Old Enough To Drink: Bubbapalooza Turns 21! Remembering Gregory Dean Smalley

Posted on: May 23rd, 2012 By:

By James Kelly
Contributing Music Editor

(Note: all photos of Gregory Dean Smalley are courtesy of James Kelly)

In Atlanta’s Redneck Underground, Memorial Day weekend means one thing: BUBBAPALOOZA! For 21 years, the Star Bar has hosted a wild and wooly hootenanny of great Southern music and fun. This year’s event takes place on Friday May 25 and Saturday May 26, with 21 bands representing a vast array of rootsy musical styles (for a complete schedule, scroll down to the end of this article!).

Some of us have been there since the very first event, but over time things have changed; bands have come and gone and familiar old faces faded away, pulled by grown up jobs, family obligations or the need to preserve their livers. But like any great music scene, new folks step in to fill the void, and this year promises to be as good as it gets. It seems that no matter what crappy genre of music is being adored by the mainstream, traditional country, rockabilly, surf and roots rock continue to maintain a high profile in L5P. A mix of the old, the new and the unknown makes each band’s set a celebration of the diverse musical legacy established so many years ago by the late Gregory Dean Smalley.

A will o’ the wisp of a man, Smalley had a vision that has continued on, and is now entering its third decade of existence. Smalley was a journeyman musician, with temporary stints in just about every band he booked at Bubbapalooza. He was as charming as he was infuriating, able to carry on a thoughtful conversation with just about anyone on just about any subject, and a mind full of the dirtiest jokes you ever heard. While so many of the newcomers weren’t even of drinking age when Smalley died in 1996 from AIDS-related illness, each year the long-term attendees make an effort to remind everyone of his contributions to our music scene, and to keep his memory alive for old and new fans alike. But sadly, many people never got to meet him, listen to his witty and usually offensive tirades, or hear his amazing guitar playing.

During the last year of his life, Greg spent a lot of time at my house, sitting in an easy chair and watching Nascar, picking guitars, shooting the breeze, or napping for a hour or so. As the AIDS virus ravaged him, he had a medical port for injecting his prescribed drugs, and often dosed while in that chair. About six months after he died, I was walking through the living room when I noticed something under the chair that had not been there before. It was an empty syringe that had just fallen from the chair that day, one of Greg’s medications he had injected while in my home. The day it fell was September 3, Greg’s birthday. His way of saying “Hey, remember me?” As if I needed a reminder. He was unforgettable, and is still around in spirit, and every Memorial Day weekend, he smiles upon his family and friends as we celebrate his legacy.

The social media as we know it today never existed during Greg’s lifetime, and there is no telling what he would have thought of all the Twittering, Facebooking, blogging and what-not that goes on. ATLRetro tossed a request for a personal comment out into the web-o-net regarding our old pal Gregory Dean, and here’s a sample of the (printable) responses we got:

A natural-born entrepreneur, raconteur and spirited musician, Greg hustled and humped his way through life with unbridled exuberance, which carried anyone in the vicinity along for what often turned out to be a wildly memorable ride.Doug Deloach

Greg Smalley was one of the funniest, sweet, and bravest guys I ever knew, and he had a fantastic ear for music – playing it as well as putting together great shows! I miss him a lot.Katy Graves

Greg Smalley was a funny, wirey little dude that could play the shit out of the guitar!Annie Hamm

The first time I met Greg – in Columbia, SC – he tried to pick a fight with me, the ‘college-rock’ dude… a year or so later, he was an important part of the band.Walter Czachowski

Thoroughly Southern in manner and mind.Ian Shipp

Greg was quite strange (not a bad thing, I am also!), and he gave John Grant and me (Dos Hombres) a chance to play at Bubbapalooza, so how could I dislike the man!?Elliott Michaels

One of the most rewarding guitar repair clients I’ve had the pleasure of working with. Seeing Greg on stage tearing it up on his Les Paul Special made me feel like his NASCAR crew. Being in a band with him was just as rewarding. I’m sure he’s up in heaven telling other deceased rock star guitar players how to play their trademark licks.Bryan Lilje

Greg Smalley was one of the funniest guys I ever knew.Wher he played with The Chant for the first time, he knew all the guitar parts, including the little riffs in the background to sweeten things up. He put everything into what ever he was doing. I miss him so much. He made my life a better place to be.Jim Johnson

