Stand anywhere in downtown Dahlonega on a sunny Saturday afternoon and you’re almost sure to hear a twanging guitar wafting through the crisp mountain air.
Maybe it’s from Shenanigans, a never-empty Irish pub that welcomes local musicians to come play. Maybe it’s from the Crimson Moon, an intimate venue where a band was gearing up for a show later that night. But a lot of the times, it’s from musicians who open up their guitar cases on the corners of the square, hoping others decided it was a good day to go out as well.
But for a town so in tune with its local musicians, it’s one with a fairly homogenous musical repertoire.
“Around here, it’s bluegrass and country. That’s it,” said Cameron Norton-McElroy, a 21-year-old University of North Georgia graduate. “That’s what everyone plays. I love bluegrass and country. They’re great genres, but I get kind of sick and tired of it after a while.”
Dahlonega’s String-Based Setlist
Norton-McElroy plays his guitar on the square when the weather is nice and he’s available. Instead of practicing guitar in his room, he decided he could come outside, enjoy the weather, and earn a few bucks while he’s at it.
The recent graduate plays mostly classic rock covers, to “change up the vibe on people.”
“It usually has a pretty solid response. People like classic rock,” Norton-McElroy said.
But this is where the variety seems to stop. The downtown Dahlonega music scene welcomes bluegrass, country and classic rock, but other harder genres do not have a place in downtown.
“There aren’t really any places around here if you’re a punk rock band or a metal band,” said Daniel Graham, a performer at Shenanigan’s on Saturday, March 30. “If you fall outside of those very safe set of genres … there’s not many places, at least what I’m aware of, that is a haven for that.”
Graham also performs as the lead singer of Atlanta-based progressive rock band Great Wide Nothing, which does not usually get gigs in Dahlonega because of its harder music style. Instead, whenever Graham plays here, he sticks with classic rock covers as well.
The town’s music preference is clear from the bookings at the venues around town. Crimson Moon hosts mostly string-based artists who play bluegrass, country and some genres in between. Shenanigans and Spirits Tarven book singer-songwriter artists who play easy-listening covers or originals of the same genre types.
People in Dahlonega have come to expect these tunes while they eat and shop, but bluegrass, the grandfather of all these genres and a reminder of the town’s mining roots and mountain culture, still prevails as the genre that gets the most attention.
A trio of men, including bassist Brian Driscoll and banjoist Jonathan Garland, set up in front of the General Store on the square and always garner a crowd of onlookers, sometimes up to 70 people, Driscoll said.
“To me, it’s like living the dream. I don’t think the Rolling Stones gets as much pleasure out of it as I do,” Driscoll said. “When you look up and see you’ve done a number and everybody is clapping, and there’s 50 people there, it’s really great.”
The trio plays covers of traditional bluegrass music with the genre’s typical fast-paced picking that even moves some audience members to dance, captivating crowds in ways that other string covers could never compare.
They dominate the block whenever they play, and Driscoll said the workers at the General Store and the Picnic Cafe and Dessertery next door notice when they haven’t been there.
“They’re the best of the best around here,” said UNG sophomore Jackson Ridgeway, who also performs soft rock covers on the square. “They bring in a lot of money and a big crowd of people.”
The genre’s pervasiveness can also be attributed to the city’s support for the music.
The Dahlonega Downtown Development Authority puts on the Dahlonega Appalachian Jam from the beginning of May to mid-October in the center of the square. “Traditional mountain music players” are invited to bring their instruments and jam with other musicians, according to the website.
These jam sessions are how Driscoll’s bluegrass trio began, and two years later they’re still getting crowds in the square.
Bear on the Square, an annual mountain festival in late April, has a lineup of bluegrass musicians and encourages Appalachian jams as part of the festivities as well. This festival is how Driscoll started playing bass.
“When I discovered bluegrass, I was like, ‘This is perfect for me because that’s what I do, just keep the beat,’” Driscoll said. “It’s a pretty simple type of music, too. Anybody can pick it up.”
With the simple beats, traditional roots and fast tempo, Dahlonega doesn’t seem like it will tire of bluegrass any time soon.
Erin Schilling is a senior majoring in journalism in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. This story was produced during the 14th Annual Woodall Weekend Workshop in Dahlonega, Georgia.
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