Cover Story: Atlanta blues, inside and out

Guitarist "Motor City Josh" Ford is representative of many a blues musician's experience in Atlanta. Arriving from Detroit four years ago, he had no success breaching the well-entrenched music lineups at such intown venues as Blind Willie's or the Northside Tavern (though he did land a regular spot at Fuzzy's).

But Ford — who won the solo/acoustic competition and was named "People's Choice" in last month's Atlanta Blues Society's Blues Challenge — found plenty of work in the suburban venues that ring the city, both as a solo act and with his band. Among these: Darwin's in Marietta, Chip's Bar & Grill in Winder, the Peckerhead Brewery in Douglasville and Motor Heads (former home of the Blue Sky Tavern) in McDonough. "Darwin's has the best blues music in Atlanta — the best acts and the most variety," Ford says.

In 2003, countless 'burb venues have vied for a taste of the metro Atlanta blues pie. Some stirred blues into standard neighborhood bar karaoke-to-classic-rock fare. Some that chose strictly blues didn't make it: Ricky Dean's Olde Town Blues Club in Conyers, a nice venue in the wrong location, opened and closed in short order. So did Raleigh's BBQ & Blues in Decatur. But others, such as Darwin's and Chip's Bar & Grill, have focused on blues, maintained high-quality entertainment and kept the doors open.

There are two principal reasons these venues exist. First, Atlanta has more blues hopefuls knocking around than it knows what to do with, and like Ford, many never find their way into established rotations at intown clubs. The second, perhaps more telling, reason was summed up recently by a female patron at 37 Main, a new blues venue in downtown Buford. "I used to have to drive to Blind Willie's to hear blues, and it was worth it," she said. "But now I don't have to."

Travel time and the proverbial DUI gauntlet turn I-285 into a moat that both intowners and suburbanites often aren't willing to cross. "Atlanta has a chip on its shoulder about inside the Perimeter [versus] outside the Perimeter. It's not like that in Detroit or Chicago," says Ford, who in fact is moving to Chicago in January, in hopes of studying with that city's surviving blues masters. "I think it's crazy. People have this false sense of how it's supposed to be."

The Perimeter is, sadly, often a racial divide as well, as black acts dominate the calendar at such newer intown clubs as Blues in the Alley (in Underground Atlanta) and Liz and Lee's Live (in East Point), while acts in suburban locales are predominantly white. Such segregation is to no one's benefit, but don't expect it to change any time soon.

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