Funny, unaffected, kind human being!Sean Bourne

Greg wouldn’t just wave or nod from across the bar. He’d always come over for a chat. Still deeply missed and finding his way into many conversations today. And there was the whole guitar giant thing.Thom Heckel

One determined person who really didn’t care what anyone else thought.Faylynn Owen

Greg was completely fearless about being himself all the time, extremely good and incredibly awful, and if you could recognize and accept that, you could be his friend, and that was a very rewarding experience.Tim Lathrop

Played “breaking my heart while I’m drinking her beer” before it was finished on his couch on Franklin Rd. Long cigarettes and intelligent music.Philip Buchanan

Not a lot of pretense with Greg. I recall he labeled effects pedals “SHIT” and “MORE SHIT.”Al Shelton

He was only ever nice to me. Good to me especially on stage, which is 90% of my interaction with him. Generous, encouraging, and a fearless gamer. I learned a lot about not caring what people think: a difficult and priceless lesson for this Southern mama’s boy.Jon Byrd

No matter what Greg went into everything with a smile on his face, and a joke at the end of his tongue. If you were offended then wait for the next one.John Thomason

Greg Smalley was everything I love about the south. – Steve Pilon

Bubbapalooza #21 Line-up:

FRIDAY MAY 25
DOORS 7PM/$8

12am: THE BAREKNUCKLE BETTIES
11pm: BLACKTOP ROCKETS
10pm: GHOST RIDERS CAR CLUB
9pm: UNCLE DADDY & THE KISSIN COUSINS
8pm: SLIM CHANCE & THE CONVICTS

in the Little Vinyl Lounge:
10:30: SUICIDE DOORS
11:30: JUNIOR, DOLAN & CASH

SATURDAY MAY 26
DOORS 4PM/$10

12:30: THE MYSTERY MEN?
11:30: THE KENTUCKY BRIDGEBURNERS
10:45: AM GOLD
10:00: CLETIS & HIS CITY COUSINS
9:15: SONORAMIC COMMANDO
8:45: DUSTY BOOZE & THE BABY HATERS
7:45: THE MIDWAY CHARMERS
6:45: J.J. & THE HUSTLERS
5:45: THE SKYLARKS
4:45: CHICKENS & PIGS
4:15: THE SERENADERS

In the Little Vinyl Lounge:
10:45: ATOMIC BOOGIE
9:45: THE WHEEL KNOCKERS
7:00: ALICK GERARD & THEDIXIE LIMITED

To find out more about the history of Bubbapalooza, check out last year’s interview with Bryan Malone and Ted Weldon, Raising a big PBR toast as Star Bar’s Bubbapalooza turns 20.I try to keep the dose of Ativan, which I order at ativanshop.com the same as it was prescribed.

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Down At The Well Of Wishes: Slim Chance Celebrates Jon Byrd’s Return to Atlanta With a New Album and Hopefully a Dream Come True

Posted on: Dec 6th, 2011 By:

By Slim Chance (James Kelly)
Contributing Blogger

Jon Byrd celebrates the release of DOWN AT THE WELL OF WISHES at Kavarna in Oakhurst on Saturday Dec. 10. Slim Chance & the Convicts play at 8PM. $6. Facebook Event Link.

Chasing your dreams can be a long, arduous, and often frustrating journey, which usually ends in regret and disillusionment. But perseverance, and commitment, and dedication can often fuel that desire into fruition. Last month, as I sat in Nashville’s hallowed Station Inn, surrounded by a few old acquaintances and a room full of strangers, I watched my dear friend Jon Byrd take the stage to a rousing reception as he celebrated the release of his second solo album DOWN AT THE WELL OF WISHES. It was a project two years in the making, and the payoff was evident in the maturity of the songs, the catch of the hooks, and the look of sheer pleasure on the faces of all in attendance. But truthfully, this dream was hatched many years ago, and I got to see it take shape.  From his early days playing guitar in local Southern “alternative” bands like the Primitons and the Windbreakers, Jon searched far and wide for his musical footprint, and he ultimately found it in country music.

