By 1977 Jackson Browne had released four albums, the most recent one (The Pretender, in 1976) hailed as a commercial and artistic breakthrough, thanks to the singles “Here Come Those Tears Again” and the title track. His discography up to that point was pretty standard singer/songwriter fare that drew comparisons to contemporaries like James Taylor and Cat Stevens. Nobody could have predicted the conceptual shift of his next album, but chart success and critical accolades have proven that Running on Empty, the album he released 40 years ago on 6 December, was probably the right artistic move.
The term “concept album”, in regards to anything made in the mid-’70s, can conjure up a whole slew of musical ideas, many of which have not aged particularly well. Normally, progressive rock at its most bloated is what comes to mind. Jethro Tull, Yes, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Rush are just a few of the bands who have assayed the idea of the album as a full-length thematic concept, with varying degrees of success. Clearly, these artists are not exactly the kind of company you would expect Jackson Browne to keep. But Running on Empty, despite its lack of glittery capes, Moog synthesizers, or Tolkien-esque themes, is a concept album. But it’s one grounded in reality, and one that was executed in a unique style.
The concept was a refreshingly simple one: during a U.S. tour in the summer of 1977, Browne wrote and performed new songs to be included as part of the tour’s setlists, recording these new songs from the stage as well as in rehearsals, during sound checks, backstage, in hotel rooms and even on the tour bus. The new songs centered mainly around the theme of life on the road. This resulted in an album that was not only recorded on tour, it was also about touring, taking the concept of the live album a step further. It should be noted that R.E.M. attempted the same thing nearly 20 years later with their excellent album New Adventures in Hi-Fi, although the concept there was limited to recording new songs on the road — there was no thematic unity to the lyrics.
Under lesser hands this idea may result in awkwardly shoehorning “out on the road” lyrics into new music, but fortunately Browne is a gifted songwriter who was blessed with a group of skilled musicians, many of whom worked with him on previous albums. The lineup included keyboardist Craig Doerge, guitarist Danny Kortchmar, drummer Russ Kunkel, bassist Leland Sklar, backup singers Rosemary Butler and Doug Haywood, and – perhaps most importantly – guitarist David Lindley, Browne’s multi-instrumentalist secret weapon whose distinctive lap steel and fiddle stylings are all over this album and give it a unique flavor.
Many of the songs employ a standard full-band setting that makes good use of the assembled musicians, particularly on the songs recorded during concert performances. The title track – which was actually written during sessions for The Pretender – rolls along like the tour buses and rigs it describes (“Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels / Looking back at the years gone by like so many summer fields”) while Lindley’s intoxicating lap steel cuts an infectious path through the song. “You Love the Thunder” is largely cut from the same cloth, with Butler and Haywood’s backing vocals providing just the right accompaniment to Browne’s lead (especially during the impassioned “la la la la” coda).
But the more interesting moments on Running on Empty are the ones that take place offstage. It’s truly startling to hear Browne break away from his standard songwriting and arranging templates with songs like “Rosie”. The solo piano arrangement of that track brings out a unique intimacy and transforms the song into something truly poetic – despite the fact that Browne confirmed in a 2003 interview something I had suspected since I was a teenager: that the song is about, well, “self-love”. “Looks like it’s me and you again tonight, Rosie,” Browne sings. Whatever gets you through those lonely touring nights, I guess.
Lyrically and musically, “The Road” is another gentle, folky tribute to the touring life. Acoustic guitars and Lindley’s lonesome fiddle provide just the right atmosphere for Browne’s vivid descriptions. “Phone calls long distance / To tell you how you’ve been / You forget about the losses / You exaggerate the wins.” In a unique and ultimately winning twist, the first half of the song – recorded in a Maryland hotel room – shifts to a full band concert recording in the second half, resulting in a transition that isn’t the least bit jarring, particularly when you consider how the subject matter helps to inform this shift. “It’s just another town along the road,” Browne sings, and the town’s citizens roar their approval.
While recordings from hotel rooms and buses usually translate to unplugged solo performances, Browne blurs those lines in songs like “Shaky Town”, in which the whole band is crammed into an Illinois hotel room and Browne gives his full voice an impassioned workout in the chorus: “That’s a big ten-four / From your back door / Just put that hammer down / This young man feels / These 18 wheels / That keep turning ’round to take me down to Shaky Town.” In “Nothing But Time”, the band jams away on the tour bus (a Continental Silver Eagle en route from Maine to the next gig in New Jersey, according to the liner notes) while Kunkel substitutes a cardboard box for a kick drum and the bus’s engine is clearly audible, downshifting and accelerating throughout the song.
But one of the best-known and best-loved moments on Running on Empty comes in the album’s final two tracks – “The Load-Out” and “Stay”, performed as a medley and a fitting conclusion to the album. The former track, a Browne original, documents life on the road not as glamorous jet-setting but as a livelihood often fraught with boredom and maddening routine. It’s also both a tribute to the road crew (“Roll them cases out and lift them amps / Haul them trusses out and get ’em up them ramps / ‘Cause when it comes to moving me / You know you guys are the champs”) as well a love letter to fans (“Tonight the people were so fine / They waited there in line”). As the song begins to wind down, Browne isn’t quite ready to say goodbye to the audience, so he calls on Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs for inspiration in the form of their classic R&B hit “Stay”- “Oh won’t you stay / Just a little bit longer.” Butler then takes a verse, and in an absurd twist, Lindley sings a verse in a comically exaggerated falsetto, to the amusement of both the band and the audience. Paying tribute to fans has rarely come off as this genuine, light, and heartfelt.
Running on Empty was a considerable commercial success for Jackson Browne, peaking at number three on the Billboard Pop Albums chart with both the title track and “The Load-Out/Stay” hitting the Top 40 Pop Singles charts. Speaking personally, my memories of the album are vivid – I was only eight years old when it was released, but my sister Julie was a senior in high school, and her copy of the album logged plenty of hours on the living room turntable. “It really resonated with me because I never really listened to music for the lyrics as much as I did with that album,” she told me recently. “Somehow that album made me feel a little more grown up.” When you do what Jackson Browne did 40 years ago and take the glamour out of touring by simply telling it like it is, you can probably startle your audience into looking at rock and roll in a different light.