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The triumph and tragedy of the Cabbagetown sound

Part 1 of 2: Have you heard death singing? An oral history

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Additional reporting by Chad Radford

During the '90s, Atlanta's underground music scene revolved around a group of musicians who lived in down-and-out Cabbagetown.

The village and its row houses, in the shadow of historic Oakland Cemetery, were built in the 1880s to accommodate workers from the Appalachian mountains who came to Atlanta to work at the adjacent Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill. By the late 1980s, the mill was shuttered and Cabbagetown had devolved into a rough-and-tumble pocket of poverty full of eccentrics and junkies who lived on the fringe.

It's impossible to know whether the musicians who moved there for the cheap housing simply endured Cabbagetown's sketchiness, or were so estranged from the mainstream that it helped attract them.

Whatever drew them there, they were like characters who'd stepped straight out of a Flannery O'Connor story. The Cabbagetown music scene's guiding voices were a gay drag queen and a straight redneck poet who wore dresses and large plastic breasts on his bare chest. The music they made certainly reflected that quirkiness; it was often slightly out of tune and relied on such unconventional rock instruments as a cello, cornet or beer bottle.

Yet, it worked. Cabbagetown was home to many of the most significant Atlanta artists and bands of the '90s: Deacon Lunchbox, Kelly Hogan, the Opal Foxx Quartet, the Jody Grind, Smoke and Chan Marshall (Cat Power). They collectively created a sound that was diverse but instantly recognizable.

The story of the Cabbagetown sound is also a Southern Gothic tale that ends with death and tragedy, almost before it had a chance to begin. The Jody Grind was decimated by a car accident that killed two band members just as the group was about to gain a national audience. Deacon Lunchbox, the redneck poet, also died in that 1992 accident. And just when Smoke appeared poised to break out, lead singer Benjamin Smoke died in 1999 from liver failure after fighting Hepatitis C and HIV. His death marked the end of that era.

For this oral history, CL conducted interviews with more than a dozen people involved in the scene. The first musician to move to Cabbagetown was John "J.T." Thomas, who was an editor for CL at the time. Thomas formed the first Cabbagetown band, the Chowder Shouters, with guitarist Bill Taft and Eric Kaiser in 1986.

CHAPTER ONE

Bill Taft: Musicians tend to move ahead of the gentrification. It's sort of a horrible endless cycle of poverty attracting musicians attracting gentrification. Each new wave kicks the old one out. Everyone's always hurt in the end.

The whole Cabbagetown thing was a result of J.T.'s vision. He said, "This is where our band needs to be." A few years later, everyone else seemed to move there.

J.T. Thomas: "Me and Eric Kaiser rented a one-bedroom place on Carroll Street right across from the mill. It was super cheap. I didn't make enough money at the time to even have a phone. That area is still kind of raw now, but back then there were lots of guns and drugs and crazy people. And we were there way, way ahead of everyone else. I think Eric and I were the first people to move there. Then Bill Taft moved into a house."

Another early Cabbagetown arrival was Brian Halloran, who played the cello and was friends with Thomas.

Brian Halloran: Here's what I remember about the first time I went to Cabbagetown: J.T. and Eric Kaiser drove me through it from the Boulevard side. Once I went down that ramp -- I was a Southern boy from Albany, Ga., and it just blew my mind. I said to myself, "Shit, where are these guys taking me?"

The Chowder Shouters -- Taft on guitar and vocals, Thomas on a single drum and Kaiser on percussion (often beating on beer bottles until they broke) -- are credited as the first Cabbagetown band. There were two main venues in the beginning, both hosting open mic nights.

One was a honky tonk called the White Dot, next door to the Krispy Kreme on Ponce de Leon Avenue. The second was a performance art event called the Mudd Shack, held at Tortilla's on Ponce once a month from midnight until 4 a.m. Among those in the audience was budding musician James Kelly, who would soon move to Cabbagetown and help launch the Redneck Underground music scene with his band Slim Chance & the Convicts.

James Kelly: You can't really talk about the Chowder Shouters with any technical language. It was an onslaught of noise. They were just beating shit and hollering. It was almost like: We dare you to sit here and listen.

J.T. Thomas: Our sound wasn't what we wanted it to be. Our sound was what it could be. That's all we could do.

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