New blood in old veins

The Star Bar and Dottie's weather booking shake-ups

While the comings and goings of the booking agents for Atlanta's music clubs aren't what you'd consider front-page news, recent changes at the Star Bar in Little Five Points and the long suffering Dottie's, on Memorial Drive, have peaked more interest than usual. As the preeminent spot in Atlanta (and the entire Southeast) for all things twang, the Star Bar has gained a devoted, even fanatical, niche clientele. Its "Grace Vault," a back-room shrine littered with Elvis collectibles, says it all, and the list of national and local acts whose names have been scratched into the blackboard marquee behind the tiny stage reads like a who's who of contemporary roots Americana, spunky garage, rugged folk and hardcore C&W.

The heart and soul of the venue lies in the bands that perform there, but recently there's been a changing of the guard in the person in charge of whose name gets on the blackboard. Previous booking agent Gayle Thrower of the Radiogram agency left, prompting bar co-owner Marty Nolan to offer the high-profile gig to Heather Ratliff. Ratliff, a recent mom and the wife of Truckadelic's wild-man guitarist Billy Rat, has been a fixture at the club as bartender for the past three years.

Although Ratliff has no previous experience with booking, she knows first hand what makes the Star Bar's fans turn out, go wild and buy booze. "What I really bring to the table is enthusiasm, because I've never done this before and I don't know what I'm getting into," she says with a throaty laugh. What the job will certainly take is time, which, as a mother of a 2-year-old, is traditionally in short supply. "We're putting [son] Willie in school later this year and getting a nanny to take him a few hours a day. He's a night owl like us, so we have plenty of family time, but if this job hurts anything, family is the most important." In addition to her new duties, Ratliff is also keeping her bartending gig four nights a week.

Not surprisingly, there won't be any drastic adjustments to the Star Bar's music selections, or in some of the club's more successful policies. In particular, the Wednesday night residency — in which one band plays every week for a month (September's group is Smithwick Machine) — the annual weekend-long Bubbapalooza fest and various Elvis memorials will remain. But there may be changes as she grows into the job. "I don't want to be known just as a rockabilly place. Anybody who is good belongs at the Star. We're not going to target only one genre, we'll target everything."

Where the Star Bar has maintained a steady and dedicated audience over the years, Dottie's Food and Spirits, affectionately referred to as a downtown dive even by its most enthusiastic patrons, has lost some of its crusty charm and reputation in recent years, largely due to the erratic bookings caused by a constant turnover of agents. Things may finally be improving, though. A recent management shift to Charlie G., from the late, lamented Austin Avenue Buffet, as well as the addition of new bookers Rick Dang and Jack Cowart of Pink Torpedo Productions, may revitalize the longstanding music hangout.

Dang, who has played there often in various bands and also works the soundboard, says he wants to return the dusky dive "to that fun kind of feel." He's got his work cut out for him. The first big changes include the addition of go-go cages, a Monday night indie rock DJ with free pool and a Wednesday open mic where Dottie's thoughtfully provides the amplifiers and drums, leaving the musicians responsible only for their axes and fledgling talent. "We want to bring the local indie music scene back to life, because I feel it's in a lull," explains Dang, suggesting he'd like to pick up where indie-rock hot spot The Point left off when it closed over a year ago.

How both clubs will fare remains to be seen, but fresh blood, especially in the bloodthirsty booking business, will no doubt pump new life into some of Atlanta's most established venues.