A few months ago, I went to a concert at a very small venue in Virginia. Arriving early, I had a chance to speak to the guy selling merchandise for the band. Nashville was the home base for these guys so I assumed he lived there. When he told me that he spends his off days working in Atlanta, I responded with, “Oh, so you’re from Georgia?” If looks could kill, I wouldn’t be writing this. You would have thought I’d insulted his mother in some way. His response was an icy stare and these words, “That’s an insult. I’m from South Carolina,” and to that he added “nothing good ever came out of Georgia.” Gasp! Well that was a shot from Fort Sumter I didn’t see coming! Trying to regain my wits, I stood there thinking – here I am, descended from Yankee soldiers, standing less than a hundred miles from Richmond (capital of the Confederacy), about to defend the great state of Georgia. This is gonna wake my ancestors from the dead. Had Stonewall Jackson been there that night, I would have told him to hold my beer and watch this!!
Clearly I was not in a position to ask him to step outside with me as any self-respecting Georgia boy would have done, so I quickly called to mind the ammunition I didn’t even know I was holding, backed him into a corner (thanking God for the 5” stilettos I was wearing that put me at eye level with him), and let him have it. In rapid fire succession, I proceeded to peal off the names of every Georgia-born country singer I could think of, surprising even myself with the abundance of names that were flying out of my mouth. He wasn’t impressed by this list and stood by his convictions, adding yet another derogatory comment about the quality of the names I’d offered. Lucky for him, someone interrupted this standoff and turned his attentions elsewhere. I left that encounter with a new appreciation of the way Georgia boys tend to handle these types of situations, when only a good butt kicking will do.
Thinking about this little skirmish on the ride home that night, I went back over that list of Georgia-born country singers and wondered what it is about that state that seems to breed these guys like kudzu. Just in the country genre alone I had more than 30 names on this list. When I looked at hometowns, they’re spread out all over the state, so you can’t link all this talent to a particular local moonshine distillery. Something in the water maybe? Oh come on, Georgia boys don’t drink water! Most of them probably drank their baby formula mixed with whiskey. If you listen to the songs they sing, they talk a lot about back roads and the back pew, so maybe there’s something in the way they’re raised that brings out the singer/songwriter in so many of these guys. Looking for a commonality among them in the sound of their voices or singing styles, I couldn’t lump them all together here either.
As songwriters, they do tend to revert to the vernacular more than others in their use of local imagery, including the Georgia peach (referring to both fruit and girls), Georgia clay, tan-legged Georgia dream, Georgia pines, Georgia Bulldogs, and the ever-present big black jacked up truck. One of Georgia’s most prolific songwriting teams is a group of three guys who call themselves collectively The Peach Pickers. Legally they are Rhett Akins (Valdosta), Dallas Davidson (Albany), and Ben Hayslip (Evans). These guys seem to turn out hit songs on a weekly basis and the range in their songwriting styles is stunning. In looking at the names of country singers from Georgia, nearly every one of them is also a songwriter, and not just an occasional one. Many of them write or co-write every song on their albums. I have yet to figure out how these guys can write songs that touch on so many different genres, from country songs and party anthems to power ballads, rock songs, rap songs, and beautiful love songs. Regardless of genre, Georgia has given us some incredible songwriters. Johnny Mercer (Savannah) was a lyricist, songwriter, singer, and co-founder of Capitol Records. He wrote more than 1500 songs in his lifetime, mostly popular hits at the time, but he also wrote for movies and Broadway shows. He received 19 Academy Award nominations and won four of them for Best Original Song. The roots of Georgia songwriting run deep and the influences they write from are all over the musical map.
