Southern Indie Rock Primer
by Jason Gubbels | June 28, 2013
It's unfair to consign the entire American South to a "scene" when discussing indie rock, because the Southland claims any number of focal points, from Athens to Chapel Hill. But there's also something special about the music scene(s) below the Mason-Dixon line. Maybe there's a freedom that comes from defying expectations (non-Southerners tend to assume country music informs every Southern rock band), or maybe there's an unresolved tension from pushing back respectfully against tradition. Whatever the reasons, Southern indie remains slightly off mainstream radar -- everybody associates The Strokes with New York, but how many rock fans remember that Superchunk, Neutral Milk Hotel and Slint all hailed from points south?
This playlist offers a chronological tour of Southern indie from Alabama to Virginia, highlighting some of Dixie's more heralded schools. In a way, all roads lead to Memphis, specifically the road winding along the choruses of 1970s cult act Big Star. Members Alex Chilton and Chris Bell went on to explore further variations on outsider pop, but Big Star laid the groundwork for an entire movement -- the jangle of Let's Active, The dB's and The Connells. And all roads also swing by Athens, Ga., home of New Wave pioneers The B-52's, alt superstars R.E.M. and local legends Pylon and Love Tractor. R.E.M.'s influence extends beyond Athens, of course: South Carolinians Don Dixon and Mitch Easter made their names coproducing the band, while fellow Georgians Vic Chesnutt and the Indigo Girls benefitted from the friendship and support of Michael Stipe.
Between these two hotspots lies Chapel Hill, NC, home to seminal lo-fi outfit Superchunk and Merge Records, the label launched by helium-voiced frontman Mac McCaughan (his eye for local talent helped propel Archers of Loaf outside Chapel Hill). And tiny Ruston, La., was the unlikely genesis for the psychedelic Elephant 6 collective, born out of tape-swapping experiments between individuals who went on to front Neutral Milk Hotel and The Olivia Tremor Control.
Other scenes exist, too: Nashville (Lambchop, Be Your Own Pet), Richmond, Va. (Labradford), Louisville, Ky. (My Morning Jacket, Slint), Raleigh, NC (Corrosion of Conformity). Southern-born artists like Cat Power (Atlanta) and Ryan Adams (Raleigh) have wandered outside the region, while more recent efforts by Kings of Leon (Nashville) and Cage the Elephant (Bowling Green, Ky.) hardly seem beholden to any particular scene at all, Southern or otherwise. But there's an old saying: You can take the indie rock band out of the South, but you can't take the South out of the indie rock band. Well, maybe that's not exactly how the saying goes.