If you haven’t heard, Athens has a powerhouse music scene that’s produced the likes of some artists you probably have: The B-52s, R.E.M., Matthew Sweet, Of Montreal, and Danger Mouse.
A Day of Music in Athens, GA
You could describe Wuxtry Records as the real school of rock—a clubhouse where the music freaks and geeks of Athens gather to listen to new releases, expand their aural horizons, and even start their own bands. Wuxtry is famous for its salesclerk alumni club and all roads of Athens rock run through it.
In 1976, when Dan Wall and Mark Methe arrived in Athens with the idea of starting a record store in a college town, the first person they met was Brian Cokayne, whose then-wife, Kate Pierson, would go on to be an early employee of Wuxtry, as well as a founder of the B-52s. Later, R.E.M.’s Peter Buck worked the register, eventually meeting future R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe at the store. “I was buying all the records that he was saving for himself,” Stipe recalled, describing Buck as “funny, smart, curmudgeonly, and a little off putting." Their bond was instant. In 1998, Wall hired UGA student Brian Burton—now better known as the artist and producer Danger Mouse—who had been working unhappily at a Sam Goody in the mall. Burton helped expand the store’s selection of hip hop, and in turn, was introduced to psychedelic rock, a major influence on his later work.
The biggest reason this Georgia city is such an independent music incubator is the University of Georgia, whose faculty and students have created a welcoming place for anyone who marches to the beat of their own drum. Its avant-garde vibe was shaped by art professors like Elaine de Kooning, from 1976 to 1978, and Jim Herbert, whose tenure dates to 1962. Even those who never enrolled at UGA were inevitably drawn into its orbit by reading its student newspaper The Red and Black, which has chronicled every band in Athens for decades, or by listening to its campus music radio station, WUOG.
Christina LaFontaine, an agent with Corcoran Classic Living, is one of many UGA alumni whose move to Athens transformed her life. Arriving as a classical music major in 1999, she knew little about what the city had to offer. “So many of my School of Music classmates dabbled in other genres and played and sang with some awesome bands around town,” she remarked. “Hearing them play at One Love, 40 Watt, Georgia Theatre, and Morton Theatre shaped my appreciation for other forms of music that were so different from what I was studying at the time.”
She adds that there’s something for everyone on the Athens music scene, which she’s connected to even more since putting down roots. “As I age here, my takeaway is this: The music was a blast in my early 20s. I found my style and voice to be a part of it in my 30s. And now, in my 40s, it’s endless fun for me to still be both a participant and a spectator.”
Athens’ big music energy is on full display at AthFest, a free, three-day annual music festival that raises money to support music and arts programs for local students. Sarah Ellis, broker-owner of Corcoran Classic Living, loves watching the sidewalks come alive. “Bars and restaurants become music venues, the streets close, and mainstages are erected,” Ellis explains. “There’s all kinds of music, all weekend long.”
No matter when you visit, though, here are just some of the places to find your groove in Athens.
Photo: 40 Watt Club
The 40 Watt Club is arguably the most iconic music venue of Athens, Georgia, and legendary in the annals of rock music. The club was started in 1979 by Curtis Crowe, the drummer in the band Pylon. It began as a Halloween party in Crowe’s loft that was only lit by a 40-watt light bulb (hence the name), before eventually growing into the place to see shows.
The club has moved locations and changed owners over the years, but it has always remained an integral part of Athens’ scene. Barrie Buck has owned 40 Watt since 1987, running it with long-time talent buyer Velena Vego, who has been booking at the venue almost every night for 31 years. Notably, this is a woman-owned and woman-run club—still a rarity in the world of rock, though the Athens sound has been well-defined by woman artists like Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson of the B-52s, Pylon's Vanessa Briscoe Hay, and the Indigo Girls.
40 Watt Club
197 E. Clayton St.
285 W. Washington St.
Photo: Sean Pavone/Shutterstock
Holding an audience of 1,000 people, Georgia Theatre is one of the state’s smaller concert halls, but its seating capacity is no match for its outsized place in Athens’ music history. The theater was originally the Athens YMCA, and then a second-run movie theater. But Georgia Theatre was there at the very beginning of the Athens scene, starting with an early booking. In 1978, the B-52s rented the theater to showcase their music for record company representatives, which helped inaugurate the theater’s position as a legitimate music venue. Compared to other contemporary clubs, Georgia Theatre had an actual stage and a sound and lights system—all of which had been newly installed as part of its transformation into a concert hall.
Just a year later, in 1979, the theater hosted the Police during their first U.S. tour, with local band the Tone Tones as an opener, as well as shows by the likes of B.B. King and former Velvet Underground member John Cale, with Pylon, an influential local band, as the opening act. Today, after more than 40 years of hosting shows, the theater—which underwent a major renovation after a 2009 fire—still books a strong mix of local talent and major names. John Mayer (then living in Georgia) filmed the video for “No Such Thing” at Georgia Theatre, as did R.E.M. for “Shiny Happy People.”
215 N. Lumpkin St.
Photo: University of Georgia Special Collections Libraries
Without the University of Georgia, there would be no Athens music scene, period. Its students, faculty, and library collections have influenced generations of bands and fans. The university’s libraries put on regular exhibits celebrating the city’s musical history and currently, UGA’s Hagrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library has drawn from its own extensive archives, as well as soliciting loans from local Athenians, for Georgia on My Mind: Finding Belonging in Music History (on view through December 2022).
The core of UGA’s holdings is the Georgia Music Hall of Fame Collection, which was transferred to the university after the Hall of Fame in Macon, Georgia, closed in 2011, and has continued to grow. The exhibit covers musical acts from across all of Georgia and across the span of centuries. Groups featured include the McIntosh County Shouters, one of the last remaining practitioners of the “ring shout”; Georgia greats Otis Redding and Ray Charles; and more contemporary musicians like Lil Nas X. The exhibit includes concert posters and costumes, including the B-52s' beehive wigs and Lena Horne’s dress. There’s also a listening corner, complete with a vinyl collection, so visitors can listen to music that started it all.
300 S. Hull St.
University of Georgia Library Collections
Photo: Jen Wolf/Shutterstock
This bright green Athens restaurant has been a local favorite since owner Dexter Weaver opened it in 1986, frequented by UGA students and local musicians, including the B-52s and R.E.M. In the early ‘90s, R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe approached Weaver to see if he would allow the band to use the Weaver D’s slogan, “Automatic for the People,” as the title of their new album, and the eatery went from beloved Athens’ landmark to part of rock history.
Weaver often abbreviates his famous motto to “automatic!” and says it as an all-purpose sign-off, meaning “thank you,” “you’re welcome,” “coming right up,” or even, “understood.” Perfect renditions of soul food staples like fried chicken, BBQ pork, collard greens, and squash casserole earned Weaver D’s an America’s Classic award from the James Beard Foundation in 2009.
Weaver D’s Delicious Fine Foods
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Get in tune with Athens' music scene at these spots and so many more.
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1016 E. Broad St.
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