Heard it through the grapevine…

This is in the current issue of Georgia Music Magazine, with wonderful photos by Christopher Davis.

Call it “Nappalachia.”

The Georgia Wine Highway stretches from Young Harris to Savannah, but most of the state’s wineries are clustered, often side by side, in north Georgia, where the fruit of the vine enjoys a felicitous pairing with live music.

“The wineries have opened up this whole new, exciting venue for both the homegrown talent and for touring artists,” says Bob Fortin, a co-producer of the RiverMist concert series in Helen, sponsored by Habersham Winery. Fortin’s impresario career has stuck to a noticeable theme — he used to manage Atlanta-based jam band The Grapes, and now he operates a booking agency called Grapevine Talent. “Here, we try to create an informal, affordable atmosphere where kids and pets are welcome, and we celebrate our roots, both in music and in the earth. Just look around — it’s so much more aesthetic than being cooped up in some smoky nightclub.”

Plus, the hilly, alfresco acoustics lend a natural echo, as Ralph Roddenberry, a RiverMist headliner from Atlanta, discovers when he belts out some impromptu, a capella lyrics: “Meet me on the mountain, drink some Georgia wine, it tastes just fiiiiiine. The city takes it from you, but the mountain gives it back…”

Roddenberry’s long-suffering ache of a voice sounds momentarily soothed, and around the crowd, glasses clink. “In vino veritas!” whoops some oenophile, who, judging by his twang, is as locally produced as the Cabernet he is sipping.

Georgia’s viticulture started in the early 1980s as a bold farming experiment that since has ripened into a genteel tourism industry, with the state expected to double its 30-plus wineries over the next decade. Their concerts and music festivals have become such mainstays that they occupy their own column of weekly listings in The Dahlonega Nugget newspaper’s entertainment section. Just as these vintners bring different varietals, blends, and levels of pouring generosity (or stinginess) to their tasting rooms, each winery is developing its own musical personality as well, catering both to local tastes — banjos are usually handy, if not always picked — and to the tourists and Atlanta day-trippers who constitute a sizable contingent of Sunday brunches.

Habersham Winery, one of the state’s oldest, appeals to area hipsters with a sort of gourmet-Bonnaroo vibe, grilling portobello items for the vegetarians.

“We tend to book full bands rather than solo acts — mainly jam bands, singer/songwriter acts, regional groups that play at amphitheaters, and others that we know have a local following, like American Anodyne, Sol Driven Train, and Deep Blue Sun,” says restaurateur Paul Rampulla, who coordinates the shows with Fortin. “It’s like Chastain Park with a much lower cover charge.”

At Chateau Elan, the 3,500-acre, francophile complex of vats, golf, spa and conference rooms in Braselton, the demographic tends toward the more seasoned and well-heeled, who dance the shag during the Carolina Beach Music concert series, featuring old-school legends such as the Jesters and the Embers. Dahlonega’s Italian-themed Montaluce — translation: “mountain light”– keeps it elegantly mellow, too, with classical guitar and harpists, and on weekends during the busy season, Tom & Juli Theobald, those versatile stalwarts who can perform just about any cover. They breathe a discreet sigh of relief when someone calls for John Prine after three Jimmy Buffett songs in a row.

“We try to entertain without being intrusive,” says Juli Theobald, after an especially lovely rendition of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” “We’re background music here, which creates a more laidback atmosphere for us as performers.”

The thumping heart of the winery-music scene, though, is Frogtown, the tiny, unpaved Lumpkin County enclave that historically was known for its moonshine. With neighboring wineries — Three Sisters, Blackstock, Frogtown, and, just up the road apiece, Wolf Creek — the picturesque district attracts a steady stream of pickers’ trucks alongside Jaguars with Fulton County tags, braving the paint-dinging gravel driveways.

The Kip Dockery Trio jazzing it up at Blackstock

In its “Grill & Chill” series, Blackstock cranks up the volume and shuffles the playlist by offering a season of blues followed by a few weeks of top-shelf jazz, culminating with a Wine and Music Festival that, this year, was heavy on tenor saxophone.

“We play a lot of clubs around the northern arc of Alpharetta and Roswell, and we’ll run into the same people up here at the wineries,” says Kip Dockery, who fronts a popular jazz ensemble that plays regularly at Blackstock. “Mostly we do straight-up jazz and some funk, but in this neck of the woods, we can pull out a banjo for a riff, and it goes over well.”

In fact, across the road at Three Sisters, The Buzzard Mountain Boys, dubbed the “house band,” are warming up with banjo — and kazoo. “We’ve played pretty much all of the wineries,” says “Joe Bob” Matteson, one half of the comedic duo specializing in bluegrass and mountain music (the other is “Jim Bob”), “and I would say Three Sisters is the most musical of them all.”

Three Sisters, named for its view of a triad of mountains, whimsically embraces its red-clay terroir, with a tasting room full of face jugs and folk art by Howard Finster and Cornbread, and a cuddly proprietor usually wearing overalls and a grin: Doug Paul, whose background in the music industry has informed his operation since its inception as Lumpkin County’s first vineyard. He and his wife, Sharon, worked for 30 years in broadcasting, recording, and voiceovers and, during the 1980s and ’90s, owned their own studio and record label, Catspaw Productions, in Atlanta. During that time, they organized concerts for 99X, and, today, just for kicks, they operate a 50-watt radio station from their winery, playing whatever strikes their eclectic fancy, from bluegrass to big bands.

