Book Review: “Cool Town” by Grace Elizabeth Hale

Cool Town: How Athens, Georgia Launched Alternative Music and Changed American Culture
by Grace Elizabeth Hale

(University of North Carolina Press, First Edition 2020)

Reviewed by Jim Hodgson

This should be something we do: gather people interested in art, give them time to create it, and enjoy the result. So it was with Athens, Georgia, in the ’80s as described in Grace Elizabeth Hale’s Cool Town. The results are undeniable.

If you were a kid then, you probably remember the cigarette smoke, the K-Mart knock-off version of parachute pants with broken zippers, the aggressively uninteresting Chrysler economy cars. Maybe you remember fundamentalist Christians howling about morality, then sobbing about their own deeply flawed lives. Tylenol could murder you. Halloween candy was full of pins and razorblades. The president was a famous guy, but not a politician. What must it have been like to put those things together into music that somehow made sense?

As long as we’re asking, what about now? Who can put American culture over their shoulder and drag it into the future with Christian fundamentalists, Republicans, and other so-called “conservatives” doing everything they can to hold it back?

Cool Town is a thorough and beloved answer to these questions. It explores the place, the players, and the music in impressive depth. The answer to the latter question being, of course, “young people.” All they need is a little time and maybe a few people off their backs while they’re at it.

Speaking objectively about the hardback book, it’s a detailed work of art. It has gorgeous paper, carefully-chosen – and even better, listed – typefaces, detailed epigraphs from the songs it describes. There’s even a Spotify playlist. Fans of R.E.M. and the B-52’s will find plenty of material to enjoy, but Pylon, Love Tractor, and others as well.

The book’s author, Grace Elizabeth Hale, co-founded the Downstairs, a café and music club open during the ’80s. It’s hard to imagine an author better qualified or a book more up to the task. Cool Town has done its job admirably. But we still have work to do. Why don’t we gather people interested in making art? Why don’t we give them time to create? We know we enjoy the result. Cool Town is proof.

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Jim Hodgson is a filmmaker and published author. He has written bestselling books, is a produced playwright, is an Ironman finisher and an ultramarathon finisher, and has climbed two of the world’s tallest mountains: Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua.