In about a month, Band of Horses will settle in at Charlotte's Fillmore for a two-night stand, dominating the city's largest rock club for most of a weekend. By March 13, their May 10 appearance had already sold out, with the May 11 follow-up not far behind.
Currently based in Charleston, the comfortably distorted folk-rock ensemble is one of the most visible flag bearers for an increasingly prevalent wave of bands cobbling together the catchier elements of indie rock with the more fetching aspects of traditional Southern sound.
Alabama Shakes burst out of their namesake home state in 2012 by gracing a somewhat reductive distillation of Muscle Shoals rhythm and blues with raunchy tones that owe a debt to slacker rock, racing hastily down a road paved in large part by their Alabama-born brethren the Drive-By Truckers. With Phosphorescent, Brooklyn-via-Athens, Ga., singer Matthew Houck has navigated country-rock swagger and bedroom-bound heartbreak to much acclaim; his recent offering, Muchacho, was granted Pitchfork.com's coveted "Best New Music" certification. But one need not look outside the Carolinas to find similarly inspired outfits: Charlotte's Elonzo colors its elegant balladry with the gauze of effect-enriched pedal steel; Columbia, S.C.'s Say Brother injects old time structures with fuzz-infused momentum.
Given the mounting exposure enjoyed by such sounds, it's not surprising to see Charlotte's Visulite Theatre doling out back-to-back weekend slots to bands exploring this stylistic intersection. On Friday, March 29, Futurebirds, an Athens, Ga. outfit that coats its laid-back but restless country staggers in unending layers of reverb and effects, will headline. The next night, March 30, Nashville's Apache Relay, which mines the cathartic overlap between fiddle tunes and ragged rock songs, take to the stage. If the club isn't intentionally cashing in on the trend, it certainly stands to benefit from it.
As far as their own intentions, Futurebirds contend that their sound coalesced largely by coincidence. They met while most of the band was attending the University of Georgia. As a few of the fold were working at revered Athens recording spot Chase Park Transduction, the owner allowed them two free days in the space to cut their self-titled debut EP, released in 2009. Carter King, one of the outfit's four singers and songwriters, explains that the compact time frame forced the band's hand when it came to adding generous amounts of reverb; the tactic allowed them to smooth over rough patches without much fuss.
"A lot of that kind of washed-out, sort of reverberous thing that we have going on came almost from a sense of urgency. Like, 'Ah, we've only got so much time! Put some reverb on it, and let's keep going,'" he laughs. "That's kind of where we do our best work, just not thinking too much about it and just doing what we do and playing what comes out."
For Baba Yaga, the band's forthcoming second LP, Futurebirds took a more laborious approach, spending a full 45 days in the studio to work through ideas and refine the album's lush textures. The mood emitted by the songs' quivering pedal steel and walls of colorful distortion are so comforting and warm, they almost overpower the tender and earnest emotions exuded by the singers' pleasantly rough harmonies. They're not reinventing the wheel — Band of Horses may well have patents on a few of Baba Yaga's maneuvers — but Futurebirds feel profoundly genuine.
"I think people have been doing that for a while," King says of connecting experimental rock with folk and country elements. "[There was] the whole alt-country thing from the late '80s to the early '90s. Hell, The Rolling Stones were playing country songs on their albums and stuff. I guess you wouldn't call Neil Young's stuff indie rock, but it's all right there; same with The Byrds."
As with Futurebirds, The Apache Relay also stumbled upon its sound. Originally appearing as Michael Ford, Jr. and the Apache Relay, the band's 2009 debut, 1988, is dominated by energetic acoustic folk that recalls The Avett Brothers — not surprising as the Concord outfit's Second Gleam was a key inspiration. But as the band eyed a follow-up, the players started to experiment with amplification and acoustic strums became raucous riffs. The group's signature fiddle parts became increasingly bolstered by effects.
"We never let one of our pools of inspiration run dry," says guitarist Mike Harris, explaining the transition. "We kind of draw everything that we can from all places, but never let anything go too thirsty."
There's still plenty of acoustic resonance in what The Apache Relay is after, but the addition of electronic accents galvanizes the anthemic moments that elevate 2011's American Nomad. Soaring riffs send folk-inspired harmonies spiraling toward arena-worthy heights, where they're held aloft by fiddle parts that manage modern energy without shaming the instrument's traditional roots.
"The Southern thing to me doesn't drive home as much as just the honesty," Harris says, reflecting on the music made by The Apache Relay and its trending peers. "Maybe that is inherently Southern, but I see it coming from bands from all over."
Honesty is indeed key here, and these two bands likely wouldn't sound so convincing if they were simply trying to force themselves on a popular style. As such trends grow, they tend to attract artists who adapt to them merely to satiate their own career-minded ambitions. But Futurebirds and The Apache Relay are refreshingly earnest, inspiring hope that their particular corner of experimental folk may remain relatively uncorrupted. At the very least, their example should make any fakers easy to spot.