Cool Town, Grace Elizabeth Hale

“Cool Town” by Grace Elizabeth Hale explains how Athens launched an entire music genre and helped shape American culture. 


When it comes to Athens, two things that commonly pop into people’s heads are the University of Georgia and college football. Usually beyond that is when many people start to think about the Athens music scene, known for bands like R.E.M. and the B-52’s.

“Cool Town: How Athens, Georgia, Launched Alternative Music and Changed American Culture,” showcases the depth of the Athens music scene by bringing forward the tales of past music scene participants, trials and errors of varying bands’ successes and anecdotes of scene artists, professors, musicians and the author herself.

Grace Elizabeth Hale, a University of Georgia alum and current history and American studies professor at the University of Virginia, wrote “Cool Town” drawing on her professional life as a historian and on her personal experience as an Athens music scene participant in the ‘80s. After coming to Athens to start her undergraduate degree, Hale later stayed in Athens for a graduate degree in history, a band she played in and a cafe/nightclub she co-owned.

Sharing memories and experiences with many of the early music scene participants, Hale provides a firsthand perspective in how transformative this time period was. .

Years before widespread LGBTQA+ awareness and prominent art appreciation hit the South, Hale describes how the Athens music scene started with art, drag and a couple of ‘townies,’ an expression Hale uses admiringly in reference to people who live in Athens not necessarily having affiliation with the university.

It started with exploratory twentysomethings who wanted to defy the conformity and social norms of the South in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. “Cool Town” walks you through the narrative of where the music started, introducing the stories of band members and what led to transformation of a small Southern town into alternative culture.

Hale explains how the early stages of the music scene all trace back to art. Members of these early Athens bands were usually either a University of Georgia art student or friends with students and professors in the art school. It becomes evident that art seems to be the foundation that alternative music was built on.

The B-52’s are credited with being the first band to come out of the Athens music scene and they did so by being the first of its kind to homogenize art and music.

Hale’s extensive background research, interview and information gathering is evident as the story of the music scene is told through the perspectives of the people who created it themselves.

Having lived through the Athens music scene herself, Hale describes how UGA professors took the minds of small-town and suburban kids and exposed them to the deeper meanings and wider perspectives of the world. Fostering a place for creation and exploration, the university provided professors and resources, such as the UGA library, that guided artists and musicians to building the music scene.

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