APRIL 11, 2020
ATHENS! ONE OF the most important independent music scenes of the last few decades in the United States was anchored in Athens, Georgia. Of all the college towns in all the states in all the world … it was here, in the town named for the city that birthed democracy, that a loose assemblage of musicians, visual artists, small-time entrepreneurs, fans, and various other bohemians came together, forged a new model of (white) collective cultural action and, sure, “changed American culture.” If all you know of Athens is the B-52’s and R.E.M. you are in for a wild ride with Cool Town, Grace Elizabeth Hale’s hybrid ethnography-memoir. And even if Pylon and Love Tractor are old hat to you, Cool Town is still going to teach you a whole lot about thrift store culture in the 1980s, the importance of the University of Georgia’s art department to the development of “college” rock, the surprising genealogical thread connecting Warhol’s Factory to this scene, and the centrality of alternative sexualities to its artistic production.
Here’s the first thing you need to know about this book: Grace Hale is a major American historian but also a player in the story she is narrating. Hale received her BA from University of Georgia in 1986 and her MA five years later. In that time, she also established herself on the scene: first as a fan, then as a musician and venue-owner/operator. Hale is hardly the first ethnographer to have been embedded in the community under study long before the studying began. In Cool Town, she toggles back and forth between relatively standard historical narration and memoiristic exploration, and even a little bit of sharp score-settling. (Spoiler alert: Matthew Sweet gets bodied. Didn’t see that coming.) Hale is refreshingly up-front about the evolution of her own artistic and political subjectivity in Athens. Her personal investment in the narrative also means that its basic temporal organizing scheme revolves around her own tenure in Athens.
If the book has a framing concept, it is “local creativity,” an idea popularized in Athens by University of Georgia art professor Art Rosenbaum, who co-taught a course called “Aspects of Folk Culture” that helped establish a map for the emerging artists of the Athens scene. More broadly, as Hale convincingly demonstrates, the art department at University of Georgia “introduced suburban and small-town Georgia kids […] to the possibilities of a creative life.”
The stakes, as Hale contends on the very first page of the book, go well beyond the art being produced and received in this little corner of the South: “A new world seemed to be emerging out of our creativity, our music and art, and our politics, but also the way we understood ourselves and related to each other.” The Athens scene is a site of participatory democracy, of experimentations with gender identity, and a nascent model for “a new kind of American bohemia.” By the end of the book, Hale makes it clear that this bohemian collectivity translated to organized political action as well: various scene denizens get involved with historical preservation efforts organized to stop mindless development in town.
Hale’s attention to the local is thrilling. Boxing the compass of the Athens scene means taking road trips out of town to understand how “outsider artists” such as Howard Finster came to shape the work of so many musical and visual artists in the college town; it means coming to understand how thrift store culture shaped the bohemian palette of the emerging musicians; it means exploring in fine detail the print culture of the town — which encompasses not only its alternative publishing outlets but also the key copy shop where band merch got produced, and it means getting a very good sense of which clubs mattered most at various moments of the scene’s evolution.
And, of course, there are the characters who populate Hale’s version of the scene, most of whom have not been given this sort of close attention before. One of the most interesting is the now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t figure Jeremy Ayers. Somehow finding his way to Athens after a stint with Andy Warhol’s Factory, Ayers works as a sort of cultural entrepreneur, acting as an unpaid mentor to scores of young artists. Key musical figures include a few members of Pylon, including lead singer Vanessa Briscoe Hay and bassist Michael Lachowski — who, according to Hale, helped introduce early hip-hop to Athens after a record-buying excursion in New York. Pylon is especially important for helping to break down rigid norms of gender and sexual identity: they did much, as Hale explains, to “transform a network of gay and queer artists and their friends into a real bohemia.” Also crucial was Laura Carter, of the band Bar-B-Q Killers, tagged here as a “punk Judith Butler” who taught Hale “all I needed to know about performance, gender, and sexuality.”
Hale estimates that a hundred bands were making music in and around Athens by the early 1990s, but Cool Town is not meant to be encyclopedic. Hale’s goal is to find representative people, moments, and locales to help explain the rich texture of bohemian life in Athens. Scale is central to her analysis. While Athens’s tentacles ultimately reached worldwide, its vibrancy, in Hale’s analysis, was based on maintaining its very local and very collective spirit. (Cool Town rarely criticizes anyone by name; when Hale does, it is almost always because she identifies some element of anti-collective, zero-sum competitiveness in their modus operandi.) It is clear that Athens was able to be Athens because it was small, real estate was relatively cheap, and it had a more or less endless supply of eager young folks showing up every year around Labor Day ready to jump into the pool. While we know about Athens because of the breakout success of the B-52’s and R.E.M., they are not major characters here. For Hale, the emblematic band remains Pylon, which “launched a story about musical amateurism, the importance of pleasure, and the elevation of art […] over commerce.”
For large swaths of Cool Town, Athens comes across as something of a utopia. Drag was central to the scene, we learn, and early on in the book Hale suggests that the “blurred lines between men and women, gender and sexuality, and anatomy and identity became a model for thinking about everything else, too.” It is truly moving to read about how this sense of exploration and possibility shaped Hale herself, who came to University of Georgia as a working-class student — a prospective accounting major — on scholarship: “What I did in the scene — creating and running a business and playing in a local band — gave me the confidence to think that I could be a scholar.”
