Wednesday in Athens
Countrygaze in the epicenter of alternative rock
By Patrick D. McDermott
"Burning Toile," 2021. Gouache on paper by Margaret Curtis. Courtesy the artist and Tracey Morgan Gallery, Asheville
When I suggest meeting the Asheville-based North Carolina rock band known as Wednesday in Athens, Georgia, where they would be performing the first show of a two-month cross-country tour, I am aware that the city has a rich musical history. That in addition to R.E.M. and the B-52s and Pylon, both Drive-By Truckers and the late, darkly comic singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt have roots downtown, in the poorly lit nightclubs adjacent to the University of Georgia’s stately North Campus. That anyone claiming Athens as a crucial epicenter of the “alternative rock” boom would have a pretty solid case. But it isn’t until I make the nearly six-hour drive from my adopted home in Wilmington, North Carolina, that I learn, from a backlit marquee hanging over West Washington Street, that the Truckers will be performing a half-block away from the Wednesday show—at 40 Watt Club, the fabled rock venue that’s been operating in one Athens location or another since the late ’70s. Because the club’s doors won’t open for a few hours, early birds keep trickling into Flicker Theatre & Bar, a narrow downtown Athens joint with walls the color of a pumpkin.
Inside Flicker, people keep greeting each other with long hugs, saying things like great to see you or it’s about time you turned up. Looking on from a small table next to a serve-yourself popcorn machine, I piece together that this clique of cheery, mostly middle-aged patrons are Drive-By Truckers fans, long-acquainted diehards reuniting at last for the accomplished alt-country group’s first hometown gig in two years. Nobody but me seems to be paying much mind to the half-muted melodic ruckus coming from Flicker’s intimate performance space where, through a curtained-off doorway at the front of the bar, the five members of Wednesday are currently finishing their soundcheck. They’ll play their own headlining show later tonight, in that very room.
Like Drive-By Truckers—a group that’s been grappling with the joy and shame and absurdity of Southern American life since the mid-1990s—Wednesday’s music simultaneously honors and complicates traditional conventions of country and Southern rock. One blogger described the band’s sound as “countrygaze,” a made-up microgenre combining country and shoegaze that gestures to the way many Wednesday songs incorporate hallmarks of Southern music: muck-smeared riffs, regional poetry, lap steel flourishes. But while the Truckers tend to tell place-based tales through a screwy blend of electric folk and classic rock, Wednesday sets childhood stories and rural-suburban imagery against the bleary hooks and mesmeric waves of noise endemic to grunge and shoegaze bands of the late twentieth century.
Wednesday began in 2017 as Karly Hartzman’s personal songwriting project, and she’s now the band’s frontwoman and primary lyricist. After soundcheck, I find the twenty-five-year-old outside the venue wearing an army-green tank top and Western-cut blue jeans, her wavy brown hair stuffed under a rhinestone-studded denim cap with the word sexy embroidered on it. The rest of her band—bassist Margo Schulz, lap steel player Xandy Chelmis, guitarist Jake Lenderman, and drummer Alan Miller—are nowhere to be seen. A couple of seconds after I introduce myself, Hartzman is approached by a wiry older man with chin-length straight hair and a face mask. Hartzman seems to recognize him, sounding sincere when she says, with a brisk and somewhat dreamy diction that I’ll soon recognize as her default manner of speaking, “It’s great to meet you.”
While we’re hunting for an out-of-the-way place to talk, Hartzman explains that the man was Drive-By Truckers bassist Bobby Matt Patton. “There are some towns where you could trick yourself out of thinking you’re in the South,” Hartzman says, spotting some haphazardly arranged outdoor furniture on the sprawling lawn of an empty-seeming mansion. Stray beer caps dot the grass like aluminum dandelions. “But not this one,” she continues. Her phone buzzes. It’s Jake Lenderman, calling from someplace close by. “I’m doing that interview,” Hartzman says into the phone, before getting around to more pressing news: “Also—I just met Bobby Matt.”
