Heartland rock: Wikis


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Heartland rock
Stylistic origins Rock and roll, R&B, soul, surf rock, garage rock, country and western
Cultural origins late 1970's United States
Typical instruments Electric guitar - bass - drums - keyboards - tambourine - harmonica - brass sections
Mainstream popularity Late 1970's-early 1990's
Regional scenes
Mid Western United States and the Rust Belt
Other topics
Working class, alienation, mid west,

Heartland rock is a genre of rock music that was very popular in the late 1970s and 1980s. It was characterized by a straightforward musical style, a concern with the average, blue collar American life, and a conviction that rock music has a social or communal purpose beyond just entertainment.



The term heartland rock was first used in the early 1970s to describe Midwestern arena rock groups like Kansas, REO Speedwagon and Styx, but which came to be associated with a more socially concerned form of roots rock more directly influenced by folk, country and rock and roll.[1] It has been seen as an American Midwest and Rust Belt counterpart to West Coast country rock and the Southern rock of the American South.[2] Led by figures who had initially been identified with punk and new wave, it was most strongly influenced by acts such as Bob Dylan, The Byrds, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Van Morrison, and the basic rock of 60s garage and the Rolling Stones.[3] Exemplified by the commercial success of singer songwriters Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, and Tom Petty, along with less widely known acts such as Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes and Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers, it was partly a reaction to post-industrial urban decline in the East and Mid-West, often dwelling on issues of social disintegration and isolation, beside a form of good-time rock and roll revivalism.[3]

The genre reached its commercial, artistic and influential peak in the mid-1980s, with Springsteen's Born in the USA (1984), topping the charts worldwide and spawning a series of top ten singles, together with the arrival of artists including John Mellencamp, Steve Earle and more gentle singer/songwriters such as Bruce Hornsby.[3] It can also be heard as an influence on artists as diverse as Billy Joel[4] and Tracy Chapman.[5]

In concert, heartland rock often took the form of crowd-rousing Rock and roll anthems, leading to comparisons with Midwestern arena rock groups such as REO Speedwagon and Head East, whose style however owed more to seventies pop rock.[citation needed]

Heartland rock faded away as a recognized genre by the early 1990s, as rock music in general, and blue collar and white working class themes in particular, lost influence with younger audiences, and as heartland's artists turned to more personal works.[3] Many heartland rock artists continue to record today with critical and commercial success, most notably Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and John Mellencamp, although their works have become more personal and experimental and no longer fit easily into a single genre. Newer artists whose music would clearly have been labelled heartland rock had it been released in the 1970s or 1980s, such as Missouri's Bottle Rockets and Illinois' Uncle Tupelo, often find themselves these days labeled alt-country.[6]


Heartland rock can be seen as one of several regional expressions of the white working class in rock music popular during the 1970s and 1980s. Heartland rock was an American Midwest and Rust Belt counterpart to Southern rock in the American South (Lynyrd Skynyrd, Marshall Tucker Band), and to country rock on the American West Coast (The Eagles, Firefall, Poco). These three genres were somewhat closely related in both style and lyrical subject matter.

As with most popular music genres, the term is something of a catchall, covering artists with diverse styles and making an exact delineation difficult. However, most heartland rock shared some common characteristics:

  • Traditional instrumentation - Guitars (electric, acoustic, and bass), drums, and non-synthesizer keyboards (pianos and the Hammond B3 and Farfisa organs) predominate. The harmonica and mandolin also appear frequently - evidence both of Heartland rock's rhythm and blues and country roots, respectively, as well as evocations of both genres. This was in stark juxtaposition to synthesizer pop, one of the other dominant styles of the same era and noted for its rejection or de-emphasis of traditional instrumentation, and was in common with roots rock, with which heartland had some overlap.
  • Influences - Heartland rock owed much to pre-1964 rock and rhythm and blues, and to a lesser extent country and western, rockabilly, the British Invasion, and the "White Soul" of the 1960s and 1970s. Artists like Van Morrison and Bob Dylan had wide influence, as did the rhythm and blues of the Stax/Volt record label.
  • Subject matter - Heartland rock was no less diverse than any other genre - but, as discussed by writers Dave Marsh and Robert Christgau among others – at its core its most constant theme was isolation in many forms:
    • Social isolation - the genre often dwelt on the perceived social state of the lives of average blue collar or lower middle class American life and isolation from "The American Dream".
    • Physical isolation - many of the genre's artists, and much of its material, drew from physical distances across the "Heartland" or American Midwest and its detachment, in many ways, from the mainstream of popular culture (even though some of the genre's most prominent artists came from elsewhere – Springsteen's Nebraska being a prime example). This sense of isolation could be a double-edged sword; it was the source of boundless desperation (Springsteen's "Jackson Cage") as well as a source of pride and strength (as in Mellencamp's "Small Town" or Michael Stanley's "My Town").
    • Economic isolation - from Mellencamp's "Rain on the Scarecrow" (about the farm crisis) to Seger's "Making Thunderbirds" (on the decline of the American automobile industry) to Springsteen's "The River" (about how economic difficulties are interlaced with local culture) to the Iron City Houserockers' "Blondie" and even to Billy Joel's "Allentown" (about the death of steel mills), hard times for people living in the "heartland" were a common theme.
    • Personal isolation - Even in precursors like Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues", as well as later work like Springsteen's "Darkness on the Edge of Town", Petty's "Even the Losers", and Mellencamp's "Check It Out", the geographic and economic loneliness becomes personal.

