The Macon music scene is known for legends like The Allman Brothers Band and Otis Redding, but there’s more to this town than just history. Local studios and artists have been producing music consistently over the past few decades. While some cities are defined by certain genres like jazz or hip hop, Macon features every style out there– and some that haven’t even been defined yet. With Bragg Jam approaching, the spotlight will be cast on an array of local talent and visiting bands, many that have never performed here before.
But when an artist chooses to record here, they become a part of Macon’s legacy– and Macon theirs. How they record their music varies based on the artist and the studio they choose. Some artists look for a more organic approach with live sessions. Other times, they might use scratch tracks where the lead artist records their general idea for the song and a band works around that until they have a finished, secure product. Johnny Davis of Symmetry Studios said he doesn’t mind how the band wants to record. He’s all about just getting the music out there.
Starting out with a little set up in his parent’s guest bedroom and at one point renting a place on Cotton Ave, Davis has recorded and played all over Central Georgia since 2006. He’s recorded music for Travis Denning, Taped Fist, Sugar Virus, and so many more that he couldn’t remember. “I like recording anything and everything if I get along with the people,” he said. “Any type of music that friends and families are involved in, anything I believe in.” His latest project was with Magnolia Moon who released their self-titled album back in May. Davis has been friends with Zack of Magnolia Moon for a long time, and they’ve recorded all of his past projects together since he moved from Mississippi twelve years ago.
I started to see Davis as a sort of recording crusader of Macon. The hundreds of bands in the southeast that he’s recorded were found through friends and word of mouth. He recently recorded with a local band, African Americana, after meeting them randomly and hearing they had something to record. It isn’t about the money, he said. “The music that’s out there needs to be made. Money standing in the way of that is just awful– that’s why I don’t have set rates or advertise. I’m just here.”
Since he finds his purpose primarily in recording, his own projects have taken the back burner. However, he does have two projects, Madre Padre and Choir of Babble, and he’s looking forward to releasing new music with both bands in the near future. As both a sound engineer and artist, he records and mixes all of his own work. “I do everything– I’m probably doing it on my own at the expense of stress. I would like someone to help me out, but I prefer to maintain control. I’m not necessarily a man of numbers and calculation. It’s more of a vision of the composition, and in production, I can use all the engineering knowledge and education I already have.” Any other producer you ask would argue against recording your own music, but with Davis’ experience and familiarity with his studio techniques, it’s worked out very well for him so far. You can check out Davis and Choir of Babble during Bragg Jam at Bearfoot Tavern.
Recording engineers all seem to have a bit of a gospel that they share: Music is the reason they’re in the business, first and foremost. Shawn Williamson of Star Static Studio is also a local musician and long-time recording engineer who believes in focusing on the band’s goals over anything else. He did mention that he prefers live sessions over individual tracking because he believes it’s a more honest rendition of the band. But if the vision of the artist is to record individually, then that’s what he’ll do to produce their desired sound. Williamson said of engineering, “If the band wants a fat kick drum, that’s what I should be trying to give them.”
Lately, Williamson has worked with local artists like Walk Through Walls, Holy Land USA, and his good friend, Justin Cutway, who released his latest EP, Been Too Long, in March of this year. That project was one of Williamson’s all-time favorite moments at the studio, just coming up with noises on the synthesizer with Justin before a note had even been made. When Cutway approached Williamson about doing the record, Williamson said the timing was right for both of them, and after two weeks of recording just Cutway and his guitar, then a little bit of experimental mixing on top of that, they had a record. The process was smooth and enjoyable for both of the guys, and the album’s clear and confident tone seems to have hit the nail on the head for them.
Looking ahead, Williamson is really excited about revamping his studio. After about six years in that space, he’s learned a lot about how he works best and what flows right for him. He’s adjusting the hookups and acoustics in the sound room and getting more and more analog equipment. “Analog to me, it’s just easier,” he said. “I can run everything into an analog console, do the phase adjustments, the EQ, combine all the mics to one track, then use Pro Tools to mix.” When Williamson first started recording music in the ‘90s, he was using a 4-track cassette tape machine, and he still finds that to be the most comfortable to record on. Then when he started getting serious about recording, he got the Pro Tools software, which allows him to mix everything on a digital interface, but he still prefers to track the music on an analog platform.
