Great Summer Drives: Atlanta to Athens
Published: October 2011
By Greg Kirschling
A rock-star weekend, with a low-key vibe.
Distance: 80 miles
Driving Time: 1.5 hours
Athens has always been an unassuming music mecca, home to beloved groups such as R.E.M. and the B-52's and, more recently, southern rock bands like the Drive-By Truckers. It's the place to catch new indie acts on their way up, and its proximity to Atlanta means big-city residents need not feel left out of the music scene. Most of the action is concentrated downtown—a hip but unintimidating zone of shops, eateries, clubs, and bars. As with any college burg, there are different groups hanging about: in Athens, the bohemians are generally to be found on the east side, and the fraternity kids, a couple of blocks to the west. But there's no velvet-rope frostiness in this town, and there's always a show to catch.
Atlanta's most direct route to Athens—I-85 to Route 316—is also the most boring (car dealerships and chain motels dot the landscape), and it's often clogged with traffic. For a still-quick but more back-roadsy drive, take I-20 forty miles out of the city to Route 138, which goes through Monroe, a tiny town with an old-fashioned main drag that includes a monument to the state's Confederate dead. The best aspect of a good drive, of course, is the opportunity to bliss out to radio tunes. The University of Georgia's college station, 90.5 FM, is an excellent choice. Its unpredictable selections are likely to include anything from English musician Brian Eno to alternative pop band Of Montreal, currently Athens's hottest new group. Feeling nostalgic?Slip in a CD of R.E.M.'s Murmur or the B-52's Wild Planet.
Shop for Music
Staffed by young music buffs who know everything about the town's bands, Wuxtry Records (197 E. Clayton St., Athens.; 706/369-9428; www.wuxtryrecords.com) is a famously overstuffed record shop, filled with mostly-used CD's. It's also where Michael Stipe met guitarist Peter Buck before R.E.M. broke out in the early 1980's. Near the checkout counter, look for a DVD of Athens, GA: Inside Out, a grainy, in-depth 1987 documentary of the city's legendary music scene.
Where to Eat
The lime-bricked soul food joint Weaver D's (1016 E. Broad St.; 706/353-7797) is steeped in music history. In the old days, Weaver D's proprietor, the boisterous Dexter Weaver, was known for calling out "Automatic for the people!" when orders were up. R.E.M. immortalized the phrase as the title of its 1992 album. The vibe here is super-chill: the setting is understated, the TV often turned to Judge Judy, and the menu full of comfort food like fried chicken and buttered potatoes. If you need to refuel after a late show, stop by The Grill (171 College Ave.; 706/543-4770), a downtown old-time diner open 24 hours. The French fries with gooey feta dipping sauce are especially tasty after an evening spent listening to live bands. Or go upscale, preshow, at the chic Five and Ten (1653 S. Lumpkin St.; 706/546-7300; www.fiveandten.com), where the delicious Frogmore Stew features shrimp, corn, and sausage in a tomato-based broth.
The vast and oft-relocated rock club 40 Watt (285 W. Washington St.; 706/549-7871; www.40watt.com) is arguably Athens's best music venue, and lately the host to Modest Mouse, Interpol, and The Flaming Lips. These days its only real competition is Caledonia Lounge (256 W. Clayton St.; 706/549-5577; www.caledonialounge.com), a small, dark space that books both touring and local groups, situated just around the corner from 40 Watt. "Caledonia and 40 Watt are the two places that define which bands are cool and which bands are not," says Joseph Kass, a guitarist for local band The Winter Sounds, which, fortunately for its coolness factor, recently played at 40 Watt. Keep up with who is playing where by scanning the Flagpole (www.flagpole.com), a free arts guide with weekly listings.
Crash in high style at the ornately decorated six-room Ashford Manor B&B (5 Harden Hill Rd, Watkinsville; 706/769-2633; www.ambedandbreakfast.com). A leafy eight-mile drive south of Athens on Route 15 to Watkinsville, the hotel is housed in a handsome 1893 Victorian building, complete with wicker furniture on the porches and small statues of naked cherubs along the walkways on expansive, tree-dappled grounds. In season, the B&B hosts a variety of concert series on the lawn. Aspiring musicians will be pleased to find a baby grand located in a sunroom off the entryway, available for anyone who wants to play. If you'd rather stay close to the action, check out the Foundry Park Inn and Spa (295 E. Dougherty St., Athens; 706/549-7020, www.foundryparkinn.com), a boutique hotel whose buildings are replicas of 1820's Athens row houses.