Celebrating Georgia’s legends, landmarks and unsung heroes

What It Was, Was Country: A Memoir of the Atlanta Redneck Underground

By James Kelly aka Slim Chance

Spring 2006

 

June 4, 1986

The Birth of the Redneck Underground

It was a dark and stormy night… No, wait; it was a beautiful late spring evening when Slim Chance & the Convicts played in front of people for the first time.

Howdy. I’m Slim Chance, and some folks have called me the “Godfather of the Atlanta Redneck Underground.” I take that as a compliment, and reckon it is pretty accurate since I have been part of this scene from the very beginning. The “Redneck Underground” is a consortium of bands and musical acts that played music influenced in some way by Southern culture, or more specifically, country music. Back in 1986, we had no idea that what we were doing would grow into such a phenomenon. So, as you read this tale, please keep in mind that it wasn’t all my fault! I will probably fumble a few facts and memories; after all it has been 20 years since it started, and a lot of Pabst Blue Ribbon has flowed through these veins.

I became a hardcore country music fan during the era of Punk and New Wave, and one particular record released in 1981 brought me to it. Elvis Costello’s Almost Blue not only validated country music, but it reintroduced me to Gram Parsons, whom I had heard of briefly during my early ‘70s “country rock” phase. Parsons, a Georgia boy who is often credited with creating what evolved into “alt.country” (which is basically a form of music based on traditional country style, but influenced by rock and other genres), played a big role in the Redneck Underground as both a musical influence and a cultural icon.

In 1983 I moved to Atlanta to attend graduate school, and I worked as a Behavior Specialist at the Georgia Retardation Center (GRC), an institution for individuals with developmental disabilities. At night and on weekends, Dan Jolivet, my childhood friend, Mike Gagel and I started jamming on our yard sale instruments in the living room. After a few months of liquor-fueled practices, we were delusional to the point of thinking we were good enough to take our show on the road. Well, we didn’t have to go too far. We were asked to play a show for the residents at GRC. We knew about 12 songs, and we were scared to death. The performance was incredibly sloppy, but the audience loved it, especially the five Elvis Presley tunes. So, for the sake of argument, I officially declare June 4, 1986, as the birthdate of Atlanta’s Redneck Underground. Anybody have a problem with that? I didn’t think so.

Four days later we made our first “public” appearance at a music festival in the parking lot of Atlanta’s Plaza Shopping Center. Sharing the bill with such local notables as the Now Explosion, the >> Nightporters, and bound-for-fame drag performer RuPaul, the Convicts played under the theater marquee through a raging thunderstorm, too scared to stop even as lightning was striking across the street. We gained a lot of respect from the crowd that day, and officially started the publicity machine rolling by portraying ourselves as Atlanta’s first “hip” country band, so cool that even lightning couldn’t stop us. Great things lay ahead, or so we thought.

 

1980-1986

The Early Years

 

Generally, country music was not found in downtown Atlanta, but rather out in the suburban bars of Smyrna, Marietta and Decatur. The house bands usually did mostly cover material, lots of redneck country like Hank Williams, Jr. and Willie Nelson, and Southern Rock. They also did the current radio Top 20, so that the crowd would have something familiar to dance to. Places like the Buckboard, Miss Kitty’s, Mama’s Country Showcase and Hemingway’s were training grounds for several singers who eventually went on to Nashville and big time record deals, including Travis Tritt and Mark Wills. Most of those bars are gone now, replaced by 5000+ capacity megahalls such as Cowboy’s in Kennesaw and Wild Bill’s in Duluth.

In the early 1980s there were people in Atlanta that performed country music on occasions, but for the most part it was campy performance art. The Now Explosion was one of the more unique and popular bands on the Atlanta “New Wave/Alternative” scene. Several of the members were serious country music fans, and they would often include tongue-in-cheek versions of songs like “Stand By Your Man” and Kitty Wells’ “Dust on the Bible” in their repetoire. Their affinity for Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette appeared to be a function of the Southern gothic nature of their lyrics…plus, the songs were fun to do in drag.