Despite being excited about new equipment, Williamson was quick to declare that an artist doesn’t go to a studio solely for the equipment. Paul Hornsby, owner of Muscadine Recording Studios and a legendary musician and producer, said the same thing to me. He has owned Muscadine on Vineville Ave for 37 years now, and if anyone appreciates equipment, it’s him. He said, “If I knew the person who coined the term ‘vintage,’ I would give them a big kiss.” The word vintage is a big selling point for him, considering the amount of antique equipment his studio houses, but when I asked him more about the specific pieces he loves, he said, “You can have a beautiful studio that costs five million dollars… and it’s gonna sit there and never make a record.” He believes that first, you need a song, and you have to have talent in front of the microphone and behind the soundboard. Then comes the equipment. “You have to have something decent to put it down on.” While he does love the Yamaha grand piano and original Hour Glass Leslie tone cabinet that he and Gregg Allman used to play on, he would rather put the focus on the musician and production.
Hornsby moved to Macon in 1969 to work with Capricorn Records, but before working with Capricorn, he was a member of Hour Glass with Gregg and Duane Allman and also played as a studio musician with FAME and Liberty Records. During that time, he worked with Dr. John who he said is his “favorite piano player in the whole world.” I spoke with Hornsby about Macon’s music scene in 1969 versus now, and he recalls how all the people and powers that be tried to stifle the music business here. Grant’s Lounge, Hornsby said, was the only place that young rock n’ rollers could go to hear and play live music, but now it’s a different story. Over time, Hornsby has watched the downtown scene expand with new restaurants and nightclubs on every block, and he said, “It’s a pleasure to be here now. People aren’t fighting you on what you’re doing.” Lately, Muscadine Recording Studios has worked with Chris Hicks of The Marshall Tucker Band, EG Kight, Chuck Leavell, and Japanese guitarist Kunio Kishida.
When Capricorn Records went quiet at the end of the 1970s, the industry here began to fade. The legends left Macon and began recording their hits in cities that were making an effort to further music tourism and production. Athens and Tuscaloosa, with their big universities and hordes of young musicians streaming in, became hot spots for live music and recording. Nashville and Atlanta also grew and created that “big city” feel, which is appealing to young artists who often feel the need to be next to the stars in order to be seen by them. In a sense, being around other musicians and immersed in the field is influential in an artist’s career, but one doesn’t necessarily need to go to the big city to do that.
Rob Evans, co-owner of Creek Media, which includes Star Motel Recording Studios, has been recording and playing in bands since the ‘80s and is a founding board member of Bragg Jam. At Star Motel, Evans has worked with Great Peacock, Charley Crockett, Molly Stevens, and Gregg Allman, including 2015’s critically-acclaimed Gregg Allman Live: Back to Macon, GA recorded ar the Grand Opera House. Evans and I talked about how an immersive and serious studio space is needed to encourage artists and their music. Art, in general, can be a little shy and sometimes needs to be coaxed out into the world. When a studio offers a type of vacuum environment that seals an artist into an experience, the music feels free to come out. Evans’ band, Hank Vegas, once rented out a studio and its upstairs apartment in Athens for three weeks so they could live and breathe their music 24/7. He called the experience an “awakening” for him and the band. More studios around here are trying to offer that immersive opportunity and space for an artist to connect and find their music.
Evans is part of the group that will be reopening Capricorn Records later this year. He mentioned how he and the other members found Phil Walden’s original plans when they first started planning the project, and they agreed to follow his dream in the process. Walden had wanted to include a bar and live events, a space that would invite a diverse group of people into a welcoming, electric atmosphere. The revamp of Capricorn will include a museum, guided tours, impressive recording equipment, and more. Artists will be more inclined to visit here, to play for a passionate music community and to record with fantastic producers in competitive studios. “There’s something to be said for going to a large recording studio… Just the sound you get. It’s a different mindset,” Evans said. Evans is looking forward to the new creative crowd that Capricorn will bring, as well as the diverse art that will follow.
The annual Bragg Jam Festival has set the tone for musical diversity in Macon for the past twenty years. “Bragg Jam has done more for Macon’s music scene than any other entity,” Evans said. He has been working with the festival since it began and knows first hand how music brings people together. In 1999, a few days before the accident that took Brax and Tate Bragg and inspired the festival, Evans had recorded a practice jam for his friend’s band– the only recording ever made of Brax Bragg and the Buckleys. Bragg Jam came together in an effort to remind everyone of the special talent that thrives in Macon’s community. The festival has benefited more than just music culture– proceeds support the Ocmulgee Trail and Amerson River Park in the brothers’ name.