In these senses, the genre owed a lot to country and western, but heartland added to that the notion that performer and listener shared common bonds, values, and goals. Politically, while heartland shared some of the sentiments of both populism and progressivism, leading many of the artists to make political statements in their music, beginning in the late 1960s with Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Bob Seger System. Most of these artists recorded political material throughout their career (Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A.", Mellencamp's "Pink Houses" and Petty's "Jammin' Me" among the more prominent). This has greatly increased in recent years however, with every one of the major artists in this genre recording songs which are in opposition to the Bush administration.



Prominent artists

Springsteen performing in East Berlin in 1988.

By far the most prominent heartland artists, and the nucleus of the genre, were:

Both an antecedent and a heartland example was:

  • Creedence Clearwater Revival and John Fogerty - Credence was the seminal proto-heartland band, a decade before the genre was popularly recognized. Former leader Fogerty revived his career in 1985 with the album Centerfield, which recapped and extended Credence's themes. Fogerty's influence is widespread throughout the genre.

Lesser-known artists

Lesser-known heartland artists include:

  • Michael Stanley[10] - A Cleveland-area rocker with wide regional following but relatively obscure in the rest of the country, Stanley's 1983 hit "My Town" captured many of the themes of the genre: blue-collar swagger, cocky regionalism combined with a dogged love of local themes, and a broad, muscular musical arrangement. The Michael Stanley Band also had an album entitled Heartland, which was listed in Spin magazine as one of eight essential heartland rock albums,[11] and a song "In the Heartland" that also dealt with many of the themes of heartland rock.
  • Donnie Iris - A Pittsburgh native, Donnie Iris and the Cruisers shared some of the rust-belt roots and characteristics of Heartland rock. However, they were a little more quirky than the typical band of this genre. They had several top 40 hits in the early 1980s, including "Ah! Leah!".
  • Red Rider - A Canadian band led by singer Tom Cochrane, Red Rider was an excellent example of the genre.
  • The Iron City Houserockers - A heavily Rolling Stones-influenced group from Pittsburgh featuring Joe Grushecky, the Houserockers were an uncommonly kinetic group that garnered critical acclaim but little commercial success. Their album Have a Good Time but... Get Out Alive was cited as one of eight essential heartland rock albums in Spin magazine.[11]
  • Joe Ely and Steve Earle - Ely and Earle are best known as country artists, but both were frequently associated with the heartland genre.[12] Earle's "Copperhead Road", for instance, would fit right into a Springsteen or Seger album (and, indeed, the B-side of that 12-inch radio single was a cover of Springsteen's "Nebraska"). As would, for that matter, country/Southern rocker Charlie Daniels' "Still In Saigon"; these songs, together with Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." and "Shut Out the Light", Billy Joel's "Goodnight Saigon", the Houserockers' "Saints and Sinners", and a few others were part of a Vietnam veteran-sympathetic subgenre of heartland that had a several bursts of visibility during the 1980s, as well as illustrating the sometimes-close links between the genre and country-western music.
  • James McMurtry - A protege of Mellencamp, McMurtry (son of author Larry McMurtry, himself a key artist in documenting the life, history and society of the heartland, albeit in literature rather than music) has evolved over the years into an alt-country artist.
  • John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band - The Narragansett, Rhode Island band vaulted to massive success seemingly overnight with the release of the movie Eddie and the Cruisers, for which they'd recorded the soundtrack; the "overnight" success actually capped years of playing in the bars in the Northeast and the Jersey Shore. They were derided by some as a cut-rate Springsteen (similar musical style, similar band) - which didn't prevent their follow-up album, Tough All Over, from yielding two hits, "C.I.T.Y." and the title cut.
  • Bottle Rockets - The Bottle Rockets are seasoned contemporary storytellers in this rock music genre. Their songs "Welfare Music", "Kerosene", "Zoysia", "Baggage Claim", "Blind", "Wave That Flag", "Align Yourself", "Middle Man", "Rich Man in the Graveyard", and "The Kid Next Door" are examples of social commentary set to rock music in the Bottle Rockets' original hybrid Woody Guthrie meets Neil Young meets The Replacements American roots music sound.

