Eddie’s Attic Turns Twenty

For his whole life, Eddie Owen has been searching for the perfect place to hear live music. But if you thought he found it at Eddie’s Attic, the legendary Decatur venue he opened twenty years ago, think again

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.

“My respect for songwriters is built out of a failure to be able to do it myself,” says Owen, who grew up singing in the church choir and around his grandma’s upright Baldwin piano. He fell in love with the Beatles and the way John Lennon crafted poetic lyrics with complementary chords. But then he picked up the guitar in high school and started writing his own songs, compositions he never even titled. “I sucked,” he says. “They weren’t good enough for names.”

In 1981 Owen was twenty-six, tending bar at the Trackside Tavern, a rowdy brick and wood-paneled joint along the railroad less than half a mile from Decatur Square. Back then the music scene was built around bands like R.E.M., which was drawing national attention to Athens. The only places to see live music in Atlanta were loud bars, clubs like Hedgens in Buckhead, Rumors in Decatur, 688 on Spring Street, or the Moonshadow Saloon on Piedmont Road, and the singer-songwriters were lost in the ruckus. To Owen acoustic music was pure and clean; he could hear every note and savor every word. “But there was no place to just sit and listen,” he says. “It drove me crazy.” Owen persuaded the Trackside owners to let him book acoustic acts in the middle of the week.

But Trackside was like any other bar, with TVs, dartboards, and high-backed booths. It was hard to see where the singer and his beat-up Taylor guitar fit in. “It was a drinking bar,” says Matthew Kahler, who played for Owen at Trackside. “It was pretty interesting that he wanted to put something that delicate in that setting. Where a drunk could fall off a barstool and wreck the entire thing. It wasn’t perfect. But we were there because the guy behind the bar was crazy about music.”

“I was trying to nurture songwriters at a point where most folks were trying to nurture their next beer or joint,” says Owen, who sometimes had to personally quiet the audience, shushing people while serving drinks from behind the bar. “But once the word and the vibe spread, it sort of took care of itself.” Trackside became home for not only local folk luminaries like Caroline Aiken and Kodac Harrison, but also budding singer-songwriters like Shawn Mullins, Emily Saliers, and Amy Ray, whom Owen had first spotted playing in a Decatur pizza parlor before she joined Saliers to form the Indigo Girls. In a business where it’s almost impossible for a young artist to be heard, Owen listened. In the late 1980s, an underage Kristian Bush sneaked into Trackside and did his Emory homework at the bar, just to be close to the music. One night, Bush says, Owen handed him a guitar and a Budweiser and asked to see what the young man could do—the bartender recognized potential. “I sucked pretty bad for years,” says Bush. “But he let me play. He protected us. He allowed us to write what we wanted to write.”

But at Trackside, acoustic music was still the sideshow. One night in the spring of 1992, Owen took Kahler and Bush to Conversations, a bar at 515 North McDonough Street where Owen worked a second job, and led them to an empty upstairs storage room with hardwood floors, a high ceiling, and a giant palisade window that looked out on downtown Decatur. Here, Owen told them, he was going to lease the space and build a place where they could play, and people would be quiet and listen.

“When he called me with the idea, I said, ‘How can I help?’” says Saliers. Fresh off the success of the Indigo Girls’ eponymous major label debut, she and bandmate Amy Ray were two of the Attic’s initial investors (some of whom, Owen says, he is still paying back). Saliers and Ray also donated a pair of speakers for the sound system. Mullins, Bush, and Harrison helped paint the walls. Meanwhile Owen, who still lived alone in a Decatur apartment, threw everything into the project—his savings and his passion. At the time, he didn’t really know what a mission statement was, but he wanted to reiterate to everyone what the music room was about. He composed the seventy-five-word message and a coworker stenciled it onto a folded-over king-sized bedsheet.

The sheet was hung onstage, with a half dozen plastic Budweiser banners that simply read Shhhh on the walls. And on May 7, 1992, Eddie’s Attic opened its doors. There was no bar in the listening room, the drinks being dispensed solely from the patio. There were only stools, chairs, and tables packed with eager fans focused on the stage. “It’s just you and your guitar,” says Bush, whose band Billy Pilgrim was one of the first acts booked. “And at the end of the day, it’s all about your songs.”

The Lovely Drifters are setting up. With their guitar and cello, Amy Andrews and Alex Sia, who relocated from Baltimore a year and a half ago to Atlanta’s more nurturing music scene, are Owen’s fill-in for a last-minute cancellation. Owen is a sucker for the cello, which, he says, is the closest instrument to the human voice.

