Macon touts its musical heritage

The Big House Museum, where the Allman Brothers once lived, is a popular tourist sight for music fans in Macon. File photo

caption arrowCaption
The Big House Museum, where the Allman Brothers once lived, is a popular tourist sight for music fans in Macon. File photo

African American history, cuisine also beckon visitors for a weekend getaway.

“Gregg Allman proposed to Cher here,” reads the plaque at the Downtown Grill.

Nearby, “Little Richard often performed at Ann’s Tic Toc,” proclaims a plaque at the now shuttered nightclub that openly cultivated a LGBTQ crowd even in the repressive 1940s. And around the corner? Otis Redding made his volcanic debut at the Douglass Theatre, designated as “Macon’s premiere historic Black Performance Venue,” surrounded by a Hollywood-style “Walk of Fame” honoring several Black artists.

Move over, Daughters of the Confederacy. Commemorative signs in downtown Macon just got a lot funkier.

Rock Candy Tours, working with other civic partners, has helped blaze the Macon Music Trail by sponsoring some of the 43 markers — and more coming — that showcase the city’s storied and tuneful history. You can walk it or drive it, with or without a guide.

caption arrowCaption
Jessica Walden leads a tour for Rock Candy Tours in Macon. Courtesy of Rock Candy Tours

Credit: Rock Candy Tours

Jessica Walden leads a tour for Rock Candy Tours in Macon. 
Courtesy of Rock Candy Tours

Credit: Rock Candy Tours

caption arrowCaption
Jessica Walden leads a tour for Rock Candy Tours in Macon. Courtesy of Rock Candy Tours

Credit: Rock Candy Tours

Credit: Rock Candy Tours

“Nowhere else in the world has a soundtrack like Macon,” says Jessica Walden, who founded the tour company with her husband, Jamie Weatherford. “We’re big believers in using these stories and landmarks to inspire — not just the music but what it stood for. It changed the world. It was here in Macon, in a deeply divided, segregated South, that artists catapulted into the mainstream, against all odds, and integrated audiences. What happened here was the ultimate lesson in diversity and inclusion. If our walls could talk, they would sing.”

It is impossible to imagine modern popular music without those roots in the navel of Georgia. Little Richard is widely regarded as the “architect of rock n’ roll.” James Brown cut his first record here and invented funk. Otis Redding honed his distinctive vibrato to “worry a note,” as he put it, and define soul music. Then came Capricorn Records and its development of guitar-shredding Southern rock. Two members of R.E.M., William Berry and Mike Mills, grew up here.

Macon, with its columned mansions and moonlight-and-magnolias vibe, seems an unlikely epicenter for a countercultural explosion, but it has been hippie heaven ever since the Allman Brothers breezed into town, slinging their axes and trailing long, cornsilk hair.

caption arrowCaption
The Museum at Capricorn, part of the Mercer Music at Capricorn project, explores Macon's rich music history and currently only allows ten people in at a time. Courtesy of Mercer University

Credit: Christopher Ian Smith

The Museum at Capricorn, part of the Mercer Music at Capricorn project, explores Macon's rich music history and currently only allows ten people in at a time.
Courtesy of Mercer University

Credit: Christopher Ian Smith

caption arrowCaption
The Museum at Capricorn, part of the Mercer Music at Capricorn project, explores Macon's rich music history and currently only allows ten people in at a time. Courtesy of Mercer University

Credit: Christopher Ian Smith

Credit: Christopher Ian Smith

The hedonistic Capricorn era, from 1969 to the late 1970s, was Macon’s Camelot, and when it faded, the city struggled to define its identity. One civic motto was “Sherman missed us, but you don’t have to!” — an oblique reference to meticulously preserved antebellum architecture that escaped Sherman’s March to the Sea. In the 2000s, boosters decided to lean into everyone’s primary complaint with “It’s hotter here!” Today, it has settled comfortably on “Where Soul Lives.”

