Heartland rock explained
In the late 1970s and 1980s, one of the most popular forms of rock and roll was heartland rock. It was characterized by a straightforward musical style, a concern with the average, blue collar American life, and a conviction that rock music has a social or communal purpose beyond just entertainment.
The origins of "Heartland Rock", like that of so many genres, are as nebulous and difficult to describe as the genre's definition itself. The genre began as a confluence of white soul, garage rock, rhythm and blues and rock and roll.
While the genre emerged recognizably into the mainstream in the late 1970s with the commercial success of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, and Tom Petty, the genre's antecedents appeared throughout pop chart history, via popular artists like Bob Dylan, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels and Van Morrison, and lesser-known examples (The Flaming Ember, whose 1971 hit "Westbound Number Nine" was an example of the mixing of garage rock, rhythm and blues and rock influences that would later exemplify the genre) and earlier ones like Eddie Cochran and Del Shannon.
The genre reached its commercial, artistic and influential peak in the mid-1980s, with John Mellencamp joining Springsteen, Seger, and Petty as its most prominent artists.
In concert, heartland rock often took the form of crowd-rousing anthems, leading to comparisons with Midwestern arena rock groups such as REO Speedwagon and Head East, whose style however owed more to seventies pop rock.
Heartland rock faded away as a recognized genre by the early 1990s, as rock music in general, and blue collar and white working class themes in particular, lost influence with younger audiences, and as heartland's artists turned to more personal works. Many heartland rock artists continue to record today with critical and commercial success, most notably Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and John Mellencamp, although their works have become more personal and experimental and do not fit easily into a single genre anymore. Newer artists whose music would clearly have been labeled heartland rock had it been released in the 1970s or 1980s, such as Pittsburgh's Tom Breiding, often find themselves these days labeled alt-country and finding little more than a cult following.
Heartland rock can be seen as one of several regional expressions of the white working class in rock music popular during the 1970s and 1980s. Heartland rock was an American Midwest and Rust Belt counterpart to Southern rock in the American South (Lynyrd Skynyrd, Marshall Tucker Band), and to country rock on the American West Coast (The Eagles, Firefall, Poco). These three genres were somewhat closely related in both style and lyrical subject matter.
As with most popular music genres, the term is something of a catchall, covering artists with diverse styles and making an exact delineation difficult. However, most heartland rock shared some common characteristics:
- Traditional instrumentation - Guitars (electric, acoustic, and bass), drums, and non-synthesizer keyboards (pianos and the Hammond B3 and Farfisa organs) predominate. The harmonica and mandolin also appear frequently - evidence both of Heartland rock's rhythm and blues and country roots, respectively, as well as evocations of both genres. This was in stark juxtaposition to synthesizer pop, one of the other dominant styles of the same era and noted for its rejection or de-emphasis of traditional instrumentation, and was in common with roots rock, with which heartland had some overlap.
- Influences - Heartland rock owed much to pre-1964 rock and rhythm and blues, and to a lesser extent country and western, rockabilly, the British Invasion, and the "White Soul" of the 1960s and 1970s. Artists like Van Morrison and Bob Dylan had wide influence, as did the rhythm and blues of the Stax/Volt record label.
- Subject matter - Heartland rock was no less diverse than any other genre - but, as discussed by writers Dave Marsh and Robert Christgau among others – at its core its most constant theme was isolation in many forms:
- Social Isolation - the genre often dwelt on the perceived social state of the lives of average blue collar or lower middle class American life and isolation from "The American Dream".
- Physical Isolation - many of the genre's artists, and much of its material, drew from physical distances across the "Heartland" or American Midwest and its detachment, in many ways, from the mainstream of popular culture (even though some of the genre's most prominent artists came from elsewhere – Springsteen's Nebraska being a prime example). This sense of isolation could be a two-edged sword; it was the source of boundless desperation (Springsteen's "Jackson Cage") as well as a source of pride and strength (as in Mellencamp's "Small Town" or Michael Stanley's "My Town").
- Economic Isolation - from Mellencamp's "Rain on the Scarecrow" (about the farm crisis) to Seger's "Making Thunderbirds" (on the decline of the American automobile industry) to Springsteen's "The River" (about how economic difficulties are interlaced with local culture) to the Iron City Houserockers' "Blondie" and even to Billy Joel's "Allentown" (about the death of steel mills), hard times for people living in the "heartland" were a common theme.