 

1986-1990:

The Austin Avenue Buffet and the Emergence of the Redneck Underground

 

In 1986 we discovered the Austin Avenue Buffet in Inman Park. It was the archetypal “redneck dive bar,” with a bunch of old-timers, blue collar workers and faded beauty queens sitting in plywood booths, drinking cheap draft beer, and feeding quarters into an old jukebox loaded with classic country records. Run by Jesse Bearden, the bar was one of Atlanta’s best-kept secrets for many years, and in October of 1986, we played the first “live music” show at the Buffet.  It eventually became the Convicts’ musical home and the womb of the “Redneck Underground.” The crowds loved it, and often the place was so packed you could not get in the door. The Buffet’s rules were clear – no cover charge, shows started at 8PM, ended at 10ish and you were expected to behave yourself. Yeah, right.

From various Convict shows, guest performers often took the initiative to start up their own bands. Jennifer Bentley was a Knoxville girl with a big voice, and she put together Jenny B. & the Cocktail Cowboys. Caroline Hull had a knack for picking the best material to showcase her vocal ability, and formed Trail Of Tears. The group later became Caroline & the Ramblers, one of the few bands that continues to play today. Former Cabbagetown resident Kelly Hogan had a voice that could melt a heart of stone. Her tenure with the Jody Grind is considered one of Atlanta’s best musical runs, and she has never ventured away completely from her country roots. The Tombstones, featuring Stevie T., was a hard rocking band with a lot of twang. They were pretty popular with the Atlanta punk rockers, and brought a whole new crowd into the Buffet. The Vidalias, fronted by local journalist Charles Walston, actually signed with Upstart Records and released a couple of critically well-received albums.

Eventually, other Atlanta bars started booking the growing number of country/rockabilly bands, including the White Dot on Ponce de Leon Avenue and Dottie’s on Memorial Drive. Even the notorious Clermont Lounge, Atlanta’s most unusual strip club, began featuring bands and with its sleazy reputation, playing there was a true badge of honor,

In 1989, guitarist Jon Byrd joined the Convicts, the same year that a wiry little fellow named Gregory Dean Smalley started showing up at our shows and asking if he could sit in with us. One Tuesday at Dottie’s we were doing a free show themed “Cosmic Americana Night” (named because Parsons often referred to his musical style as “Cosmic American”), and we let Smalley play on a few songs. He was a smokin’ good guitarist, and ripped a lead on “Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down” that had the whole place jumping. Well, next day I get a phone call from the Cobb County Jail, as Smalley had gotten a DUI on the way home. He hollered “I guess I’m an official Convict now, since ‘the bottle let me down!’” In spite of this auspicious introduction, Smalley became one of my closest friends, and probably the most significant individual in the scene over the next six years. Smalley and another fellow known as Deacon Lunchbox came around at the same time, and took things in a whole new direction. At this point I was pretty much just along for the ride, but what a ride it was…

1990-1992:

Deacon Lunchbox, Gregory Dean Smalley & the Star Bar

 

Deacon Lunchbox, a/k/a Tim Ruttenber, was a mountain of a man, a carpenter by day, and an amazing performance artist by night. His outrageous and bombastic spoken word shows were alternately hilarious and thought-provoking, skewering and honoring Southern icons such as Lewis Grizzard, stock car racing and good ol’ boy politics. His groundbreaking performances exposed people to a very different perspective on Southern identity. In one of music critic Doug Deloach’s Creative Loafing articles, Deacon referred to what was going on as the “Redneck Underground.” The label stuck, and it clearly identified the scene as functioning on two levels. First, it was based on what is commonly referred to as “redneck culture” – classic country music, NASCAR, family, an affinity for Southern iconography and a strong regional pride in being Southern. Second, it was “underground” in the sense that it was clearly a counterculture, a reactive response to both the trendy hipster scene that was also thriving in Atlanta at the time, and the mainstream country music coming out of Nashville. But most importantly, there was a love of Southern culture without the historic racism, ignorance and prejudices that stigmatized the South for so many years. The Redneck Underground became one of the most popular scenes in Atlanta, and country music fans were finally coming out of the closet. Suddenly, it was cool to have some pride in one’s Southern heritage, to like country music and to drink Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.

Eventually Deacon hooked up with our gang through Deloach, and began performing at the Buffet with the Convicts. Not only did Deacon give the RU its name, but he brought a whole new sensibility to the scene. He was one of the first people to bravely book shows featuring performance artists, quirky bands and hard-core country singers – all on the same bill. And it worked.

