Touring Athens, Ga., with the B-52s

Southern college city is alternative rock’s hometown

By Steve Hendrix


July 2 — It all began with a cocktail. Just one cocktail. One really enormous punch bowl of a cocktail. And five straws. “I think of it as the Night of the Flaming Volcano,” says Cindy Wilson of the B-52’s. She’s the blond one, with the yearling eyes.

‘There were always eccentrics in Athens, but we took it out onto the streets.’


B-52s drummer “We all pitched in for this giant rum drink at a Chinese restaurant,” says Keith Strickland, the band’s pretty-boy drummer and guitarist. “It had a Sterno can burning under it.”

“It was all very ceremonial,” says Wilson. “Then we went and played.”

And played. And played. And played.

And they’re playing still. Wilson, Strickland and three other young arty-party hangabouts — Fred Schneider, Kate Pierson and the late Ricky Wilson, Cindy’s brother — left that restaurant for a rum-buzzed jam session at a friend’s house.

Sometime in the wee hours, a lean surf-guitar vibe began to coalesce around an irresistible dance groove and an outrageous lava-lamp sense of fun. By morning, a band had formed that would lay down the funk-pop dance beat of an era. The B-52’s were born, and a small Southern college town — Athens, Ga. — soon emerged as the center of the expanding underground universe of alternative rock.

That was 1976. More than 25 years later, Athens has only grown as a place that celebrates and creates music of every kind, especially live music. On any given night, touring and local bands may be playing at an astonishing 40 clubs, theaters, bars, cafes and other venues in this town of more than 100,000 (including 30,000-plus University of Georgia students). From the capacious Georgia Theatre to broom-closet-size coffee houses, Athens is the Branson, Mo., of indie rock.

And it shows no sign of slowing. Decades after the debut of local-bands-made-good like the B-52’s, R.E.M. and Widespread Panic, this year Rolling Stone magazine anointed Athens the “best college music town in the country.” (Take that, Austin.)


“An incredible array of bands play here,” says Pete McCommons, publisher of the Flagpole, the weekly chronicle of Athens’s arts and music scene. “It’s not just alternative music either. There’s a pretty active jazz scene, there’s country rock, bluegrass. It has given
downtown Athens just an incredible liveliness.”

But it’s not just music and nightlife that make Athens such a beguiling little burg. America’s hippest music scene happens to thrive in a town that also boasts a generous stock of Old South architecture, beautiful and walk-able campus quads, and all the art and cultural goodies spawned by a major university. You can find an excellent used-book store, first-rate fried chicken (and fancier food, too) and a vast selection of Birkenstocks. It’s a town of old trees, long views and verbena airs.

“I just love the feel of it here,” says Wilson. “It’s built on hills and it gets the best light, the most beautiful sunsets.”

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