Like so many people who'd forged successful careers in print journalism, Thomas Oliver watched the business decay under his very feet in the 2000s.
After 29 years as a writer, editor, columnist and all-around essential guy on the business desk at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he accepted the company's buyout offer and plunged feet-first into "retirement."
But he did not go quietly. For years, Oliver had a lucrative side project, as the singing/songwriting frontman for a country music trio he called the Usual Suspects. He'd released five CD on an independent Atlanta label.
So when he said goodbye to Hot 'Lanta three years ago — convincing his longtime lady friend, fellow journalist Melissa Turner, to leave the paper, too — Oliver put new strings on his guitar and made plans to do music full-time. Well, as full-time as he felt like.
Freshly married, the pair bee-lined for Tybee Island.
"We both took the buyout," Oliver laughs, "and said 'Let's see if we can make chicken salad out of chicken shit, and make this work for us.' We had been coming down here for years; in fact, just a few years before we'd purchased a little house ... it was our plan that Tybee would be where we'd retire. We just moved it up five or 10 years."
The first tangible result of Oliver's life-change is the CD The Edge of America, produced by the esteemed Thomm Jutz (Jefferson Ross, Lauren Lapointe) in Nashville. It's out this week, and Oliver has a CD Release Show Friday, Aug. 16 at the Flying Fish on US 80 (that's technically Whitemarsh Island).
Oliver wrote all 11 songs on the record, which includes "The Ballad of Tybee Island," a Buffett-esque comic narrative for which he's earned a reputation around the island clubs.
On tracks like "The Edge of America" and "Old Men," he displays a fine — one might say journalistic — eye for detail and poetic flow. "The Girl With an Accidental Memory" (it's about his mom, sort of) is pure left-of-center outlaw Americana.
Oliver says he started learning the minute he stumbled into the Tuesday night acoustic jams that, until recently, took place at Doc's Bar. There he met Roy Swindelle, Jeff Ross and the rest of Chatham County's old-guard acoustic troubadours, like-minded guitar guys one and all.
"It really amazes me when I look back at how much that affected my music — both the music that I play now, at gigs, the music I'm writing and the music I'm listening to," he says. "I just got exposed to a whole new thing. John Hiatt and Jason Isbell and all this other stuff. 'Cause I was pretty much stone cold country in Atlanta."
(The first song he ever learned to play, as a UGA journalism student back in 1970, was Merle Haggard's "Okie From Muskogee.")
"It started to evolve real quick. I think 20 percent of my playlist, things I play now, are songs I first heard at the jam. I would hear something and go 'Damn! I like that song,' and I'd steal it. I was just soaking it up."
• FYI Department: Country music's Shooter Jennings, who's never actually had a hit but is instead famous as the son of the late, great Waylon Jennings and singer/songwriter Jessi Colter, has been booked to perform with his band at the 2013 Tybee Island Pirate Fest. The show is Oct. 12. The weekend will also feature tribute bands that play the music of Jimmy Buffett and Journey.
• Although the band is based in South Carolina, the members of Turku are all proficient in the sounds of Middle Eastern "village music" from Turkey, Persia, Kurdistan, Caucasus and the Balkans. Turku plays Saturday, Aug. 17 for the Telfair Museums' Family Day (1-4 p.m. at the Jepson Center). It's all free, and Turku will writhe and shine at 3.