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ATHENS: Looking back on three decades with REM | News

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ATHENS: Looking back on three decades with REM
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ATHENS, Ga. -- In Athens, they like to say you can't throw a hackeysack without hitting a musician. There's a reason for that.

"After REM started becoming popular, bands would actually move to town just to be in Athens as part of the music scene," said Paul Butchart, a musician who formed a band in Athens at the same time as REM in 1980. 

Ask the guy fronting an Athens band called Casper and the Cookies. The musicians in Casper and the Cookies were born around the time REM first formed. But the respect spans the generations.

"I wouldn't be in this city today if it weren't for them, there's no question about it," said Jason NeSmith, the band's singer and guitarist.  "They weren't the first great band from Athens, but they were the first great band to become huge."

REM's members -- Peter Buck, Michael Stipe, Bill Berry and Mike Mills -- were college students who quickly found another career path.  Berry quit the band several years ago.  The remainder of REM announced they would "call it a day" Wednesday.

Paul Butchart says his band, the Side Effects, was also on the bill when REM played its first show in an old church near downtown Athens.  He says the date was April 5, 1980.

"We had all gotten together the night before to play some music," Butchart said, standing near a steeple that's the only part of the church still standing. "I remember thinking how tight and professional they were compared to us."

Now Butchart runs an Athens music scene tour that's rich with REM lore.

There's the nondescript rehearsal space downtown behind the current location of the 40 Watt.  It's up the street from the band's current headquarters, which is located above a shoe repair shop.

There's the soul food restaurant, Weaver D's, whose slogan "Automatic for the People" became the name of an REM album.

REM's footprints are all over Athens.  Near a hospital, you'll find  the unmarked studio at 165 Hillcrest.  There's an REM song named for that address.  

Near that studio, there's a large home once owned by guitarist Peter Buck (who is the only band member to leave the Athens area as a resident). 

There's the old railroad trestle within a city park on the other side of downtown, photographed for REM's first album cover.

And there's Wuxtry, the record store downtown which once employed Buck and pays homage to REM in its stacks and on its walls.

"All the band members have come through at one time or another, and they've all been very vocal and involved members of the community," said Robert Brown, a Wuxtry employee.  "They've always name- checked Athens and always been good ambassadors to the world outside."

As we visited, word was that members of REM were in town somewhere -- just a part of the landscape, while quietly changing it for three decades.

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