‘Hell bent for the music business’
One year ago, in December of 2017, Athensmade asked Ryan Lewis, President of Kindercore Vinyl to interview George Fontaine, Sr., Founder of New West Records. Both are Athens-based music businesses. During this interview, Ryan interviews George about co-founding the Georgia Theatre in ‘78 and his journey back to Athens with New West Records.
Ryan : Hey, I am Ryan Lewis, and I'm the President of Kindercore Vinyl. I'm here with George Fontaine Sr. of New West Records, and we're here to talk about why we're in Athens. Hello.
George : Well, I'm George Fontaine, and I'm the owner of New West Records, an independent record label both in Nashville and Athens, Georgia. We've been in Athens now for probably seven years, I believe, as a label. I've been here four years as an individual.
Ryan : Did you go to college here?
George : Yeah, I came to school here. I grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and I came to Athens in 1972 as a student.
Ryan : Okay.
George : I was in military school in Chattanooga in the 60s, which was an interesting time.
Ryan : It must have been super fun, right?
George : Yeah. It was a little awkward, but I always tell this. Two music events really kind of formed my love for music and kind of set me on a certain path. I saw James Brown in 1968 at the Memorial Auditorium when I was 14 years old-
Ryan : Oh, man.
George : ... and I was wearing a full dress military uniform. I think it was my brother's 12th birthday, and he went with me.
Ryan : Wow.
George : A few years later, I saw the Allman Brothers at a gym in Chattanooga. That really ... I was a junior in high school. From then on, I had this ... I was hell-bent for the music business, I guess.
Ryan : Yeah, blew your mind.
George : So I ended up here, went to school, and while I was in school in Athens in the 70s, I was still interested in music. A friend and I started a band booking agency called Harmony Entertainment. One of the artists that we were booking at the time was a guy named Randall Bramblett.
Ryan : Okay.
George : From there I was one of the three guys that opened the Georgia Theatre right in '78, I believe, it was January of '78. But my family was freaking out about me and the music business, so they…
Ryan : What I've heard, before you go on to that, though, there's a moment you've told me about before, being on Lumpkin Street and deciding to do that with…
George : That's true.
Ryan: Yeah, let’s have that.
George: These two guys and myself went to a show at The Last Resort, which at the time was a music venue in Athens, not a food place. But we were there watching a guy named Townes Van Zandt, and funny enough, a guy that was opening for Van Zandt that night was Steve Earle. And Steve told me that he was 17, I think, at the time?
Ryan : Whoa.
George : Which, subsequently, is a number of Steve Earle records in the past. So, we drunkenly walked up the street after we left The Last Resort, and we were standing in front of the Georgia Theatre, which was boarded up at the time. And the three of us said, "We ought to turn this place into a music venue." And we did. My family, at the time, was freaking out, so about the time we got the theatre opened up, they shipped me out to Houston, Texas.
Ryan : It's time to enter the corporate world.
George : So, I go to work in the family Coca-Cola business.
Ryan : Okay, yeah.
George : I spent 38 years in Texas and have managed to get myself back.
Ryan : Yeah, so, what brought you back? I mean, obviously, you didn't move here to start the business, but what was it that made you want to come back to Athens?
George : Well, originally, New West, our office was in, or it had been, in Los Angeles, where my partner was in Los Angeles. So, our main office was in Los Angeles. He was in the process of becoming the President of Warner Brothers music, and when he left, I knew that I needed to get out of Los Angeles, and so…
Ryan : Gee, why?
George : I was living in Houston.
Ryan : So you really needed to get out of Los Angeles.
George : So, I made the decision at the time to move our corporate offices to Nashville. We were already in Athens at the time, and when I moved from Los Angeles, I just always wanted to have a presence here. So, seven years ago, I bought this building here on Meigs, and we've been here ever since.
Ryan : So bringing it full circle to where everything started and the love of music happened, and everything that's back ... So, do you spend a lot of drunken nights downtown on the corner of Lumpkin Street still?
George : Not as many as I used to, no.
Ryan : Not as many, no. Me either. So, now, because you've got the business based in multiple places, you know, over in Nashville and here now, right?
George : Right.
Ryan : I guess you traveled between the two a lot. What are the challenges of that?
George : Clearly, it's not as big a challenge as going from Houston to Los Angeles.
Ryan : Absolutely.
George : But I'm originally from Chattanooga, so I have family in Chattanooga still. I love going to Nashville. For me, I haven't flown in 30 years. I only drive, anyway.
Ryan : Really?
George : So, driving here to Nashville's like, you know, Sunday afternoon.
Ryan : Yeah, that's not so bad.
George : But the motivation for me, on top of the fact that I've always loved Athens and wanted to come back was two of my children went to school here, got married, and stayed, and one of whom works here at the label with me, George Jr. And I wanted to be closer to my kids, because they were having grandkids.
Ryan : I mean, that's one of the cool things about Athens. It's affordable enough that a family can live here. Multiple families can kind of find a place to eke out a nice little room for themselves.