Karly Hartzman grew up in a middle-class section of Greensboro, the third-biggest city in North Carolina. As a kid she ditched school a lot, yearning for the freedom afforded by family trips to an RV park in Mocksville, a nearby town best known as Daniel Boone’s teenage residence. Hartzman was allowed to explore the sprawling community unsupervised; fleeting snippets of boom-box country music soundtracked her wanderings. Although she wrote frequently, she didn’t buy her first guitar until after she moved one hundred and seventy miles to Asheville for college, where she studied photography. “Anything music-related is all self-taught,” she says, explaining that she learned chord shapes by watching YouTube videos of Mitski, Jessica Lea Mayfield, and “other people who have small hands like me.” Certain songs by Mayfield, who grew up touring in a bluegrass family band, were especially revelatory. “I hadn’t heard guitar like I wanted to play paired with a vocal anywhere near mine,” Hartzman remembers. “That was huge.”
Hartzman’s voice is an arresting instrument. It’s sweet and folksy one second, as jagged as a broken Miller Lite bottle the next. She has the ability to skip notes without forcing it, a yodel-adjacent skill that she has begun crediting to both her Southern upbringing and her Jewish roots; because of its unique scale, a lot of Jewish vocal music showcases a similar note-leaping technique. You can hear Hartzman testing that elasticity on the first Wednesday album, 2018’s yep definitely, a collection of topsy-turvy twee-pop that she made with help from pal Daniel Gorham in an on-campus recording studio. When she started playing those songs live around Asheville, Hartzman figured out that she was interested in a different sound, something with more texture and emotional intensity. “I was like, I want to get louder and grosser,” she says, reminding me of the teeth-chattering arrangements I heard Wednesday practicing on the other side of the barroom wall.
For Wednesday’s first full-band album, I Was Trying to Describe You to Someone, Hartzman linked up with the same crew who piled into a silver Sprinter van early this morning to drive from Asheville to Athens: Schulz and Chelmis, both regulars in Asheville’s DIY house show scene, plus Miller, a fellow UNC Asheville alum. (Daniel Gorham played guitar on the record, though Jake Lenderman contributed backing vocals and would later become the band’s full-time guitarist.) With gritty dissonance and impressionistic lyrics about North Carolina nights and finding love at a gas station, I Was Trying found Wednesday creeping closer to the aesthetic that Hartzman always dreamt of losing herself in, a sonic world where humor, melody, harsh noise, and heartache can all coexist, sometimes in a single song. “Pass the billboard on the street / And wonder if hell will swallow me up,” she sings on thrashy opener “Fate Is…,” referencing fire-and-brimstone propaganda while her penetrating vocal crescendos to a ragged wail.
Hartzman emailed the album masters to musician Owen Ashworth, who decided to release I Was Trying on his small indie label, Orindal Records, in early 2020. Their next album, Twin Plagues, released by Orindal in the summer of 2021, feels less like curious kids fucking around and more like musicians tapping into something deep and communal. “They put everything into those songs,” Ashworth tells me later over email. “There’s so much love and joy in the music they make together, and that comes through.” The album was recorded in a legit Asheville studio that was offering discounted pandemic-era rates, and Hartzman wrote most of the tracks alone, then invited her bandmates to help make them bigger and weirder, to let their in-studio freak flags fly. “I was like, We’re actually doing what I always wanted to do,” Hartzman remembers.
Twin Plagues, which won Wednesday a lot of new fans in the Carolinas and beyond, feels literary in both content and delivery. The imagistic fragments that populate “Handsome Man,” an up-tempo standout with a bong-rip riff and droning feedback, are sung with the kind of hard line breaks that poets use to build tension and complicate meaning. The titular refrain of weary ballad “How Can You Live If You Can’t Love How Can You If You Do” repurposes a line of dialogue from an early-morning, whiskey-fueled heart-to-heart in James Baldwin’s 1962 novel, Another Country. “Cody’s Only” unfolds like flash fiction, with Hartzman’s pastoral lilt building in intensity alongside crunchy guitars and weepy steel tones. When the song ends, the narrator isn’t quite the same. And neither is the person who just listened to it.
Photo of Wednesday by Charlie Boss
When a few other band members meet Hartzman and me outside, we all talk for a while about Wednesday’s upcoming tour, which isn’t their first but is by far their longest. Drummer Alan Miller, who’s baby-faced with round glasses, tells me he didn’t sleep well last night because he was so excited.
