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Roots Rock - Genre Profile of Back to Basics '80s Movement Roots Rock


Singer and guitarist of the East Los Angeles rock group Los Lobos, Cesar Rosas, performs during a 1987 Los Angeles, California, concert.
George Rose/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Catalysts & Antecedents:

During the first half of the '80s, much pop and rock music had moved as far away as possible from the fusion of blues, country and R&B that birthed rock and roll a quarter-century before. With the increased use of synthesizers and an unprecedented, MTV-inspired focus on image, pop/rock had become glitzy, slick and ultra-polished, all developments that served to homogenize the work of many artists. A band of few resisted this process, insisting upon a stripped-down, guitar-oriented approach that emphasized the raw energy and emotion of blues, country, folk and early rock and roll above all else.

A College Rock Niche:

The earliest roots rock artists emerged from the Southern California punk rock scene, using that loosely connected movement as a practice ground for exploring retro rock stylings. Groups such as the Beat Farmers, the Blasters and Los Lobos certainly didn't seem to fit into the general flow of contemporary music, so they found a significant college rock audience, perhaps the one format that welcomed instead of bristled at eclecticism. Of course, this meant that the music stood little chance of receiving widespread attention, which was a sacrifice many artists didn't mind making to pay tribute to rock's beginnings.

Preserving the Vital Thread of Eclecticism:

Simplifying labels have always been common in pop music, as people try to compartmentalize artists and better understand their impulses and aims. But that's what's so wonderful and fully necessary about pioneering roots rock artists from Lone Justice to the Del Fuegos to Green on Red: it's difficult to nearly impossible to describe their music simply or easily according to categories. That complexity served as a defiant announcement that music cannot be utterly commodified no matter how much the music industry machine may want it to be so.

Continuing Influence of Roots Rock - A Gift That Keeps on Giving:

Although the active roots rock movement had pretty much dried up by the early '90s, the ongoing renegade urge to celebrate retro music draws heavily from the trails blazed by the previous decade's roots rockers. Various forms of alternative music have served as havens for bluesy country rockers, soulful, rocking folkies and everyone in between, most notably in movements such as alternative country, Americana and even more than a few strands of hip indie rock. Ultimately, we have '80s roots rock pioneers to thank in a big way for an ever-changing, constantly enriched musical landscape.

Other Key Roots Rock Artists of the '80s:

  • Steve Earle
  • Jason & the Scorchers
  • BoDeans
  • Drivin' N' Cryin'
  • Georgia Satellites
  • The Long Ryders
  • Dash Rip Rock
  • Gun Club
  • James McMurtry
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