While the airwaves were being spun in disco gold at the end of the 1970s, a renaissance of style was already moving into place that would bring the essence of rock ‘n’ roll back to the mainstream consciousness of the world. It was unaffected and likeable. It was untouched by the glitz and shallowness that pervaded much of 1970s rock and listened instead to the evaporating sounds of Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and the Byrds. Although they did achieve moderate levels of chart success, their real desire was to connect with the common people, offering them a resolute hope and the promise of redemption through hard work. Their sound was borrowed from the first decade of rock ‘n’ roll, but their big-hearted message descended from the people’s songs of Guthrie, Seeger and Dylan.
Although they didn’t take a position of full-strength until the early or mid-1980s, this group of veteran rockers was fighting their way through the disco/punk/glam-rock/heavy metal sounds as early as 1975. These renaissance rockers were, by the early 1980s to be at the forefront of a movement that has been called “Heartland Rock” or “Roots Rock,” but was simply the reincarnation of American traditional rock ‘n’ roll.
The emphasis of their music was not on techno-pop synthesizers or rapid-fire disco beats. Their lyrics were elevated above the insipid drivel and morbid lines of some of the ‘80s bands. The passionate vocals were centered on a central pitchman, preaching the good news of rock and the glad tidings of roll. The songs were based in a basic belief in the gritty goodness of the common American man and woman. The rhythmic foundation was set firmly on the simple four-beat pattern and its effective backbeat. Absent the techno-instruments, the heartland rockers went to their instrumental roots: powerful rhythm guitars, solid electric bass, gritty lead guitar, driving drums, and a resolute, if grainy, lead vocal. In this, they were following in the footsteps of pioneers like Chuck Berry, early Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan.
The most notable of the heartland rockers was from New Jersey – Bruce Springsteen. Discovered in 1972 by Columbia Records representative, John Hammond (who had played a role in the careers of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and had discovered Dylan a decade earlier), Springsteen’s first release failed to achieve much notice by the public. But his 1975 album, Born to Run, broke the top 5 on the album charts and established his position at the forefront of the heartland rockers.
Springsteen’s basic rock ‘n’ roll sound was built on the foundation of his back-up band, the E Street Band. Sharing the melodic focal point with Springsteen’s raw vocals were the virtuoso rock saxophone of Clarence Clemons and, off and on for twenty-five years, the electric guitar of Steven Van Zandt. If there ever was an amalgam of the energy of Elvis Presley and the passionate topical lyrics of Bob Dylan, it would be Springsteen. Nicknamed “The Boss,” Springsteen used his songs to preach a fundamental concept: the American working-class person struggles, but is not defeated; they are frustrated, but they are not destroyed. At the core of the heartland rock song is the open-eyed recognition of the existence of injustice and disappointment, but also the dogged determination not to let go of the promise of the American dream.
In 1980 Springsteen’s album The River exploded to the top of the charts and with it came superstar status. In addition to #1 album, his song, “Hungry Heart” also reached #5 on the singles charts. It wasn’t until four years later that the Boss recorded what would be his quintessential heartland rock album: Born in the U.S.A. Viewed by many as a patriotic album, partially due to the highly enigmatic and controversial “stars and stripes and denim” cover, the album was critically acclaimed for its “back-to-the-roots” rock ‘n’ roll sound as well as its topical lyrics. In typical Springsteen fashion, Born in the U.S.A. celebrates the promise of the American dream while openly proclaiming the economic and personal heartaches of those who were unemployed, socially outcast or struggling Vietnam veterans. Like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan before him, Bruce Springsteen used his songs as a platform to battle indifference and his voice as a cry in the wilderness of injustice. The energy of “The King” of rock ‘n’ roll and the conscience of “The Prophet-Poet” of rock ‘n’ roll had been mystically channeled into “The Boss.”
But Bruce Springsteen wasn’t the only member of the 1980s Heartland Rock movement.
One of the most well-known of the heartland rock anthems, “Old-Time Rock ‘n’ Roll” was a 1979 hit song for Bob Seger. Although on its own it achieved chart success, it was discovered by the mainstream public in an iconic movie moment when a young Tom Cruise slides into his parents’ living room clad only in his socks, underwear and open shirt belting the opening lines to Seger’s classic song. It was if in one celluloid moment, the renaissance rock roots movement had achieved popular credibility.
