The definition for southern rock can be a little loose. There are, of course, bands like The Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd who fit squarely in the southern rock category—they were from the South, and they made twanged-up, roaring rock ‘n’ roll. But in 2020, that definition can look a little different. We have artists, like The Wood Brothers and Marcus King, who take after those country rockers of old, but we also have artists like Brittany Howard and Adia Victoria, who are little more difficult to pin down. The 13 artists and bands on this list don’t all sound the same. Some touch on the blues and soul, while others are more comfortably country. But all of these sounds are inherently southern, and each of these talented musicians tap into the South’s illustrious history in one way or another. Simply put, these guys rock. If you’re a fan of southern music, be it rock or country, you’ll probably find something to love here. Please enjoy this list of 13 artists, some new and some already familiar, who are making really excellent southern rock right now.
1. Aaron Lee Tasjan
Aaron Lee Tasjan has major style. It’s in everything he does—his clothes, his attitude and, most importantly, his music. It evokes both a ’50s sock-hop sway and a refined southern rock sleaze. Tasjan’s 2018 album, Karma For Cheap, is for the Americana fan who seeks a classic rock edge. An Ohio native, Tasjan resides in East Nashville, one of the city’s most popular neighborhoods for musicians, especially those with a rasp in their throats and a twangy chord-progression itching to let loose from their fingers. Tasjan does it all—a little country, a little rock, and a little soul. He’s been on the road recently, so hopefully it’s only a matter of time before LP4 lands by our boots.
2. Adia Victoria
Do the blues count as southern rock? Maybe not always, but they definitely do when Adia Victoria is singing ‘em. She’s a Nashville-based singer/songwriter who was raised in South Carolina and grew up on Flannery O’Connor and Angela Davis. Her excellent 2019 album Silences is a southern album through and through: Victoria channels soul legends like Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone, rock heroes and country singers of old. Maybe her music isn’t southern rock in the conventional definition, but it is in fact rock music from the Deep South. This firecracker-of-an-artist is worth an edit.
3. Brittany Howard
Before she went solo, Brittany Howard was already a leader in modern southern rock. As the frontwoman of Alabama Shakes, the Bama native was responsible for some of the best southern rock music of all time. She made a little more magic on her solo debut Jaime, which arrived last year. It’s definitely not just rock—Howard taps into soul, jazz, roots and spoken-word, among other innumerable descriptions, but we’d be remiss not to include her here. The woman is a rock ‘n’ roll powerhouse.
4. Dee White
Born and raised in small-town Alabama, Dee White has a clear view on small corners of the South. His country-tinged rock ‘n’ roll feels progressive enough for Bitter Southerner readers and classic enough for George Strait fans. Yet, this Southern Gentleman (as his 2019 debut album is called) has years to go before he’d be old enough to mingle with folks of the Strait generation. He’s a 21-year-old Auburn drop-out who likes to fish and sing. Turns out, he’s really good at both. You’d never know Southern Gentleman was made by a Southern Boy—it sounds like Steve Earle hopped in the sound booth with Gillian Welch and decided to crank out some rock tunes. With a little help from Dan Auerbach, White made a stunning first album of his career. May he be blessed with many more years of hard-rocking.
5. Drive-By Truckers
Maybe this list is primarily inhabited by newcomers, but you just can’t write something called “Artists Making Great Southern Rock Right Now ” without including the very best in the game, the Drive-By Truckers, especially since their forthcoming 12th studio album is mere weeks from release. The Unraveling will unspool on Jan. 31, and if you’re a fan of Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley’s unchangingly sturdy songwriting and brutally honest portraits of the South (and America at large), this one is already on your radar. This record follows a period of prolonged writer’s block, but the extra wait time just means this collection of politically forthright rock songs have had even more time to brew. They’re best enjoyed with a glass of whiskey or a piece of buttered cornbread—drink them up like you would a country song, but listen extra hard, like you would an NPR podcast. There’s a hell of a lot of truth in the Truckers’ songs.
