MILLEDGEVILLE — Stacii Adams calls himself the "Boss of Blues."
The musician carries himself like a star.
“I’m in a place where a lot of people do music and you have people that do it for the love or for the finances, I do it for both,” Adams said. “I love to do it and the goal is to treat it like a business.”
Adams grew up in Milledgeville around other musicians. He said he would rather watch them perform and sing in a barbershop and look up to them, than watch a celebrity on television — for him it is about seeing the talent and learning from them.
“I’m one of the only Southern soul blues artists around here doing what I’m doing,” Adams said. “I take music very seriously.”
So do many musicians in the SunLight Project region of Dalton, Milledgeville, Moultrie, Thomasville, Tifton and Valdosta.
No matter where they call home, musicians seem to have the same knack for life — a curious mind, charisma and a desire to create.
These traits transcend across musicians young and old, from local bands to favorite classic rock bands; on the stage, they create a certain charm that drives people to pay attention to what they are saying with lyrics, guitar riffs or piano notes.
Local musicians have been around for ages. Some making it big — think the Allman Brothers, Otis Redding and even James Brown. Georgia is home to musicians from the Southern roots of the Bible Belt that create boot-stomping country music, soulful vocals, R&B rhythms and funky raps, all of whom are trying to create a name for themselves and their visions.
Though the SunLight cities are different, there are common threads that connect them: Music festivals, a variety of venues and styles and more.
Music creating revenue
Thomasville has been a culturally aware community that supports and appreciates the arts, especially great music of many different styles. Thomasville is best known for its roots in big band, jazz style musings. There, the music is all made possible by an arts foundation, Thomasville Entertainment Foundation.
For more than 80 years, people from South Georgia and North Florida have had the opportunity to see the best of the best in classical music, jazz, dance, big band, theatre, opera and folk music, to name a few, in Thomasville.
"We don't have to travel to New York or Chicago, London or Vienna, to see the top artists, ensembles, orchestras or dance troupes. They perform right here on TEF's annual series,” said Rick Ivey, TEF’s executive and artistic director. “And that has a tremendous quality-of-life impact, not just on the citizenry as a whole, but on the young people who grow up here.”
The City of Thomasville brings musical entertainment to the city throughout the year in various ways: First Friday Sip and Strolls, Another Night of Bluegrass concerts, Rose Show and Festival and Victorian Christmas all feature strong music elements that create a unique sense of place for visitors and locals.
"These music events engage audiences of all ages and tastes, exposing them to different cultures and ideas through the magic of music,” said Sheryl Sealy, city managing director for marketing and communications. “Music events add tremendous cultural value to the Thomasville experience, and they also provide a significant economic impact to downtown Thomasville by promoting dining and shopping in the downtown district. In addition to locals and day-trippers, these events also encourage visitors to travel to Thomasville and enjoy overnight stays, contributing to the hotel-motel tax, spending money in local restaurants and purchasing fuel.”
Much like Thomasville, music in Milledgeville brings revenue to the city. From First Friday live music performances to an award-winning music festival, Deep Roots, the music scene in Milledgeville has created its own magic and brought it to the city.
The annual music festival successfully makes downtown the star year after year, elevating the local community to a much higher stage and showcasing local retailers and restaurants to an audience of thousands.
Moultrie is creating a new venture to bring music — and entertainment dollars — to Colquitt County.
The Georgia Country Music Hall of Fame is coming to Moultrie to spotlight local musicians with an awards ceremony and museum. At its head is Shirley Maule.
Maule is taking nominations for the Georgia Country Music Hall of Fame. So far, she has seven, but she’s looking to gather around 60 before closing for voting.
And it comes back to the Atlanta Country Music Hall of Fame and its lack of South Georgia musicians. Maule’s main thing is making sure those musicians get honored.
“This place is loaded with some of the best musicians around. When you’ve got only one out of 45 from this area (being nominated), you know there’s something wrong going on,” she said.
Gentry and Nancy Widner are both local musicians and head the Seaplane Opry House in Moultrie. Both musicians noted they’re always coming across a new musician within Colquitt County’s midst.
That’s why they’re heavily advocating for the hall of fame.
“It’ll give you more inspiration to play music,” Gentry Widner said. “It’ll also make them feel like they’re getting something in return.”
The life of a musician, regardless of locality, is not often a transactional one. Their music is given to the world, but not much is given back in turn. For Gentry Widner, it should be transactional.
“You want to always have something you can lean on,” at least before it’s too late, he said. “When you’re playing and you’ve done it for so many years, you don’t really have anything to make yourself say, ‘See. Look at what I’ve done.' And not only that; when you’re playing so much — like I do — you don’t get to record this stuff. You don’t get to write it down.”
For Maule though, the main perk, besides achieving the hall’s original goal, is giving musicians, their fans, family and friends convenience.
“When you go to receive a plaque like this, you invite everybody you can think of. You want them to be there while this is happening and 220 miles (away) is a lot for people to go,” Maule said. “That’s why it needs to be down here so there’ll be maybe 35 miles they have to go to see the musician they may be a fan of.”
In Dalton, an outside music series draws people.
For the past two years, visitors to downtown Dalton have enjoyed the free Off The Rails Summer Music Series that features concerts at Burr Performing Arts Park each Friday night during the summer.
