Meet the new Boss. Same as the old Boss. He's just taken on a different context.
Bruce Springsteen, the most prominent rocker of the 1980s, is now a symbolic fencepost in modern country. If there's any doubt how much the New Jersey singer/songwriter is influencing the heartland-entrenched genre, take a look at the top 10 of this week's Country Songs. Eric Church's "Springsteen" is lodged at No. 8, while newcomer Kip Moore, whose "Somethin' 'Bout A Truck" is at No. 5, has been praised as a "hillbilly Springsteen" for his gritty story songs and blue-collar viewpoint.
Further underscoring the point, Kenny Chesney has covered two of Springsteen's songs - "I'm On Fire" and "One Step Up" - on albums in the last decade. The lyrics of Rodney Atkins' 2009 hit "It's America" ranked Springsteen songs alongside Chevrolet and NASA moon flights as symbols of U.S. patriotism, while Pat Green's "Feels Just Like It Should" (No. 13, 2006) finds a couple singing "Born To Run" while cruising down the highway in a convertible. And the new Josh Abbott Band album, Small Town Family Dream, currently at No. 5 on Country Albums, contains "I'll Sing About Mine," a song that takes issue with the trend, lamenting that songs about "the Dairy Queen, pickup trucks and Springsteen/Make the place I love sound like a bad cartoon."
Classic rock has had a significant, and growing, impact on the sound of country for more than a decade, extending a historic trend within the genre. Now-deceased Vanderbilt professor Richard A. Peterson detailed in his 1997 book "Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity" (University of Chicago Press) how country has continually folded in elements from other music forms since its very beginning, usually incorporating 15-20 year-old pop - and now rock - sounds with a sense of nostalgia.
That's played out in various ways: Bon Jovi having a country hit with Jennifer Nettles on "Who Says You Can't Go Home"; Chesney sharing stadium stages with such acts as Steve Miller and Sammy Hagar; Kix Brooks enlisting Joe Walsh to play guitar on his current single, "New To This Town"; or Carrie Underwood teaming with Steven Tyler in a Feb. 4 installment of "CMT Crossroads."
Springsteen likely has a greater connection than any of them. His catalog is deep in story songs about working-class people struggling to make it in the suburbs. The suburbs are now the core geographic location for country's core audience.
"It's blue-collared working-man music," Church says of Springsteen. "He sings about the plight of the people working in the factories, the people who are downtrodden. 'Thunder Road,' the whole premise is picking up the girl and letting the wind blow through your hair. It's about that escape, and I think that relates so much to what goes on everyday with country music. People have their issues, they are working more than they should, getting paid less - Bruce takes up the plight with his pen and puts it to paper, and it's as good as anybody in country ever has."
In that regard, there's a direct correlation between Springsteen and Merle Haggard, whose straight-forward language as a songwriter built his reputation as the poet of the common man. Where Haggard scoffed at "your so-called Social Security" in "Big City" and struggled with unemployment in "If We Make It Through December," Springsteen addressed boarded-up family stores in "My Hometown" and a construction worker's economic pain in "The River." Both of them steadfastly employed signature sax players in their bands, even though they weren't particularly fashionable at the time for their genre.
"Haggard is Haggard - the tone, the depth, everything about his voice is just sturdy," Atkins notes. "Same thing with Springsteen. They're just two different kinds of singers."
Springsteen's prominence in the current country landscape is as much a function of generational shifts as anything else. A significant portion of the genre's audience has traditionally consisted of people who listened to pop music during their youth but turned to country as an adult. Thus, many 40-year-old country fans grew up with a steady diet of Born In The U.S.A. If that 40-year-old came to country during the Garth Brooks era, around 1992, he or she likely would not have heard much Haggard. He had already been effectively banished from the country airwaves.
That fact stirs up understandable wounds among country traditionalists, though country acts were singing Springsteen's praises long before the typical cycle of nostalgia kicked in. Johnny Cash and Emmylou Harris covered his songs even before his commercial peak with Born In The U.S.A. Mel McDaniel reached No. 12 on Country Songs in 1986 with a version of Springsteen's "Stand On It." And Kenny Rogers' No. 1 1985 single "Morning Desire" was written after Rogers challenged Dave Loggins to write a song that sounded like "I'm On Fire."
Still, Springsteen is simply the current leader among heartland acts who've become symbols for modern country. John Mellencamp, Tom Petty, Bob Seger, Jackson Browne and the Eagles are part of the same scheme: singer/songwriters whose unfettered sound and common-man lyrics are now a bedrock foundation for current country.
"They were all storytellers, and 'Little Pink Houses' and 'Small Town' by [Mellencamp], those are country songs," Moore observes. "Folk, American rock n' roll - it all kind of meshes into one blend, and nowadays, I think if those guys were out, they would be in the country genre. I think that's why people associate and are OK with that."
The correlation was transparent when Church headlined at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena May 5. He closed his show with "Springsteen" - a song that references four of the Boss' classic titles and incorporates a "whoa, whoa, whoa" vamp inspired by "Born To Run" - while singing in front of a large backdrop of an American flag. The association with the Born In The U.S.A. album art was obvious.
"Bruce was doing [working-man songs] in a genre that I don't know if that was cool," Church says. "That genre at the time was about rocking and how loud you can be and Def Leppard and all that. And you still have Bruce Springsteen kicking ass - that in itself takes a high level of testicle fortitude, to go out there and be that artist."
Oddly enough, Springsteen is now "that artist" for country, too.