George : Well, after living in Houston for almost 40 years, it's like living for free.
Ryan : Yeah, I would imagine, yes. And then after dealing with Los Angeles on top of that.
George : Yeah.
Ryan : So, what do you feel like are some of the greatest things about Athens to you? What does Athens mean to you?
George : Well, I mean, it was weird. When I left here, it's sort of like unrequited love, I think. My wife and I got married here in '76, and then we moved to Texas in late '77. I always wanted to come back. I felt like I got shipped out of here right before the music scene really blew up, and so I felt like I was a part of it, but I didn't get any credit for it.
Ryan : You were an instrumental part of kicking it off, but then all of the sudden, yeah.
George : So, I always wanted to come back, and the kids coming to school here really have ... There's something about the way Athens works. I don't know, the way the University and the town flow together, it's like no place I've ever been before. You know, I spent a lot of time in Austin while I was in Texas, and Austin's not Athens.
Ryan : No.
George : And we brought a lot of friends from Texas while we've been here and over the years, every one of them said to me, "This is the town that Austin used to be in the ‘70s."
Ryan : Yes, that's what I'd heard too, yeah, exactly.
George : There was just something missing in my life, and then my kids came to school here. My wife, I finally convinced her, it was time to pack up and head this way.
George : So I think what makes ... There's just something about what happens in Athens.
Ryan : Yeah.
George : I don't know what ... I can't put my finger on it.
Ryan : See, that's the thing. We always get asked this question, or you've got asked this question before, right?
George : It's like a creative – well that never runs dry, you know?
Ryan : Yeah, there's something, and yet it's sort of like, I don't know, is it in the water? There's something. I've said that a million times. I'm like, "I don't know what it is, but there's something about it. You're going to ask me this question, and I'm going to say the same thing."
Ryan : Yeah, it's really incredible, isn't it?
George : Yeah.
Ryan : Now, what do you feel like the community in Athens needs the most? What could Athens benefit from the most, do you think?
George : Oh, boy. That's a great question.
Ryan : And that could be any number of ways, creatively, business-wise, socially.
George : Yeah, I think that I would like ... I don't want Athens to change. I want it to just to be a better version of itself. You know, and so, I guess I'm a capitalist. I mean, I believe…
Ryan : Okay, well, we both run businesses, so…
George : Right, yeah.
Ryan : ... whether we want to be or not…
George : I want people to have jobs. I want people to be able to work here, live here, and enjoy being here.
Ryan : Yeah.
George : I think one of the things that's really missing, and I have a family foundation I've been on for years. The one thing that I've noticed since coming back here is that there is a lack of wealth created, and so there's a lack of philanthropic dollars available. I mean, Athens is one of our missions in our family foundation, but I would hope that ...
I know the University of Georgia soaks up a lot of dollars, and I'm happy for it. It is my alma mater. I would wish that people that gave to the University of Georgia would save some of that money and figure out what is the Athens Community Foundation or (Athens) Land Trust or whatever, that they would give some of that money back, because everybody comes back to Athens, you know?
Ryan : Yeah.
George : It means something to everybody that went through here. I've never found anybody that said, "Ah, I don't want to ever go back there."
Ryan : Right. Everybody that leaves is always like, "I can't wait to go back." Yeah.
George : Right. So I think that's the one thing that's really lacking is maybe some philanthropic dollars that could really help the community.
Ryan : Yeah, absolutely, I would definitely agree with that. What is it about Athens, and I mean this kind of hits on what we were talking about before about the unnameable thing about Athens that it ... but what is it? Is there something about Athens that you feel like really inspires you to want to be here beyond that? Or ...
George : Wow. Well, I mean, yeah, it's ... Well, I have a family here, you know? My grandkids are here. That's just gravy for me, but there's something about being able to walk wherever you want to go.
Ryan : Sure.
George : ... and be five minutes from the countryside, you know? And there's just something, as a student, I don't think you really get that a lot.
Ryan : You don't see beyond where you are, yeah.
George : You don't see beyond, but since I came back, and started coming back when my kids were in school here, I realized, no wonder I love this place, you know? It's beautiful beyond just the whatever Athens is. There's something about the outside world of Athens that's just as great.
Ryan : Yeah, absolutely. I think that's definitely true. What would you say is the largest influence that Athens itself had on your work? Is there something about the town that's really influenced you, or something that came before, or that you were a part of? Or ...
George : I've been asked this question before, and I've thought about this. I think that working with Randall Bramblett in the mid-70s, when he was starting his solo career, and he was just one of these guys that for me, his songwriting and his playing just spoke to me. I've now been working with Randall for the last 20 years of New West, putting out his records. I think that inspiration was really the key for me in the music business.
Ryan : So, it was a personal connection.
George : It was a personal connection through Randall, through the music venues at the time, whether it was The Last Resort or Between the Hedges, or whatever the places were back in those days. That was before the Georgia Theatre. But yeah, I think Randall Bramblett was probably my inspiration when I was here.