Country music has taken on a new sound in recent years and part of the reason for that is the arrival of so many Georgia boys in Nashville. When these guys relocated, they brought a rich musical heritage with them. No matter where they grew up in the state, music was in the air and there was plenty to choose from. One of the earliest women to record country music, Roba Stanley (Dacula), grew up just east of Atlanta. Around this same time, the early 1900s, Ma Rainey was singing the blues in Columbus. She is considered the Mother of the Blues and her pioneering contributions to that genre echoed far and wide. She would become famous well outside her home state, even recording with the great Louis Armstrong. In 1990 she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for the imprint she left on the Blues. On the opposite side of the state, born in Thomson, just west of Augusta, Blind Willie McTell would also leave his mark on the blues with his voice and his guitar playing. He was a recording phenom as a blues musician and his style would come to inspire future artists such as Bob Dylan and the Macon-based Allman Brothers Band. McTell’s song, “Statesboro Blues,” was famously covered by The Allman Brothers and is ranked as the ninth greatest guitar song of all time. Another gifted guitar player, Chet Atkins, spent part of his youth in Hamilton, just north of Columbus. It was there that he shaped his unique guitar playing style that would eventually put him on the list of greatest guitar players at #21. He is credited with creating a sound in country music in the late 50s called the Nashville Sound, which bridged a gap between country and pop music at that time. Early on in Georgia music history the framework was being laid for the groundbreaking contributions that would come from their homegrown musicians across multiple genres.
The 50s and 60s would bring monumental changes to the music world with the birth of rock and soul music and many of the key players in this movement were Georgia born and raised. Between 1930 and 1944, Georgia birth certificates would bear the names of Ray Charles, Little Richard, Otis Redding, and Gladys Knight. Although born in South Carolina, James Brown moved to Augusta when he was just five years old and would spend much of his life in the state. He is often referred to as the “Godfather of Soul” and a founding father of funk music. Otis Redding, born in Dawson and raised in Macon, would leave his mark on soul music in the 60s, eventually being crowned the “King of Soul.” He is considered one of the greatest singers in popular music and his songwriting would land him in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He died in a plane crash in 1967 at the age of 26, just three days after recording one of his most famous hits, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” Following in the tradition of these soul pioneers, Gladys Knight, born in Oglethorpe, just east of Columbus, reigned in Motown and earned her title as the “Empress of Soul.” Little Richard, born in Macon, paved the way for future rockers with his flamboyant showmanship in the 50s and became part of the funk and soul revolution that swept the country in the 60s. Ray Charles, born in Albany, is ranked second on the list of greatest singers of all time and tenth on the list of greatest artists of all time. The barriers he broke both musically and socially in the 60s cast his legacy in stone. Long before this current group of Georgia-born country artists would storm Nashville, Ray Charles was considered a crossover success with the release of his two albums in 1962 – Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Vols. 1 and 2. This helped bring country music into the mainstream at that time. His version of Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You” hit #1 on the R & B charts in 1962 and stayed there for ten weeks. He was one of the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.
The 70s rolled in with a determination that rock and roll was here to stay. In addition to the legendary rock bands that were coming out of England at that time, southern rock bands were making their own brand of rock music and the Macon-based Allman Brothers Band was at the forefront of that genre. The success they were able to achieve made it possible for the likes of The Marshall Tucker Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Black Crowes (Marietta), and many others to find an audience outside of the region and make a name for themselves on a national stage. Duane Allman was a co-founder and lead guitarist of the Allman Brothers Band. He died at the age of just 24 in a motorcycle accident in Macon, but not before he would leave his mark with his skill on slide guitar. In 2003, Rolling Stone would rank his guitar playing second only to Jimi Hendrix. The most recent rankings have him as the ninth greatest guitar player of all time. When hip hop and rap music exploded in the 80s and 90s, Atlanta became a hot bed for these artists and their producers. Many who would become major players in that genre moved to Atlanta and contributed to the hip hop innovation that developed there. This melting pot of styles pushed the sound of hip hop forward and launched the careers of Ludacris, T.I., Usher, Toni Braxton, TLC, and so many others. So So Def Records, founded by Jermaine Dupri, and LaFace Records, founded by L.A. Reid and Babyface, made their home base Atlanta and were largely responsible for the distribution of urban music that came out of this region in the 80s and 90s. To the east of Atlanta, in Athens, home to the University of Georgia, alternative rock bands found a nurturing environment in this college town. The B-52′s, R.E.M., and Widespread Panic all got their start in Athens and put this city on the map of places to find great alternative music. In the suburbs of Atlanta, alternative bands Collective Soul and the Indigo Girls also found an inspiring place to make their music.
