LOS ANGELES — Singer-songwriter Micky’s “My Love Mine All Mine” sounds like a whispered song.
The song is gothic lounge music for a listener who only has about two minutes to get their heart broken – a silky smooth slow burn layered with choir, organ, bass and, most critically, pedal steel guitar favored by country and western purists.
By no means does that description scream “mainstream hit” and yet, for 12 weeks, it has been on the Billboard Hot 100, an unusual measure of success for a completely independent artist. And for 10 weeks, her indie-rock-meets-cam-pop-meets-country was the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s TikTok trending chart.
Micky isn’t from the American South, although her discography has long been considered small-town US, and she moved to Nashville a few years ago to mine the humanity of geography. (“Valentine, Texas” from last year’s “Laurel Hell” album is one example, but there are many.)
She’s certainly not the first indie artist to explore the wailing sounds of Americana. Many of the leading artists in modern indie rock come from the South – like Mitski – or come from there, like lead singers Angel Olsen and Waxahatchee, or bands like Plains, Wednesday and two-thirds of Grammy-nominated boygenius. Lucinda Williams’ too-country-for-rock-and-roll, too-rock-and-roll-for-country style is a clear precursor; and every few generations it seems like a great new band draws on the narrative specificity of alt-country.
A world that cares about the country
Interestingly, indie rock’s current take on country comes at a time of heightened global interest in country music. According to the Midyear Music Report for data and analytics platform Luminate, country music experienced its biggest streaming week this year, totaling 2.26 billion.
The genre has historically been enjoyed by English-speaking Americans, but their reports show growth in non-Anglophone territories such as the 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 is the result of conversations since the summer of 2022 when they noticed a growing “country influence in indie rock,” as she calls it. It’s a legacy that stretches back to the late 2010s, when country iconography began popping 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 that through the lockdown we’ve experienced in 2020, listeners have emerged craving more organic-sounding music as a way to connect with others,” she continued. The Indie Sounds Playlist was born out of all of this, bolstered by successful indie artists like Ethel Cain and Plains.
“I see this space as a kind of movement, not a trend,” she adds. “Sound will always have its highs and lows. I think the fanbase, in general, continues to grow. I think that kind of wave of Americana and singer-songwriter music here in the States has changed listening habits across the country.”
An alternate state of mind
In 2023, these independent artists offer an alternative to pop-country acts dominating the mainstream charts, such as Morgan Wallen, Luke Combs and Jason Aldean. The movement is led by female performers, for example, and artists who don’t immediately fit into a traditional genre format.
They also offer an alternative to traditional indie rock images: instead of retreating from their geographic identities—like moving to New York and erasing “y’alls” and “mamams” from their speech and music—they’re embracing them. Banjo and lap steel abound. Songs about God, country roads, trucks, guns, moisture and crickets too.
Like Turi, Plains’ Jess Williamson sees the connection to country music from more traditional indie rock audiences as a revelation after the COVID-19 lockdown. “We saw people leaving the cities, moving to smaller towns and the countryside. We saw people in the cities baking bread, creating herb gardens, craving something simple, nostalgic, and that feels good,” she said.
She says she had to leave the South to come back 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.
Keeping close to home
Carly Hartzman, frontman for the band Ashville 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 in which it was made. A great country song feels like it’s from,” she says.
Wednesday’s 2023 full-length “Rat Saw God” landed on the AP’s list of best albums of the year for its alt-country rock sensibility, where drawing the listener into the quiet parts of his hometown in the Carolinas is as much a part of the fabric of sound as much as the lap of steel or the silence of a guitar or a poetic line sung in tune.
Hartzman adds that the complications of life in the South are “the stereotypes … which are valid, of course. The politics, the racism and the inequality,” she says. “I am categorically against leaving this place because I do not agree with the politics of those in power. It’s invigorating because I feel empowered to fight against this (expletive), especially for those who can’t do it themselves here.”
She says the South is her “favorite place on Earth” — outside of its impactful music — but the appeal of staying and creating there is also economic, which can have an impact on indie artists who draw on country sounds.
“I think affordability is a big factor for people trying to make ends meet from their hometowns now, rather than moving to big cities,” she says. “Obviously the internet makes that possible.”
It also means that for Indie Twang playlist listeners, those in a big city rock club or a small town honky tonk, new takes on familiar Southern sounds are more accessible than ever.