Miller and guitarist Jake Lenderman are the most easy-going on the road, Hartzman decides, which basically means they’re willing to hop in the back row of the van when no one else wants to. Hartzman and lap steel player Xandy Chelmis trade driving shifts; Lenderman is temporarily barred after running into a pole at a gas station. (“A total fluke,” he says.) Bassist Margo Schulz meticulously curates each show’s set list while Chelmis, who often sports a ’70s-coke-dealer mustache, handles food and beverages. “His standards are so specific,” Hartzman explains. “I’m like, ‘Xandy, do you want to look up a place?’ And he’ll be like, ‘OK, there’s a catfish shack in three miles.’”
Hartzman is the de facto tour manager, a role she clarifies is “one thousand percent” against type. “I have to do a lot of bullying to get people up and out, which I hate,” she says.
“You don’t bully,” Miller says.
“Yeah, you’re good,” Lenderman adds.
With the exception of Schulz, who’s from Maryland, all of Wednesday was raised in North Carolina, and they tend to embrace their Southern roots without irony. This past March, the band put together a collection of covers that, in addition to songs by Athens’s own Vic Chesnutt and Drive-By Truckers, includes Wednesday-fied versions of Gary Stewart’s “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles)” and Roger Miller’s “Lock, Stock, and Teardrop.” It doesn’t feel like an overstatement to call their take on Stewart’s honky-tonk staple transcendent. Over reverb-soaked guitars that squeak and swerve like an old kiddie coaster, Hartzman’s voice sounds equal parts resilient and heartbroken, a performance that reminds me of something outlaw music pioneer Waylon Jennings told journalist Peter Guralnick in a 1974 interview, explaining how certain songs are country to their core, even if the arrangements suggest otherwise: “It’s the singer, not the instrumentation,” he said.
It’s not just Hartzman’s distinctive voice that links Wednesday to traditional country music; it’s also in the way that her writing is inextricably tied to real-world scenes and characters: an argument overheard through a wall, a teenage drug experience gone awry, a radio melody half-remembered from a daydream. In his book Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals in American Music, Guralnick describes American roots music, which has origins in religious and secular folk songs from Africa and Europe, as “music ‘from the heart’…music that is deeply engraved in [the performer’s] background and experience.” Hartzman’s instinct is to write from life, to capture Southern culture and its diverse influences through a subjective and experiential lens. This habit, plus Wednesday’s candidness about the words and sounds that have influenced their aesthetic, helps circumvent conversations about authenticity. “As long as you aren’t being someone you’re not, it’s pretty easy to avoid appropriating,” Hartzman says. Across multiple conversations and repeat listenings to Wednesday’s discography, I never once get the sense that she’s interested in being anything but herself.
On the quiet-loud-quiet Twin Plagues highlight “Cliff,” named after Hartzman’s maternal grandfather, she sings: “You soon seem to be wearin’ thin / And my Dad picked a Dallas Cowboys urn to put your ashes in.” Whereas a lot of indie and punk artists have historically rejected or even condemned the very notion of “home,” Hartzman listens closely to her parents’ stories and—like a lot of great American songwriters before her—finds inspiration in the complicated culture she inherited. “You learn a lot when they start telling you things they didn’t feel comfortable telling you when you were a kid,” she says.
There’s something messy and beautiful about the struggle to name something, about fumbling around for language to define the indefinable. In a 1984 New York Times article, journalist Robert Palmer explained how terms like “cowpunk” and “prairie modern” were being used to describe a wave of young bands in America and the UK who were “personalizing country music and making it palatable for the MTV generation.” You can hear traces of those “cowpunk” groups—Rank and File, the Gun Club, X side project the Knitters—in the hook-stuffed noise that Wednesday performs today. But the thing about microgenres—like “cowpunk,” or more recent examples like “chillwave,” “vaporwave,” and now “countrygaze”—is that even when they enter the zeitgeist, they’re almost always transient. To me, the music Wednesday makes feels dynamic and untethered to a trend, which is part of what makes listening to it so exciting. They seem less interested in making throwback sounds accessible to contemporary listeners than with creating space for weirder and louder music in the sometimes change-resistant worlds of modern country and Southern rock.
