Ferris and Ferris Books
Grace Hale in a Cool Town
Usually when UVA historian Grace Elizabeth Hale works on a project, she starts in an archive. But the subject of her latest book Cool Town: How Athens, Georgia, Launched Alternative Music and Changed American Culture is different. Hale writes about Athens and the meaning of indie culture as a scholar—she spent years interviewing almost one hundred people and gathering a collection of sources from private collections and online from various social media and music sharing sites. But she also tells this story as a participant. In the decade she spent there after moving to Athens to attend the University of Georgia, she became a part of the scene as a fan, a member of a local band, and a venue owner.
Cool Town takes readers beyond the headlines of the place that launched famous bands like the B-52’s and R.E.M. and less well-known but critically acclaimed groups like Pylon and the singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt. Hale tells the stories of these musicians, but she also vividly recreates the texture of everyday life in a place where young people were creating their own music and art and style in a time when DIY culture was a new and transgressive act. “The history of the Athens scene,” she writes in the book’s introduction, “proves that people you would not expect in places you have not thought about can create a better world. It also reveals how cultural rebellion can transform human experience.” The New York Times has called Hale’s book “a meticulously reported microhistory” as well as “a textured portrait of a generation caught between baby and tech booms, wriggling under the thumb of the mainstream — in the pre-internet days when “mainstream” was a discernible thing — and rummaging through thrift-store bins both literal and figurative in an effort to create something new.”
“Possibility.” It’s an idea that keeps coming up on the pages of Hale’s book and in a conversation on a dreary February day in her Nau Hall office. “I wanted to write about Athens because it’s a great story and an unknown piece of American cultural history—a small southern town that develops an amazingly original and important creative community because a handful of eccentric young people connected mostly to the local gay and queer community and the art school at UGA decide they can reinvent how music is made,” Hale says. “But Athens also gave me a way to think about the history of possibility. It’s not hard to understand why people fail when they try to make a better world. I wanted to ask a different question. What makes people try?”
When Hale moved to the once sleepy southern college town, its transformation into America’s hippest small town was in its earliest days. As a student, a musician, and a venue owner, Hale observed and also increasingly participated in this history. Immersing herself as a scholar in the study of a place and time that contained so much personal history was challenging. “Because I interviewed a lot of other participants, I understood how often people get dates and exact details wrong, even as they tell you stories that capture the feel and texture and importance of what they experienced,” she says. “I knew I needed to check my own memories against other kinds of evidence just as I did the memories of others.” An unexpected pleasure was digging up incidents from her own life that she had forgotten. Watching rare video footage for the first time, a never-released documentary about four Athens bands touring Florida, Hale recalls, laughing, “I did not recognize my own voice because my accent was so southern.” “I have been a professor for a long time now, and I had repressed just how lacking in intellectual and cultural sophistication I was when I arrived in Athens to go to the University of Georgia! I ended up feeling a lot of gratitude for key people I knew in Athens who embodied alternate ways to live and inspired the rest of us to think beyond the life choices on offer in the southern suburbs and small towns where we grew up.”
Athens, Hale argues, is important because the scene there transformed the punk idea that anyone could start a band into the even more radical idea that people in unlikely places could make a new culture. Across the eighties, the Athens “cool town” model nurtured a network of local scenes across the country, what later became known as indie or alternative culture. By the end of the decade, as Athens band R.E.M. grew from a kind of underground famous into a group Rolling Stone called America’s greatest rock band, Athens acquired a national and then international reputation as a music town. In Hale’s rich telling, the local scene nurtures and shapes their most important musical export as much as R.E.M. transforms the town. “I wanted to share a history of R.E.M. that most fans don’t know,” Hale says.
None of this would have happened without the University of Georgia. “At the time, the University was relatively easy to get into and very inexpensive.” Students and locals alike took full advantage of the spaces, from dorm lounges, libraries, and the college art museum to music practice rooms and the large and open art studios. UGA’s libraries provided the kind of resources that were hard to come by in those pre-internet days, including a music library that offered access to the whole history of recorded music. Asked whether the spark that lit Athens could happen again in today’s digitally-dominated world, Hale says, “I understand why it might not be possible now, but in some ways, I think the digital world makes us need this so much more. People don’t think they need it. Why have an album collection when you have Spotify? But what Athens showed is the value of the human connections, the face-to-face interactions that are missing in our digital world. When you had to go to the film library on the 7th floor of the UGA library, you met the other geeky film nerds. There is just something about meeting all of these offbeat folks in these spaces that is really important to a story like this.”
Read more about it in Bookforum from their Summer 2020 Issue.