UPDATE: On May 14, Eddie Owen announced that he had been fired from Eddie's Attic. Read Rich Eldredge's blog post about Owen's departure, Owen's response, and Alex Cooley's take on the situation.
Shut up and listen.
You can drink your beer and scrape the last bits of mac and cheese from the bottom of the bowl. You can even leave your cell phone on to illuminate the menu—just be sure the ringer is switched to silent. If you don’t have the patience to read the entire seventy-five-word mission statement hanging on the stage backdrop, just focus on the first two sentences: Eddie’s Attic is a music venue concentrating on the performing and touring singer-songwriter and acoustic musician. We encourage a listening atmosphere. “We need you to eat and drink as much as possible,” announces the Attic’s namesake, fifty-six-year-old Eddie Owen, before the opening act. “But please, hush up.”
You can’t smoke, either. Owen, a longtime pipe-smoker himself, banned the practice when he first opened the Attic in 1992. Just one less distraction.
If you, the paying customer, are feeling put upon, you’re probably not alone. The Americana band you paid to see tonight, Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors, left their electric instruments on the truck. Instead they lugged a half dozen acoustic guitars and a man-sized stand-up bass along with the drums to the second floor and have crammed their five-piece unit onto the tiny corner stage. They stripped down their songs so as not to overwhelm the confines with distorted guitar, booming bass, or crashing cymbal. The band has played 800-seat theaters, but tonight will put on two shows to two capacity audiences of around 180 people in this room.
So why are we here? Why do we pay to be treated like children in church? Why do established artists agree to take the Decatur detour on their tour of theaters and arenas? And why does management discourage patrons from buying another round in the name of quiet, a business model that has kept this venue teetering for twenty years?
John Mayer, who started out at the Attic fourteen years ago and has since moved 20 million albums and sold out Madison Square Garden four times, explains why he comes back to the Attic for surprise shows: “When a room is making noise—let’s say on a scale of one to ten, it’s a four—you lose all the music you can make from one to four,” he says. “You lose so much touch and nuance. There’s so much beautiful music that happens between a pin dropping and the first bit of chatter. That’s where some of the best music in the world came from, and that’s why Eddie’s has that magic.”
Owen, a failed musician and lover of whiskey and baseball, lives for that ethereal space, the space between pin-drop and chatter, and his devotion has attracted like-minded acts such as Mayer, Shawn Mullins, Sugarland, and the Civil Wars, who launched their careers from this stage. It has also provided thousands of moments between listeners and artists you’ve never heard of, songwriters selected by Owen himself. Attic regulars show up without even knowing who’s on the calendar. “It’s like having someone picking your Netflix queue for you,” says Sugarland’s Kristian Bush, who played here on the Attic’s second night, twenty years ago. Owen’s ear for talent and his dedication to the idea of a listening room have enabled the Attic to celebrate two decades of national renown in Decatur this month, while music venues around the country sit shuttered and silent.
But despite the Attic’s artistic success, the struggling business has become more of a distraction for its founder. Twenty years on, Owen’s search for the perfect place to hear live music has taken him miles away from his Attic.