Macon, Ga., Makes the Most of Musical Heritage

Jason Aldean, Allman Brothers, Otis Redding, Little Richard Among Natives

MACON, Ga. — As a country music fan, the Georgia Music Hall of Fame is what initially lured me to Macon, Ga. Alan Jackson and Trisha Yearwood — who are both inductees — grew up nearby, and several stars who currently live in the state — like Patty Loveless, Kenny Rogers and Travis Tritt — have joined their ranks. The museum itself is designed like a music village. A café showcases the country artists’ stage outfits, guitars, photos, etc. Gospel is spotlighted in a chapel, R&B in a club, and so on.

The timing was finally right to visit because I couldn’t miss the Otis Redding exhibit on display through September. He’s a singer who transcends all boundaries, and I’ve spent many a Saturday just kicking back with his music. (“I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” is still magnificent.) The museum partnered with Redding’s widow, Zelma, and their children for an impressive exhibit to commemorate the 40th anniversary of his death. I watched about an hour’s worth of well-preserved live performances and was overcome by his magnetic stage presence. As his friend and collaborator Steve Cropper once said, “That voice.”

The Redding family still lives in Macon. Zelma and daughter Karla own and operate a shoe store downtown. A statue of Redding overlooks the riverfront. The Douglass Theatre, built by the first African-American millionaire, remains a jewel of downtown. Redding performed there in talent shows as a teenager until he won too many in a row and wasn’t allowed to enter anymore.

Little Richard is Macon’s most famous son. It’s astonishing to see the house he grew up in (though it isn’t marked as such) and to realize that he’s now considered the Architect of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Of course, another blueprint is on the table now. The interstate highways might be widened, and the homes in the Pleasant Hill neighborhood where Little Richard was born and raised would likely be demolished.

For music fans, the most famous home in the city is the Big House, where the Allman Brothers Band lived from 1970-1973 and where they wrote “Ramblin’ Man.” The place inspired Gregg Allman to write “Please Call Home,” and if you open living room windows on a Sunday morning, you might hear the same church bells mentioned in Dickey Betts’ song, “Blue Sky.” Since the home was a rental property back then, it’s changed hands a few times, but now the Georgia Allman Brothers Band Association (GABBA) has rescued it, and it’s being renovated as a museum — with a likely opening in April 2009 to coincide with the band’s 40th anniversary.

Credit for saving the place goes to the band’s former tour manager, Kirk West, and his wife Kirsten, who bought the property in 1993. After the Wests moved in, they regularly welcomed wayward fans inside and sometimes put them up for the night. Numerous former residents and visitors are pitching in to get the interior details just right, and a documentary about the Big House was screened for a sold-out crowd in February.

I was lucky enough to meet Greg Potter, who’s spearheading the Big House’s renovation. He showed me Duane and Gregg Allman’s bedrooms, the rehearsal room that will eventually showcase a collection of their instruments and the attic that was originally built as a ballroom. He graciously invited me to his workspace where he’s organizing countless items in preparation for the museum’s opening. One significant find: the stolen road case pictured on the cover of 1971′s At Fillmore East. Some guy had been using it as a coffee table, but his wife made him get rid of it.

I also visited the graves in Rose Hill Cemetery that inspired the band’s “Little Maggie” and “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” and is the final resting places of band members Berry Oakley and Duane Allman. Prior to living in the Big House, some of the guys crashed in a small apartment on College Street, just a few blocks from Rose Hill, so they could easily stroll to the terraced cemetery and find a shady spot under a cypress tree. I can’t wait to browse vintage photos of the band, because every few minutes, in the cemetery and around town, it was pointed out to me, “Oh, that’s where that famous picture was taken.”

With all this traipsing around, I am thankful for the satisfying Southern lunch at H&H Restaurant, where Mama Louise would feed the Allman Brothers for free when they were just poor musicians. Memorabilia lines the walls, and she’s well-loved among fans of the Allman Brothers. Though she’s in her 80s now, Mama Louise still works every day, and I told her myself that she serves the most delicious collard greens I’ve ever tasted. Her most famous visitor lately has been Oprah Winfrey, who filmed an episode there last year because Macon can boast the highest percentage of Oprah watchers than any other town.

These days, the city’s biggest musical export is Jason Aldean, who was pretty much packed and ready to return home to Macon before finally signing a record deal in Nashville. He has since sold more than 1 million albums with hits like “Hicktown,” “Why” and “Johnny Cash.”

“This town was a hotbed for music back and really has always been,” Aldean told CMT Insider prior to his homecoming show in 2006.”Guys like Otis Redding were from here — Little Richard, the Allman Brothers Band — all those guys from right here in the same town.

“But there really hasn’t been a music artist to come out of here in a long time — out of Macon in particular — so I’m kind of the adopted son now for everybody, which feels good. I’ll wear that badge proudly. I’m proud of where I’m from and would like to always come back and play it as much as I can.”

View photos from Macon, Ga.