Standing in front of the sound booth in the back of the room with a coffee cup of bourbon, Owen surveys the forty or so people scattered throughout the room—not a bad draw for a Wednesday night and just ten days’ notice. The lights go down and Attic chatter yields to simple strings. But as Andrews’s soprano washes over the room, Owen winces, as if his whiskey has been replaced with day-old coffee. After a few bars, he turns and leaves through the swinging kitchen door and strides back to the patio bar. Something is wrong with the sound in the room. “I can’t tell you exactly what it is,” he says. “And I love this song and I love her voice, but I just couldn’t stand it in there.”

He joins three patrons sitting at the bar, watching the live feed through the monitor. The man seated next to Owen is an aging musician, evident by the receding line of his long, dishwater-blond coif, which seems to be gradually sliding off the back of his head.

“I’ve been in Decatur, playing Eddie’s Attic with various bands for fifteen years,” he announces. “I remember Jennifer Nettles before she talked with a Southern accent. John Mayer took money at the door for my band. He was a tool back then, too, acting like he was too good for that . . . which, I guess he was.”

But the man only gets Owen to engage when he brings up the Red Clay Theatre, Owen’s latest project, a 14,000-square-foot theater in downtown Duluth that Owen believes could match—and even surpass—the Attic, in terms of a pure “listening environment.”

“I’ve heard it sounds awesome,” says the man. “Like Symphony Hall.”

Owen pats the man’s back. “And I didn’t pay him to say that,” he says.

“And I’m not going to ask him to book my band here in a second,” says the man with a wink.

The chuckles subside, and the musician returns to the Lovely Drifters on the monitor hanging above the bar. Owen turns away and just above a whisper says, “This is a very important part of my job. Because I don’t know this guy, but I have to pretend that I do.”

In the weeks and months after the Attic’s grand opening, cafe tables and chairs were set out, and a standing bar was built in the middle of the room. Later came oversized carpeted stairs for people to climb and sit on like the studio audience of an old afternoon TV kids show. The official seating capacity has always been about 150, but they often cram in an extra twenty or thirty.

In the early days, there were pool tables in the back room. One night in the mid-1990s, Saliers was shooting pool with Owen and singers Uncle Mark Reynolds and Andrew Hyra, when local songwriter Pierce Pettis came bounding up the steps and threw his guitar case on the felt in the middle of the game: You have got to hear this. Pettis broke out a driving ballad called “You Move Me,” which was eventually recorded by Garth Brooks.

Stories like this drew young musicians to Eddie’s. “You don’t know who is in the back of the room,” says Bush. “This industry is pretty impossible. At Eddie’s, it seems like it is possible.” Billy Pilgrim got picked up by Atlantic Records—they signed their contract at the Attic. Even when major label A&R guys weren’t at the bar, Eddie’s was a place where connections were made. It was there that Bush met a singer named Jennifer Nettles, who fronted folk-rock act Soul Miner’s Daughter and the Jennifer Nettles Band before joining Bush in the country megagroup Sugarland.

But often, the best connection a young act could make was with Owen. In 1994 he started the Songwriter’s Open Mic Monday, a weekly contest where artists could perform two original songs for one judge: Owen. The winners were invited back for the biannual shoot-out, a single-elimination tournament for $1,000 toward recording an album. Ten to twenty hopefuls were signing up every Monday. By the mid-1990s, Owen was fielding twenty to thirty CDs—many containing full-length albums—each week. Owen enlisted help from Bush and Mullins and other trusted ears to pare down the stack, but the owner always had the final say. He looked for energy and chemistry, but in the end only one thing mattered. “They all work their asses off, and they’re all talented,” he says. “But if you don’t have the songs, you can’t get there.”

And once he found a songwriter he liked, there was little he wouldn’t do to help—even if it meant grooming him to outgrow the Attic. Bush remembers Owen standing at the bar, listing the other clubs Bush should be calling. In the late 1990s, Owen met a twenty-year-old guitar player who had just moved down from Boston. John Mayer’s first gig ever was a Monday night open mic. He won. “I remember asking Eddie how to get booked there for a show of my own,” says Mayer. “He told me to send him a demo packet, which was a folder you’d mail with a photo, a CD, and a bio—he had to explain that to me.” Owen gave Mayer a regular gig and hired him as a doorman for $40 a night, and whenever there was a cancellation or a twenty-minute opening, Mayer was Owen’s go-to guitar. Mayer went on to play South by Southwest in Austin and was later picked up by Columbia Records, recording 2001’s “Room for Squares,” which won a Grammy and sold 4 million copies. Mayer gave Owen framed versions of the platinum records, which now hang above the Attic door.

“For a little bitty shithole, we book pretty far out,” says Owen, phone to ear, sitting by the Attic window in the waning March daylight. The spectacles that usually dangle on a lanyard around his neck are balanced on the tip of his nose, magnifying his foggy blue eyes. On the bar is a calendar of May, boxes marred with names and numbers. But the voice on the other end doesn’t seem to understand. “Any date between now and June is going to be booked,” says Owen.