Artists sometimes associated with the genre

Also sometimes included in heartland rock were:

  • Neil Young - Canadian singer/songwriter who was an influence on heartland rock and whose later albums such as Freedom fit into the genre.
  • Steve Miller Band - like Creedence Clearwater Revival, something of a heartland rock antecedent. Their 1973 hit "The Joker" best exhibits the band's heartland roots.
  • Robbie Dupree - Brooklyn pop singer who had the hits "Steal Away" and "Hot Rod Hearts" in 1980.
  • George Thorogood and the Destroyers - strictly a blues-rock band, but sometimes included in the genre because of Thorogood's blue collar oriented lyrics.
  • Billy Joel came out of the early 1970s singer-songwriter movement but became increasingly influenced by heartland rock during his middle period (roughly, Turnstiles (1976) through The Nylon Curtain (1982)). This influenced both his music ("Say Goodbye to Hollywood", the live version of "Captain Jack", as well as the later "Big Shot" and "You May Be Right") and his lyrics ("Allentown").
  • Bon Jovi's career, originally based on a mix of hard rock and glam metal, sustained itself when contemporaries in those genres faltered, due to the group's embrace of heartland rock sensibilities (and, said some critics/fans, wholesale importation of Springsteen-like stylistic elements including explicit playing-up of their New Jersey roots) in recastings of "Livin' On a Prayer", "Wanted Dead or Alive", "Born to Be My Baby", and "Keep the Faith", as well as in more recent material such as "It's My Life", "Everyday", "Have a Nice Day", "Who Says You Can't Go Home", "Lost Highway", and "We Weren't Born to Follow".
  • Bryan Adams was sometimes known earlier in his career (before his breakout in the early 1980s) as the "Canadian Springsteen", a reference to his dynamic stage presence, raw voice, guitar/organ-based instrumentation, and musical style. Songs like "Cuts Like A Knife", "Straight From The Heart", and "This Time" fit squarely into the genre. Adams' career later swerved into arena rock.
  • Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes - Contemporaries of Springsteen and long-time favorites on the New Jersey Shore music scene, the Jukes' horn-based sound was more heavily Rhythm and Blues based than most Heartland rock, owing much to Stax Records-style R and B. However, the band exemplifies the stylistic roots which, combined with stripped-down Creedence Clearwater-style rock and roll, spawned the genre.
  • Los Lobos - This band has spanned nearly every genre of American rock-era pop music; their How Will the Wolf Survive? album is a solid example of the Heartland genre (among a few others).
  • Jackson Browne - during his Springsteen-influenced late 1970s-early 1980s phase on the albums Running On Empty and Hold Out, with songs like "Boulevard" and "The Load-Out/Stay". In the early 80s Browne would veer away from heartland rock in favor of a slicker studio pop style with leftist political lyrics a-la Bruce Cockburn.

Major influences on the genre

New Era

There has been a growing number of artists who would have been classified as heartland rock in the past, most of them performing what is today called alternative country.

