"Just when you think it's over around here, there's a new crop of bands that come up, seemingly from nowhere," says Patterson Hood of the evergreen Athens music scene. "I still get amazed when I stumble on things that just blow me away, right here in my back yard. That's why I love this town and that's why I stay here."
Since AthFest is on the way, and his band, the internationally known Drive-By Truckers, closes out the event Sunday night, CL asked Hood to be an informal tour guide for the horde of hungry (and thirsty) Atlantans planning to drive over to the annual music-and-arts festival.
He certainly knows the road between the two cities. The Alabama native almost made Atlanta his home back in '94. "I was driving back and forth from Alabama, hunting for a job in Atlanta," he recalls. "But a job came open in Athens. I thought, 'Well that's close enough.' And here I am, still."
"Athens is only 50 miles away, but the 'getting here' from Atlanta can be such a pain in the ass," he says. "[Ga.] 316 is a nightmare. Some times of the day, you're almost better off just coming up [Ga.] 78 and goin' through Stone Mountain. But don't speed, because it's all speed traps."
To fully enjoy the fest, Hood recommends fans buy a $15 wristband. The outdoor stage entertainment is free, but more than 75 percent of the scheduled music happens in the clubs after the main stage shuts down. "You can park your car and just wander around from place to place, and that's the beauty of Athens. If you don't like what's playing one place, you might like the next place."
Visitors can walk the same streets the fledgling Hood once trod, as he looked for gigs. "When I got here, my first gigs were the bottom of the bottom" he says. "I even played this big, cavernous pizza place where I think the Winery is now (429 E. Broad St.). And I'd be doing, like, 'Nine Bullets' and you'd hear 'No. 43, pepperoni and extra cheese.'"
"When I moved here, Jack Logan (Flicker, Friday, 10:30 p.m.) had just put out Bulk, and it just blew my mind. [Producer, musician] David Barbe (Flicker, Friday, 11:30 p.m.) was in Sugar then, and I started realizing that his name was on half the local records I'd get." Barbe and Hood recently collaborated on the upcoming album for soul legend Bettye LaVette.
Hood also recently worked in the studio with Don Chambers and GOAT (Flicker, Friday, 12:30 a.m.), co-producing their new record. "Don's got some really good new songs and a kick-ass band. Bo Bedingfield came from nowhere. I just flipped over his record."
He adds that the Truckers are playing the main stage, which is located just outside the front door of the 40 Watt (285 W. Washington St.). Hood used to be in charge of monitors there, and his band shot a live concert DVD there. For clubs, Hood recommends staying on the hip Washington Street side of town including the Georgia Theatre (215 N. Lumpkin St.). "And just out the street from the Theatre," he smiles, "are record stores."
For record geeks visiting Athens, Hood suggests the selection at Wuxtry (197 E. Clayton St.), a cramped-but-bustling mecca for music collectors. "Upstairs there's a lot of cool old vinyl, and you can find stuff really cheap." Even farther down Clayton Street, just a block past the former location of the High Hat where Hood once worked as a soundman, stands Schoolkids Records (264 E. Clayton St.). "I have to go in there and force myself not to gawk at Ross Shapiro," he says, referring to the frontman of much-lauded Athens band the Glands. "Their second record is one of my all-time favorites – definitely desert-island stuff."
Record hunting can make a man hungry, so where to? "The Grit (199 Prince Ave.) is the definitive Athens restaurant," Hood says without hesitation. "Three-fourths or more of the people who work there are in a band or the art scene, and it's within walking distance of the main stage so you can keep the same parking place. It's vegetarian, but even carnivores like me love it."
And don't forget the drinks. "The Manhattan (337 N. Hull St.) and Flicker (263 W. Washington St.) are good drinkin' holes," he says from experience. "And Flicker has music going for AthFest, too. Really, there's a band in about every corner of every place during AthFest and that's part of the charm."
The Drive-By Truckers will have a bunch of new songs ready when they hit the main stage 7 p.m. Sunday. "We'll be going into the studio the next day to work on our new record, so we're gonna be ready to rock," he promises, adding that legendary Southern soul songwriter Spooner Oldham may be sitting in with the band on keyboards.
Be careful heading back to Atlanta after the Truckers close AthFest, Hood warns. "Get a cheap motel so you don't have to drive back to Atlanta drunk on 316. Someday, hopefully we'll have a rail system to connect the two towns. Man, that'd be great. Get on the train, get off in downtown Athens, hang out for a weekend, then get home in time to go back to work."