Country singers of all stripes have covered or referenced Bruce Springsteen in their songs, yet the reasons they do so, and what they see in his songs, is not as easy to read as you might expect.
Bruce Springsteen is #8 on the Billboard country charts, as of 21 July. No, not the man, but the song: “Springsteen” by Eric Church, from his 2011 album Chief.
It’s not a tribute to the man, per se, but to the power music has over our brains. More specifically, it’s about the way music can bring us back to an exact moment like nothing else can. We hear a certain song and something, or more likely someone, whom we never ever think about comes back to us clearly and powerfully, like it was yesterday. Church sings, “To this day when I hear that song / I see you standin' there on that lawn.” The song that brings her back is a Springsteen song. He mentions “Born to Run”, “Born in the USA”, “I’m On Fire” and “Glory Days” (sort of), but he doesn’t seem certain which song they listened to that night, or if they listened to the whole Springsteen catalog.
The breathless way he describes the night he spent with this certain someone, it’s a reminder too that memories are always far removed from the reality. Yet it’s really memory that he’s singing about, not reality. Music doesn’t bring back a moment, it brings back an idealized version of a moment. It brings back a dream. Like the Boss himself said, in a different context, we’re all always “working on a dream”. If songs represent dreams, our individual or collective, societal ones, Springsteen tends to stand in for a certain set of dreams, representing certain myths, images and ideas. But which are they? Country singers of all stripes have covered or referenced Springsteen in their songs, yet the reasons they do so, and what they see in his songs, is not as easy to read as you might expect.
Whether you’re a fan of mainstream commercial country music or rock-leaning “alt-country” or folksy Americana music or whatever other variation on country you want to name, it’s likely that at least one of your favorite singers has either sung a Springsteen song, praised his name, or both. Johnny Cash and Emmylou Harris have each sung several. He’s been covered by Joe Ely, the Mavericks, Steve Earle, Kenny Chesney, Trisha Yearwood, and Travis Tritt. For that matter, indie-rock, indie-pop and alternative rock bands are just as likely to cover him or mention him in their songs, as well. The National, Pearl Jam, the Arcade Fire, Vampire Weekend, Badly Drawn Boy, Camera Obscura, Ted Leo, MY Morning Jacket – they’ve all sung Springsteen songs; live, on albums, or both.
What is it about Springsteen that makes his music so commonly referenced by American musicians, especially those in the general field of country music? The obvious answer would be that he’s a signifier for working-class Americana, the way he’s sung about hard-working, struggling folk and the American landscape. He’s also a representative of “America” who somehow seems universal enough to represent whatever vision of America you might believe in, even if in reality his songs are rather clearly describing one specific, often bleak version of the USA. He’s a stand-in for America who has been used over time to stand in for some inherent American ideal even by people (see Ronald Reagan) whose political beliefs are the opposite of those expressed by his songs. Church mentions getting taken back in time by “Born in the USA”, but it’s doubtful he’s fondly remembering a time when that song made him think seriously about war and its effects on people. It’s probably more a general feeling of goodwill towards America and its people.
When it comes to any of the artists I’ve mentioned, though, that political slipperiness isn’t as relevant as you might think. None of them are evoking the image of Springsteen that Reagan saw in his mind – the grinning, flag-waving patriot. At the same time, the country singers, “mainstream” or not, are also seldom evoking the Springsteen that really inhabited “Born in the USA”, the one singing bitterly about being sent to a foreign land to kill people, and returning to feel like you’ve got “nowhere to run / nowhere to go”. Re-singing “Born in the USA” so it sounds appropriately serious and angry has been left to indie-pop groups like Ballboy and Casiotone for the Painfully Alone. Country singers that are into Springsteen are more likely to follow one of two paths: singing one of the bleak story-songs on Nebraska or one of Springsteen’s love songs, or at least songs about lovers, which often contain their own share of sadness.
In the major-label, CMT world of mainstream country, Kenny Chesney is the most vocal Springsteen champion. When he’s sang Springsteen songs, they’re not ones meant to evoke “working-class America”, and they’re certainly not part of the beach-loving, Jimmy Buffet-esque escapist side of Chesney’s persona. Instead, they hint at his interest in Springsteen's dark, introspective love songs – something he’s lately been trying to cultivate in his own songs. The two Springsteen songs he’s recorded are “I’m On Fire” – the song that begins, “hey little girl is your daddy home / did he go away and leave you all alone / I got a bad desire / I’m on fire” (also covered by Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and others) -- and “One Step Up”, a lonely song from one of Springsteen’s loneliest albums, 1987’s Tunnel of Love. Chesney’s interest in that song has been expressed as an admiration of its songwriting; when he heard the song he immediately wanted to sing it. In a way, the song captures the sort of desperate, lonely moment that is inherent in country music: “Sittin’ here in this bar tonight / and all I’m thinkin’ is / I’m the same old story / the same old act / one step up and two steps back”.
"One Step Up" is the sort of low-key, almost soft-pop sound that even fans of Springsteen might overlook when they’re going through the album. My brother the Springsteen nut told me it’s one of his least favorite songs. That disconnect seems pertinent to the one that lies between Chesney and hipper country music. Chesney and, say, Joe Ely, don’t really seem to inhabit the same musical world. In the same way, Springsteen’s songwriting can enter modes that seem very different from one another, even as they’re populated by characters cut from the same cloth.
Chesney may not have sung of Springsteen in one of his songs about how music brings back memories of grand summers spent as a teenager, but he might as well have. Getting back to Church’s song, Springsteen is easy to use as a representative of the hallowed teenage past, not just because his albums were big in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when Church and his co-writers were growing up, but because Springsteen’s songs are so fully populated by young lovers on the run. The specter of “Born to Run” and “Thunder Road”, and other Springsteen songs where troubled souls consider running away from society, hovers within so many of the Springsteen references in country songs, including “Springsteen”. The teenage couple in the song claim to feel more alive and free in each other’s presence, with an automobile nearby, than they ever do in day-to-day life. In the narrator’s memory, they could have been a couple in a Springsteen song, or at least they felt like one.
An alternate version of that classic young rebels in love story was offered this year by a sort-of country singer, Justin Townes Earle (Steve Earle’s son). All of his five albums have some moment that clearly evokes Springsteen, especially that young-and-lonely-rebel-lovers side of his music. His latest album, Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, might seem less Springsteen-esque than some of them, at first. But take a listen to “Unfortunately, Anna”, at the album’s end. It embodies the basic setting of Springsteen’s early songs – late-night, on “a dead end street”, potential young lovers meet. They express a bleak view of the world and their place in it. This time, though, instead of proposing that they run off and try to escape all the tragedy, the narrator tells the woman whose name is in the title that the problem isn’t the world, it’s her outlook on it. “Unfortunately, Anna, it’s you who needs to change”, he sings.
It feels at once like a tribute to Springsteen and a rebuke of him, a way of pointing out that those romantic views of riding off into the sunset on a vibrant hunk of metal are just dreams, that young misfits aren’t necessarily the hallowed heroes we all should identify with. The song’s a reminder, too, that the dream life presented in pop songs can also be dissected in pop songs. Springsteen’s done his share of dreaming and dissecting in his songs – it seems that country singers have been drawing inspiration from both, in a more thoughtful way than you might expect.