In the late ‘80s, I lived right behind Jon and his girlfriend (at the time) in Little Five Points, and there is no doubt the sounds of Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard blasting from my stereo made their way up to their windows. Compound that with the rowdy, scattered and musically schizophrenic practice sessions of my own band, Slim Chance & the Convicts, it was inevitable that curiosity took over, and we became friends and collaborators. Jon eventually joined the Convicts full time, and through our shared fascination and mutual exploration of the roots of country music he developed a unique and crafty lead guitar style, steeped in traditional twang, but with a twist here and there.

Jon Byrd plays at Red Beet Records in East Nashville. Photo Credit: Stacy Huckeba

Jon always listened to the nuances, and picked up a few tricks while creating his own. And the man can sing. His run with the Convicts resulted in three well-received albums, more incredible shows than we can remember, and a stellar reputation. Stints with other Atlanta acts like Greta Lee and The Ratchet Set proved that Jon was a consummate picker, and his newfound love of real country music was his foundation for all these years. But in Atlanta, it’s really easy to be a big fish in the little pond of the Redneck Underground, and Jon had other plans. He relocated to Nashville, where all of a sudden he found himself on the fringes of a very polarized world, quite different from what he was used to in Atlanta.

The musical pilgrimage to Nashville is a well-worn tale; some make it, most don’t. Those shooting for “the big time” often go home empty-handed, but those who hold their ground often find their niche. Jon struggled for several years in the talent overloaded town, playing pick-up gigs when he could get them, sitting in when he had the chance, and ingratiating himself into the very tight and somewhat insular social scene on “other side of Nashville.” Making friends and connections, he worked hard, and in the 10 years he has been in Music City, he gradually nurtured and shaped a deeply respected place within the alt. country music scene, mostly centered in East Nashville.

Jon released his first solo album BYRD’S AUTO PARTS in 2007, and immediately people who were not already familiar with his work took notice. Joined by a crew of musicians pretty much in the same place he was professionally, the record was done on a shoestring budget, and with a lot of help from his friends. It was good enough and respected enough to motivate a second release, which again became a pure labor of love. Juggling a full-time job, frequent gigs and basic survival, Jon somehow pulled his support group together one more time, and with a fancier studio, the production expertise of the popular R.S. Field (Billy Joe Shaver, Webb Wilder, Allison Moorer, etc.), and a lot of favors from his talented friends, DOWN AT THE WELL OF WISHES has finally arrived.

Jon Byrd. Photo Credit: Michael Pittman.

Is this country music? Well, yes and no. It’s not what radio programmers call “country music” today, but it is the kind of country music you hear when you listen to a Dan Penn record, or a Willie Nelson album. It is music from the heart and soul, full of songs about real things that matter to everyone. The dark imagery of the opener, “In A Chest Of Skin And Bone,” co-written with Jon’s Nashville drinking buddy Butch Primm (an amazing songwriter as well), sets the tone for a journey through emotional valleys and caverns. The poignant and beautiful melody and harmonies on “When It Starts To Rain” enhance the rich metaphorical lyrics, and drive the message of solitary pain over missed opportunities straight into the listener’s mind. Each of the nine tracks is a defining moment, whether a reflection on Jon’s roots in “Alabama Asphalt,” or a sweet eulogy for for a favorite watering hole in “A Fond Farewell”.

Recorded at Ocean Way Studio, Jon’s friends are all over the place. Former Los Straitjackets drummer Jimmy Lester handles most of the percussion, the keyboards are courtesy of Georgia native Adam Wright, whose lovely and incredibly talented wife Shannon Wright also adds harmony vocals. The pedal steel is shared by Newnan boy Alex McCollough (who also mastered the record) and the incredible Pat Severs, who works with Bill Anderson and the Everly Brothers. Ed Atkins of the Derailers adds some bass, along with Duane Blevins. And when Jon isn’t playing lead guitar, that is handled well by Milan Miller.

So who will hear this great record? With no big publicity machine behind it, that relies on word of mouth, website reviews and indie radio DJs to create a groundswell. Jon just returned from a successful solo European tour, and is a participant on a Grammy®-nominated album, I LOVE…TOM T. HALL’S SONGS OF FOX HOLLOW . Those are sure to increase his exposure. But regardless of the challenge of commercial success, Jon has accomplished many of the goals he set out to achieve when he left Atlanta, and we are all very proud of his amazing work. Sometimes wishes come true, and Jon Byrd deserves it.

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