, like OH-OK, Mercyland, Barbeque Killers and other amazing, awesome bands.
PKM: Love Tractor, Chickasaw Mudd Puppies.
Grace Elizabeth Hale: Yeah, yeah! I should have mentioned Love Tractor and Chickasaw Mudd Puppies. I had a huge piece on Chickasaw Mudd Puppies that wound up getting cut out of the book because it was too long. But they’re interesting to think about in relation to all the stuff I was writing about, rural Southern culture and what they were trying to do.
PKM: Some very interesting bands have come out of Athens in recent decades. Some of my favorites are Of Montreal, the Mendoza Line and the Glands.
Grace Elizabeth Hale: Somebody should write about all of that, because the music – I don’t think it stops. I like the Drive-By Truckers a lot, and they’re also an Athens band.
PKM: The point is, there’s been continuity. The scene did not shrivel up after the period you wrote about. It has continued to produce music.
Grace Elizabeth Hale: Yeah! This is an argument I’ve had with many people I know and love. A lot of people I interviewed want to tell a story of a rise-and-fall arc that centers around their time in the town and scene. I’ve known David Barbee for years, and he says, “Those people don’t know what they’re talking about. I’m here, my kids have grown up here and are in bands. There is still amazing music going on here now.”
I appreciate his perspective, which is one of continuity, that it’s a place full of fabulous musicians and super-interesting music-making. The argument I’ve brought to that is to say what has changed is that it’s no longer a surprise. In a certain aspect, it can’t be about an amateur aesthetic because people actually have knowledge in the town and community about what this history is, what it means to be a band and how that works. So that changes, and the fact the town has a music scene becomes one of the main characteristics of the place rather than this kind of surprising new thing. But that doesn’t mean it ends.
A guy who’s a critic’s darling but I don’t think enough Americans know about is Vic Chesnutt. He is absolutely brilliant, one of the most brilliant songwriters ever to live in America.
PKM: Are you a musician yourself? You write that you were in an Athens group called Cordy Lon.
Grace Elizabeth Hale: I’m very much an amateur musician. I play the cello and my husband plays guitar, and we’ll sometimes play together. I don’t play in anything but an amateur way, but it’s a fun thing to do. That’s another thing I feel that Athens gave me, which is an understanding you can do that, you can just make music for fun.
PKM: Tell me about Cordy Lon.
Grace Elizabeth Hale: There was a guy who still writes for The Flagpole named Gordon Lamb who discovered some Cordy Lon stuff my ex-husband put up on YouTube, and he described it as “the bridge between the folk music world of Athens and punk.” Something like “melodic folk-punk.” We were usually a trio. Our main songwriter and musician was at that time my partner, David Levitt. He’d go back and forth between bass and guitar but pretty much played the bass like a guitar. What can I say? I was really the Linda McCartney of the band! (laughs) I think I added a little bit musically, but I was definitely the most amateur, let’s put it that way. It was really fun.