“We’ve featured every kind of music here — Cajun, gospel, blues, you name it — but we especially enjoy promoting Georgia artists to go with our Georgia wine,” Paul says. “Ninety percent or more of our acts are from Georgia, with the occasional groups out of Nashville or North Carolina. I also enjoy ‘discovering’ new talent, because there’s such an abundance here in our own backyard.”

He notes that Zac Brown used to jam at Three Sisters “before anyone else had heard of him,” and Curtis Jones, a local flat-picker who has toured with Allison Krauss, is another regular. As Paul is ticking off names of other gifted home-folks, Rick Harris, a witty jazzer who just moved here from Florida, takes his trumpet to the stage to sit in with The Buzzard Mountain Boys.

Out comes Joe Bob’s kazoo, and he tells the crowd, “The more y’all drink, folks, the better we sound!”


Retro in the Metro: Atlanta Musicians Update Some Old-School Sounds

This ran awhile back in The Atlantan

The sound is not so much retro as retrofitted.

With a mixture of irony and affection, these young music-makers tinker with old-timey material and mannerisms, but their songs and packaging groove with indelible originality. Decked out in fedoras, cat’s-eye glasses, and baubles from the vintage rack at Stefan’s , they pack the house at the Star Bar, the Highland Ballroom, the EARL; Sister Louisa’s “Church”; and other intown nightspots where militant idiosyncrasy reigns. Bernadette Seacrest and her Provocateurs; Sodajerk; and Blair Crimmins and the Hookers all bring polychrome verve to their sepia sensibility, crooning in a past-perfect tense of their own making.

If these acts constitute a trend toward nostalgia, it is purely accidental — they all insist they are just following their own flask-tipping, Gatsbyesque muse.

“Is there a retro renaissance? I have no idea,” Seacrest says. “I like to live under my  beautiful rock. I have no idea what’s going on in the industry. The less I know, the happier I am. I just make my little records, play my little shows.”

She and her Provocateurs — bassist Kris Dale and guitar player/songwriter Charles Williams — just returned from a tour of France, where those “little shows” have established her as a slinky, old-school chanteuse. Think Peggy Lee filigreed with flippant tattoos, one of which involves the fricative F-bomb inside her lower lip. “Like the old biker gals,” she says. “What other folks think scary, I think hysterical.”

Last year, the band released its debut CD, “The Filthy South Sessions” with themes of diners and God’s purported drinking habits and other minor-key numbers she describes loosely as swing noire.

“I personally like the very eerie, dark, sad, heavy bottom in our music,” she says, batting fringey eyelashes. Seacrest, a California native, cultivates the sultry-siren mystique to the hilt. “I feel a kinship with old junk, and I believe in stilettos all the time!”

She and her gallant accompanists are scheduled for regular shows at the Highland Ballroom while gearing up for another spring tour of Europe.

For rowdier, roadhouse swagger, check out Sodajerk, which bills its sound as “y’allternative,” or “The Replacements meets Johnny Cash.” Founded by Kevin Charney and Alex  Brenner who perform respectively under the stage names “Poppa John Tucker” and “Bucky Goldstein,” the players — like these other “old wine in a new bottle” acts — are in their 30s, the time when nostalgia pangs kick in.

“We both grew up in Pittsburgh playing heavy metal,” Charney recalls. “But we realized our dads might be on to something with their old country music, which was darker than anything Black Sabbath was putting out. We decided to mash it all together, using Hank Williams’ concept of ‘three chords and the truth,’ and produce the antithesis of the pop sounds that were coming out of Nashville.”

Since migrating South in 2005, the duo has added bassist Blake Parris and “Saint” Freddy McNeal, taking pedal-steel cues from Atlanta’s “Redneck Underground,” and they are anything but slick and sugary with songs that toy with tear-stained jukebox tropes about “drinking and killing yourself” such as “Carbomb (To the Heart)” and their crowd-pleasing standard, “F— n’ Fight.” “We, um, excised that last one from the recordings we sent our mothers,” Charney says sheepishly.

Sodajerk just released its eighth album, “Songs for the Empty-Handed,” which features less twang and more boisterous rock. “We take that old-school Sun Records approach that if we make a mistake or leave a bruise on a record and its feel is good, we leave it there.”

It’s not a real Saturday night of honky-tonkin’ without a shiner or two, they figure. Sodajerk will play Smith’s Olde Bar with the Bottle Rockets on January 7.

The Fancy Dan of the bunch, Blair Crimmins has the kind of chiseled jaw, framed in floppy curls, usually seen in daguerreotypes. “I’ve been wearing bowties and suspenders since I was a little kid,” he says, “and now I have a hat for every occasion and wingtips in every color.”

He sings and plays guitar, banjo, and ukulele, backed by the brass of the Hookers, named for the band’s “commitment-shy, revolving door policy.” Their prop-heavy concerts usually incorporate P.T. Barnum-worthy themes — the Gypsy circus, cabaret with “dancing girls,” or vaudeville.

Crimmins, an Atlanta native and self-described “old soul,” penned a signature song, “Old Man Cabbage,” about an elderly gent “trapped in a young man’s body.”

“These retro bands may appear to be a trend, but I think the music is something that hasn’t really gone away,” he says. “Every generation reaches a point where it goes in search of the raw, the true, the authentic, the pure, and that’s what we’re all doing.”

Blair Crimmins and the Hookers are planning a release party on February 4 at the EARL for two new singles available only in vinyl and digital downloads.