Athens, Ga., has been a hotbed for great rock music (and music of all types) for the better part of the last 50 years, and it doesn’t look like that’s going to change in the next 10. Raspy roots-rockers Futurebirds are four albums deep a decade into their career, but the arrival of their fifth is still a cause worth commemorating. Their earnest brand of country-tinged, sultry singsong fits right in alongside all your favorite indie-folk and Americana records. But Futurebirds are doing something different from many of those bands: Their three-part harmonies range from heartbreaking to chill-inducing, yet most of their songs possess a laid-back summery feel. The songs on LP5, Teamwork, find Futurebirds leaning into the psychedelic side of things, yet they’re as twangy as ever. “Trippin” takes delight in human error, “All Damn Night” is an escapist mountain holler tune and “Dream, Fam!” is a suspicious jam. This record could take Futurebirds to the next level—bigger venues, heftier touring schedules—but for those of us who’ve been around with this band since the beginning, Teamwork is just another chapter in this century’s great southern rock story.
7. Hiss Golden Messenger
North Carolina-via-California artist Hiss Golden Messenger is often cited in conversations about 2010s folk music, and for good reason: the singer/songwriter has three bonafide roots classics on his hands, Bad Debt, Poor Moon and Haw. But his 2019 album Terms of Surrender is a little bigger, a little more anxious and a lot more rockin’. He’s incredibly good at finding ways to proselytize without sounding preachy and push forth great rock music without ever quite fitting the term “rockstar.”
8. Katie Pruitt
Raised in the Atlanta suburbs but now based in Nashville, singer/songwriter Katie Pruitt possesses the storytelling finesse of someone like Jason Isbell, but she also has the rootsy rock star energy (albeit shaggy) of someone like Sheryl Crow. What makes her music southern rock is its grit—she’s able to craft intensely delicate love songs, searching country ballads and alternative-radio-ready rock songs, all with the spirit and confidence of a dirt-road-riding country bro. Her debut album Expectations is out Feb. 21, and if you like jam-infused country-rock, she is not one to miss.
9. Marcus King
Marcus King is, in fact, the king of country rock—at least in 2020. He’s made three albums and become a certified road warrior with The Marcus King Band, and now he’s releasing another album under his own name. El Dorado is a little more personal, but it’s just as sure of itself. He recently moved to Nashville and acquired a new swagger, and you can hear it all over El Dorado, the songs he wrote with Dan Auerbach. It often sounds like a healthy mix of St. Paul & the Broken Bones and old Sturgill Simpson.
Maybe they’re not “southern rock,” but they are southern and they do rock—very hard, in fact. Country hitmakers Midland are known for their blockbuster Americana songs: stuff like 2017’s massively popular “Drinkin’ Problem” and “Burn Out,” both country radio favorites. But on their new album Let It Roll, Midland seem to be embracing more guitar solos and charging drums. However, their vocals are still deep enough to mirror Jackson Maine, and their love songs sound like they should be heard underneath neon signs on Broadway in Nashville.
11. The Moondoggies
These soulful psych-rockers may hail from Seattle, but they sound perfectly suited to a playlist sharing space with Futurebirds and Marcus King. You’ll find nuanced country moments in their music, as well as plenty of Byrds-ian country rock references. It’s damn catchy too. Their most recent album was in 2018, but as their touring schedule is near-constant, chances are new music will continue flowing our way.
12. Nathaniel Rateliff
Nathaniel Rateliff has spent the better part of the last five years releasing albums, touring and playing prime festival slots with his band The Night Sweats. The Missouri native is releasing his third solo LP, And It’s Still Alright, next month on Valentine’s Day. There’s both romance and realism coursing through his solo work, even as the new album tracks the slow breakdown of a recent relationship. Rateliff is tough, and he’s gritty, and even his darkest hours have yielded some of the best southern rock around.
13. The Wood Brothers
Fans of late ’90s/early 2000s southern rock and folk-rock are already fully aware of The Wood Brothers. But even though they’ve been around a while, we can’t help but mention them here. Their forthcoming album Kingdom In My Mind, a follow-up to 2018’s Grammy-nominated One Drop of Truth, will arrive Jan. 24. It could be their best release in a while: Their plucky, bluesy style of southern rock sounds fresher than ever here. Brothers Chris and Oliver Wood had careers of their own before joining forces, but the age of The Wood Brothers has resulted in some of their most successful work. These folksy songmakers have made being a fan of southern rock delightful for the better part of 15 years now.