Another relatively recent artist with a major following to have been associated with the genre is Kid Rock. Rock performed in concert with John Mellencamp, including joining "Pink Houses" during The Concert for New York City in 2001, and performed a duet with Bob Seger on Seger's Face the Promise album. His 2008 hit "All Summer Long" was directly inspired by Seger's classic "Night Moves".[13] Rock writer Anthony DeCurtis has said, "Kid Rock extends the Seger-Mellencamp tradition of heartland rock – its swagger as well as its vulnerability – into a new era." [13]


  1. ^ R. Kirkpatrick, The words and music of Bruce Springsteen (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007), p. 51.
  2. ^ G. Thompson, American Culture in the 1980s (Edinburgh University Press, 2007), p. 138.
  3. ^ a b c d "Heartland rock", All music, http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=77:7710, retrieved 20 December 2009.
  4. ^ J. Parles, "Heartland rock: Bruce's Children", New York Times, August 30, 1987, http://www.nytimes.com/1987/08/30/arts/heartland-rock-bruce-s-children.html?pagewanted=1, retrieved 20 December 2009.
  5. ^ J. A. Peraino, Listening to the Sirens: Musical Technologies of Queer Identity from Homer to Hedwig (University of California Press, 2005), p. 137.
  6. ^ S. Peake, "Heartland rock", About.com, http://80music.about.com/od/genresmovements/p/heartlandrock.htm, retrieved 20 December 2009.
  7. ^ a b c Bogdanov, Vladimir; Woodstra, Chris; Erlewine, Stephen Thomas, eds (2001). All Music Guide: The Definitive Guide to Popular Music. San Francisco: Backbeat Books. p. 259. ISBN 9780879306274a. http://books.google.com/books?id=Z6TpuVW6QA4C&pg=PT240&dq=%22heartland+rock%22+springsteen&client=firefox-a#v=onepage&q=%22heartland%20rock%22%20springsteen&f=false. Retrieved 2009-11-29. "...Mellencamp had created his own version of the heartland rock of Springsteen, Tom Petty and Bob Seger." 
  8. ^ a b c Thompson, Graham (2007). American Culture in the 1980s. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. p. 138. ISBN 9780748619092. http://books.google.com/books?id=tC3A_yG-JhEC&pg=PT158&dq=%22heartland+rock%22+springsteen&client=firefox-a#v=onepage&q=%22heartland%20rock%22%20springsteen&f=false. Retrieved 2009-11-29. "Along with singer-songwriters and guitar players like Tom Petty and Bob Seger, Springsteen is sometimes characterized as 'Heartland Rock', a style of music associated with the white working-class regions of the Midwest and the rust belt." 
  9. ^ a b Straw, Will (2004). "Systems of Articulation, Logics of Change: Communities and Scenes in Popular Music". in Frith, Simon. Popular Music: Critical Concepts in Media and Cultural Studies: Volume IV: Music and Identity. London: Routledge. p. 82. ISBN 9780415299053. http://books.google.com/books?id=bxsUdjSnGZcC&pg=PA82&dq=%22heartland+rock%22+%28cougar+. "What is declining, the report suggested, was mainstream rock of the so-called US 'heartland', of the sort associated with such artists as Tom Petty or John Cougar Mellencamp. ... The decline of heartland rock as a specific form is less significant than is the general waning of a more distinctive sense (however fantasmatic) of rock music's centre...." 
  10. ^ a b Marsh, Dave (1999). The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made. New York: Da Capo Press. p. 189. ISBN 9780306809019. http://books.google.com/books?id=L7czBOcRDlkC&pg=PA189&dq=%22heartland+rock%22+%22michael+stanley%22&client=firefox-a#v=onepage&q=%22heartland%20rock%22%20%22michael%20stanley%22&f=false. Retrieved 2009-11-29. "The kind of heartland rock and roll in which guys like Mellencamp and Stanley specialize has never been any more fashionable than the kind of places where those guys grew up." 
  11. ^ a b Eddy, Chuck (August 2009). "Essentials: Before Trucker Hats Became Ironic, Heartland Rock Cut a Blue Collar Swath". Spin: p. 88. http://spin-cdnsrc.texterity.com/spin/200908/?pg=114. 
  12. ^ Pareles, Jon (1987-07-16). "Rock: Steve Earle, at the Cat Club". The New York Times: p. C14. http://www.nytimes.com/1987/07/16/arts/rock-steve-earle-at-the-cat-club.html. "Mr. Earle's songs are low-slung, three-chord rock that sits comfortably alongside Bruce Springsteen, John Cougar Mellencamp, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Rolling Stones. Like them, Mr. Earle draws on country's basic harmonies and storytelling lyrics, but his grainy voice and his band's backbeat come from the rock side of country-rock. The style, lately dubbed "roots rock" or "heartland rock," isn't exactly geographical or historical; it's all about a twang and a rasp and a down-home vocabulary." 
  13. ^ a b http://www.rollingstone.com/artists/kidrock/albums/album/16700035/review/16720051/rock_n_roll_jesus


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