For a new generation of indie rock acts, country music is king

Buckle up, cowpoke

Maria Sherman
Tuesday 26 December 2023 16:30 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Singer-songwriter Mitski’s “My Love Mine All Mine,” plays out like a whispered dirge.

The song is gothic lounge music for a listener who only has about two minutes to have their heart broken — a silky soft slow burn stacked with a choir, organ, bass and most critically, pedal steel guitar, the kind favored by country and western purists.

In no way does that description scream “mainstream hit,” and yet, for 12 weeks, it has been on the Billboard Hot 100, an unusual metric of success for a wholly independent artist. And for 10 weeks, her indie rock-meets-chamber pop-meets-country held the No. 1 position on Billboard’s TikTok trending chart.

Mitski is not from the American South, though her discography has long considered small town U.S.A. and she relocated to Nashville a few years ago to mine the geography’s humanity. (“Valentine, Texas” from last year’s “Laurel Hell” album is an example, but there are many.)

She is, of course, not the first indie artist to explore weeping Americana sounds. Many of the leading acts in contemporary indie rock pull from the South – like Mitski – or hail from there, like soloists Angel Olsen and Waxahatchee, or groups like Plains, Wednesday and two-thirds of the Grammy-nominated band boygenius. Lucinda Williams ’ “too country for rock ‘n’ roll, too rock ‘n’ roll for country” style is a clear predecessor; and every few generations, it seems like a great new band pulls from alt-country's narrative specificity.


Interestingly, indie rock's current adoption of country comes at a time of increased global interest in country music. According to the Midyear Music Report for data and analytics platform Luminate, country music experienced its biggest streaming week ever this year, a whopping 2.26 billion.

The genre has historically been enjoyed by English-speaking Americans, but their reporting shows growth in non-Anglophonic territories such as Philippines, Indonesia, India, Brazil, Mexico, Germany, and Vietnam.

In March 2023, Spotify launched a new playlist dedicated to the phenomenon of country-influence in indie rock titled “Indie Twang.” It's curated by Carla Turi, Spotify’s folk and acoustic music editor, who says the playlist was the result of conversations dating back to summer 2022, when they noticed growing “country influence in indie rock,” as she calls it. It's a legacy that extends to the late 2010s when country iconography started cropping up in spaces not-traditionally considered country: everything from Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” to Mitski’s 2018 album “Be the Cowboy.”

“I also think, through the lockdown we experienced in 2020, listeners sort of emerged craving more organic-sounding music as a way to connect with others,” she continued. The indie twang playlist was born out of all of that, amplified by successful indie artists like Ethel Cain and Plains.

“I’m seeing this space as a kind of movement, rather than a trend,” she adds. “The sound will always have its peaks and valleys. I do think that the fanbase, overall, continues to grow. I think that this sort of surge of Americana and singer-songwriter music here in the States has shifted listening habits across the entire country.”


In 2023, these indie artists offer an alternative to the pop-country acts dominating mainstream charts like Morgan Wallen, Luke Combs, and Jason Aldean. The movement is led by female performers, for one, and artists who don't immediately fit into a traditional genre format.

They also offer an alternative to traditional images of indie rock: instead of shying away from their geographic identities — like moving to New York and smoothing out to “y’alls” and “ma’ams” from their speech and music — they’re embracing them. Banjos and lap steel abound. Songs about God, rural roads, trucks, guns, humidity, and crickets do, too.

Like Turi, Jess Williamson of Plains sees the connection to country music from a more traditional indie rock audience as a post-COVID-19 lockdown revelation. “We saw people leaving cities, moving to smaller towns and out to the country. We saw people in cities baking bread, starting herb gardens, craving something simple, nostalgic, and that feels good,” she said.

“On tour, we covered ‘Goodbye Earl’ by the Chicks, everyone is singing along, and that’s the least cool s--- I can imagine. People are through being cool and are embracing who we are and what we really like. And for a lot of people, that’s country music.”

She says she had to leave the South in order to return to it and fully appreciate her love for both it and country music, the way “Texans leave and then immediately get a tattoo of the state of Texas,” she says, laughing.


Karly Hartzman, frontperson of the Ashville band Wednesday, has never left North Carolina. “I think where we live is inseparable from our music at this point. Of course, we are influenced by country music, but country music sounds and feels the way it does because of the environment it’s made in. A great country song feels like where it’s from,” she says.

Wednesday's 2023 full-length “Rat Saw God” made AP's best albums of the year list for its alt-country rock sensibility, where pulling the listener into the quiet parts of a Carolinas hometown is as much a part of the sonic fabric as lap steel or guitar fuzz or a poetic line sung out of key.

Hartzmann adds that the complications of living in the South are “the stereotypes … which are founded of course. The politics, the racism, and the inequity,” she says. “I’m strongly against leaving this place ’cause I disagree with the politics of those in power, though. It’s invigorating cause I feel empowered to fight against that (expletive), especially for those who are unable to do that themselves here.”

She says the South is her “favorite place on Earth" — beyond its influential music — but the appeal to stick around and create there is economic, too, which may have an impact on indie artists pulling from country sounds.

“I think affordability is a big factor for people trying to make it from their hometowns now instead of moving to big cities,” she says. “The internet makes that possible, obviously.”

It also means, for listeners on an Indie Twang playlist, or those at a rock club in a major city or a honky tonk in a small town, new approaches to familiar Southern sounds are more accessible than ever before.

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