By Wendy Binns
We found a seat on the bench, contributed a donation to the musicians, opened some beers brought from home and listened to the Georgia Crackers play tunes from the 1920’s. We were in Grant Park at Grocery on Home.
Several of my friends ended up there that night, not really understanding where we were going. One of the band members joked that he didn’t understand where they were going either. He said, “Grocery on Home? I thought we were going to an abandoned Ukrops or something.” It’s not that kind of grocery. It’s the kind that once upon a time likely sold RC Colas and Tom’s snack foods. Probably friends stood out front in coveralls talking about the Braves.
Today, this former grocery store in Grant Park is a private venue where Matt Arnett and Chad Crowley bring in live music, film screenings and discussion groups.
I first met Matt when The Gee’s Bend Singers were opening for The Carolina Chocolate Drops at Variety Playhouse about a year ago. Matt, like me (and my mother-in-law, I might add), is a fan of the now famous Gee’s Bend quilters. In fact, he and his father, Bill Arnett, created the award-wining books and exhibitions of the quilts. Matt and Chad also collaborated on a film project about five years ago about the music of Gee’s Bend. Those quilters formed a gospel group, which is enchanting.
It’s apropos that Matt and Chad’s new project is fostering a love of arts.
Matt Arnet: Anyone that knows me knows there is no such thing as a short story, unfortunately. But I grew up in a house filled with art and activity. My parents’ home was often filled with visitors from around the world, everyone from scholars and artists to athletes and performers. I always knew that one day I wanted to have a home like that, and expose my kids to that kind of experience. When I moved into an old community grocery store in Grant Park the first thing I did was connect the upstairs and the downstairs (by knocking a hole in the brick wall) and build a landing and stairs (Chad’s brother Andy did that amazing work). The first time I stood on the landing, it felt like I was on a stage. I called Chad, who shares my eclectic mix of musical tastes, and said, “I think we need to have music at the Grocery. The types of music events and conversations we’ve talked about hosting, I think the Grocery would be the perfect location for them.” Chad got it right away.
The idea really is to bring interesting music and lively conversations to an intimate live audience. I’m drawn to the salon style of thing that has developed, and that’s what we’d hoped for. If a musician who is drawn to environmental causes (like Ben Sollee) can come and entertain an audience and then connect with someone in the audience (like Lewis Perkins) and then find ways to work on projects together in the future, that excites me.
Chad Crowley: Matt and I grew up very differently. I grew up going to this old train station in Jonesboro on Saturday nights to hear all these old guys play fiddles and banjos. We called it “going to music making.” But the result was really quite similar to what Matt experienced in that it was like one big twisted awesome family every week. Also, as a filmmaker, I’ve been so driven creatively by music programs like Austin City Limits, that speaking to that on film was bound to happen. Then Matt found this old grocery store and it all just kind of stirred those two ingredients up for me.
What has been a highlight since it started?
MA: It is hard to overlook all the great music that has been made and shared in the Grocery, and it would be impossible to single out any one performance. But a few events stand out for me. One that comes to mind and is probably what helped us realize the potential for the Grocery, was when our friend, the great visual artist Lonnie Holley, did a somewhat impromptu performance that was really powerful. My friend Lance Ledbetter brought over an old, Italian organ and Lonnie made some amazing music on it. Lance and I are now producing Lonnie’s first record, which I think will really blow people away.
One night Ben Sollee was killing it on his cello and my daughter Viva turned to me and said, “Dad, I swear there must be a dozen little people inside Ben’s cello playing all those other instruments.” Viva fell asleep before the second set was over, and when she woke up, she said, “Dad, did Ben play ‘Only a Song’?” (It’s her favorite song). I told her that she’d fallen asleep before he played it. After every one left, Ben took out his cello and sat down with Viva and played it just for her. Watching my 8-year-old daughter have a private concert with her favorite musician made that night pretty special.
CC: There was this moment I remember. I don’t think I even remember who was on stage, though I’m sure they were amazing. But I was perched up on the overlook in the back of the room looking through a camera and I looked down and saw this sea of people. Everybody just looked so comfortable. And it might sound hokey but they all just had this look of edification on their faces. And I thought, “Wow, we gave life to this.”
What kind of crowd are you drawing?
MA: Because the shows spread by word of mouth, we’ve had an interesting mix of folks. Lots of folks in the arts community have come. We’ve had chefs and food writers. Television and film producers, radio and television personalities, professors, music industry people, writers, designers, and many other people who love hearing great music in a unique environment. Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Lewis Perkins, who comes a fair amount. I love Lewis Perkins.
CC: I’d dare to say a Grocery audience is one of the most diverse and interesting in the city. It might be my most cherished part of doing this really. I love the music and artists, but it’s watching the improvisational forces at work that bring people from all walks and backgrounds together in this place that never ceases to amaze me.
Who would be your dream guest performer?
MA: I dreamed that people would come to this old grocery store in Grant Park and find kindred sprits and hear great music and want to come back. My dream performers and guests come every time we have a show. I didn’t really answer your question, did I?
CC: I heard Jack White just made a record with Wanda Jackson. I could see those two melting faces from that tiny little stage.
MA: That would be fantastic. I suppose I’d love to hear Sam Parton (from the be good tanyas) singing “The Littlest Birds” on the Grocery stage. That would make me smile.
MA: I’ve long been a fan of Atlanta’s music scene. Lots of great music is coming out of this town in all genres. I had the great pleasure of looking at, and talking about, art recently with Bradford Cox (Deerhunter) and Cole Alexander (Black Lips). I dig what they do. I met them through my friend Lance Ledbetter, who I mentioned earlier, who is someone whose work I admire. I learn a lot about music from every conversation I have with Lance (Lance and his wife April run Dust-to-Digital). If you don’t know about the work of Dust-to-Digital, check them out (www.dust-digital.com).
I also listen to a lot of AM1690. I can usually find what I’m looking for there.
CC: I’ve still not been down to Johnny “Hurricane” Jones’ church to hear him do his thing. Hopefully I can make it happen soon. That guy has been killing it every Sunday for like 50 years. That’s the real thing.
Can you recommend some favorite venues for local music?
MA: I’ll go anywhere where good music happens. My personal favorite places are Eddie’s Attic, The EARL, Blind Willie’s and The Variety Playhouse. I also love WonderRoot (I just joined the board there). There are also some other great “house concert” venues in town, just ask around. I also like sitting in the front seat of the car with the kids in the back. Some pretty interesting local music comes out of my old truck, too.
CC: I wish Dr Bombay’s Underwater Tea Party would do music. I hide in there quite a bit and write. It’s the most inspiring place for me in the city.
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