The voice belongs to a network producer from Los Angeles, calling to schedule a film session with Jennifer Nettles for an upcoming TV special. “We don’t have a greenroom,” Owen continues. “And we’re on the second story with no elevator.” Pause. “A lot of the time, the TV grips say, ‘Oh, shit!’” Pause. “Well, I sold it to Jennifer and her husband, so she knows the space better than I do,” he says, and then he grins with an overbite. “Now I just work here.”

In 2002, after ten years of being the first one in and last one out six days a week, Owen was torn. His family was growing—a brand-new baby girl to join two boys, five and six—and he felt like he was missing their lives. For years he had thought about selling. So when his good friends Nettles and her husband, aspiring nightclub owner Todd Van Sickle, called to ask Owen’s advice on getting into the business, Owen saw a way out. “Emotions were very mixed,” he says. “I was losing a part of me. But my family is the most important thing.” And he was leaving the Attic in trusted hands. In the spring of 2002, Owen sold the place and found a regular job as an events coordinator at the Ritz-Carlton in Morgan County, where he moved his family. Over the next three years, he hardly set foot in the Attic.

Meanwhile Van Sickle made the mistake of trying to run the Attic as a viable business. While Owen had given 98 percent of the door to the artist, keeping only enough to pay the soundman and doorman, Van Sickle cut it to 80 percent, which he saw as closer to par with the industry (a split the Attic still applies). He hired Shalom Aberle, a soundboard maestro who had worked clubs in California and has become an Attic institution known for recording live stereo mixes that sound studio-made. Van Sickle also informed staff that they should no longer silence people. He took down the Shhhh banners and the mission statement. He thought he was liberating the customer. But some regulars and artists became resentful. “It was still a good place,” says Kahler. “But it was too loud for me.”

In May 2005, Van Sickle sold the Attic to Bob Ephlin, a former exec with Wolf Camera. One of Ephlin’s first moves was to ask Owen to return to run the bar and booking. “In a brief fit of insanity,” Owen says, he accepted. But he made sure he had a set schedule and made it a point to eat breakfast with his kids every morning at 6.

The mission statement returned to the stage. “It just seemed like the place was reconnected with its legacy,” says Aberle, who was working with Owen for the first time. “The Indigo Girls and John Mayer magically reappeared. Musicians and fans so wanted to reach out, hug him, look him in the eye and tell him how happy they were and what he meant to them.” Over the next four years, attendance doubled. The Attic expanded its email database to more than 9,000 addresses. In 2008 Georgia Public Broadcasting launched “Eddie’s Attic Presents,” a weekly radio show featuring Attic performances interwoven with Owen spinning the stories behind the artists and songs from a script he wrote himself. Ephlin even recorded an “Austin City Limits”–style TV pilot to shop to the networks. Owen interviewed the acts.

Magic still happened at the Attic. In the age of iTunes, artists submitted a couple of songs instead of albums, enabling Owen to handle the talent search alone on his seventy-minute commute from Morgan County, listening to CDs, and eventually MP3s and links through his iPhone. Today he receives more than 500 emails a day.

In 2009 Owen booked a young Nashville songwriter named John Paul White to open a Friday night show. At the last minute, White wanted to bring along a new singer, Joy Williams, whom he had just met. Owen agreed. It was their second show together. But during sound check, Owen says, “every head turned and every jaw hit the floor.” The Civil Wars recorded their nine-song Attic set and made it available for free on the Internet—an album on which you can hear silverware clanging in the background and which was eventually downloaded by more than 100,000 people. The duo has since won two Grammys.

To fans and artists, it was as if the founder had never left. But from behind the bar, it was clear that the Attic was no longer Eddie’s. Owen felt pressure to book acts that would bring in more customers. “When it was my money, I didn’t give a rat’s ass if three people came, as long as I was one of those three,” he says. “I had to reshift that thinking,” taking into account what will sell as opposed to just booking acts he liked.

Shut up and listen.

You can drink your beer at the Red Clay Theatre, but there is no long-winded mission statement on the wall, no signs shhhh-ing you. In fact, aside from a gentle reminder to silence your phone, Owen’s preshow spiel from the Red Clay stage is devoid of lecture. “I don’t have to,” he says. “Here, when the lights go down, the people know to hush up. This is a theater.” The only interruption is the horn of a nearby freight train that rumbles by thirty-five times a day.

