When you think country music, you think Nashville. Blues? Chicago. Jazz? New Orleans. Most would argue Atlanta is the home of hip-hop, but Brooklyn and Los Angeles have longer and deeper hip-hop histories than their Southern counterpart. Somehow, Atlanta became a music-industry powerhouse without a signature sound.
Live in this city long enough and pieces of a seemingly random, disjointed puzzle start coming together more neatly than you’d expect. The first seeds of modern-day Atlanta were planted after General William T. Sherman set the city ablaze in 1864 during the Civil War. The population at that point was largely blue-collar; a conglomeration of coal, construction and railroad workers drawn by the city’s position as the terminating point of five railroad lines. These rough-and-tumble types promptly picked themselves up by the bootstraps and began building their city anew—the “New South,” as they called it. The era wasn’t progressive, but the vision for a new Southern city that valued enterprise over outdated tradition was. That entrepreneurial mindset, tenacity for survival, willingness to restart, drive to create—all characterize Atlanta to this day.
The art of making music has long been an endeavor that combines creativity, passion, business acumen and strength of spirit. Atlanta rebuilt itself after the Civil War and again after the Great Fire of 1917 ravaged 300 downtown acres; it was home to the wealthiest African-American street in the nation during segregation; and it gave birth to major civil rights leaders. Passion. Tenacity. Spirit.
Atlanta made itself a safe place for artists to experiment with and fine-tune their craft. What resulted was a breeding ground of musicians whose innovative sounds earned them enduring legacies in American popular culture. It’s no wonder Atlanta refuses to fit into a musical silo—the city values the artistry of making music, not the label it’s given.
So, why did hip-hop, rap and R&B take center stage? The city is infused with extraordinary African-American history and the cultural treasures that come with it. It was only natural for hip-hop, a form of music born to be the collective voice of an oppressed populace, to find a home in Atlanta in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But those genres represent only a few notes in Atlanta’s musical composition.
Today, the list of mainstream artists who got their start in Atlanta is as tremendous as it is diverse. Folk-rock duo Indigo Girls started performing at their Emory University campus. The Black Crowes formed their legendary blues-rock band in Marietta in 1989. Atlanta-born Outkast brought the world a new form of hip-hop, blending with it jazz, soul and funk.
Kansas City-born Janelle Monáe found a city that embraced her unique voice upon moving to Atlanta in 2001. She continues performing with a level of energy not many artists can emulate. Donald Glover, stage name Childish Gambino, is a fresh face in Atlanta’s music scene who first achieved fame for his role on the hit TV show, “Community.” He’s proven himself an innovative artist, spitting creative flows and dressing hip-hop beats with psychedelic synth and R&B vocals. Heavy metal rock band Mastodon formed in Atlanta in 2000, and has since received three Grammy nominations and released six studio albums, solidifying its reputation as one of the best heavy metal bands in recent memory.
Growing up just east of Atlanta in Decatur, multitalented recording artist B.o.B. discovered a love for creating music at an early age. Born Bobby Ray Simmons, Jr., this infectiously positive performer embodies Atlanta's music scene not only with his diverse repertoire—including traditional hip-hop flows, upbeat pop songs, rock-laden tracks and R&B-influenced slow jams—but also with his recently formed record label No Genre. At just 26, B.o.B. personifies the young, creative and free-spirited artists that give Atlanta its unparalleled musical reputation.
To honor the city’s love for music, we bring you the bars, venues and clubs that add to Atlanta’s sweet symphony—no genre needed.
ALT-ROCK & INDIE
This tiny bar has made a big name for itself among live music fiends. A steady schedule of alternative and indie rock bands three nights a week helps to give this small space its big reputation.
The go-big-or-go-home type, aspiring country star Bill Gentry opened this sprawling country-music club in 2003 as his personal performance space. Over 10 years later, Gentry’s stage has earned its keep as Atlanta’s go-to country bar thanks to a strong lineup of chart-topping names and up-and-comers alike, and weekly events, like line-dancing lessons on Wednesdays.
You won’t find a massive stage at this small, centrally located spot. Churchill Grounds keeps things simple in its intimate, gold-and-mahogany space—but that’s about the only unassuming thing about this jazz-focused treasure, which is located next to The Fox Theatre and features local musicians five or more nights a week.
This hidden treasure embodies the soul’s urge for artistic expression with its variety of events, including everything from spoken word to acoustic sets to rap battles. It’s all too easy to label Apache a hip-hop or “urban” music venue, but that would be selling short the innumerable soul, R&B, reggae and jazz musicians that refine their craft at this local gem—just ask multiplatinum neo-soul artist India.Arie, who was discovered here.
Smith’s Olde Bar
There aren’t many genres you won’t find at this gritty, two-story bar that knows how to gather a crowd. In the heart of Midtown, Smith’s is a local favorite and features an impressively diverse performance schedule. Here, you’ll catch big names, up-and-comers and everything in between in three rooms—the general-purpose Bar Room, large and lively Music Room and intimate Atlanta Room.
METAL & PUNK-ROCK
If you’re looking for a head-banging, mosh-pit smashing, teeth-grinding kind of night, then head to The Masquerade. A former mill, the building’s three levels each have a dedicated stage—named Hell, Purgatory and Heaven—that host a seemingly endless lineup of talented, ear drum-shattering heavy metal and punk bands.
What sounds like a creepy neighbor’s lair is actually one of the best-known venues for singer-songwriters in the nation. This second-level hideaway is where artists like Justin Bieber, John Mayer and The Civil Wars gained their first tastes of stardom. It continues to be the club for serious audiophiles to discover new talent on Monday open mic nights or catch their favorite touring musicians.
This former World War II cinema is one of the city’s most popular stops for touring artists. Thanks to the venue’s superior acoustics and sound system, many artists record live albums from their stops here (like Sara Bareilles’ “Brave Enough: Live at the Variety Playhouse”). Best yet, the venue’s size allows for major acts to perform intimate shows.