In the recent past, Alabama-born songwriter Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee has told twangy short stories over swirling guitars. Another young Appalachia-based artist named Indigo De Souza has written more than one song that stretches indie-pop in disorienting, grungy directions. Even the groggy solo tracks Jake Lenderman releases as MJ Lenderman, with titles like “I Ate Too Much At The Fair” and “You Have Bought Yourself A Boat,” put an atmospheric spin on plainspoken country. Still, it’s hard to predict if there’s much longevity to “countrygaze,” a label that’s not pervasive outside of nerdy music circles and might never be, or if Wednesday’s sound is reflective of any larger trends in the contemporary Southern music space. But I won’t be surprised if I start hearing bands that sound a little bit like Wednesday. In an era when a lot of popular music feels engineered for ubiquity, tweaked and tailored to fit on as many playlists as possible, it’s refreshing to hear new rock songs with a strong sense of place. Songs that resonate thanks to—not in spite of—their specificity. Songs that are sad and funny and cathartic and true.
“I’ve never felt good about any genre people try to put us in,” Hartzman says when I ask the members of Wednesday what they think of the “countrygaze” tag. Miller takes a moment to consider the question. “I think we have some songs where that’s accurate, and other songs where it doesn’t relate to [our sound],” he responds politely. Lenderman—who is lanky with sideburns and a stoned-sounding baritone—seems to feel similarly: “It’s not like we set out to be countrygaze,” he says, before suggesting it’s cool that people care enough to attempt to classify their sound in the first place. “It’s a good sign,” he decides.
It’s a couple hours later and the band is on the Flicker stage, sounding really good. The room is lit with dull red bulbs, a vaguely occultish vibe heightened by the antique lamps and life-size animal figurines lined up on a shelf above the band’s heads. “The air smells good in Athens,” Hartzman says to the audience, which is mostly casually dressed twentysomethings, although one person is wearing a red cocktail dress and another has on a coral-colored trench coat. “And we’re from the mountains, so we know good air.” Some people mosh during the climax of “Fate Is…,” and some people sing along to “Cody’s Only,” the latter of which surprises Hartzman, who grins wide and flubs a few lyrics. At some point, I realize that a handful of the people I assumed had tickets to the Truckers show are here, watching Wednesday.
They play some new songs, too. Their next album is already recorded; Hartzman told me it features a lot of outlaw-inspired lyrics and at least one song that wouldn’t be out of place on pop-country radio. “Our identity is really strong right now,” she explained. “It’s not just me bringing the band an idea and them piecing it together; it’s like, one big piece that’s always been there.” Halfway through a hard-hitting unreleased track that opens with lyrics about walking on water and raising the dead, Hartzman sing-screams something I can’t make out but am nonetheless deeply moved by. Schulz, head-banging behind her bass in an Orange County Choppers sweatshirt, flashes a barely-there smirk. Near the end of the set, Hartzman warns the audience: “One of my favorite bands is playing next door and we’re gonna run over after, no offense.”
And that’s exactly what they do. After selling some records and loading up the van, Hartzman and the rest of Wednesday—subsisting on fumes and adrenaline—race next door to catch the end of the Drive-By Truckers concert, where Bobby Matt Patton is joined on the 40 Watt stage by the rest of his bandmates.
“People keep telling me that it feels like something big is coming up [for us], but I only really feel that because other people are saying it,” Hartzman said. “If I desire something in return for being able to do my favorite thing in the world, it’s just to like, survive—and also for my parents to be proud of me.”
After spending time with Wednesday, in person and on record, I’ve become increasingly confident that both of those goals are within reach. In just a few weeks, over the phone from a tour stop in Nebraska, Hartzman will tell me that the band signed a new record deal. She will explain that the Truckers hand-picked Wednesday to open for them on an upcoming tour, and I’ll be able to hear the thinly veiled excitement in her voice. But that comes later. Right now, Wednesday are just five friends for whom listening to music is as life-and-death as making it. Right now, they’re at the Drive-By Truckers show, having the time of their lives.