Friday, June 20, 2014

What it Will Take to Make Macon a Music Town Today

Here I am leading one of our Macon music history tours in front of the Douglass Theatre 
(photo by Stephanie Shadden)

Even though the main theme of our life right now is revolving like a spin top around our anticipated arrival, our passion for Macon, in particular, Macon music, has been like our first born to us. Or maybe now, we should just compare it to a part of who we are. It's second nature. 

I continue to write a monthly column for the Macon Telegraph's Out and About entertainment section. Today, an edited version of this entry ran in today's paper. You can read the published version here. Below is the un-cut:

It took a slightly strange, high-pitched and unapologetically hopeful resident who the world would ultimately know as Little Richard.  It was soon to be combined with the guttural determination, 40-watt charm and unmatched talent of a young and beloved Otis Redding, who had a lot to do in a too-short time. Throw in the South’s most passionate music fan, Phil Walden, who had an uncanny ear, the smarts and hellfire to dive headfirst into the world of black musicians during a time of deep segregation, which carried him like a rip tide to the weeping slide phenomenon we’d know as Duane Allman. 

All of this was enveloped by the Ocmulgee River mist, said to be blessed by Macon’s original musicians-in-residence, the Creek Indians, who held the first flute chair before Confederate soldier, poet and Macon’s musical forefather Sidney Lanier shot to post-Civil War superstardom well beyond his brief life.

I don’t believe we can ever top our past. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t embrace it. 

There was a reason that legendary Tom Dowd named Macon among his “Five M” recording towns that included Manhattan, Miami, Muscle Shoals and Memphis. There was something to be said about a small southern town with a music scene. It was this kind of place where once-in-a-lifetime songs were made.

Last week, I attended a session of the Art Matters Symposium Series hosted by the Macon Arts Alliance that focused on “Music and Music Criticism” and included the panel of Patterson Hood and Josh Jackson.

Hood is the singer-songwriter, instigator and lead singer of one of current music’s most “southern things,” the Drive-by Truckers. He knows a bit about Muscle Shoals (“before it was a movie,” he laughs) because he grew up there with his dad, bassist David Hood, who was deeply embedded in its studio scene.

Jackson is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Paste. He’s a journalist and music critic with a quick-wit, keen observation and impressive knowledge on the pop and sub-cultures of music, film and literature and their shared social threads.

When asked what it takes for a town to have a music scene, the answer came quickly: musician retention.

“To have a music scene, you have to be a city where musicians go to hear each other play,” Jackson said.

Hood quickly echoed. That was the scene he was seeking when he left the Shoals and moved to Athens. Muscle Shoals was in a dry county. Musicians didn’t play outside their studio time. Hood was seeking a live music scene where not only he could play, but he could hear others doing the same thing any night of the week.

Exposure is among the “special things” they said are needed for music to matter in a city. Hood also added that hiring musicians and providing receptive day jobs, that employers are willing to hold in case a musician tours, is another key. Multiple venues, cheap rent, having multiple musicians circulating at once were also listed as essentials.

I’ve sighed as I’ve seen some of our most promising local acts move to other cities with strong music scenes or just disband all together in order to make a living. If we don’t start realizing these artists are just as important players in local economic development as the large corporations we court with gusto, then we’re going to keep sending our kids away to other towns at the end of the day . . . as well as our money that comes from ticket revenues, payrolls, taxes and all the other expenditures arts scenes enormously produce. 

Later that evening, Hood performed an intimate concert in a historic College Hill home as part of the Music Amabassadors: Macon program, funded by a Knight Neighborhood Challenge grant. The unique venue is known as the house “that Crisco built” and whose legendary guests included Tennessee Williams, who drew inspiration for “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” while visiting.

“Y’all have got a lot of stories here in Macon,” said Hood later in the evening. “It’s certainly easy to be inspired.”

Inspiration, check. Now let’s get to work on the rest.

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