COOL TOWN: How Athens, Georgia, Launched Alternative Music and Changed American Culture

Posted: December 31, 2021 in MUSIC

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.

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.

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’ 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-travelled byways and a feisty do-it-yourself spirit.

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