Heartland rock drew from all stages of rock and roll that preceded it, also employing elements of country, folk and pop along the way. Many signature songs featured socially conscious lyrics that typically sought to defend the working class, but the main attraction of this '80s music niche has always been the accessible, melodic and well-structured songs themselves. We've all heard the term "character-driven" when it comes to cinema; in a similar way heartland rock, at its best, is one of the most song-centered music styles around. Story songs like these don't have the luxury of having any place to hide their flaws.
Radio programmers may have been confused about exactly who should be spinning Steve Earle's records during the mid-'80s, but their difficulties never caused concern for music fans looking for quality music. Earle was a seasoned songwriter at this point, having benefited from the tutelage of legendary craftsmen like Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt to develop a singular artistic voice. This track from 1987's Exit 0 betrayed Earle's ongoing sense of social activism, but his emotional window into the life of a struggling farmer also happens to be wrapped in a tremendously strong chord progression and haunting melody. A line like "It'll wash you away, or there ain't never enough" perfectly reflects the immediacy of Earle's songwriting skills.
Sometimes the best genre songs come from unlikely sources, in this case a former member of Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow. But to listen to this fine, fine rock song, one could easily imagine the name Springsteen or Seger attached to it at some level or another. The tale of Uncle Sonny is lean, mean and defiant, overflowing with a mix of despair, hope and innocence that only happens in the best heartland rock tunes. "You did your sittin', you did hard time," Carey sings of his protagonist, "but you ain't gonna sit no more, they can't keep you there no more." This is emotionally raw stuff that resonates and actually has something to say about the human condition. It's a lot to ask from pop music, I know, but sometimes we get lucky.
For its self-titled debut album, Lone Justice touched on a number of fringe styles like cowpunk, roots rock and proto-alternative country, but when the band chose to interpret one of Tom Petty's characteristically high-quality compositions, the result was distinctly and irrevocably heartland rock. Frontwoman Maria McKee has carried out a solo career over the last 20 years almost as eclectic as Elvis Costello's hop-skip-jump approach to music, but she's also always demonstrated a clear ability to compose and perform near-perfect pop songs. Petty's chorus for this tune takes universality to a brand new level in the best possible way, and Lone Justice's version of the song announces itself immediately as the signature one.
After basically inventing heartland rock during his sprawling late-'70s rise to stardom, Bruce Springsteen has put forth many possible entries into the genre's top drawer, but perhaps Born in the U.S.A. contains his best examples of this style. In the bittersweet, pensive, nostalgic way that only he has truly mastered, Springsteen creates a straightforward tribute to an important person from his narrator's past with the kind of clarity that most of us will never be able to muster. The title character has successfully made her escape from her previous life, which naturally leads the one who remembers her to do with especially intense emotion. Springsteen's soaring, melodic rock and roll communicates that conflict to wistful perfection.
1985's Scarecrow has certainly taken its place on the short list of '80s album masterpieces, and one of the reasons for its permanence undoubtedly stems from a nearly inexhaustible depth of song quality. This track may not be the first mentioned during a discussion of this remarkably direct populist record, but its summation of human frailty and our almost inevitable tendency toward sidestepping what's most real has always resonated deeply with me. Critics don't give John Mellencamp a tremendous amount of credit for lyrical profundity, but his words in this case beautifully accompany his chiming Americana sound: "Smile in the mirror as you walk by" may be "as good as it can get for us," but Mellencamp here leaves a slim chance for more.
This roots band has maintained an impressive career approaching superstardom in its native Canada but has enjoyed only sparse cult success in the States. That's a shame as far as I'm concerned, especially because the group's best songs exemplify all that's best about heartland rock. Aside from a tasteful employment of organ and acoustic guitar foundations, the band practically perfects the style in the clear melodic reach of Jim Cuddy's lead vocals. Classics from the '80s include "Try" and "House of Dreams," moody ballads that don't rock as hard as "How Long," but each track reflects eclectic melodic genius that should have easily earned Blue Rodeo massive American success among fans of earthy pop/rock.
Not all heartland rockers wrote songs of an intensely personal nature, but the ones that had the storytelling chops to accomplish the feat made the genre into an often critically lauded one. Music veteran Hiatt had honed his skills during the '70s and even took a stab at new wave during the early '80s, but his music was always far more slippery and organic than most of his competitors. A heartfelt, wry tale of one individual's response to life's plodding maturation process, this tune would be enjoyable enough if only for its astute observations. But Hiatt's arrangement and the brilliant backing of his band the Goners launches the title track into stratospheric territory. A wonderfully wily acoustic chord progression doesn't hurt, either.
Heartland rock's most famous artists, of which Tom Petty is certainly one, sometimes directed their lyrical focus toward social concerns, but the intimate nature of the genre usually suited personal and introspective material best. On this underrated track from 1982's Long After Dark, Petty examines the fleeting nature of romance in some fittingly dark terms, but the central attractions are the song's moving melody and guitar riff, particularly in the chorus. Although it may never be particularly sexy to call an artist reliable, Petty and the other superstars of heartland rock have always consistently delivered great music, filling any nagging musical gaps of the '80s quite ably. That depth of catalogue shines through very well here.
Although classic rock radio has displayed an annoying tendency to overplay some heartland rock artists, that has failed to diminish the quality of the genre's best songs. Bob Seger has accumulated fans across the spectrum from Kid Rock to country music fans who embraced his latest studio release, 2006's Face the Promise. This kind of democratic appeal isn't coincidence but reflects Seger's uncanny ability to capture human emotions. Heartland rock certainly has in common with arena rock a tendency toward sweeping, epic musical presentations, but the former style has the potential to stand alone as dinner, alongside arena rock's tasty but less substantial dessert. The endless search for freedom has never sounded more comforting.
Though known as much for his political statements during the '80s ("For America" and "Lawyers in Love," for example) as the romantic tales of heartbreak in which he had specialized during the '70s, Jackson Browne here turns his detailed, poetic eye on the complexity of our emotional lives. Few singer-songwriters have ever had the ability to treat internal matters with the precision and delicacy Browne has demonstrated consistently over his four decades in the business, but this particular track does so without even a slice of cheese to be found: "There was a hole left in the wall from some ancient fight, about the size of a fist or something thrown that had missed." It's like English class through your stereo, ain't it?