Georgia has proven itself a breeding ground for talented artists who push the boundaries in their respective genres of music and sometimes create sounds that are entirely new. Nowhere is this more evident than in the albums coming out of Nashville recently. Within the last decade, country artists from Georgia have taken the risk of incorporating some of the musical influences of their youth into their work, regardless of genre. Colt Ford (Athens) introduced us to country with a hint of rap mixed in and opened the door for others to explore the possibilities of mixing traditional country sounds with the rhythms of rap. Several of today’s most successful artists from Georgia have infused a rock edge into their brand of country music that reflects some of the southern rock they grew up on. The current class of country superstars from Georgia grew up shuffling their ipods long before there was such a thing. Mix tapes were cool and perhaps planted the seeds for what would grow into albums that often sound like those experimental mixes that rocked the bonfires and back roads. Diversity is their hallmark and every album they make reflects that.
With so much musical diversity residing in one state and the abundance of pioneering musicians that Georgia has produced, you would think there should be some statewide recognition of this. Well, the fact is, there was. The Georgia Music Hall of Fame was located in downtown Macon from 1996-2011. It housed a collection of items relevant to their music history, special exhibitions, an education outreach program, and a space for performances. The idea for this was hatched in 1979 by the Georgia General Assembly and pushed forward by the vision of then Lt. Governor Zell Miller. It would be 1990 before the framework was in place to construct and maintain this facility. The building was constructed in two phases with the first phase opening in 1996 and the second in 1999. Just 12 years after construction was completed, this long overdue museum would close due to low attendance and reduced state funding. The exhibition pieces are now being housed at three different state universities and in private collections. Geographically and musically, Macon is the magnetic center of Georgia and home to Little Richard, Otis Redding, The Allman Brothers Band, and Jason Aldean. It lies just 80 miles south of Atlanta and 90 miles south of Athens, the other two music epicenters of Georgia. Based on its music history, accessibility within the state, and cost of construction, this choice would seem logical. However, viability became an issue in the early years of the new millennium due to the economic downturn and a stagnant tourism industry. The Georgia Music Hall of Fame fell victim to outside circumstances and was forced to close its doors. Mercer University has since purchased the building.
March 7th marks the 35th anniversary of that day back in 1979 when Ray Charles performed his classic song, “Georgia On My Mind,” in front of the Georgia General Assembly. After that performance, the connection to the state was made official. The following month, on April 24, “Georgia On My Mind” was adopted as the state song. It seems a shame that such an important part of our musical heritage is no longer on display in one location to honor these artists for their invaluable contributions to music and inspire future generations. Personally, I think this is a wrong that needs to be made right again. The value of music cannot be overstated and funding for music programs is being cut at both the federal and state levels. This could be a golden opportunity to showcase what Georgians have meant to music’s history in a state of the art exhibition that is interactive, educational, and performance-related. Location is key and corporate sponsorship is a necessity. Artist involvement from all genres of music is also vital to the success of the project. For over a hundred years Georgia-born musicians have made music in ways no one had before. They are now a part of America’s music history and they deserve a national spotlight that shines from within Georgia’s borders. I still don’t have the answer as to why so many Georgia natives have the gift of music in their blood, but I’m thankful for their talents every time I turn on the radio or listen to my ipod. If I were less determined, I could be content with the earful I gave that ill-informed boy from South Carolina, but I’d rather settle this by getting the Georgia Music Hall of Fame reinvented and reopened so there will be a permanent location, say in Atlanta, where he can see and hear some of the good things that have come out of Georgia. Maybe his part-time job will be located nearby, close enough for him to hear this refrain… “Georgia, Georgia/The whole day through/Just an old sweet song/Keeps Georgia on my mind.”
From WAY North of Nashville…..Bev Miskus
Ray Charles died June 10, 2004. The 2005 Grammy Awards were dedicated to him. This video clip shows Alicia Keys and Jamie Foxx with Quincy Jones conducting the orchestra in their rendition of “Georgia On My Mind.”