Last fall officials from Duluth approached Owen about starting a concert series in a downtown church that the city had bought and spent $800,000 converting into a home for a performance theater company. The theater company went under in 2008, and the building, with its stage, seats, and industrial-grade sound system, had sat vacant and unused ever since. “This building has the capability of being the best listening house anywhere,” says Duluth Economic Development Manager Chris McGahee. “And if it is associated with Eddie Owen, you know it doesn’t suck. Especially now, when iPods and iPads enable anyone to make music, Eddie is the filter. These days, his talent is even more critical.”

Owen was smitten. Here was a building tailored for music. With 257 seats, it was bigger than the Attic, but still small enough to be intimate. And since the note had been paid for by the city, the private-public partnership made the bottom line work, theoretically. The city would provide the building in exchange for 40 percent of the proceeds. Owen would take care of operating costs. Owen quietly left the Attic in October 2011 to pursue the Duluth concert series, “Eddie Owen Presents,” full time. But he quickly ran short of capital. Meanwhile, Ephlin announced he was selling the Attic to legendary concert promoter Alex Cooley and his partner, Dave Mattingly. They just needed someone to run the place. “I agreed to help them, if they helped me,” Owen says. After a two-month hiatus, Owen was back at the Attic—but with Cooley’s and Mattingly’s investment, “Eddie Owen Presents” was now a reality.

You still can’t smoke at the Red Clay Theatre—law of Duluth, not that it stops Owen. The billiard pipe hanging from his lips leaves a locomotive trail of sweet tobacco smoke throughout the Red Clay corridors, down the stairwell, and into the artists’ dressing room, where Owen is laying out the hummus, Triscuits, and trail mix that he fetched from a nearby Publix for Shawn Mullins, tonight’s headliner. That’s right, there’s a dressing room. Two, actually—complete with light-lined mirrors. Down the hall, there’s a greenroom, a kitchen, and two other empty rooms. That’s just the basement. Upstairs the stage alone is as big as half the entire Attic.

Tonight will be the fourteenth show in five months, but the goal is to fill the theater’s calendar as full as the Attic’s. Then Owen can set his sights on the other half of his Red Clay dream: using the two vacant basement rooms as classrooms for a music and songwriting school, where artists can teach children the craft. “The school is bigger than Eddie Owen,” says Owen. “So much of the Attic is all about Eddie, my personality, my relationships with agents and artists . . . there’s definitely a different feel to the Attic when Eddie’s not there. And that’s not a good thing. I wish I had known that I would need more than Budweisers and hamburgers and that I’d need to monetize what we were doing there. I wish I could be certain that Eddie’s will keep doing that after I’m gone.” The Red Clay offers Owen a new beginning.

The doors open at 6:50 p.m. Owen slides on a gray blazer over his navy Nike mock-turtleneck and rushes out to shake hands with every person who walks through the glass doors. He asks each one of them where they are from. He wants to get an unofficial tally of how many people are Attic folks from intown and how many are from outside the Perimeter. In order for the Red Clay Theatre to work, he says, he needs to show that there are two audiences. As the auditorium fills, the theater’s fifth sellout, Owen’s estimate is about 80 percent OTPers.

Once Mullins is onstage, Owen continues his ambassadorship by giving a tour of the theater to Mullins’s entourage. Even when the ambience is broken by the train horn running within a hundred feet of the building, rattling the floor, Owen just smiles. It reminds him of his days at Trackside. “I don’t think I’ll ever leave the Attic,” he later says. “But there is an energy and a feeling when I’m in this place that I haven’t felt in a long time.”

The next day, Owen is back at the Attic for a Shawn Mullins double feature—Owen tries to get a lot of Attic artists to play in Duluth while they’re in town. But of course, Mullins is an old friend. The shows are to celebrate the singer’s forty-fourth birthday.

The Attic is packed—both shows sold out—and Owen wends his way to the stage. His face is sunburnt, his mouth dry from six packs of sunflower seeds, having come straight from watching his sons play a baseball doubleheader. “When I first met Shawn,” he tells the crowd, “I was a bartender at Trackside Tavern. Shawn wasn’t of drinking age—he was fifteen. But even then, he was a talented, talented singer and songwriter . . . ”

Owen finishes the quick bio. And then: “For those of you who haven’t been here before, we do something a little weird for a bar. Now thank God for Budweiser and hamburgers and we want you to partake heavily. But please, hush up. Just shhhh!”

The room of regulars answers with enthusiastic applause.

As Mullins starts his show, Owen slips back to his post in front of the sound booth. The set kicks into gear, and Owen gradually gives in to the music—first a head bob, then the long body begins to sway, eyes close, fingers snap, and eventually he sings along, adding harmonies in a high Irish tenor. Right now, he’s not dreaming about Duluth, or fretting about the Attic’s future. He isn’t thinking about anything at all. He is caught up in the moment, lost in the song.