On the return of heartland rock (part I)
“So come on baby, let’s go
Don’t ya hear that rock ‘n roll?
Playin’ on the radio sounds so right
Girl, ya better grab hold
Everybody’s got to know
Anything that’s rock ‘n roll’s fine”
– Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, “Anything that’s Rock ‘n’ Roll”, 1976
Take another look at the Tom Petty lyrics and the two pictures that accompany it. They may seem to contradict each other, but that’s only on the surface. Look beyond the surface and you’ll see that songs like that are one of the things that helped thousands of Americans make it through the years following Vietnam and the “Reaganomics” of the ’80s that seemed to only make the wealth trickle up even even faster as more and more factories shut down and farms were foreclosed. Songs such as that were what made the days just a little brighter for those who seemed to have nothing to look forward to. Who was the voice of the little guy in those years? Who sang songs directly for the working class and defined within those songs their dreams, their fears, their lives?
I guess the style of music that was eventually to be called “heartland rock” began way back in 1967 with the formation of a four-piece rock ‘n roll band with the curious name of Creedence Clearwater Revival. They were the first rockers to directly stand up for the common man in their songs, a job previously held only by folkies like Woody Guthrie. CCR and the bands and artists I’m going to talk about later all had a deep respect and understanding of America’s folk music tradition, and even added to it in their own way, but at the same time they could never be classified as anything but good old American rock ‘n roll.
The entire genre was built on contradictions: the leaders were simultaneously poets and badasses. Almost any song could get you out of your seat and onto the dance floor, but if you chose not get up you would find out that the songs were about your job, your town, occasionally even your President, but most importantly you. These artists are people who could care less about fancy clothes and limo rides to the stadium for a sold-out crowd (one of them even said in an interview years later that he hated limos). They would be just as comfortable playing in a half-deserted bar in some small town you’ve never heard of, wearing just a t-shirt and worn-out blue jeans, the attire most of them prefer to this day.
The reason I bring this up is because a few recent albums I’ve heard lead me to believe that the genre is making a comeback among the indie rock and Americana communities and I will address that in part two of this blog. But first a history lesson which I will try to keep as brief as possible, but which I feel is required for some of you to understand what I’m talking about.
Over the next two decades countless artists with a blue-collar, working class background would appear from small towns all over the country and end up being a huge success. But it all began in El Cerrito, California in 1967- the height of the hippie movement when bands like the Grateful Dead and the Jimi Hendrix Experience reigned supreme. CCR shared some things in common with them: they wanted to live in peace in a world more fair, but they didn’t try to reach this by advocating LSD or free love. Instead they attempted to entertain the types of people they grew up around and when they found something they didn’t like about this society (the Vietnam War or “Ronnie the popular” as they called the then-Governor on one track), they sought to take it back to a simpler time and place, somewhere like “Green River”.
They may or may not have actively been involved in making heartland rock, but they were a definite influence and precursor. And because Fogerty’s 1985 album Centerfield is commonly cited as an essential heartland rock album and I really see no difference stylistically between it and his work with CCR, I’m going to include them here.
Meanwhile in Detroit, during the peak of bands like the MC5 and still very much in the golden era of Motown, a local garage band named The Bob Seger System with a few local hits under there belt already reaches #17 on the Top 40 charts with a tune called “Ramblin’, Gamblin’ Man” from the album of the same name. This success is short-lived and neither the next two System albums or the lead singer’s first five solo records are heard by anybody outside of Michigan (most still have not heard them). Then in 1976, he forms the Silver Bullet Band and releases two albums: Live Bullet and Night Moves that put him on the map. Well-known for his distinctive soulful voice and high energy live performances, Seger’s music was a celebration of youth spent “workin’ on the night moves” or hanging out “down on Main Street”, but with a bittersweet tone surrounding the entire thing. And occasionally, like CCR before him, he would address issues he thought were hurting the working class: the Vietnam War in “2+2+?”, the decline of the Detroit auto industry in “Makin’ Thunderbirds”, or the alarming spike in drug use in “American Storm”. Seger continued to be a huge success until the mid-’80s, but has only released three albums and toured only twice in the past 20 years.