The concerts are family- and pet-friendly. The concerts regularly draw several hundred people, and local officials said a few have brought more than 1,000 people to Burr Park.
Different sounds rocking towns
Along with festivals and ways to bring revenue to the cities, music genres differ throughout SunLight Project area.
Country music, jazz and blues, rap and hip-hop all permeate through each town’s veins. The guttural response from the community is both riveting and powerful for the locals trying to make it big.
Despite growing up in a poor area of Milledgeville, Stacii Adams has big dreams.
But it's experiences that put the life into his lyrics and music.
“I grew up in a poverty-stricken situation that motivated me and taught me how life can be,” he said. “Milledgeville helped mold me in the fact that there was a lot of pressure, a lot of trials and tribulations to overcome, a lot of jealousy to overcome, a lot of resentment, a lot of people not believing in you. Milledgeville helped prepare me for the world. ... I’m from a place where having a single-wide, double-wide trailer was the life, until I saw a mansion.”
Adams’ music pulls listeners in with his soulful voice but his rhythms that make feet want to dance keep audiences tuned in. His talent transcends races and ages.
His small hometown shaped Adams into being the musician he is today. And for most local artists, this remains true.
Much like the soul-funk of Adams, Valdosta is home to a punk scene that inspires underground creatives to become independent artists.
Valdosta has a rich history of creatives coming together to make their own music and art. From the late 1970s, there are people such as Mark Neill and Bruce Joyner going on to find success in Los Angeles with songs they wrote playing in Valdosta.
In the late '90s, a thriving underground brought Lee Dyess to Valdosta where he witnessed the growth of a local punk scene and began an independent recording studio as well.
Today, there is a strong underground community of musicians and fans coming together at the new Valdosta DIY House. There, touring and local acts come to perform house shows to another generation of music lovers. Much of what is happening there excites veterans such as Dyess and Neill.
Dyess is a producer and owner of Earthsound Recording in Valdosta. He opened in February 1999 and is observing his 20th year in business. He has recorded albums for artists such as Against Me!, Go Radio, Mayday Parade and Ninja Gun.
“There’s definitely a lot of people I know here that are 100 percent about local music and DIY underground stuff,” he said.
“I’ve always, with Valdosta, simultaneously really enjoy what's here and continues to be here but also sort of lamented that it’s not bigger,” Dyess said. “I do love that there are people here that are passionate about music that are willing to get out and play whether they’re playing a big event at Ashley Street Station or they’re playing a tour, or playing in a house for 20 people.
"Because on some level, that’s a lot of what underground music is about. It’s just the passion for playing music and sharing it to people and you put your all into whether it’s 1,000 people or 10 people. Or at least that’s what I’ve always got out of it.”
In Thomasville, guitarist Randy Young said the eclectic feel of his hometown definitely plays a part in his free-spirit sound.
Randy Young plays guitar with The Skinks, a classic dance rock band playing 1960s, '70s and '80s dance rock music.
Young and Chris Bragg had an acoustic duo that opened for Glen Campbell and Three Dog Night.
For now, Young plays pieces that have feeling and are calculated.
"For my taste, I want free-wheeling and feeling,” he said.
Thomas County, he said, is a community of a variety of music, while some communities are rooted in a certain type of music.
For Dalton, its musical roots may be more centered around one genre: country.
Dalton is the hometown of Tripp Howell, drummer for the country music group Lanco, whose 2018 debut album went to No. 1 on the country music charts. The group won the Academy of Country Music award for New Group/Duo in April.
Howell began playing drums in a youth group in Dalton's Rock Bridge Community Church.
Although Nashville has been his home for six years, he said Dalton holds “such a special place in my heart.”
“I love Dalton, my brother and I come home for the holidays and during the summer as much as possible,” he said. “It’s one of the places I go and it really feels like home.”
Keeping musicians’ homes close to heart is something that helps keep them grounded and rooted in what they know most.
The rap group, Nappy Roots, originally from Milledgeville, is inspired by its members' origins.
Fish Scales, Melvin Adams, a rapper in Nappy Roots, said Milledgeville made him the musician he is today.
“When I was growing up, there were quite a few local rappers in Milledgeville,” Scales said. “I remember hearing a local rapper, Dax Bolston ... at the time, and thinking, ‘wow, I didn’t know this was something you could do in Milledgeville.’ I thought you had to be from LA or New York to record tapes. I started writing immediately.”
This hometown writing vibe is evident in the music.
“The experience I had of growing up in Milledgeville definitely comes out in my music,” he said. “It’s hard to explain but Milledgeville is a very unique town.”
All of Georgia’s artists are from unique towns such as Thomasville, Milledgeville, Dalton and Moultrie. Keeping the music alive in each place is something that local musicians are meant to do.
From creating common beats to rising in the charts, each band and musician has common goals and often times, staying in the ‘local band’ category is not one of them. However, it is evident that every musician who has made it to the top calls home the thing that inspired them to be better.
“I would like to be remembered as a — somebody who could rock your soul or make you cry with a song. And somebody who's kind, who loved to laugh, and loved his God.” — Gregg Allman
In addition to Taylor Hembree, SunLight Project team reporters Dalton Spangler, Charles Oliver, Patti Dozier and Bryce Ethridge contributed to this report.