The back room of the Golden Bough Bookstore is small, quiet and lined with volumes of religious texts. It’s hardly the expected setting for an emerging indie rock scene — except in Macon, a city with plenty of churches and a knack for innovative music.
Here, the sacred and the secular often collide with frequency around Cotton Avenue, that diagonal slash across downtown’s otherwise orderly grid where the bookstore sits.
For decades, this stretch of roadway hosted the late, great blues street singer Pearly Brown. Otis Redding shopped at the Bibb Music Center — and just a few doors down from Bibb Music, the present-day “Big O” Foundation, a nonprofit benefiting young people, honors Redding by bestowing scholarships and sponsoring music camps.
Up the block toward City Hall, Phil Walden and Frank Fenter opened up Capricorn Records in 1969 in the building where Redding and Walden earlier ran their music publishing business in the 1960s. Just around the corner on Second Street, Raymond Hamrick — renowned in the world of Sacred Harp singers — has been repairing watches at Andersen’s Jewelers for the past 75 years.
That little room at the Golden Bough is largely vacant most days of the week. But at 9 p.m. on Tuesdays, it explodes with young people, packed by a sea of tight shirts, skinny jeans and fashionably outdated accessories from Treasure Vintage, the hip little clothier across the street.
Once a week, as the crowd spills out onto the sidewalk, this looks like a block in a much different city.
“I have been shocked and overwhelmed by the response and feel like it is now completely out of my control,” said Eric Wakefield, the owner of Golden Bough.
After working at the bookstore for eight years, Wakefield bought it from Lily Ambrose a couple of years ago. An Army brat, Wakefield came to Macon in pursuit of a Mercer University art degree and has since made himself a home. Since he took control of the bookstore, he’s also made a home for the people who look to the outskirts of pop culture for their entertainment. Wakefield just needed a way to get those people into the bookstore. That’s when he started offering free live music on Tuesday nights.
Unable to pay for established bands, Wakefield turned to locals who needed an audience, which often was culled from their friends and other local musicians. Given the open-minded crowd of dozens each week and the wide variety of those first acts a couple years ago — from folk to experimental rock to hip-hop — the Golden Bough became a place where just about anything could happen.
“As a musician, the best thing about it is you can do absolutely anything you want and there are no repercussions,” said Justin Cutway, a regular supporter who also performs as Trendlenberg. “You can play for 30 minutes and no one will complain that you didn’t play long enough. Or you can make a bunch of analog keyboard noise and people will listen. It’s amazing.”
As business picked up, Wakefield considered cutting out the live music nights because the weight of running the bookstore was more than enough to handle.
Then last fall, Clark Bush, an enthusiastic young man barely in his 20s, took over booking the bands and promoting the shows. In addition to the slate of new and regular local bands, Bush started bringing in acts from as far away as New York and Philadelphia who have included Macon on their way to Atlanta and Athens.
“We’ve found a lot of bands that probably would’ve played Macon before, but no one tried,” Bush said. “Now maybe someone will realize there’s a need for it here.”
These bands come here despite knowing they won’t make any money, or if they do, that it’ll be just enough to pay for gas along the way.
“Some shows pay, most don’t,” said Andy Arch, a touring musician. “It’s great that people all over the earth can hear your music on blogs and buy it online, but nothing beats getting in front of people and playing.”
Based in Massachusetts, Arch is scheduled to perform as Tom Thumb at the Golden Bough on Feb. 23, his first visit to Macon.
“I’m always looking for nontraditional venues,” he said. “A place like the Golden Bough is more intimate than a bar or rock venue.”
Christopher Bell, the musician who introduced Arch to the Golden Bough, agrees.
Bell, who has been profiled by The New York Times, found Macon during his college days in Florida. He lucked into a friendship with Bush and Wakefield after the coffee shop where he used to perform stopped carrying live music. Now Macon is a regular stop again.
“I love it. I think it’s a great place to play. It just has a good feel,” he said. “The crowd really listens.”
Like the bands he brings, Bush doesn’t make a dime, instead working as a sound man for Wild Wing Café at The Shoppes at River Crossing to pay the bills. He said he spends money to put on shows at the Golden Bough.
But he does it because he loves music. It’s in his blood, he said.
Raised by his grandparents, Bush’s biological father was Tad Bush, a Capricorn-era recording engineer who worked on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s legendary “Street Survivors” album. Tad Bush passed away when Clark Bush was 14, but Clark didn’t know until he was older that his father had been so into music.
By then, Clark Bush was already on his way, building his own sound systems and tooling around with turntables. As if his local music pedigree needed any help, Clark Bush’s stepfather is Joseph “Red Dog” Campbell, the well-known Allman Brothers Band roadie.
This son of one of Macon’s last great waves of music is paving the way for another great wave.
“I finally got tired of talking about it and had to do something about it,” he said.
Now the shows are booked at the Golden Bough through May, bringing out new faces and even younger crowds.
“I know there’s people out there who want something different,” Bush said.
People want something different like the music of the White Suns, a Brooklyn-based outfit that blends punk’s fast pace with the abrasiveness of noise rock.
When the White Suns come to Macon to play in a special Saturday gig at the Golden Bough on Feb. 27, it will be drummer Dana Matthiessen’s first time in the South. Along the way, he’s noticed that big cities don’t have a monopoly on cool, hip and interesting. It’s in the small towns, too.
“If you can find it, there’s some really good, tight-knit group of kids into the music,” he said, “and they all come out to the shows to support it.”
Cutway agrees and said it’s the best thing going for music in Macon.
“It’s like people just figure if the band is going to the trouble of playing, they’ll go ahead and listen,” he said. “It gives out-of-town people the perception that maybe Macon is a lot cooler and a lot more open than it is.”