Country Music. Mention it in certain circles and eyes roll. I was one of those people. During my formative years in the 1980s my idea of country music was twangy singers with bad mustaches and permed mullets who sang about about broken hearts, hanging out in the back of a pick-up truck, drinking ice cold beer with their buds and listening to country music. It sounded frivolous and manufactured.
Truth is, my only exposure to country music growing up in Cleveland came from Top 40 radio, where Juice Newton, Eddie Rabbit, Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers had crossover hits. Back in the early 80s, when I was first discovering music, I was preoccupied with Ratt, Leppard and the Crue, bands featuring singers with Aqua Net mullets who sang about broken hearts, getting wasted with their buds, and cruising the Sunset strip.
It wasn’t long until I left behind hair metal to delve into the vaults of classic rock. For a brief time, no other music mattered. However, if I’d given some thought to it, I would have realized that my favorite bands all dabbled in country music. From the Stones to Rod Stewart, Elton John to Led Zeppelin, the legends of rock occasionally tapped into their inner Hank Williams.
Classic rock gave way to what I call heartland music. These artists filled me with big emotions through thoughtful lyrics and a modern edge. Thing is, many of these performers definitely had a country influence to them. The Hooters blended new wave with Americana, especially on the second album, One Way Home. John Mellencamp, was one of rock and roll’s biggest stars in the 80s, despite the fact that with each album he incorporated more fiddles, steel guitars and accordions. And Tom Petty found a balance between the angry rock that made him popular, and laid back country songs like ”Something Big,” ”King’s Road,” ”Letting You Go,” and of course, ”Southern Accents.”
When I consider two of my favorite LPs from that era, I realize that it was a couple of men named Bruce who were making me a country music fan, even though I didn’t recognize it.
The instant I heard the song ”Every Little Kiss” on Akron’s WONE FM, I knew I had to find out the name of the artist who recorded this wonderful song. The man singing and playing the piano was Bruce Hornsby and his band was called the Range. They’d just released their first LP, The Way It Is, where ”Every Little Kiss” was nestled in as the second song on side one. It was May 1986, a couple of months before the band released the title track from the album, propelling them to the top of the pop charts.
”Every Little Kiss” was so romantic and upbeat that I bought The Way It Is with my next paycheck. I spent the summer of ’86 returning to this record, memorizing each song, copying drummer John Molo’s dynamic playing, and even learning to play the majority of ”The Way It is” on piano.
Mandolin, fiddle, steel guitar and banjo all back up the southern imagery of Hornsby’s lyrics (many of which are co-written by his brother, John). Listen to The Way It Is today and you’ll realize that it’s more ”country” than the latest singles by Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood.
Still, I never considered The Way It Is a country album. With its big drum sound, Jim Gaines’ slick production (he also oversaw the Huey Lewis & the News smash, Sports, and Journey’s Raised on Radio), and the heavy use of synths, it didn’t reflect the twangy, guitar driven music I thought was country. Nearly thirty years later, songs like ”The Western Skyline,” ”The Long Race” and ”The Wild Frontier” could easily slip into any mainstream country music station.
A year later I discovered the other Bruce. I recall with vivid detail sitting in my parents’ basement on a cool October night. The song on the radio, Bruce Springsteen’s ”Brilliant Disguise,” was fading out and Kid Leo, the DJ from Cleveland’s WMMS, repeated the final lines of the song.
”Tonight our bed is cold/Lost in the darkness of our love
God have mercy on the man, who doubts what he’s sure of.”
Never have the lyrics of a song spoken so clearly to me. I knew right then that I needed to explore Springsteen’s catalog of music. I immediately bought his most recent album, Tunnel of Love, a flawless song cycle detailing romance in all its stages — attraction, falling in love, marriage, betrayal, and sacrifice. This introspective album was a departure from most of his previous work. The Boss had never dedicated a complete record to relationships between men and women, and he’d put out an LP that was almost entirely country music.
Earlier in his career, Springsteen would draw from influences like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. ”Factory,” from Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978), is slow country dirge. The River (1980) featured several country tinged numbers, such as ”Point Blank,” ”Cadillac Ranch,” ”Wreck on the Highway,” and the epic title song. Finally, Born in the USA had several songs that could be categorized as country: ”Darlington County,” ”I’m On Fire,” ”Glory Days,” and ”My Hometown.” Still, Springsteen was a rock n roll artist, so no matter what he released would be categorized as rock music.
So when Tunnel of Love came out, no one thought twice about what kind of record Springsteen had released. It was rock music; even though the songs and sound resembled nothing you’d hear on rock radio, save for John Mellencamp, who was knee deep in his country roots at the time, having released The Lonesome Jubilee earlier in ’87. But listen to Tunnel of Love, listen to these stories about broken hearts and hopelessness (even the happy songs have a cloud of melancholy over them) and you’ll see that it is a country record.
I love Tunnel of Love and continue to be influenced by its writing. I’m not the only one. Listen to the songs of Kenny Chesney, Kip Moore or Eric Church, three of today’s top country music stars, and you’ll find that Springsteen’s has influenced them as well.
I’ve always prided myself on my openness to any music form. But there was a stigma about country music that made me hesitant to admit that I like it. I looked down my nose at the genre, even though I gravitated to music by the Jayhawks, Lucinda Williams, Ryan Adams and the incomparable Patty Griffin. I hate to admit it, but I believed the stereotype that the only people listening to country stations where good old boys who drove around with their buddies, drinking beer and listening to music.
My friends, I’ve written extensively about doing just that, except that Toby Keith wasn’t on the radio, it was Joe Jackson or the Who.
A while back I was approached about writing a script about NASCAR and country music (two cultures intrinsically linked) and found myself watching hours of Speed TV and CMT, and enjoying it. The film project never came to fruition, but I discovered that I wanted to learn more about this music I’d written off my entire life. Not just the hits, but I also wanted to explore the vast history of country music and how it has affected our culture.
Two years later I’m prepared to begin this journey down the road not taken. That’s the purpose of this column (and this long ass-ramble). I’m a novice, eager to learn as much as possible. If you like country music, I hope you’ll join me in the conversation. If you think it’s crap, I hope you’ll offer your insight and create a debate. As for me, for the time being I’m shelving my rap and punk music and about to get twangy. I’ll be tuning into Outlaw Radio, watching the CMA’s, combing the library for books and searching for clues connecting country music to all other genres of music.
I’m goin’ country.