“Whatever the essence of soul food, soul ties, soul music, is — that’s Macon,” says Lisa Love, director of the Georgia Music Foundation. “It’s raw and unvarnished and imperfect, but that’s fertile ground for creators and characters, and Macon’s long been a wellspring for both.”

The downtown that languished in the doldrums of urban blight for years has sprung to giddy new life and now claims a 98% occupancy rate, with the addition of an estimated 2,000 loft dwellings. They have attracted young, sleek scenesters who gather for drinks on the new rooftop bar, called “45,” and dine at high-end farm-to-table restaurants.

“I left Atlanta to come here, where a typical rush hour is only 15 minutes,” says preservationist Ennis Willis. “People who live in Atlanta think the only other worthwhile places in Georgia are Savannah and St. Simons, and that the rest of the state is just a vast wasteland of rednecks and pottery. That simply isn’t true. Macon is exploding with energy.”

A prime mover in this renaissance is The Moonhanger Group, headed by native son Wes Griffith, which has purchased, one by one, several dilapidated music landmarks and restored them to their vintage glory. In 2020, the group teamed up with Mercer University to bring back Capricorn Sound Studios, where artists can use original analog equipment while channeling Duane Allman, or pioneer something new, amid the shag carpeting and groovy, psychedelic art.

“We’re all about preserving and promoting this rich heritage that has brought so many people together,” Griffith says.

At its interactive museum, visitors can listen through a vast digital archive of music recorded there. A stone’s throw away is another Moonhanger project: Grant’s Lounge. Back in the day, it functioned as an informal, Black-run audition space for the studio, and it features a “wall of fame” worth perusing — images of artists in the grip of dreams coming true. Griffith also bought the H&H Restaurant, where Gregg Allman wolfed down collard greens to lube his prized vocal cords.

Whether your interest is music, architecture or history, the city offers plenty to do on a weekend getaway, usually with some memorable Southern Gothic twist involved. The locals are friendly and notably given to stem-winding storytelling — savor that charming mid-state drawl, with its taffy-like vowels and complete absence of the letter “r.”

Other recommended sights include:

caption arrowCaption
Tracie Revis, the director of advocacy for the Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve Initiative, overlooking the at the Ocmulgee Mounds National Historic Park.

Credit: Patricia Murphy, AJC

Tracie Revis, the director of advocacy for the Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve Initiative, overlooking the at the Ocmulgee Mounds National Historic Park.

Credit: Patricia Murphy, AJC

caption arrowCaption
Tracie Revis, the director of advocacy for the Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve Initiative, overlooking the at the Ocmulgee Mounds National Historic Park.

Credit: Patricia Murphy, AJC

Credit: Patricia Murphy, AJC

Ocmulgee Mounds National Park. Before white settlers arrived in 1823, the land along the Ocmulgee River was occupied for more than 10 millennia by various groups of indigenous people. They left behind seven mounds, built before 1000 CE, one of which you can enter and sense the eerie, goosebump-prickling weight of time.

The Muscogee (Creek) Nation was the last group to occupy the riverbank, until Andrew Jackson forced them West. Their descendants have not forgotten their homeland, though. Today the Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park encompasses nearly 3,000 acres and has yielded three million artifacts. The Muscogee Nation has just dispatched a new advocate, Tracie Revis, from Oklahoma, to Macon to strengthen ties between the eastern and western communities and to improve interpretations of this sacred space.

“I grew up hearing stories about our homeland,” she says. “I believe there has been unintentional misrepresentations of our past, politically and culturally. My move to Macon is to help bridge the connection back to the culture and the tribe, and create a spirit of healing.”

The park hosts the annual Ocmulgee Indian Celebration Sept. 21-22, one of the largest gatherings of its kind.

