The Wheeler Boys: Finding Common Ground

EP/documentary bridges hip-hop, country and more

Draw a Venn diagram of Atlanta's music scenes — you get a high number of circles with relatively low overlap. The diversity of styles, genres, and talent cultivated here is an asset to the project, but the lack of overlap lets potential collaborations go unrealized. Crops unharvested die in a field. That's what local hip-hop duo the Wheeler Boys thought, and so they decided to make some connections. That drive to bring together disparate scenes is documented in the five-song digital EP and documentary short, Common Ground.

Billed as a "Southern music experiment," Common Ground stews together 33 musicians from Atlanta's country, rap, bluegrass, pop, and funk worlds, among others. Common Ground took five days to write, record, mix, and produce, with the Wheeler Boys and producer Wes Green overseeing everything at the home studio the Crow's Nest. They had been camped there for months, in fact, and the project came out of the Wheelers' regular recording sessions.

The duo — brothers Sean and Garrett Wheeler — are with Zac Brown's imprint Southern Ground, and had been in the studio for nearly a year working on their own upcoming record. They flavor their hip-hop with a lot of country, bluegrass, and down-home elements, and were used to having varied musicians in the studio. "Frankly, the recording process can get mundane after a while," Sean says, "Doing something big like this was also a way for us to take a week and get creative."

Sean and Garrett made calls to various musicians — artists they'd worked with before and those they were hoping to meet. From the funk band Heavy Chevy to rap duo AN-TI, vocalist Bamn Ford, and keyboardist/producer Frankie (Negro League Productions), the 33 artists they culled together offer a healthy sampling of the city's sonic landscape.

"The biggest surprise was that there wasn't any ego involved," Sean says. "Everybody that was there, we know, and we tried to get people that wouldn't be pretentious when they got in the studio. I was surprised by how all these guys do what they do day in and day out, but it's nice as a musician to step out of the box and do something surprising."

Local filmmaker Chris Bone, who directed this year's Scarred but Smarter: The Life and Times of Drivin' N' Cryin', was a high-school friend of the Wheeler Boys and a chance run-in at a grocery store before the recording sessions led to his filming the whole shebang, resulting in a 20-minute documentary film.

Community and creativity were the driving forces behind Common Ground. As such, both the EP's five songs and the short movie are available for free download at www.commongroundga.com. "Our goal was to create something communal, so all 33 artists have equal ownership of the project," Sean says, "Everything is free — everything is downloadable and viewable for anyone."

Sean goes on to add just how pleased he is with all the tracks. But he's most proud of the new connections that have developed between musicians who otherwise wouldn't have crossed paths. "I've seen several of these guys interacting with each other on Facebook and building relationships," he says. "Rappers recruiting musicians, rappers talking to other rappers, connecting people with people and talking about new work."

This weekend's release party at the Masquerade will feature performances by all involved, along with a screening of the film — culminating with a big jam session featuring all the musicians. Ten years after Bubba Sparxxx's Deliverance, country has still only occasionally borrowed from hip-hop (see Colt Ford and Brantley Gilbert's "Dirt Road Anthem"), and hip-hop even less from country. The Wheeler Boys are pushing for that to change, and hoping that adding jazz, bluegrass, and funk will make for even more interesting overlaps.