The Southern Rock Cruise Visits Macon, Georgia

Are you driving or motorcycling to Florida to join us on the Southern Rock Cruise? If your route takes you down Interstate 75, then, seventy miles south of Atlanta, you can either take the I-475 bypass around Macon or you can take I-75 through downtown. The most compelling reason to go to Macon instead of around it was summed up by legendary recording engineer Tom Dowd who said that the holy cities of American rock were the “5 M’s”: Manhattan, Memphis, Muscle Shoals, Miami … and Macon.

Really, Macon? Yes, really. Macon.

Southern Rock fans will want to stop because the Allman Brothers Band and Capricorn Records were headquartered there. Although the Allmans left soon after Duane’s death and Capricorn went bankrupt in 1979, there’s still much to see. Capricorn’s roster, as most Southern Rock fans know, not only included the Allmans, but the Marshall Tucker Band, Wet Willie, and several other totemic acts. Capricorn aside, the Outlaws, Molly Hatchet, .38 Special and even Lynyrd Skynyrd have strong Macon connections. In other words, Macon gives Jacksonville, Florida a run for its money as the city that birthed Southern Rock. But even before Southern Rock, Macon was home to Otis Redding, Little Richard, and James Brown. Dig deeper still and you’ll find artists like the early twentieth century minstrel singer Emmett Miller, who first recorded the song that became Hank Williams’ breakthrough hit, “Lovesick Blues.” And if the history isn’t enough, there’s usually enough live music and made-from-scratch Southern food to make it worth getting off that Interstate. You can even sit at the table in the Downtown Grill where Gregg Allman proposed to Cher.

Until 2011, there was a Georgia Music Hall of Fame in Macon, but, after it closed, Jessica Walden and her husband, Jamie Weatherford, launched Rock Candy Tours. Their idea was that the city’s musical history lives on in buildings, sidewalks, and street corners. Jessica’s last name will be familiar to Southern Rock fans. Her father, Alan, and her uncle, Phil, co-founded Capricorn Records in 1969. Before that, they’d managed Otis Redding. 

Phil Walden discovered the Allman Brothers Band and brought them to Macon. “We picked a good place,” Gregg said later. “The town was really good to us. It had been different in L.A. when we were in Hourglass. Bands just got lost in the shuffle. But we had incredible times in Macon. It was a great place to put a band together. We grew there. We had room to grow there.” Duane’s family and Berry Oakley’s family went in together on the $225 monthly rent for what became known as “the Big House.” All other band members were in and out.

After Phil and Alan Warden parted ways, Alan started a management company, Hustlers Inc. Lynyrd Skynyrd fans will know what happened next. Walden auditioned 187 bands before settling on the thirteenth band he’d heard, Lynyrd Skynyrd. He signed them to his management and publishing companies, and helped secure the deal with MCA Records. Ronnie Van Zant introduced Walden to the Outlaws, and Walden went on to manage .38 Special and Molly Hatchet as well. Walden and Skynyrd busted up in 1974. By all accounts, Van Zant wrote “Cry for the Bad Man” for Walden, but Walden says they made up before Van Zant’s death.

OK, so there’s history galore. But what is there to see and do today?

Rock Candy’s 90-minute tours will give you the inside scoop. Check their website for the schedule. They’ll give you first-person stories and take you off the beaten track. If they’re not operating on the day you pass through, you can still visit many of the sites on your own. Here are a few: 

  • The Douglass Theater. Built in 1921 as part of the famed chitlin circuit, it hosted classic blues acts, like Bessie Smith, as well as locals like Little Richard, Otis Redding, and James Brown. Now beautifully renovated, it’s a sight to behold and one of the top performance venues in the South. Check ahead for who’s on.
  • The Big House Museum. The hub of band and family life for the Allman Brothers Band from 1970 until 1973. Dickey Betts wrote “Blue Sky” in the living room and “Ramblin’ Man” in the kitchen. It opened as a museum in 2009 and features a vast collection of Allman and Southern Rock memorabilia. The private quarters that once belonged to Duane Allman and the Oakleys have been restored. The Big House often hosts musical events. Check ahead.

  • Rose Hill Cemetery. It’s where Dickey Betts saw a headstone for a woman he didn’t know named Elizabeth Reed, who died in 1945. It’s also where Duane Allman, Gregg Allman, and Berry Oakley are buried.
  • Grant’s Lounge. If walls could speak. There really was a time when two bucks cover got you into Grant’s to see the Allman Brothers Band, Marshall Tucker Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Tom Petty, or Wet Willie, sometimes several of them on the same night. Forty-plus years later, Grant’s still looks like it did. The marquee, disco ball, and vibe are all intact. There’s live music and a Wall of Fame that’s worth a half-hour of any Southern Rock fan’s time. The story of how this African American-owned club became a Southern Rock temple is documentary-worthy.
  • The H&H Restaurant. Original co-proprietor Louise Hudson served plate lunches to the Allmans, Wet Willie, Molly Hatchet, and many others. The Allmans reportedly pooled their money to get two meals a day there when they were broke, and later took Mama Louise out on tour with them. In 2007, Gregg Allman played at her birthday party, and, at last sighting, she was still in charge. Like Grant’s, the H&H has a Wall of Fame that’s well worth checking out.
  • The Capricorn Studio. It’s still there, and in the process of being redeveloped. Things change so check the web, but just to stand outside is to stand where the Allmans, Wet Willie, Elvin Bishop, MTB, and many others recorded. Then you can walk across the road to the site of the Allman Brothers’ At Fillmore East cover shot (because, no, it wasn’t taken outside the Fillmore East).

Some spots are still off-limits, like the pinewood cabin in the woods near Juliette known as Idlewild South. The Allmans rehearsed and hung out there. Apparently, the current owners wondered about the bullet holes in the floor.

So maybe you can’t go to Idlewild and you can’t hear Skynyrd for two bucks any more, but there’s still plenty in Macon to fill your stomach and flood your senses until you set foot on the Southern Rock Cruise.

Colin Escott © 2017