- Personal Isolation - Even in precursors like Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues", as well as later work like Springsteen's "Darkness on the Edge of Town", Petty's "Even the Losers", and Mellencamp's "Check It Out", the geographic and economic loneliness becomes personal.
In these senses, the genre owed a lot to country and western, but heartland added to that the notion that performer and listener shared common bonds, values, and goals. Politically, while heartland shared some of the sentiments of both populism and progressivism, its artists usually shied away from explicit political or partisan themes, identification, or campaigning, both out of distrust of the political system and reluctance to divide potential audiences. (Decades later things would be different, as the 2004 Vote for Change effort illustrated.)
By far the most prominent heartland artists, and the nucleus of the genre, were:
- Bruce Springsteen - Bringing the influences of Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, and pre-Beatles rock and roll to bear, the musical style and the lyrical themes of heartland were lurking in Springsteen's Jersey-flavored music from the start. But they gelled on Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978) and The River (1980), where songs such as "Badlands" and "The River" intertwined personal and economic concerns. The heartland genre reached the apex of its general popularity with Springsteen's massively-selling Born in the U.S.A. (1984) and his subsequent sold-out arena and stadium tour. These shows featured rock versions of Nebraska (1982)'s depressed heartland folk as well as Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" and the Steinbeck-influenced "Seeds", preceded and followed in best redemptive fashion by party songs from the early 1960s, all documented within the Live/1975-85 album.
- Bob Seger - More rooted in traditional, blues-based barroom rock than Springsteen, Michigan native Seger owed a lot more to Chuck Berry, Mitch Ryder, and The Rolling Stones. Some of Seger's early songs such as "Beautiful Loser" and "Turn the Page" were heartland antecedents, while his later classic heartland albums include Night Moves (1976), Stranger in Town (1978), and The Distance (1982). Generally acknowledged as the best singer of this group, Seger's voice could convey heartland sentiments ranging from the delicate time-spanning nostalgia of "Night Moves" to the powerless fury of "Feel Like a Number" to the uncertain maturity of "Against the Wind".
- John Mellencamp - A reformed glitter-rocker, Mellencamp came to embrace and finally flaunt his small town Indiana roots in the early 1980s. "Jack and Diane" from 1982 and "Pink Houses" from 1983 were among the first hit singles directly identified with the genre, while his albums Uh-Huh (1984) and The Lonesome Jubilee (1987) were representative. Moreoever the quintessential work of the entire heartland rock genre was probably Mellencamp's 1985 album Scarecrow, with its depictions of struggling family farmers, odes to small town life, tales of the passing of generations, and tributes to the redemptive power of rock 'n' roll, set to a deceptively low-tech sounding production.
- Tom Petty - From Gainesville, Florida and forthright about his debt to The Byrds, Petty's style was both more laconic and more experimental than most other heartland rockers. But "Refugee" and "Even the Losers" from Damn the Torpedoes (1979), "The Waiting" from Hard Promises (1981), and "I Won't Back Down" and "Runnin' Down a Dream" from Full Moon Fever (1989) all fit squarely in the genre, while the daring Southern Accents (1985) stretched the genre to its limits.
Both an antecedent and a heartland example was:
- Creedence Clearwater Revival and John Fogerty - Credence was the seminal proto-heartland band, a decade before the genre was popularly recognized. Former leader Fogerty revived his career in 1985 with the album Centerfield, which recapped and extended Credence's themes. Fogerty's influence is widespread throughout the genre.
Lesser-known heartland artists include:
- Michael Stanley - A Cleveland-area rocker with wide regional following but relatively obscure in the rest of the country, Stanley's 1983 hit "My Town" captured many of the themes of the genre: blue-collar swagger, cocky regionalism combined with a dogged love of local themes, and a broad, muscular musical arrangement. The Michael Stanley Band also had an album entitled Heartland and a song "In the Heartland" that also dealt with many of the themes of heartland rock.
- Donnie Iris - A Pittsburgh native, Donnie Iris and the Cruisers shared some of the rust-belt roots and characteristics of Heartland rock. However, they were a little more quirky than the typical band of this genre. They had several top 40 hits in the early 1980s, including "Ah! Leah!".
- Red Rider - A Canadian band led by singer Tom Cochrane, Red Rider was an excellent example of the genre.
- The Iron City Houserockers - A heavily Rolling Stones-influenced group from Pittsburgh featuring Joe Grushecky, the Houserockers were an uncommonly kinetic group that garnered critical acclaim but little commercial success.
