Opelika, Alabama's creative renaissance was largely sparked by Richard Patton, above.
Words: Sheyda Mehrara | Photos: Caroline Fontenot
The long-dozing town of Opelika, Alabama is wide awake these days, experiencing a booming creative renaissance. Anchored by a recording studio and distillery in the heart of downtown, hometown hero Richard Patton has ushered in a vibrant cultural scene, one that has attracted nationally acclaimed indie rock band Delta Spirit, who are taking the stage amongst the venue's stills.
The tattoo on his forearm reads “On purpose, for a purpose,” serving as the simple, but too-oft forgotten daily reminder of what so many of us long to find. It certainly appears Richard Patton has found his. He’s weaving his way through John Emerald Distilling Company in preparation of his latest feat in Opelika, Alabama. Patton’s managed to persuade nationally-acclaimed American indie rock band Delta Spirit to make this tiny town a stop on their tour.
Nestled a mere 7 miles northeast of Auburn, Opelika plays friendly neighbor to that bustling college town. With the student population cycling through the University - and the opposite seemingly true for residents of Opelika - Patton perceived that people got stuck in his hometown by default, not by choice. When he graduated high school, he swore off Opelika and ended up in Birmingham, landing in a "soul-sucking" corporate job. Eventually, he answered his mother’s call to return home.
“She needed help renovating the building on the corner of 2nd Avenue into a bed and breakfast ... it didn’t take much convincing to leave,” Patton admits.
We’ve all be there — moments in life when we question our path, when monotony threatens to turn us into drones. Patton reached that point when, even as he earned more money than he knew what to do with, he felt a nagging void. It bothered him that he wasn’t adding value to the community, that he wasn’t building something long-standing.
Patton’s mother held the office of Opelika’s first mayor-president (that’s what they call it there) for 8 years, and now serves as the current Chamber of Commerce president. Her son has a similar penchant for community involvement coursing through his veins, but it wasn’t until a divorce drove him to a personal crossroads when he finally acknowledged the particularity in his breeding.
Armed with a vision that had been brewing for years, Patton made up his mind to stay in Opelika and build something significant in his own backyard. He dedicated his attention and resources to the fourteen pieces of property he already owned in the downtown district.
“For me, my community is my family, and it is my obligation to provide for that family. On the selfish side, I want to live in a city that has great quality of life. This tends to organically grow in cities that have a strong arts scene. Restaurants, bars, shopping, outdoor activities naturally gravitate towards these types of communities,” Patton says. "Opelika needed a nightlife."
In May 2012, Patton turned a corner. The grand opening of The Railyard, his art gallery and music venue, marked the fulfillment of his first efforts — the blood, sweat and tears shed by those who persevered in the faith their sleepy town could be revived. The following renaissance in Opelika bred music venues, a coffee shop, creative space for artists, and a recording studio known as Cottonseed Studios. Cottonseed is still in the works, a labor that has moved to the forefront as Patton’s principal project.
“I do not know if I will be here forever, but for now [Opelika] has an energy creatively that is driving lots of people into unique endeavors. There is purpose here for lots of us. We are connecting with others throughout the South.”
Cheery painted storefronts and replenished cobblestone decorate the streets around Opelika’s Lebanon Arts District. The district adopts it’s name from an earlier chapter in the town’s story when, in 1837, settlement emerged around the Lebanon Church and Meeting House. Fueling the soul of Opelika, Lebanon once served as the central place for community gathering and prayer, and now beats as the heart of the city’s booming cultural arts scene.
Casting eyes toward the future, the new gathering place is a watering hole called John Emerald Distillery, right on North Railroad Avenue where, much like Patton, distiller Jimmy Sharp and his family have made Opelika the home of their long-standing dream.
“My father and I had been home brewers for years and were always interested in pursuing distilling. For two to three years we kicked around the idea.” Sharp explains. “When my daughter, Lily, was born I was running my previous company and away from home three weeks out of the month.”
A new baby gave Sharp further motivation to start his own business, and commit to establishing that long-imagined distillery. He searched for a location in his hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, but came up dry.
Sharp decided to take the advice of Scott Peek, who owns The Standard Deluxe, a music venue in nearby Waverly, Alabama. Peek pointed him down a yellow brick road of sorts to Patton and Opelika. It is inside The Railyard building Patton originally used as the town's creative home base out of which Sharp now runs shop.
“We loved what we saw going on in Opelika as far as the revitalization of downtown,” Sharp says.
Sharp realized that if the family dream was going to come true, they had to learn from the best. A lack of Alabama distilleries sent Sharp and his father John visiting operations in Colorado, Chicago, and finally Scotland to learn the process and business of bottling spirits.
Opelika's John Emerald Distilling makes a variety of small-batch spirits, including vodka, gin, rum and single-malt whiskey, all of which bear labels proudly emblazoned with the town's name.
John Emerald Distilling Company adopted a “farm-to-glass” technique, a combination of modern and traditional methods, choosing to distill their spirits in small batches. Rum, gin, whiskey and vodka all take on local characteristics, their profiles informed by regionally-sourced ingredients whenever possible. The gin is flavored by hand-harvested wild juniper berries foraged by Sharp from underneath the red cedar trees in nearby pasture lands during the fall. The distillery’s spiced rum uses cane syrup sourced from growers in south Alabama.