One of the most fascinating — and certainly one of the knottiest — threads in the book has to do with the Southern identity formation that was so crucial to the Athens scene. In Hale’s rendering, the complexities of being Southern presented the bohemians of Athens with a number of challenges. During the age of Reagan, surrounded by the punishing backlash represented by the Moral Majority, these young Southerners needed to find a way to confront and reformulate the wider culture’s reductive visions of Southern-ness.
In what is perhaps a too hasty account, Hale suggests that “popular culture offered two possible takes on our region, an image of stupid, backward barbarism, and southern rock’s rebuttal, a romanticized and too often racist regional pride.” (I assume that this latter phrase is a reference to Lynyrd Skynyrd; to make a decades-long argument short, the notion that the band was racist or white supremacist in some one-dimensional way has been robustly challenged.) Hale convincingly explains that the artists of Athens hardly shied away from shouldering the mantle of their Southern identities. R.E.M., after all, had kudzu, the emblematic tumbleweed of the South, on the cover of their first LP, called their second one Reckoning (in order to play with the Southern expression “I reckon”), an LP that had cover art by Howard Finster, and — most pointedly — named their third record Fables of the Reconstruction and maybe also Reconstruction of the Fables.
The young artists of the Athens scene never developed anything like a coherent “bohemian Southern identity,” but they did use the vehicle of “local creativity” to build an aesthetic organized around embracing hyperlocal folk cultures, recontextualizing old things, and imagining a variety of personae that Hale collects under the suggestive rubric “usable Southerner.” The scene is almost all white, of course: Hale believes this to be mostly due to the demographics of the university itself, which were much less racially diverse than its home state. While many actors on the scene seem to have developed sophisticated analyses of gender and sexuality, the same cannot be said about their approach to race, a subject on which most seem to be avoidant at best, and injuriously clueless, at worst. Mike Mills of R.E.M. comes under some scrutiny for a particularly benighted piece he wrote for Spin in 1985 about Athens and the American South; Hale makes clear that namechecking “reconstruction” is about as far as he or his band seem to have gotten with respect to considering their own positionality as white men making music in the contemporary South. Beyond this, though, Hale mostly leaves race alone as a category of analysis, except for a broad claim that it is unlikely that African Americans would have found much appealing about the willful bohemianism of the scene. That is a compelling counterfactual that elides as much as it explains.
While race is dispatched summarily as an analytical category, class concerns are woven — often in a disquieting way — throughout Cool Town. Hale does discuss the class dynamics underlying this scene: Cool Town makes a convincing — and blazingly readable — case for the arty youth of Athens having invented a generative new form of bohemian life and artistic creation that would exert an influence well beyond the environs of the university, the town, and the region. But the book is not able to make its argument about the emergence of this New Southern Bohemian without also constructing a straw figure who must be triumphed over — and that character bears the unfortunately familiar and pejorative name of “redneck.”
That a historian would employ this word outside of quotation marks, repeatedly and unproblematically, speaks volumes about the complicated class politics characterizing this alternative music scene. The bad guy appears as early as the second page of the book: “We did not want to be rednecks or racists or conservative Christians or live in subdivisions or work as middle managers. […] We dreamed not of the Reagan-era Sunbelt but of a different world, a new, new, new South.” As the book unfolds, Hale establishes her progressive bona fides through descriptions of her own bohemian social life and local political engagements; the members of her various overlapping communities seem to have contributed crucial energy to fighting rampant and destructive over-development in Athens. But the “redneck” specter reappears a surprising number of times in these pages, as they join “frat boys” to threaten “faggots,” team up with developers and Christians to ruin the historical landscape of Athens, and so on. “Redneck” is a slur, of course, and one that derives originally from a derision toward people who work outdoors. Given her appreciative description of Bar-B-Q Killer Laura Carter and the “farmer’s tan” she developed doing landscaping work, it does not seem that Hale’s target is made up of people who do manual labor under the sun. So just who are these “rednecks” that the bohemians of Athens are putatively inventing themselves in opposition to?
Just recently, Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers (a band with roots in Athens) told an interviewer that members of the band “do have some redneck in us […] We don’t necessarily let anyone tell us what to do.” The Alabama-born Hood, an outspoken political progressive, is clearly doing some sly recuperation work here: he is, to put it to simply, undoing the problematic equation of “redneck” with “racist” or “white supremacist” or “conservative.” Hale never makes clear who her bohemian-hating “rednecks” are — do they include the waitresses serving them their inexpensive “meat-and-threes” at the Mayflower? Or the folks who work at the hardware store in town where art students buy their supplies? In Cool Town, “redneck” remains undefined, a powerful and promiscuous signifier of all things racist, backward, and anti-counterculture.
It is a strange sour note in a book that otherwise does an uplifting job of describing the big-tent cultural politics central to the development of this vibrant Athenian bohemia. Hale offers a portrait of Athens that emphasizes fluidity, collectivity, and conviviality, conditions that were certainly framed by the relative homogeneity of the scene’s participants. In art class, at the Grit or the Downstairs (the venue Hale herself co-founded), in recording studios, and at radio stations, the young people of Athens — this “indie Left,” as Hale calls it — helped set the stage for much important cultural and political innovation to follow. Some years after Hale’s main narrative ends, right at the turn of the century, another Athens-based band, The Mendoza Line, would release a dark and haunting record they called We’re All in This Alone. The strength of Grace Hale’s Cool Town is that she convinces us that, at least for a time, the bohemians of Athens, Georgia, gave the lie to that darkly ironic title.