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How a revitalized recording studio is bringing Georgia's Macon into the spotlight


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Judy Woodruff: Now celebrating the sound of Southern rock and a new effort to restore the place that helped create it.

Jeffrey Brown visits Macon, Georgia, for our "American Creators" series, and part of our ongoing arts and culture coverage, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: "Dreams," a classic song of the rock era. It was made famous by the Allman Brothers Band and performed on a recent night at Macon City Auditorium by musicians from then and now, as part of a celebration that looked both to the past and future.

Keyboard player Chuck Leavell helped put together the concert. He's been travelling the world for decades as music director for the Rolling Stones. But he lives on a tree farm near here and, back in the day, was a member of the Allman Brothers Band.

Chuck Leavell: It's intimate, and it reminded me that that was one of the cool things about it, because you were tight, you were right there together with your fellow musicians when you were working.

Jeffrey Brown: He often recorded here at Macon's famed Capricorn sound studios, newly restored to its former glory.

Chuck Leavell: My memories are so strong of making great music in this room. And so many other musicians would tell you the same thing.

It's just such a special feeling. It's really hard to describe, the magic of music. When you hit the right note, man, that magical feeling that you get when you are cutting a song, that you feel like, wow, this has a chance to be a hit. And we have cut a lot of hits in this room.

Jeffrey Brown: The story actually begins earlier, with a local singer who became an international superstar, Otis Redding. Along with his manager, Phil Walden, Redding dreamed of building a musical hub here in Macon.

Karla Redding-Andrews: I think his sound came from deep within his soul, from what he was taught in the church.

Jeffrey Brown: Daughter Karla Redding-Andrews today runs the Otis Redding Foundation, which offers music education programs to children.

Karla Redding-Andrews: This was going to be where he would be able to be home and record, and be able to go back to his ranch and fish and hunt and swim, and bring other artists to Macon, and really just -- just catapult Macon to this sound that's so special to our community.

Jeffrey Brown: That dream ended when Otis Redding died in a plane crash at age 26 in 1967. But, two years later, Phil Walden and his brother Alan launched Capricorn Records.

It would become home to a soulful Southern rock, with acts including the Marshall Tucker Band, Bonnie Bramlett, Elvin Bishop, and many others. There were 10 years of hits. but the music industry changed. Capricorn ended up in bankruptcy, the studio building was abandoned, and eventually fell into disrepair.

Now it's back, with a performance by Jimmy Hall, former singer for Wet Willie, another Capricorn band, and a grand opening in December, where the public had a chance to check out the facilities.

A developer had bought the buildings as part of a growing downtown renaissance here, including new loft apartments, and then donated the studio buildings to Macon-based Mercer University.

With outside funders, including the Knight Foundation, for the record, a "NewsHour" underwriter, Mercer has turned the space, now called Mercer Music at Capricorn, into a nonprofit incubator for local musicians, along with a small museum celebrating the history.

William Underwood: This project will propel the renaissance.

Jeffrey Brown: Mercer president Bill Underwood says he grew up loving Southern rock, but this is about something else.

What does Mercer get out of this?

William Underwood: Mercer gets a vibrant community. One thing I have learned is that dying, decaying communities are not attractive to people.

The more vibrant, interesting and exciting your community is, the better able you are to attract talented faculty, talented students and staff. So anything that's good for this region is good for our university.

Jeffrey Brown: So, five, 10 years down the road, what do you see?

William Underwood: I see lots of creative, talented young people with tattoos and nose rings running all over downtown Macon.

Jeffrey Brown: That sounds good to you?


William Underwood: Yes, as long as it's not my daughter.

Jeffrey Brown: The new dream is that Macon once again becomes a musical hot spot, with the restored studio serving as an anchor.

That would suit 20-year-old Maggie Renfroe, who grew up here, before moving to Nashville to pursue a music career.

Maggie Renfroe: If the history and the music here in Macon continues to grow, and the next thing we know a label pops up here, I would be the first person to come back here and show Nashville and show L.A. and New York that Macon really could be a spot where it's a music hub.

Jeffrey Brown: I asked Otis Redding's daughter Karla what she hopes to see in Macon in the coming years.

Karla Redding-Andrews: The next Otis Redding to come out of here.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes? That's no little thing, by the way. Right?

Karla Redding-Andrews: But you know what? It's possible. Because they have everything they need right here to make it happen, great engineer, great recording room. There's no reason why it can't happen.

Jeffrey Brown: And why not? All it takes is some hard work, commitment and support, and, as the great Otis Redding song tells us, sung on this night by Taj Mahal, a little respect.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Macon, Georgia.

Judy Woodruff: Some great news for that southern city.

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