The heavily '80s-centered genre of heartland rock has never been particularly difficult to grasp, and yet its broad umbrella comfortably covers many artists of the late '70s and '80s. In the simplest terms, heartland rock refers to slightly countrified rock and roll that often embraces, espouses and defends rural, blue-collar values. It also represents one of the most commercially successful blends of country and rock now widely referred to as Americana music, trumping the more revered country-rock of the late '60s and early '70s in that area.
In many ways, heartland rock grew out of the '70s singer-songwriter movement, as composers of confessional story songs during the late '70s began to gravitate toward electric guitars and roots music more than ever before. Bob Seger, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp clearly stand as the most famous and significant practitioners of the style, infusing their work as the '80s began with a growing tendency toward message music in the folk tradition. However, heartland rockers typically clung to rock in place of gentle, acoustic sounds.
Mellencamp Defines '80s Heartland Rock:
Although Seger, Petty and Springsteen were certainly active during the '80s, they had all begun as distinctive artists of either the late '60s or mid '70s. That made Mellencamp unique in that he came of age by forming his core sound and enjoying his greatest success throughout the '80s as a homegrown icon of the decade. By the time the singer-songwriter dropped his Cougar stage name, he had basically perfected the style of heartland rock, unleashing rebellious rockers alongside acoustic numbers and populist social commentary.
Variety & Evolution:
The latter part of the '80s saw the confines of heartland rock expand even further, welcoming important artists from various musical disciplines, chief among them Steve Earle out of the country-rock outlaw troubadour school, John Hiatt out of bar band/new wave beginnings, and Bruce Hornsby out of a less raucous form of bar band/singer-songwriter niche. Almost all heartland rock artists fit into at least two or three other musical categories, but what they have in common is a highly literate if salt-of-the-earth lyrical approach and careful musicianship.
Heartland Rock Recedes but Refuses to Fade Away:
By the last few years of the '80s, heartland rock in its purest form grew quieter, overshadowed by flashy, impermanent styles like hair metal and emerging movements such as early alternative rock. However, the blueprint of the genre offered important contributions to the burgeoning '90s movement of Americana and alternative country. Bands like Missouri's Bottle Rockets and the trendsetting Uncle Tupelo certainly put their unique spin on heartland rock, but the core melodic accessibility and lyrical intrigue of '80s trailblazers proved quite influential.