1207 Emery Hwy. Free. 478- 752-8257 x222, ocmulgeeland.com

caption arrowCaption
The main entrance of the Tubman Museum in Macon. The museum is among 20 nonprofits that have received checks from Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com

The main entrance of the Tubman Museum in Macon. The museum is among 20 nonprofits that have received checks from Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com

caption arrowCaption
The main entrance of the Tubman Museum in Macon. The museum is among 20 nonprofits that have received checks from Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com

Tubman Museum. The sign on the instrument says, “Do not play Little Richard’s piano. He will know.” It is one of hundreds of artifacts at the Tubman Museum, among the country’s largest collections dedicated to educating people about the art, history and culture of Black Americans. A detailed mural explores Black history in general, and Macon’s African American community in particular. One touching exhibit is the uniform of Rodney Davis, a Macon native who received the Medal of Honor for heroism during the Vietnam War. “We’re showing history through African American eyes, but it is history for everybody,” says executive director Harold Young. The Tubman also hosts arts-related programming, including storytelling events, movie nights, and a Pan-African Festival.

310 Cherry St. $10. 478-743-8544, tubmanmuseum.com

caption arrowCaption
001115 GA; Exterior of the Hay House in Macon decorated for the holidays. (Michael Dibari Jr./Special)

Credit: Michael Dibari Jr.

001115 GA; Exterior of the Hay House in Macon decorated for the holidays. (Michael Dibari Jr./Special)

Credit: Michael Dibari Jr.

caption arrowCaption
001115 GA; Exterior of the Hay House in Macon decorated for the holidays. (Michael Dibari Jr./Special)

Credit: Michael Dibari Jr.

Credit: Michael Dibari Jr.

The Hay House. The crown jewel of Macon’s historic district is the Johnston-Felton-Hay House, more commonly known as the Hay House. It is 18,000 square feet and 26 rooms of Italian Renaissance Revival opulence. “We’re in a constant state of restoration,” says Enniss Willis, executive director. Magnate William Butler Johnston married Anne Clark Tracy, a polished, poetry-loving woman from a prominent Macon family, and the two embarked on a lengthy honeymoon in Europe, where they collected fine porcelains, sculptures and paintings as mementos of their Grand Tour. Inspired by Italian architecture, they constructed their home, which was finished in 1860. It would have made a rich target for Gen. Sherman on his wrathful “March to the Sea,” but he famously missed Macon.

934 Georgia Ave. $14. 478-742-8155, hayhousemacon.org


IF YOU GO

Macon is 85 miles southeast of Atlanta via Interstate-75, usually an hour-and-a-half drive.

Sights

Rock Candy Tours. Free Birds & Night Owls walking tour $15. 450 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. 478- 955-5997, rockcandytours.com

Tubman Museum. $10. 310 Cherry St. 478-743-8544, www.tubmanmuseum.com

The Museum at Capricorn. 540 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Admission $7, tours $5. 478-257-5327, capricorn.mercer.edu

The Big House. An estimated quarter of million artifacts where the Allman Brothers used to live. $20 2321 Vineville Ave. 478-741-5551, thebighousemuseum.com

Food and drink

Grow. Founded by Macon’s reigning earth-mama chef Saralyn Collins making farm-to-table cuisine affordable. Entrees $8 to $12. 1019 Riverside Drive. 478-743-4663, growfreshlocalfood.com

H&H Restaurant. A soulful meat-and-three joint with a history of serving Macon’s iconic musicians. Entrees: $12-$17. 807 Forsyth St. 478-621-7044, handhsoulfood.com

Accommodations

1842 Inn. To get the full experience of Macon’s stately architecture, check into the elegantly appointed mansion. Complimentary evening hors d’oeuvres and cash bar and gleaming antiques to covet. $227 a night. 353 College St. 877-452-6599, 1842inn.com

Hotel Forty Five: Macon: A Tribute Portfolio Hotel. For a more New South experience, this recently opened boutique hotel features a restaurant with a chef-driven menu and a grass-top rooftop perfect for watching the sunset. $186 a night. 401 Cotton Avenue. 877-452-6599, Marriott.com

Visitor information

Visit Macon. 450 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. 478- 743-1074, maconga.org