 

The artistic growth of the Redneck Underground was fueled by Smalley, who had a unique musical vision spawned by playing in a myriad of different bands like the power-pop band the Chant and the hilariously obnoxious Diggers, and sitting in with others on lead guitar. Smalley began booking gigs, planning events and pulling people together in various ways. A colorful spokesman with a penchant for tall tales and controversial viewpoints on a variety of subjects, Smalley would often step on toes in his quests, but it was hard to stay mad at him with his wicked sense of humor and enthusiasm. His taste for the more bizarre and uncouth aspects of Southern culture reflected the off-color and shocking side of life, and some of his original songs were known to produce pretty negative reactions from the uninitiated. His signature song was “She’s Breaking My Heart (While I’m Drinking Her Beer),” but some of the other titles are simply not appropriate for publication.

On Oct. 31, 1991, Marty Nolan and David Heany (a/k/a the Fabulous Keeper Brothers) opened a club in  Atlanta’s Little Five Points. The Star Community Bar (get it, five points?) became the epicenter of the Redneck Underground. Initially, the Star Bar was booked by Faylynn Owen, who knew what was happening in the budding Americana/alt.country music scenes across the United States. Owen was quick to make connections in Nashville, Los Angeles and Austin, and she scheduled great acts like Athens’ Redneck GReece Deluxe, Knoxville’s Scott Miller and the Steam Donkeys from Buffalo, N.Y. She usually paired up a local RU band with a touring headliner, and her intuition was almost always successful. In terms of promoting the Redneck Underground, Owen is probably the single most important non-musician in the scene. Smalley eventually weaseled his way into co-booking the Star

 

Bar with Owen, and it wasn’t long before he was planning a festival. In March of 1992, the Star Bar hosted “Trailer Trash Night,” which celebrated the seedier side of Southern culture, and featured a mix of country, rockabilly and well, trailer trash bands. It laid the groundwork for what was to become Smalley’s true legacy, Bubbapalooza. But darkness always seems to precede the brightest light.

On Easter Sunday in April 1992, Deacon Lunchbox and two members of the Jody Grind, Rob Clayton and Robert Hayes,  were returning from a gig in Florida when another motorist crossed over the divider on the highway and hit them head-on. All three were killed instantly. If anything good could be said about the tragedy, it galvanized the various music scenes, as it became obvious during the weeks of grieving and tributes to the dead musicians that we all had a lot more in common than differences. Deacon’s passing was honored with a parade, and an evening of music at the Austin Avenue Buffet that stands today as one of the biggest events in the Atlanta music community.

 

Bubbapalooza1992-1996 Bubbapalooza, Glory Years

and More Tragedy

 

It took a while to stop standing around the gaping hole left by the death of Deacon Lunchbox. The prospect of a large scale

festival celebrating the RU gave us something to focus on. Bubbapalooza, a play on Perry Farrell’s trendy “Lollapalooza” tour, was the brainchild of Greg Smalley, and consisted of a variety of bands that he felt fit in with his broad definition of the RU. In March 1993, the first Bubbapalooza festival was held at the Star Bar, and over the next several years it became a staple of Atlanta’s Memorial Day Weekends “best bets.” Playing Bubbapalooza was a real feather in your cap. The festivals were always a blast, the performances were inspired and people showed up in droves. Some of the non-local Bubba acts that went on to wider regional/national recognition include Whiskeytown, 6 String Drag, Jack Logan, the Dashboard Saviors, the Star Room Boys, the Drive-By Truckers, Flat Duo Jets, the Ex-Husbands and Hasil Adkins. Each year Smalley would mix it up a bit, adding different bands and gradually expanding the spectrum of musical styles. Not everyone agreed with some of his choices, but it was his festival, and he was not afraid to take chances. Sometimes it didn’t work, but the variety made it interesting.

Smalley produced a compilation album of his favorite Bubbapalooza bands, and in 1995 Atlanta label Sky/Ichiban Records released Bubbapalooza Volume One: Chronicle of the Redneck Underground. Featuring 12 tracks by both local and regional bands, it successfully captured the essence of the ever-expanding Redneck Underground. Then the hand of fate slapped us once again. Greg Smalley was getting sick. A lot.

Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. How Smalley got the disease is unclear. It doesn’t really matter, as we were all quickly sobered up by the announcement. As if the music community hadn’t suffered enough with the loss of Deacon and the Jody Grind members, now we had to watch our friend wither away. Smalley didn’t let us grieve prematurely for too long, and used his sick sense of humor to help us cope. He formed Gregory Dean and the Bubbamatics, and continued gigging until early 1996. He never slowed down until he couldn’t sit on a stage or play his guitar. But he was fading fast. I remember having to lift him like a child on and off the Star Bar stage, listening to his wise cracks the entire time. He had coughing fits in the middle of a song, would pause and say, “Sorry, I forgot to wear a rubber.” His drive was an inspiration to everyone, and Drive-By Truckers’ front man Patterson Hood was so impressed with Smalley that he wrote “The Living Bubba” for him. Lines like “I can’t die now, ‘cause I got another show to do” perfectly capture Smalley’s attitude about his dilemma.

By February 1996, Smalley, too weak to travel or play any more, relocated from his Cabbagetown home to his Mama’s house in Cedartown. People came to visit regularly, playing guitars and singing for him, telling jokes, listening to his sarcastic remarks and sharing the mutual respect and love we all had for one other. On March 25, 1996, he passed away peacefully, surrounded by family and friends. The circle was broken once again. Tribute shows and memorial services were held in Atlanta, Athens and Cedartown, but we all wondered what was next. How do we honor Greg’s memory? What about Bubbapalooza? Should we do it again? Well, the answer to that last one was a big loud collective “Hell, yeah!!!”

 

1996-2001: And the bands played on,

for a while

 

In May of 1996, I stepped on to the Star Bar stage to open the 6th Bubbapalooza festival. It was one of the most emotionally difficult shows I ever played in my life. Still stinging from the loss of our friend, every musician who performed at that first Bubbapalooza without Smalley put on their most inspired show. The weekend was a success, and a new tradition was started where a portion of the door money was placed in an account for Greg’s surviving son, Raymond. Greg Reece of Redneck GReece Deluxe produced another compilation CD called Bubbapalooza Volume Two: A Tribute To Gregory Dean Smalley. Consisting of songs that were either written by Smalley and performed by RU regulars, or featuring him playing in some capacity, the CD remains a fundraiser for Raymond.

Soon after Smalley’s death, however, there was a gradual, but noticeable, shift in the scene. Nobody really stepped up to take on the role Smalley had played, but credit for keeping things going belongs to the guys in Truckadelic, an entertaining trashy country-rock band fronted by Ted Weldon and Billy Ratliff. Faylynn Owen eventually left her booking position at the Star Bar, and the responsibility went through several hands over the next few years. Also, the people who composed the bulk of the RU scene (both musicians and supporters) were “growing up,” and real life was starting to get in the way of our partying.

In August of 1998 I moved to Austin, Texas, for a clinical internship, bowing out of the RU for a while. I returned to Atlanta in September 1999, but things had changed while I was gone, including myself. Like many others, I had made some significant lifestyle modifications, and hanging out in smoky bars and drinking until 4 a.m. no longer worked for me. I finally earned my PhD in December 2001. About damn time, huh?

 

2001-present: Where is the Redneck Underground?

 

In 2001, the Austin Avenue Buffet was closed down by developers who bought the property, then stopped the bar from renewing its beer license. We had one final blowout on Jan. 1, 2001, and six months later longtime Buffet manager Jesse Bearden died, most likely from a broken heart.

In 2002 The Star Bar was sold, and the new owners’ booking practices further splintered the Redneck Underground. They were into harder rock and psychobilly sounds. While Bubbapalooza continued to be held at the Star Bar every Memorial Day weekend, every year heated debates and discussions took place about what direction the booking of the festival was going. Some (like me) felt it was moving too far away from the original country roots of the RU, while others took the stance that Smalley advocated change, and had refused to limit his own choices when he was alive. Well, anyone involved in any sort of music/bar scene knows that change is inevitable, as people either find new things to interest them or simply drift away. And in the long run, change is good. I reckon.

Jenny B. lives with her husband and two kids in South Carolina. Kelly Hogan relocated to Chicago and continues to release great albums on Bloodshot Records. Charles Walston of the Vidalias is outside Washington D.C. and still plays on occasion. Convicts’ guitarist Jon Byrd moved to Nashville, where he plays with his own band, Byrd’s Auto Parts, does pickup gigs and some studio work. Stevie Tombstone is pursuing his dreams, living in Austin and putting out great new music.

The Redneck Underground has never officially been declared dead, and it probably never will. It may not have the public attention and clout it once did, but as long as some Atlanta yokel picks up a guitar and sings a country song, the RU will survive.