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Friday, June 7, 2013 - 2:00am

Macon To Woo Musicians With History

Few places can lay claim to as much rock and soul music heritage as Macon. But the city has struggled to get on the musical map with the likes of Nashville, Memphis, or even Athens, home of REM.

A new organization has come up with a creative way to raise Macon’s profile — a campaign that will deputize contemporary artists to spread the word. Organizers hope to turn Macon into a hub for up-and-coming musicians, as it was for much of the mid-20th century.

’Rock n’ Roll was largely invented here’

Tim Regan-Porter tends to recite Macon music history like he’s spreading the gospel.

“Rock n’ Roll was largely invented here with Little Richard, and soul was defined here with James Brown and Otis Redding and then Southern Rock…not many cities have redefined music that many times,” he said.

But a year ago, Regan-Porter didn’t know any of that — despite the fact that he was, at the time, president of Paste, a national music magazine based in Atlanta.

He didn’t know the Godfather of Soul wrote his first hits in Macon. He didn’t know about the church north of downtown where Otis Redding was a choirboy. He didn’t know about the Tudor mansion just down the street where the Allman Brothers lived and played with their motley crew of roadies and hangers on.

Regan-Porter only found out about any of this when he got recruited to Macon for a job, directing Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism (in which GPB is a partner).

“And it reminded me a lot of when I lived in Athens, the low cost of living, the artist-friendly prices and houses and warehouse space, and with a richer music history than Athens had. And I was like, ‘well, this could be what Athens has been the last 20 years for bands, but people just need to know about it,’” he said.

Macon Music Ambassadors

Thus Macon Music Ambassadors was born. With about $50,000 in grant money from the Knight Neighborhood Challenge, Regan-Porter is going to pay nationally known artists to come to Macon.

“My wildest dreams would be you get Wayne Coyne down here to do an acoustic Flaming Lips set…[Wilco frontman] Jeff Tweedy…we might get Sugarland to come down and do an intimate performance,” he said. “You know, we want to have a little variety.”

The national acts will be pared with regional or local bands to play a house show. Historic homes will be procured for the occasion by the Historic Macon Foundation (The artists will also be featured on GPB’s radio station in Macon.)

And at some point while they’re in town, the visiting stars will be lead on a tour of Macon music history sites.

Rock Candy Tours

“We’re here at the Macon City Auditorium, it’s a gorgeous Greek Revival-style structure,” said Ruth Sykes as she lead one of the walks offered by Rock Candy Tours, the same tour that the visiting artists will take.

“When Little Richard Penniman was growing up here in Macon, he came to the Auditorium to see a performance of the legendary gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe,” she recounted. “And Sister Rosetta pulled him up on the stage and that boy just put on a show, and said from that moment on he knew he was going to make a difference in the music world.”

Rock Candy Tours is currently a three-person company founded not long after the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in Macon went under in 2011. “That was very tragic for the city,” Sykes recalled. But she hopes the Music Ambassadors program will help turn the tide.

Theoretically these nationally-known artists will take the tour, play a show in a beautiful antebellum mansion, ogle the cheap real estate, and then go back to their social circles armed will all kinds of great things to say about Macon.

First up this weekend, it’s New York-based soul singer Sophia Bastian.

'You want to kiss the walls'

Reached by phone just prior to her trip, Bastian said she can’t wait to visit a place she now knows to be the cradle of artists that have most inspired her.

“This is like the core of all this music that an artist like myself is schooled by,” she said. “I understand that you have a music studio in Macon that James Brown first went to to record, and you want to kiss the walls of a place like that, obviously.”

Macon Music Ambassadors has enough funding for this and six more performance over the next year. After that, Regan-Porter hopes to make the program self-sustaining with ticket sales.

Sophia Bastian performs two free shows in Macon this weekend: 12 PM Friday in front of the Center for Collaborative Journalism building in Mercer Village, and 6 PM Sunday in Washington Park.