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Losing my religion: Country music in Atlanta

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If there's one constant in the live-music business, it's that change is inevitable. In the mid-'90s, alt-country, Americana or insurgent country (whatever you call it) was the rage in Atlanta. The Star Bar's Bubbapalooza festivals packed every Memorial Day weekend, and acts like Dale Watson, the Derailers and Jim Lauderdale made regular stops in town. These days, many of these acts won't play Atlanta because club owners can't promise their guarantee.

Why not? Well, things have changed since the glory days. For one, the median age of Americana enthusiasts is a little older than the average night clubber, and with age comes the inevitable consequences of adulthood -- real jobs, families and a loss of stamina. People who would otherwise support acts such as Dallas Wayne and Rex Hobart don't because the usual midnight start-time on a weeknight is absurd if you have obligations the next day. It's a Catch-22: bookers don't schedule early shows because "nobody will show up," and country music fans don't go because "it starts too late."

We'd never deny folks the right to run a business as they see fit, but as we get older, Americana enthusiasts are feeling marginalized by the lack of acknowledgement of our changing needs. Besides, the loss of potential revenue to clubs is tremendous. Why not book an early show for certain acts, and then a later show for a different crowd? That way old timers like me can pay to see a decent band at a decent hour and be home in time to take our Geritol nightcap. Heck, America as a whole is aging, and there's a growing market out there wanting to spend a few bucks on live entertainment, but unwilling to pay the physical price of hanging out in a smoky bar until 2 a.m. on a work night.

Fortunately, several venues are already addressing the issue by booking certain acts with earlier start times. And theaters such as the Variety Playhouse, which starts shows around 8 p.m., consistently score great Americana acts (in fact, during one three-day stretch last summer the venue presented well-attended concerts by Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Shelby Lynne and Steve Earle). The Red Light Café features a variety of folk and bluegrass artists, including John Hartford and Tim O'Brien, who usually hit the stage before 9 p.m. Smith's Old Bar seems to have a line on Texas music, with acts like Shaver, Jack Ingram and Wayne Hancock all starting at a decent hour. And Eddie's Attic schedules an early and late show for many of its acts, with enough success to keep it going.

It's the fans' responsibility to make their wishes known to club owners. But it's also the fans' responsibility to support clubs that book shows of interest to them. Let's hope 2001 will mark a comeback for Americana in Atlanta, thanks to all the venue employees, patrons and musicians who work hard to promote what we love. But first, have a safe and happy holiday season.

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