Although he never achieved the widespread success of Springsteen, Seger, together with his Silver Bullet Band, made several significant contributions to the list of classic heartland rock songs. In addition to “Old Time Rock & Roll” Seger’s signature songs include “Night Moves” (1977, #8 on the charts), “Against the Wind” (1980, #5) and “Like a Rock” (1986). The latter song gained a new audience a decade later as a music track for a long series of American truck commercials on television and radio. Millions of consumers who had never heard the original song heard the gritty, passionate hook-line as a musical essence symbolizing the concept of a solid American-made product.
The diversity of geographical backgrounds of the heartland rockers shows that the “heartland” was not a location in America so much as a philosophic center. Springsteen came from New Jersey, Seger was from Detroit, and a third important renaissance rocker was from Florida – Tom Petty.
Though at first some fans and those in the music industry attempted to force Tom Petty and his band, the Heartbreakers, into the late ‘70s new wave and punk movement, his roots in the Dylan/Van Morrison/Byrds sound of the ‘60s moved him towards the roots rock blended with soul sounds already being explored by Seger and Springsteen. Throughout his career, which has been repeatedly dogged with contractual wrangling with various record companies, Petty has had numerous Top Forty hits including “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” (1981, #3) and “Free Fallin’” (1989, #7).
Petty’s place in the ‘80s as a “new veteran” of rock ‘n’ roll was confirmed by his inclusion in the ultimate rock roots super-group, The Traveling Wilburys. In addition to Petty (who took the name “Charlie T. (later Muddy) Wilbury, Jr.”) were such demi-gods of rock as Bob Dylan (“Lucky (later Boo) Wilbury”), George Harrison (“Nelson (later Spike) Wilbury”), Roy Orbison (“Lefty Wilbury”) and Electric Light Orchestra leader Jeff Lynne (“Otis (later Clayton) Wilbury”). The Wilburys, which began as a jam band in Dylan’s garage, boasted representatives from three decades of rock history. Although their debut album in 1988, titled The Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1, was a double-platinum success, the enthusiasm was profoundly tempered by the death of Roy Orbison less than a month after it hit the charts.
At the end of the 1970s and throughout the 1980s, the heartland rockers stood their ground; periodically issuing albums as solo artists or with their backup bands and touring extensively. During the decade of the ‘80s Springsteen, Seger and Petty released a collective total of 16 albums, creating a solid opus for the heartland rock genre. Together with other roots rockers like John Mellencamp, John Fogerty, Gary “U.S.” Bonds, Melissa Etheridge, and the band Dire Straits, these neo-traditionalists of rock celebrated the core values of rock ‘n’ roll: solid melody, driving rhythms and the belief that the message of the song was more important than its commercialism. The heartland rock movement of the 1980s was revisited in the next decade by such divergent artists as Canadian Bryan Adams and Kid Rock, whose bravado laced persona fused the hard rock foundation with rap lyrics.
The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame recognized their pivotal roles in American music history by inducting Bruce Springsteen (in 1999), Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (in 2002), and Bob Seger (in 2004) into their membership. But it was never about the accolades and acclaim for these new “old school” rockers. More important, it was the ability to reinvigorate a genre ailing from too much big hair, glam costumes and disco beats with evangelistic enthusiasm and renewed focus and to take rock ‘n’ roll, in its unabashedly basic form, back to the people.
The stubborn insistence of the American spirit can be heard in classic heartland rock songs like Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” and Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind.” It is as if the driving backbeat of rock ‘n’ roll becomes the heartbeat of the American worker and the redemptive quality of the lyrics as overpoweringly sung, are capable of elevating the collective courage of a community.
Bruce Springsteen, who has been known to pull his motorcycle off the road at a local bar and spontaneously join the house band for a set or two, spoke of the symbiotic relationship of performer and audience:
“I believe that the life of a rock & roll band will last as long as you look down into the audience and can see yourself, and your audience looks up at you and can see themselves – and as long as those reflections are human, realistic ones.”
(note: quote from Springsteen entry in Rock Hall of Fame)