The first time I heard R.E.M. I thought they were from Greece. It was the mid-1980's, that period when Top-40 radio was routinely bewitched by one-hit wonders with cryptic names from places like Austria (Falco), Germany (Nena), and Norway (A-ha). So when a friend played me a song by this "hot new band from Athens," I figured, why not? Anyway, the artfully mumbled lyrics were Greek to me.
As it happens, R.E.M. was only one of several groups (the B-52's were another) emerging from Athens, Georgia, in the vanguard of what would come to be termed the alternative-rock movement. This wasn't the first time Georgia's pivotal role in rock history had gone unrecognized, despite the enormous contributions of two small cities, each a short drive from Atlanta. Athens, 65 miles to the east, still hosts a thriving music scene, while Macon, 85 miles southeast, was the birthplace of rock architect Little Richard and soul giant Otis Redding, as well as the launching pad for funk forefather James Brown and Southern-rock legends the Allman Brothers. Most pilgrims on the rock-heritage trail snub Georgia en route to flashier destinations like Memphis, Nashville, and New Orleans. On a three-day drive through the state's musical heartland, I set out to see what they're missing. I soon found myself tracing not only Georgia's musical roots but also the deeper, and in many cases better-preserved, vein of Civil Warera history—the bedrock beneath the rock.
From Atlanta, U.S. 23 winds toward Macon through lush, rolling countryside punctuated by boiled-peanut stands, past peach orchards, barbecue joints, and Baptist churches announcing revivals. Occasional markers chart the course of Sherman's devastating 1864 march to the sea, from Atlanta to Savannah.
After an hour's drive, I arrived in Juliette for lunch at the Whistle Stop Café;. This tiny former mill town landed on the map in 1991 when the film Fried Green Tomatoes transformed it into a camera-ready emblem of the rural South. After a meal of fried chicken, shoe-peg corn, and, inevitably, fried green tomatoes, I drove another half-hour into Macon and checked into the stunning 1842 Inn. Gazing around my bedroom, with its four-poster bed, fireplace, and exquisite period furnishings, I got my first inkling of the utter despair Scarlett O'Hara must have felt watching Atlanta burn. At the Welcome Center downtown, communications director Ruth Sykes proudly outlined Macon's highlights, which include magnificent antebellum residences like the 1859 Hay House, as well as some 224,000 Yoshino cherry trees. (Washington, D.C., has a mere 5,000.) "We even have our own hockey team," Sykes exclaimed. "The Macon Whoopee!"
Though a few of Macon's musical landmarks, such as the boyhood home of Little Richard and the legendary Tick Tock Club, now exist only in history books, the city has made strides to save what's left. The most important step in that effort was last year's opening of the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, which houses a large collection of not always memorable memorabilia, including photos, gold albums, and some gleefully tacky outfits worn by Little Richard. Where simple mementos behind glass may lack a certain immediacy, the hall wisely lets the music speak for itself through 20 listening stations, many offering rare and obscure recordings. Across the street is the newly restored Douglass Theatre, a former blacks-only vaudeville hall where Otis Redding and James Brown honed their acts. Today it mostly screens IMAX movies and laser shows.
After peeking in the window at Karla's Shoe Boutique, a women's shoe store on Cherry Street run by Redding's widow, I headed to H&H, a lively soul-food institution, for a cup of coffee. The owner, Mama Louise Hudson, fed the Allman Brothers when they were broke in the early sixties and went on to become their official tour cook. She was behind the counter in her apron, serving up boiled okra and smothered chicken and greeting customers with a cheerful "darlin' " or "sweetie love."
Following a dinner of pork tenderloin at the Downtown Grill, a cozy red-brick back-alley restaurant with the best wine list and pecan pie around, I had hoped to take in some live music. But, as I soon realized, Macon's musical heyday is long past; the evening streets are now so hushed you can hear the traffic lights change. It's difficult to imagine how such a prim, respectable city unleashed rock's original cross-dressing wild man, Little Richard. Instead I strolled along College and Bond Streets, where the grand 19th-century houses are illuminated at night like monuments.
The next morning I set off for Rose Hill Cemetery to pay my respects to Allman Brothers guitarist Duane Allman and bassist Berry Oakley, who both died in motorcycle accidents in Macon, in 1971 and 1972, respectively. The cemetery was once the band's preferred haunt, and it was here they found inspiration for their classic instrumental "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed." Now Allman and Oakley are buried side by side, overlooking a field of Confederate graves, their headstones bearing the mantra: the road goes on forever.
Heading north from Macon on Route 129, I rubbernecked through historic towns like Clinton and Eatonton, and arrived an hour later in Madison. When Sherman reached here on his march to Savannah, he was persuaded to spare the town. To this day, Madison exists as a kind of living museum, with some of the South's most impressive old planters' houses. After a lunch of barbecued beef and turnip greens at the landmark Ye Olde Colonial Restaurant, I walked along oak-lined South Main Street, daydreaming about porch swings and pitchers of iced tea, lamenting that in my New York apartment I'm forced to settle for a futon and a Snapple.
On Route 441, roadside produce stands attest to the fertility of Georgia's most scenic farmland. Kudzu engulfs everything in its path here, reshaping trees and power lines into GaudÌ-esque topiary. Turning onto Milledge Avenue in Athens, home of the University of Georgia, I quickly spotted the first sign of town-gown symbiosis: a battered pickup with a dog in the back yielding to a ponytailed student on a mountain bike. But once I arrived at the Nicholson House, a quaint inn on six wooded acres where deer roam, I felt as if I'd been catapulted back to a time when the main drag was Andrew Jackson's Federal Highway.
Though Athens is justifiably proud of R.E.M.'s mammoth success, some residents of this once-sleepy town seem weary of the attention its most famous export has brought. Still, an enduring indie-rock é;lan reverberates through the many record stores, guitar shops, and coffee bars. As the sun sets in Athens, the goatee quotient rises, old-timers in baseball hats advertising feed stores giving way to teens in baseball hats advertising skateboard shops. After a dinner of pecan-crusted trout and grilled vegetables at the Last Resort Grill, where the city's bohemian spirit is reflected in the eclectic clientele and the nouvelle Southern cuisine, I headed for the 40-Watt Club, the city's most venerable rock joint. Taking a seat next to a bored-looking 13-year-old reading Rolling Stone next to his mom, I watched as a crush of kids moshed tirelessly to a scruffy power-pop band. Two hours later I drifted over to the more intimate High Hat Music Club, where a middle-aged blues band that would have incurred dismissive eye-rolling from the 40-Watt crowd was bringing the house down.
The next morning I took in two of Athens's most noteworthy non-musical sights: the white-columned Taylor-Grady House, on Prince Avenue, and Founders Memorial Garden, maintained by the nation's oldest garden club, on the stately University of Georgia campus. For lunch, I stopped at the Grit, a vegetarian eatery whose landlord is R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe. "People always ask, 'Does Michael work here?' " said my waiter, with a sarcastic laugh. "I say, 'Yeah, but he's fixing the toilet now.'"
Getting on U.S. 78 toward Atlanta, I popped a tape of R.E.M.'s breakthrough 1983 album, Murmur, into the stereo. Even after years of heavy listening, I still can't decipher most of the band's lyrics. For that matter, I can't do the mashed potato like James Brown, either, nor do I know for sure what Little Richard means by "Tutti Frutti, aw rooty." But at least now I can say I know where they're coming from.
Josh Rottenberg is a contributing editor to Us magazine.