The American South is famous for great music and great music cities like Nashville, New Orleans, and Memphis.  But there’s another music capital many people don’t know, and it’s less than an hour from Reynolds. Athens, Georgia, may be more famous for the University of Georgia and its powerhouse sports teams, but it’s one of few towns that have managed to stick to its original musical roots. 

“Many local groups have come and gone, and popular music of the time continually shifts, but music is still on every corner,” says Jonathan Sims, owner and agent at Heartwood Entertainment in Athens. “This is one of the best things about Athens.”

Athens has a tradition of helping new artists get established. Among the many great bands that attribute their start to Athens are the B52s, a pop rock band started in 1976; R.E.M, an American rock band started in 1980; Drive by Truckers, an alternative country band started in 1996; and Futurebirds, an indie rock band started in 2008. The diversity of their styles is a tribute to the town’s dynamic music scene. At the center of it all are a handful of venues, including Georgia Theatre and The 40 Watt Club.  

Georgia Theatre brings in well-known artists of all different genres. Among the many artists who’ve performed there are Country stars Zac Brown Band—whose style originated in our very own Georgia Lake Country—and Lady Antebellum, DJ Bassnectar, and rock greats Dave Matthews Band and OAR.  

“Georgia Theatre has the budget, production capability, promotional reach, and capacity to put prominent, as well as rising acts, on the big stage,” says Sims. “Their acts are also much more diverse than most venues.” 

The 40 Watt Club is half the size of Georgia Theatre but still hosts some of the best local and national bands. 40 Watt was instrumental in launching American punk rock and “new wave music,” and now features artists in genres from punk to pop and country to rap. 

“I really enjoyed playing The 40 Watt Club and the old Georgia Theatre,” says Mike Mills, bass guitarist and back-up vocalist of R.E.M. “But one of my favorite music events in Athens is Athfest. It is still one of my favorite performance memories.”  The three-day festival each June supports music and arts education for youth and attracts top local and regional talents of many different styles to perform in different events throughout town.

 “What really sets Athens apart from most music towns is the diversity,” says Sims. “The dominance of the University of Georgia as a draw to this town has helped create a great environment for creativity and exploration, and as a result, everything from non-profits, to pop up galleries and theatres, and of course a lot of great music.” 

Visit Athens for a day, a night, or a weekend getaway, and you’re almost sure to find live music being performed. And maybe a few years from now you’ll be able to say “you heard them when.”

 

R.E.M.’s Mike Mills: Athens is “The One I Love”

Growing up in Macon, Georgia, Mike Mills wanted to be a professional baseball player. The diamond’s loss is music’s gain.  Mills put down his mitt and picked up a guitar, and with his longtime friend Bill Berry started writing songs and playing music. When they moved to Athens to attend the University of Georgia, they met Michael Stipe and Peter Buck. 

“We didn’t have much planned when we first met,” says Mills. “Bill and I had some songs from high school that we showed Michael and Peter, they put their own unique touches on them, and we really liked the result.” In April 1980, R.E.M. debuted at a friend’s birthday party held in a local church.  Today, only the steeple of the church still stands, while R.E.M. has become a music legend.

“We traveled a lot and played countless shows,” says Mills, who has been a Reynolds member since 1997. “I think our biggest success was managing to do it on our own terms. We never gave up creative control of our music.”

Today, 36 years after the start of R.E.M., Mills is still living in Athens. Many of his favorite venues, including 40 Watt and the Georgia Theatre, are much as they were when he first played them. “Athens was always open to all different kinds of music, people, and interests,” he says. “It was like that then and it is still like that today, the essence has stayed the same.”  Mills makes some weekend trips to Reynolds where he likes to play golf and watch the Braves. “I have family in Reynolds, there are beautiful golf courses, and it is only 45 miles from Athens. What’s not to love?” 

But his favorite spot is still home. “I love visiting the big cities, but Athens always has something to do, yet remains quiet. I find that a lot more enjoyable.”

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