This article is part of Wide Open Country's ongoing series Back to Country, which celebrates country music venues around the U.S.
One of the best places to see live country music that's relatively close to both Atlanta and Birmingham can be found in the same strip mall in Bremen, Ga. that previously housed an Ingles supermarket. Not long after the Mill Town Music Hall opened its doors in Feb. 2012, excitement over the supermarket chain's weekly ad gave way to anticipation over what country, bluegrass or gospel act might be the next addition to the small-town concert venue's always-stacked calendar.
The transition from grocery store to a venue in the hometown of Alabama's go-to producer Harold Shedd began when the building's owner, Randall Redding of R.K. Redding Construction, and his wife Tena planned a family-friendly performance space with input from Diplomats Quartet founder Jim Pearson and others. As their vision took shape, the Redding family selected one of its employees in the construction business, Steve Bennett, as the venue's general manager.
"It's really a God story, to be honest with you," Bennett told Wide Open Country. "I had just been hired by our owner to do something else in the company. I'm a musician, and I had some event planning experience and things like that. Basically, he decided he was going to do this and said, 'Okay Steve, you're going to manage it.' He brought in some other people to help with marketing and logistics and to help it get off the ground and that kind of thing."
What began as an operation focused on gospel music would become a destination for traditional country music acts, drawing fans disillusioned with music festival lineups and commercial radio playlists to a rural spot where it wouldn't be a joke or a dismissal to refer to the Waffle House as the only nightlife competition. (Complaining about what's currently popular is wasted energy at best, but how wise is the Mill Town team to cater to an underserved audience?)
"We planned all along to have country acts and to be honest, I think we've got bigger acts than we planned in the beginning," Bennett added. "When we started, we had a lot more Southern gospel-type artists, and we had hopes of having bigger name artists. I'll never forget Randall saying that if you'd told him in the beginning that Loretta Lynn would be on that stage, then he might've been too afraid to do it."
"It is downright amazing to be a part of Bremen's Mill Town Music Hall's success story," Joe Bonsall of The Oak Ridge Boys told Wide Open Country via email. "We were honored to be a part from day one and here we are all these years later still performing there to sold-out crowds. The Mill Town Music Hall has become a showplace of the South and these fine folks mean the world to The Oak Ridge Boys. As a side note the catering is incredible!"
The meal awaiting every act to grace the venue's stage gets served in a dining area named after a country radio legend from the West Georgia area, the late Rhubarb Jones.
"[Jones] told us from the beginning. He said, 'If you feed these artists well, they'll want to come back'," Bennett said. "And so we added a dining room for the artists to eat dinner, and that was Rhubarb's idea. We named that after Rhubarb after he passed away. In fact, he emceed a show at Milltown the night before he passed away."
While artists enjoy Southern hospitality backstage, their fans learn about one of Bremen's favorite sons by browsing the various artifacts on display from the career of Shedd, Alabama's right-hand producer and the record executive on the ground level of Toby Keith, Billy Ray Cyrus and Shania Twain's ascents as Nashville stars.
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A place that honors the past facilitates the future when another local product, rising country artist Caleb Lee Hutchinson, graces its stage. Hutchinson's Mill Town memories from his teenage years include a Shedd-judged talent competition that pre-dates the youngster's American Idol experience.
"The Mill Town Music Hall has been such an integral part of me becoming a musician," Hutchinson told Wide Open Country. "It was one of the first venues I ever experienced live music at, and one of the first where I got to perform for an audience. The atmosphere of the venue makes everyone feel at home. And their commitment to remaining a family-friendly haven for good music in a small town sets them apart from all others."
Hutchinson paints an accurately wholesome picture of a music venue that doubles as a church two days a week. Beer and liquor are never served, and every concert opens with a prayer. That makes it an ideal place to catch such devout pickers as Rhonda Vincent or Ricky Skaggs, though every show isn't exactly a camp meeting waiting to happen. Oldies favorites (The Drifters, The Coasters and The Platters, just to name three) and even Kenny Loggins have joined country royalty in making the Mill Town Music Hall dream a reality--years before both Randall Redding and Pearson died in 2021.