Ryan : And you know that ability, I think, that it's sort of special to Athens, and obviously, it's changed over the years. I mean, you're talking about it, a different era of Athens, as far as different clubs and way less clubs, you know. But the ability to sort of intermingle with creative people and create these relationships, I think, is something incredible about this place.
George : Yeah, man, I was thinking about that, too. I mean, the beauty of having the University here is that you have ... it's like a continually flowing river of creativity, because you've got kids coming in every year, different kids from different places. So, there's just that wellspring like I was talking about that seems to never run dry... you know, there's years where there's maybe not the greatest bands in the world.
Ryan : You get some duds.
George : Yeah, but you never know which is going to be the next one, and I find that inspiring as hell.
Ryan : Absolutely, yes. I think it's cool that you get to see what other people come here to bring here, and how that shakes out. So obviously you're working on tons of different projects. You have a ton of stuff going on. Is there anything that you're working on right now that you're particularly excited about?
George : Well, next year will be our 20th anniversary as New West Records.
Ryan : Wow, congratulations.
George : Yeah, we've got a bunch of cool stuff we're working on at the moment, sort of special projects and stuff. We just put out the Widespread Panic - Live from Austin City Limits record here a couple weeks ago, which is the first time it's ever been on vinyl, which is great.
Ryan : That's awesome.
George : We are going to be putting out two re-issues on vinyl and an unissued, probably double record of one of my favorite bands of all time in Athens in 2018, but I'm not at liberty…
Ryan : You can't say who it is.
George : I'm not at liberty to tell you what that is just yet.
Ryan : All right, all right. See, that's just how exciting this kind of stuff is that's going on, though. It's top secret still. So, what do you think the greatest ... Athens' greatest assets are? What is it that Athens really has that no other place does?
George : Well, again, I mean, I think there's ... the University of Georgia provides, well, like I said, a continuous flow of potential creativity, you know? I mean, like I said, it changes from year to year, but I mean, that's an incredible asset, a huge asset to have, for the city, even though at times I think I've realized that UGA sucks up a lot of resources.
Ryan : Yes. Yes.
George : But that is still, it is still…
Ryan : And there's low property taxes.
George : Right.
Ryan : Which is always ... that's one of the eternal conflicts in town.
George : Yeah, it is. But it is what it is.
Ryan : Yeah.
George : To me, that asset and just the vibe of this town, which, like I said, it's hard to explain, but when you bring people here that have never been here, somehow, they get it, too.
Ryan : Absolutely, yeah. And you try to explain it to them, but you can't put it in words.
George : Right.
Ryan : They come here and they're like, "Oh, yeah, I know what you're talking about now." Yeah.
George : I think it's accessibility, you know, that the school, like I said, the school and the town flow together so well, and then once you get outside of the town, you're outside of the town. You're in the country.
Ryan : Right. Yeah. We got our own little island.
George : No freeways.
Ryan : Yeah, I do think that that is big. You don't come through here on a freeway.
George : You got to want to get here.
Ryan : Yes. Absolutely. I think that that's probably been a big difference between us and places like Austin and places like that that.
George : And Nashville.
Ryan : Yeah, and Nashville, absolutely. What would you like Athens to be?
George : Like I said, a better version of itself.
Ryan : A better version of itself, you're right, yeah, you did, okay. Yeah. I think that's good. So, now, before we wrap this up, I'm going to ask you to give me the name of someone that you think is a rising talent in your field in the creative world. So I put you on the spot here.
George : Well, look, I'm going to be a bit of a homer here, and I'm going to say that I think my kid, George Jr., will…
Ryan : Yeah, he's pretty good.
George : He works here at the label, and I get to watch him on a daily basis, and watch him grow. He gives me immense pleasure, and he's a lot smarter than I am, and has a lot more creativity. So, I would say he's one. I have another son here in town, who has a video production company, that I'm real proud of.
Ryan : Oh, wow.
George : His name is Cartter (Cartter Fontaine with DT Productions), and so I've got these two kids that are working here, and there's a lot of other things that are going on.
Ryan : That's awesome. Can you name somebody who you think that Athensmade should interview in your field, in music?
George : Well, clearly, if Athensmade, I don't know who they've interviewed in the past…
Ryan : Sure.
George : ... but if they haven't interviewed David Barbe, I think we should probably get him on the list.
Ryan : Yeah, I think we can all agree on that one, absolutely.
George : Yes.
Ryan : Yeah. Now, one more before we go. Can you think of anyone that Athensmade should interview in another field, whether that's community service, non-profit, government, investment, finance, education, anything outside of the world that we do? Is there something you want to just throw a little spotlight on?
George : I mean, Bob at Nuçi's Space is clearly somebody that, I mean, our family foundation has been giving to Nuçi's for years. I love what they do. I mean, clearly an important thing here in Athens.
Ryan : It's been important in my life.
George : And anybody at the Athens or the Oconee Land Trust.
Ryan : Yeah.
George : Because we do a lot of land conservation work, too.
Ryan : Both great organizations, yeah. That's awesome. Well, thank you so much.
George : Thank you, Ryan.
Ryan : That was a good time.