In 1972, a debut album was released by a young man who had been playing in New Jersey bar bands like Steel Mill since he was 16. The album was Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and the young man’s name was Bruce Springsteen. Far better writers than I have written extensively about him, so I won’t make a fool out of myself by doing the same. But the main thing you need to know is that with 1976’s Born to Run and especially 1985’s Born in the U.S.A. (the genre’s commercial peak), Bruce became the face of heartland rock. But that doesn’t mean he was the only good artisy coming out of Jersey at that time. They never had much commercial success, but Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes are certainly worth a listen.
In 1974, Mudcrutch, the favorite sons of Gainesville, Florida headed to L.A. looking for stardom. They broke up within a year, but their singer/bassist and several other members formed a new band called the Heartbreakers. Influenced more by the British Invasion than most other heartland rock artists whose interest in rock (at least at that time) seemed to have faltered sometime around 1960. Nevertheless, “American Girl”, “Even the Losers”, “Southern Accents”, “Rebels”, and even “Free Fallin'” showed his insistence to tell the stories of regular folks from all across the U.S.A.
In 1975, a Seymour, Indiana telephone repairman and veteran of bar bands such as Trash and Crepe Soul went to New York seeking a recording contract. He was told they couldn’t sell a guy named Mellencamp, so the following year Chestnut Street Incident the debut album of Johnny Cougar was released. I’ve said enough about him on this website (at least until the next album comes out), so we’ll leave it at that.
Now let me tell you about one of the most underrated acts in rock history. The Pittsburgh-based Iron City Houserockers released four albums between 1979 and 1983, but never had a big commercial breakthrough. Tunes like “Junior’s Bar”, “Saints and Sinners”, and “Blondie” are some of the best examples of the genre, but unfortunately most of the public is still unaware of the existence of either the songs, the band, or their lead singer/guitarist Joe Grushecky who is still putting out solo albums in addition to his day job as a schoolteacher.
By 1989 the genre was fading from the mainstream and the last relatively well-know artists to debut in the genre may have been James McMurtry, with his John Mellencamp-produced debut Too Long in the Wasteland, which I’m sure many of you have heard. Because, you see, this is where the alt. country/Americana and heartland rock roads, both of which arguably began with John Fogerty, meet. Many fans and artists of the genre went on to discover that performers like Steve Earle, Uncle Tupelo, and the Bottle Rockets wasn’t really all that different than the music we loved. Maybe some of you made the same discovery coming from the opposite direction when Mellencamp started adding Appalachian instruments to his music, or when Springsteen released The Ghost of Tom Joad or The Seeger Sessions. Maybe some of you still need to make that discovery. But I didn’t write all of this just to tell you that you need to check out music that is 20, 30, even 40 years old. But why did I write it all?
By now you are probably either writing down Joe Grushecky’s name as somebody you want to check out, humming “The River”, or simply wondering what the hell any of this has to do with the music of today. After all in the title I mentioned the return of heartland rock and all we’ve done so far is revisit it’s past. Other than the fact that every artist I mentioned has continued to make great music what could I possibly be talking about?
We’ll get to that in part II which should be up in a few days, but first I have a question for you. Stranger in Town. Damn the Torpedoes. The River. Scarecrow. Blood on the Bricks. Centerfield. The Lonesome Jubilee. Back in ’72. Darkness on the Edge of Town. Full Moon Fever. I could go on and on. But tell me, does it get any better than that?
I will leave you with this as a fitting conclusion to part I as well as a preview of part II:
“I haven’t seen Sandy, Angry Johnny, or Mary
I heard they got married, mighta had a couple babies
They traded their memories for Fairview and acres
And never play no pinball or get up past the breakers
But not me, pretty baby
I still love Tom Petty songs and drivin’ old men crazy”
-The Gaslight Anthem, “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues”, 2008
NOTE: Part two is now written and can be found here