- Joe Ely and Steve Earle - Ely and Earle are best known as country artists, but both were frequently associated with the heartland genre. Earle's "Copperhead Road", for instance, would fit right into a Springsteen or Seger album (and, indeed, the B-side of that 12-inch radio single was a cover of Springsteen's "Nebraska"). As would, for that matter, country/Southern rocker Charlie Daniels' "Still In Saigon"; these songs, together with Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." and "Shut Out the Light", Billy Joel's "Goodnight Saigon", the Houserockers' "Saints and Sinners", and a few others were part of a Vietnam veteran-sympathetic subgenre of heartland that had a several bursts of visibility during the 1980s, as well as illustrating the sometimes-close links between the genre and country-western music.
- James McMurtry - A protege of Mellencamp, McMurtry (son of author Larry McMurtry, himself a key artist in documenting the life, history and society of the heartland, albeit in literature rather than music) has evolved over the years into an alt-country artist.
- John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band - The Narraganset Rhode Island band vaulted to massive success seemingly overnight with the release of the movie Eddie and the Cruisers, for which they'd recorded the soundtrack; the "overnight" success actually capped years of playing in the bars in the Northeast and the Jersey Shore. They were derided by some as a cut-rate Springsteen (similar musical style, similar band) - which didn't prevent their follow-up album, Tough All Over, from yielding two hits, "C.I.T.Y." and the title cut.
- Bottle Rockets - The Bottle Rockets are seasoned contemporary storytellers in this rock music genre. Their songs "Welfare Music", "Kerosene", "Zoysia", "Baggage Claim", "Blind", "Wave That Flag", "Align Yourself", "Middle Man", "Rich Man in the Graveyard", and "The Kid Next Door" are examples of social commentary set to rock music in the Bottle Rockets' original hybrid Woody Guthrie meets Neil Young meets The Replacements American roots music sound.
Artists sometimes associated with the genre
Also sometimes included in heartland rock were:
- Neil Young - Canadian singer/songwriter who was an influence on heartland rock and whose later albums such as Freedom fit into the genre.
- Robbie Dupree - Brooklyn pop singer who had the hits "Steal Away" and "Hot Rod Hearts" in 1980.
- George Thorogood and the Destroyers - strictly a blues-rock band, but sometimes included in the genre because of Thorogood's blue collar oriented lyrics.
- The Steve Miller Band - like Creedence Clearwater Revival, something of a heartland rock antecedent.
- Billy Joel came out of the early 1970s singer-songwriter movement but became increasingly influenced by heartland rock during his middle period (roughly, Turnstiles (1976) through The Nylon Curtain (1982)). This influenced both his music ("Say Goodbye to Hollywood", the live version of "Captain Jack", as well as the later "Big Shot" and "You May Be Right") and his lyrics ("Allentown").
- Bon Jovi's career, originally based on a mix of hard rock and glam metal, sustained itself when contemporaries in those genres faltered, due to the group's embrace of heartland rock sensibilities (and, said some critics/fans, wholesale importation of Springsteen-like stylistic elements including explicit playing-up of their New Jersey roots) in recastings of "Livin' On a Prayer", "Wanted Dead or Alive", "Born to Be My Baby", and "Keep the Faith", as well as in newer material such as "It's My Life", "Everyday", "Have a Nice Day", and "Who Says You Can't Go Home".
- Bryan Adams was sometimes known earlier in his career (before his breakout in the early 1980s) as the "Canadian Springsteen", a reference to his dynamic stage presence, raw voice, guitar/organ-based instrumentation, and musical style. Songs like "Cuts Like A Knife", "Straight From The Heart", and "This Time" fit squarely into the genre. Adams' career later swerved into arena rock.
- Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes - Contemporaries of Springsteen and long-time favorites on the New Jersey Shore music scene, the Jukes' horn-based sound was more heavily Rhythm and Blues based than most Heartland rock, owing much to Stax Records-style R and B. However, the band exemplifies the stylistic roots which, combined with stripped-down Creedence Clearwater-style rock and roll, spawned the genre.
- Los Lobos - This band has spanned nearly every genre of American rock-era pop music; their How Will the Wolf Survive? album is a solid example of the Heartland genre (among a few others).
- Jackson Browne during his Springsteen-influenced late 1970s-early 1980s phase on the albums Running On Empty and Hold Out, with songs like "Boulevard" and "The Load-Out/Stay". In the early 80s Browne would veer away from heartland rock in favor of a slicker studio pop style with leftist political lyrics a-la Bruce Cockburn.
Major influences on the genre