R.E.M.’s Mike Mills talks ‘A Night of Georgia Music’ with Chuck Leavell and Robert McDuffie

(From left) Chuck Leavell, Mike Mills of R.E.M. and Robert McDuffie will perform "A Night of Georgia Music" at Atlanta Symphony Hall on Sept. 29, 2019.

(From left) Chuck Leavell, Mike Mills of R.E.M. and Robert McDuffie will perform "A Night of Georgia Music" at Atlanta Symphony Hall on Sept. 29, 2019.

Mike Mills was part of one of the most successful and pioneering alt-rock bands in music history.

But this is still a guy who drove himself – entourage free –from Athens to Atlanta for an interview and sat graciously for part of his day to discuss his new project with Chuck Leavell (of Rolling Stones and Allman Brothers Band fame) and Robert McDuffie (Macon-based, world-class violinist) with a few nods to his history as the bassist in R.E.M.

The 60-year-old Mills, with his blonde-white goatee, dark floral printed shirt and lightly tinted glasses, hung out in the studio of 97.1 The River last month with Kaedy Kiely and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to detail “A Night of Georgia Music,” the show that will play Atlanta Symphony Hall on Sunday.

It will be the first of a four-concert run in Georgia and Alabama and spotlight the trio playing songs from legendary Georgia musicians, as well as the “Concerto for Violin, Rock Band and String Orchestra,” which Mills and McDuffie composed a few years ago.

The pair – high school buddies in Macon – toured the country with the concerto in 2016-17, but Mills eventually realized that a 30-minute concerto wasn’t enough material for a full program.

“Since we’re from Georgia, why not do a show with songs either about Georgia or by people from Georgia?” Mills said. “(We thought) who is from Georgia who is more talented than both of us? And that’s Chuck Leavell. He’s an amazing individual and player.”

Mills said he and Leavell “go back a long way, peripherally.” About a decade ago, the two jammed at a wedding, digging into the Allman Brothers Band’s “Statesboro Blues” and R.E.M.’s “Don’t Go Back to Rockville.”

But as for “A Night of Georgia Music,” “No one knows what this is,” Mills said with a laugh. “What’s a concerto? And what, no one is going to sing? (But) when you have two instrumentalists like Chuck and Bobby, you don’t need anyone singing.”

So, no. There won’t be any vocals during the performance, but, as Mills aptly noted, “Between a violin and a piano, you can express as much human emotion as a vocalist.”

Mike Mills of R.E.M. visited the studio of 97.1 The River this summer to talk about "A Night of Georgia Music." Photo: Jesse Brooks/Cox Media

Credit: Jesse Brooks/Cox Media

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Credit: Jesse Brooks/Cox Media

Two guitarists, a drummer, Mills on bass and a 12-piece orchestra using students from McDuffie’s Macon-based McDuffie Center for Strings at Mercer University, will comprise the additional musical output.

The set list will present the results of much brainstorming among the trio, but Mills also credits composer David Mallamud for assisting with navigating song arrangements.

“We wouldn’t want to leave Ray Charles out. There was really no doubt about Gladys (Knight). We’re working on a B-52s track and I really want to get Gram Parsons in there,” Mills said.

And the obvious inclusion?

Mills laughed.

“I have an R.E.M. song in the opening, so there will be one.”

As well, when Mills and McDuffie wrote the concerto, McDuffie insisted that elements of R.E.M.’s “Nightswimming” weave its ways into the song suite.

For fans of Georgia musical artistry, the evening will be a love letter, and Mills undoubtedly holds nothing but affection for his home state (his family moved from California when he was 10 years old).

Mills is a devoted Atlanta Braves fan and season ticketholder and maintains a second home in Los Angeles, but his world primary surrounds Athens.

“I have my friends and family here. I love the Georgia heat,” he said. “I think of Georgia and it’s my home.”


A Night of Georgia Music

With Mike Mills, Robert McDuffie and Chuck Leavell. 8 p.m. Sept. 29. $39-$79. Atlanta Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 1-800-745-3000, ticketmaster.com.

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