Artistic communities and Wal-Mart go together like peanut butter and rotten eggs, so it’s not a huge surprise that in the crunchy Georgia college town of Athens, opposition has sprung up to the development of a new store from the daddy of all big-box retailers in the heart of the city’s vibrant downtown. What is a surprise is that a bunch of all-stars from the town’s music community – led by Drive-By Truckers frontman Patterson Hood, with assists from R.E.M. alumnus Mike Mills, members of Widespread Panic, and more – took to the studio to immortalize that opposition in song. Calling themselves Patterson Hood & the Downtown 13, they recorded a sleepy, mid-tempo tune called “After It’s Gone,” that’s a direct message about the development of downtown Athens, Georgia. Hive spoke with Hood about his opposition to Wal-Mart, his love of Athens, and his new solo album that he just finished recording three days ago.
Where did the idea of doing a jam-session song about downtown Athens and Wal-Mart come from?
I wrote the song about three weeks ago yesterday. It’s brand new, hot off the presses. [Laughs.] I kinda envisioned it as a love song to Athens. That’s my town that I love so much. The art and music scene that’s based around downtown Athens is what lured me here eighteen years ago, when I moved here. It’s been a big part of our lives. And this is just a horrible, horrible idea. I’m not big on writing traditional protest songs, but I was so upset about this development that I wanted to do something useful. I decided to record a version of the song to call attention to the launching of this website called ProtectDowntownAthens.com. If people look at it and decide that this development is a great idea, that’s fine, but this is a way of getting some of the not-so-misleading information out there. And people here have really embraced the idea of the song, so before you knew it, I had some really talented – and famous! – people, and their participation.
“I didn’t want to get too far into the ’Kumbaya’ territory. I’m more into the punk rock side of protesting stuff.”
How did everybody get involved? Do you, and Mike Mills, and the Widespread Panic guys, and the other Athens musicians all just hang out?
Mike Mills lives here and loves this town. He heard about the Wal-Mart really early on, and he was already aware of the website, and agreed with their point of view. One of the people who was building the site forwarded him a rough demo of the Garageband version of the song I recorded at home, and he said he’d be happy to be involved. He flew in from Mexico that day to record his part, and ended up spending several hours there, not only recording his part, but hanging out with us, to really be a part of it. He played the piano piece and did a beautiful job. [With] Widespread — Todd Nance and J.B. [John Bell] were about to leave for tour, and they took time out of their schedule. J.B. sings the second verse on it, and Todd Nance played percussion. I also wanted to think about who I know in this town who plays that would be appropriate to the song – I wanted to open it up so it wasn’t just the more famous or well-known members of the Athens music community, because the survival of a music community is even more dependent on the new blood, and the up-and-coming people. Henry Barbe ended up playing guitar on it. He’s eighteen, a senior in high school. I’ve been watching him play since he was sixteen, excellent musician, super-cool kid. Lera Lynn, an up-and-coming singer/songwriter, came in and sang.
All of the people, especially playing in the studio in the video, lend the thing a “We Are the World” sort of vibe.
That was our joke around the studio. [Laughs.] I always hated “We Are the World.” I kinda hate that kind of shit generally, but at the same time, that song did a lot of good. It was a good thing, but I didn’t want to hear it or watch it. I was wearly of that aspect of it – I didn’t want to get too far into the “Kumbaya” territory. I’m more into the punk rock side of protesting stuff. It was kind of a line that we skated around a little bit, but hopefully with a little bit of humor. When I listen, I’m really proud of what we did. It’s been fun and exciting to direct people to the website, and it seems to have the community a little more fired up. Everybody’s been really upset about the whole thing, but not knowing what to do or how to come together. There’ve been lots of little groups fighting it separately. When you’re going up against a developer with millions of dollars and big corporations, you have to be as original and innovative as possible. Otherwise, they clobber you. They have a PR firm of their own, plus they hired one in our town to work it. It’s really crazy what’s going on in this small town over this small piece of land.
Are you opposed to Wal-Mart in principle, or just in that piece of land?
I don’t personally shop there, and I don’t particularly like that model, but I don’t think this is against Wal-Mart, just this development. And I’m not anti-development. I would like to see something good go into that spot. It’s a good spot for that development. We need a grocery store. A Whole Foods there? That’s something this community would get behind like you wouldn’t believe. We have a need for what they offer and that would be an amazing location for it. But it’s not a good location for what they’re trying to build. My personal feelings about that corporation are what they are, but that’s not what this is about.
Downtown Athens struggled for a while, and now it’s pretty vibrant. Is that vibrancy at stake here?
They built a mall back in that era when everybody was building malls — the ‘80s, I guess — that pretty much destroyed it. Downtown ended up mostly boarded up. That’s probably part of how the music scene took hold, because there was so much cheap real estate for people to put clubs in, because all the businesses left. The music moved in, the clubs moved in, the artists moved in, and what followed that was original-leaning, artistic-leaning, small, home-owned businesses. There’s a jewelry store that was here before, an eyeglass store — there’s a drugstore that isn’t CVS that’s been there a long time, but I think this development would be the end of that. Downtown is now at a really high percentage occupancy – maybe 90? It’s pretty vibrant. Athens doesn’t really remind of anywhere else, except much bigger cities. It’s like a microcosm of Austin, parts of Portland, and Brooklyn — it’s like a little bitty southern Brooklyn, but not attached to the biggest city in the country. It’s really unique for a town its size to have such a huge music and arts scene. It’s also unique because – across America, downtowns are getting boarded up left and right. I don’t want to take that for granted.
You recorded this song in the same studio you were putting together your new solo record. Can you tell us about that one?
It’s gonna come out in the fall — I think in September. I just finished it Monday, officially. It’s my favorite batch of new songs I’ve written in a long time. Most of the Truckers play on it one way or the other. My dad plays bass on it. But it’s more piano based, and Jay Gonzalez, who plays keyboards on our band, he and I worked really closely on it. It’s definitely not a big rock record. There’s not a guitar solo anywhere on it, it’s definitely more song-based. I have a cello player. It’s kind of a song cycle about my family. I’m really looking forward to it.