No Genre: Atlanta’s Music History & Best Live Venues
This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of Where Atlanta magazine.
When you think country music, you think Nashville. Blues? Chicago. Jazz? New Orleans. Most would argue Atlanta is the home of hip-hop, but Brooklyn and Los Angeles have longer and deeper hip-hop histories than their Southern counterpart. Somehow, Atlanta became a music-industry powerhouse without a signature sound.
Atlanta made itself a safe place for artists to experiment with and fine-tune their craft. What resulted was a breeding ground of musicians whose innovative sounds earned them enduring legacies in American popular culture. It’s no wonder Atlanta refuses to fit into a musical silo—the city values the artistry of making music, not the label it’s given.
Today, the list of mainstream artists who got their start in Atlanta is as tremendous as it is diverse. Folk-rock duo Indigo Girls started performing at their Emory University campus. The Black Crowes formed their legendary blues-rock band in Marietta in 1989. Atlanta-born Outkast brought the world a new form of hip-hop, blending with it jazz, soul and funk.
To honor the city’s love for music, we bring you the bars, venues and clubs that add to Atlanta’s sweet symphony—no genre needed.
Alt-Rock & Indie
This tiny bar has made a big name for itself among live music fiends. A steady schedule of alternative and indie rock bands three nights a week helps to give this small space its big reputation.
The go-big-or-go-home type, aspiring country star Bill Gentry opened this sprawling country-music club in 2003 as his personal performance space. Over 10 years later, Gentry’s stage has earned its keep as Atlanta’s go-to country bar thanks to a strong lineup of chart-topping names and up-and-comers alike, and weekly events, like line-dancing lessons on Wednesdays.
You won’t find a massive stage at this small, centrally located spot. Churchill Grounds keeps things simple in its intimate, gold-and-mahogany space—but that’s about the only unassuming thing about this jazz-focused treasure, which is located next to The Fox Theatre and features local musicians five or more nights a week.
This hidden treasure embodies the soul’s urge for artistic expression with its variety of events, including everything from spoken word to acoustic sets to rap battles. It’s all too easy to label Apache a hip-hop or “urban” music venue, but that would be selling short the innumerable soul, R&B, reggae and jazz musicians that refine their craft at this local gem—just ask multiplatinum neo-soul artist India.Arie, who was discovered here.
Smith’s Olde Bar
There aren’t many genres you won’t find at this gritty, two-story bar that knows how to gather a crowd. In the heart of Midtown, Smith’s is a local favorite and features an impressively diverse performance schedule. Here, you’ll catch big names, up-and-comers and everything in between in three rooms—the general-purpose Bar Room, large and lively Music Room and intimate Atlanta Room.
Metal & Punk Rock
If you’re looking for a head-banging, mosh-pit smashing, teeth-grinding kind of night, then head to The Masquerade. A former mill, the building’s three levels each have a dedicated stage—named Hell, Purgatory and Heaven—that host a seemingly endless lineup of talented, ear drum-shattering heavy metal and punk bands.
What sounds like a creepy neighbor’s lair is actually one of the best-known venues for singer-songwriters in the nation. This second-level hideaway is where artists like Justin Bieber, John Mayer and The Civil Wars gained their first tastes of stardom. It continues to be the club for serious audiophiles to discover new talent on Monday open mic nights or catch their favorite touring musicians.
This former World War II cinema is one of the city’s most popular stops for touring artists. Thanks to the venue’s superior acoustics and sound system, many artists record live albums from their stops here (like Sara Bareilles’ “Brave Enough: Live at the Variety Playhouse”). Best yet, the venue’s size allows for major acts to perform intimate shows.