The local artists of Macon have a home-field advantage by existing within a community of music, and some even have the privilege to build a portfolio with the Otis Redding Foundation during their teen years. I spoke with Mrs. Karla Redding-Andrews, the foundations Vice President and Executive Director, about the foundation’s involvement in the music education of Macon’s youth. The Otis Music Camp held every June is an intensely structured, two-week program where musicians age 12-17 develop their talents and discover the many avenues of the industry. They receive a coach, learn the details of their chosen genre, and spend every hour at camp preparing to enter the music industry. Every facet of the entertainment business is taught– even the legal side of things like branding, and trademarks.
Redding-Andrews wants the campers to leave knowing they did something great. She said, “Right here in Middle Georgia, there are a host of talented individuals who have gained self-confidence, self-expression, and know that the opportunity to continue with the Otis Redding Foundation is there for them always.” During the rest of the year, the foundation provides many opportunities for their campers, such as the Otis Redding Center for Creative Arts where private lessons and recording sessions for the youth are held. The foundation also partners with Navicent Health and the Bragg Jam Festival to create more creative and performance opportunities. When we spoke about music continuing to expand over the next few years, Karla said, “It’s only the right thing to do here in Macon, Georgia where so many influential musicians came from. If you came to the [Otis Music Camp] finale on Saturday, you saw people from all walks of life, because music brings us all together… I think that we cannot lose sight of what music, self-expression, and creativity do for the young people in this community.”
Joey Stuckey, Macon’s music ambassador and owner of Shadow Sound Studio, was once that young person in Macon’s community striving to learn all that he could about music. In the ‘90s, Stuckey attended Midsummer Macon, which was a two-week arts and music camp very similar to the Otis Music Camp now. Teens took part in dancing, drama, painting, writing, and music lessons with the best professionals at the time. At Shadow Sound, Stuckey records with many local artists such as Southbound Mojo, but he also works with many international artists. Recently, he’s recorded with Vanessa Moses from Malaysia, Mason Roberts from Michigan, and Ebenezer San Francisco, a Spanish church in California. Stuckey enjoys this global work because it allows him to essentially bring Macon to other countries and bring awareness to our local music culture.
In 2006, Stuckey was appointed as the music ambassador because of his powerful drive to connect people. He believes in a “hub and spoke” mentality, a central point for music and information to come in that then connects to all of the other music people, such as club owners, bands, and studios. “The idea of a music city is that we have to connect central, state, and local governments with private enterprises and nonprofit artists.” With that idea, everyone can co-promote and encourage a thriving economy.
By strengthening Macon’s music scene internally, it can then be exported elsewhere and draw more people in. Stuckey said, “Wherever I travel, I talk about Macon, try to bring people to Macon, and export it to other places.” When he was a keynote speaker at the College of London, he talked about the sounds of Macon, such as how The Beatles were influenced by Little Richard. He gives away kazoos, an instrument created in Macon, as his calling card, because “No one forgets ‘the blind guy that gave me a kazoo,’” Stuckey said. Gene Simmons from KISS has brought his kazoo out on stage to play, as well as Charlie Daniels and other bands such as Yes and Spyro Gyra.
Shadow Sound Studio, located downtown on Third Street, is already a top-notch studio with state of the art digital technology as well as boutique analog equipment, but a new phase of construction is starting now. Anticipated to be ready this time next year, Stuckey wouldn’t give me a ton of information, except that it’s going to be something world-class. He’s most excited to have multiple recording rooms that can run concurrently. He intends to make Shadow Sound a career starter space to help artists release the right kind of “first” album, as well as provide internships, exposure, and start everyone on a path of success. Of Shadow Sound’s mission, Joey said, “We care about people and music because I think music is not a disposable commodity. It’s an integral part of living. Art is how we figure out our place in the universe. Art is part of evolving the human spirit.”
An Alabamian when he first heard of Macon, Paul Hornsby had no idea where the little town was. Phil Walden told him more about what was happening here, and in ’69 when Hornsby arrived, he realized that Macon is just one of those towns. “Macon’s always been a musician town, even when it wasn’t a music scene,” he said. “And some towns just have that. You wonder why, and I don’t know how… I don’t know why.” Mrs. Karla Redding-Andrews has been quoted saying, “I think there’s just something in the water here.” Macon has good bones for where we are headed. We’ve got a rich and diverse history, but right now there are studios and foundations that are bent on creating serious, impressive spaces for artists to work. The future of Macon music is looking better each day.