Sharp jovially prepares a menu of cocktails for the evening’s show. A crowd favorite, The Porch Swing, aptly named for the balmy late spring weather, combines spiced rum, lemonade and a basil garnish.
As Delta Spirit goes up on stage for soundcheck, the brewing equipment and the band look right at home.
“Delta Spirit has been [one] of my top five bands for years. When Richard told me they were going to be playing the Distillery, I was very excited. It was great to see the space transformed … our still and fermentors as the backdrop of the stage.”
Delta Spirit goes through sound check, the stage set amongst the distillery's fermentors and stills.
The thing about the South is that kin’s never far, whether you know it or not. Sure, Delta Spirit’s one of Sharp’s favorite bands, but he also seems to share a great-great-great-great-(maybe add another great in there for good measure) grandfather with lead singer Matt Vasquez through Sharp’s mother’s side.
“We both had a family story of three Scottish brothers moving to Missouri. One brother went north (presumably Matt’s clan), one stayed in Missouri (our clan) and one went south,” Sharp details.
With a presence in Georgia & Alabama, sights are set on placing products in Florida, Tennessee and New York City.
“As we grow our brand we hope to raise awareness about Opelika and all the great things that are happening here. Also we are finding that the distillery creates a reasonable amount of tourism, and we hope to see that grow.”
It’s a Wednesday night in Opelika and this once-sleepy little town is wide awake.
The five friends forming Delta Spirit– frontman Matt Vasquez, guitarist Will McLaren, bassist Jon Jameson, drummer Brandon Young and instrumental wunderkind Kelly Winrich – are prepping to play in town for the first time.
“We didn’t know what to expect.” Vasquez recounts, “We’ve never been to these smaller places, and we’re doing the whole summer tour thing with larger stops, so we thought, ‘why not just do it’.”
He goes on to talk about finding used-books at the independent retailer Gnu’s Room down the street and the guys flipping through vinyl at nearby MusicTown Records.
When asked about the Distillery, Vazquez’s face lights up, “All I ever want is single malt, and they actually make that here… the best American single malt I’ve ever had.”
“Each of these stops have their own unique vibe - there are people [at each] that are really into music. We wanted to give [people here] the opportunity to experience that,” Jameson adds.
Delta Spirit drummer Brandon Young onstage at John Emerald Distilling.
Despite their California origins, the soul of their music translates well to a Southern audience. Though don’t assume that a name like Delta Spirit implies twangy songs about the good ole Mississippi - or any other stereotypical Southern platitude.
“Our band has never been about shtick, it’s always been about five people who love each other and want to make music,” Vasquez says.
A few years back, the boys packed their bags and made their way to Brooklyn, where they recorded their latest album, 2014’s Into the Wide. The name itself feels vast and all-encompassing, but the band intentionally cast a wide net. Brooklyn’s a stark contrast to the West Coast, and the visceral change ushered an evolution in their sound, which began to reflect the brooding, gritty facade of their new digs.
“We had this rehearsal space - and it was big for New York, but it had really low ceilings and no windows. So it was a very extreme place to write music,” Jameson recalls.
They dubbed it “The Rat Cave”, and the claustrophobic environment sparked an introspective mentality among band members. Vasquez spent time in the surrounding neighborhood listening to Greenpoint residents relate personal stories – anything from mob tales to Nazi encounters. Daily walks from his apartment to the studio gave him ample time to sink his teeth into those stories and spin on his own - the song “Live On” chronicles Vasquez’s experience with a childhood bully.
Producer Ben Allen (Youth Lagoon, Animal Collective) fleshed out the New York grit, but saw it fit to never totally abandon the band’s sunny roots. They finished up the record in Atlanta, Georgia.
A spur-of-the-moment acoustic performance from Dana Swimmer went on behind the Distillery. Video below.
As Delta Spirit goes through sound check, their Athens-based opener Dana Swimmer look on.
“It’s our first time playing with Delta Spirit,” says lead vocalist Jack Blauvelt, “and it’s beyond the coolest show we’ve played. We really respect these guys.”
Also comprising Dana Swimmer are background vocalist Maggie Blauvelt, drummer Parker Lusk, lead guitarist John Riccitelli and bassist Danny Hurley. Jack and Maggie are siblings, and the band’s name is derived from a childhood story.
“I’ve been making up stories lately because I get sick of telling it,” Jack laughs. “But when I was four years old, my parents told me we were going to have another baby, and they asked me what I wanted to name her. I decided that Dana Swimmer would be perfect name.” He smiles, “Obviously they didn’t pick that.”
Ultimately, of course the name didn’t go to waste. The band’s playfulness is just as pronounced on stage as it is off. Their debut album Veloce is charged with roaring, soulful rock, energetically informed by their Southern roots - an energy that’s on par with the evening’s headliner.
It is easy to see why Patton thought they were a great choice to open at the Distillery. Ultimately, it is his ability to connect people that makes his endeavors a success - ones which demand attention far beyond the Opelika town line.
Patton pauses. “You can never underestimate the power of music, and what it can do for a community."
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Dana Swimmer at John Emerald Distilling