The real pull of the Macon music scene
By Tom Poland
I find my mind drifting back to Macon, and then I find myself driving kudzu-bordered roads. Macon, Georgia sits in the middle of Georgia. It’s not an easy drive from Columbia, South Carolina, to Macon but I’ve made it several times.
Macon memories …. In earlier times I went to Macon to run in a state track meet, play a football game, then much later to interview an attorney, and later still to interview a man who plays music with the Rolling Stones. Something about the city keeps pulling me back, and I will be going again and again.
The first of my last three trips to Macon proved memorable. It was late on a cold January afternoon when I arrived at the Macon Marriott after a three-hour drive through back roads. I had driven past winter-sad kudzu, which mourning the passing of the growth season, fell heavily over woods and houses. Were it summer, I’d have driven through a landscape of green mounds, curves, and contours where kudzu mobbed woods like some topiary artist gone mad. Winter’s brown back roads nonetheless made a wonderful escape from colorless Interstate 20.
I checked in, took up my bags, then headed to Rose Hill Cemetery, a sprawling graveyard of hills and stones where lanes let you drive through this city of the dead. No driving for me. I walk old cemeteries and read epitaphs. Besides, something about riding through tombstones seems disrespectful.
Macon’s music scene, tied to Rose Hill as it is, doesn’t play second fiddle. It’s rich, the home to Little Richard (Richard Wayne Penniman), Otis Redding, the Allman Brothers Band, Ronnie Hammond of Atlanta Rhythm Section, Bill Berry of R.E.M., just a ways south, Chuck Leavell, the aforementioned Rolling Stone musician. And Macon was home to a legendary recording label, Phil Walden’s Capricorn Records. Music historians credit it for creating the Southern Rock genre. That makes it hallowed ground, ground zero.
Macon, music, memories, and mourning seem to go together. In Rose Hill Cemetery, hallowed ground of another kind, there’s a grave with a pentagon headstone, Elizabeth Reed’s. Born November 9, 1845, died May 3, 1935, Elizabeth arced across the sky, a silver meteor of fame, when the Allman Brothers Band recorded Dickey Betts’s instrumental composition, “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed (Napier). A storied legend attends the song, which for now I’ll leave at peace.
Up a long flight of steps I paid my respects to the musicians asleep in Rose Hill. With “Elizabeth Reed” playing in my head, I started down the long flight of steps, bright in the gloaming from an accretion of sunlight and moonlight. The moon was filtering light through pines down by the Ocmulgee. Soon the steps would trade sunlight for the light of the silvery moon. The next day I had an interview to do so I did not get to see Walden’s legendary Capricorn Records, said to have resembled a warehouse in its early days. It was there that the Marshall Tucker Band, Sea Level, Percy Sledge, Wet Willie, Delbert McClinton, and the Dixie Dregs made music, among others.
Macon magic. I read on Macon’s Music Heritage webpage that some say it’s something in the water that inspired music greats like Little Richard, the Allman Brothers Band and Otis Redding. And then I remembered when Redding died, December 10, 1967. Plane crash. It came as a shock. As did the deaths of Duane and Greg Allman and Berry Oakley. Motorcycle.
I will write here that the Ocmulgee is a kind of Styx. Souls cross the Ocmulgee and encamp for eternity in the vales of Rose Hill. The epitaph on Berry Oakley’s grave sums things up. “The road goes on forever.” Despite the sadness, I have good memories of Macon and its region and I will return and add to them. And if I have time, I’ll ramble down highway 41.