Cool Town

How Athens, Georgia, Launched Alternative Music and Changed American Culture

By Grace Elizabeth Hale

384 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 37 halftones, notes, index

  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-5487-4
    Published: March 2020
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-5488-1
    Published: February 2020

Ferris and Ferris Books

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In the summer of 1978, the B-52's conquered the New York underground. A year later, the band's self-titled debut album burst onto the Billboard charts, capturing the imagination of fans and music critics worldwide. The fact that the group had formed in the sleepy southern college town of Athens, Georgia, only increased the fascination. Soon, more Athens bands followed the B-52's into the vanguard of the new American music that would come to be known as "alternative," including R.E.M., who catapulted over the course of the 1980s to the top of the musical mainstream. As acts like the B-52's, R.E.M., and Pylon drew the eyes of New York tastemakers southward, they discovered in Athens an unexpected mecca of music, experimental art, DIY spirit, and progressive politics--a creative underground as vibrant as any to be found in the country's major cities.

In Athens in the eighties, if you were young and willing to live without much money, anything seemed possible. Cool Town reveals the passion, vitality, and enduring significance of a bohemian scene that became a model for others to follow. Grace Elizabeth Hale experienced the Athens scene as a student, small-business owner, and band member. Blending personal recollection with a historian's eye, she reconstructs the networks of bands, artists, and friends that drew on the things at hand to make a new art of the possible, transforming American culture along the way. In a story full of music and brimming with hope, Hale shows how an unlikely cast of characters in an unlikely place made a surprising and beautiful new world.

About the Author

Grace Elizabeth Hale is the Commonwealth Professor of American Studies and History at the University of Virginia. Her previous books include A Nation of Outsiders: How the White Middle Class Fell in Love with Rebellion in Postwar America and Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890–1940.
For more information about Grace Elizabeth Hale, visit the Author Page.


"A carefully constructed history of how Athens, Georgia became a cultural hot spot. . . . A welcome history of an overlooked milieu, one that provides ample inspiration for art makers today."--Kirkus Reviews

"Hale's rich, personal narrative draws readers in. . . . This colorfully rendered reverie will delight indie music fans."--Publishers Weekly

"Both a historian and a participant in the music scene, Hale crafts a lively account of 1980s Athens: the artists, their stories, and the haunts they frequented, such as the Grit and the 40 Watt Club."--Library Journal

“Not only is Cool Town the most detailed account we'll get of the music of Athens, Georgia, the out-of-the-way college town that gave us the B-52's and R.E.M. It's also a thorough, deeply felt history of a seminal local bohemia that even as it matured changed the surrounding culture more than that culture changed it.”--Robert Christgau

“In Cool Town, Grace Hale captures the heyday of the Athens scene as she lived it: vibrant, surprising, full of possibility. The relationships formed, the songs and stories spun, the art created, the uncertainty embraced—all that continues to inspire four decades later. Hale doesn’t merely recall what happened. She explains it as well as one can. This remembrance of things not passed resonates all these years later and results in an essential read.”—Bertis Downs, adviser, R.E.M.

"'It was like New York City, only safer and cheaper.' This is the axiom American bohemia runs on--in few places more brilliantly than Athens, Georgia, in the eighties. From the B-52's reconfiguring drag as dance-punk to R.E.M. 'translating postmodern theory into sonic form,' to both bands' bittersweet commercial apexes, Hale's clear-eyed, heart-full testament depicts an era so radiant it felt like it could live a million years."--Michaelangelo Matos, author of Can't Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop's Blockbuster Year