Heartland rock took off in the 80s as Bruce Springsteen filled stadiums with his anthem hits and John Cougar Mellencamp’s roots music spit sly commentary over the airwaves.
Although the term rock from the heart can mean many things, the pervasive idea of the subgenre and its artists is that they seek to express the authentic American experience. Whether it’s Laurel Canyon folk, swampy blues, or a beefy country flavor, these artists believe rock can deliver something deeply common with rich, character-driven vignettes.
Below, we review 10 rock songs from the heart of Springsteen, Mellencamp and many more that shine a light on the American experience.
1. “Jack and Diana” (John Mellencamp)
Despite a number of hits to its name, “Jack & Diane” remains John Mellencamp’s only number one hit.
According to Mellencamp, the song was originally based on the 1966 film Tennessee Williams. Sweet bird of youthbut when record executives balked at releasing a song about interracial love, Mellencamp changed the song to be about two typical Midwestern teenagers coming of age – a familiar story to which much of the country can identify.
2. “Rock and Roll Never Forgets” (Bob Seger and the band Silver Bullet)
So now my sixteen year old darling turned thirty one / You feel tired when the work day is done / Well all you have to do is get up and start your kicks / If you’re in trouble / Come back baby / Rock and roll never forgetSeger sings on this Night movements Track.
According to Seger, rock n’ roll is the solution to any dilemma. Whether you’re scared of growing up or the news has you feeling down, Seger has an American beat and a rolling guitar riff to help you along.
3. “American Girl” (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers)
Allegedly written about a student who jumped off the University of Florida steeple in Petty’s hometown, the song follows a girl’s dream of finding a little more life elsewhere. Whether the story is rooted in truth or not, anyone who’s ever dreamed of “going out” can turn to “American Girl” for some solace.
4. “Hold Yourself Loosely” (Special 38)
‘Hold On Loosely’ enters the conversation with the Eagles’ ‘Life in the Fast Lane’ with a clever comparison between love and treacherous driving on the freeway – Just hold on loose / But don’t let go / If you hold on too tight / You’ll lose control. The song became 38 Special’s first top 40 hit and peaked at number three on the rock charts.
5. “Summer Boys” (Don Henley)
“The Boys of Summer” sees Don Henley reflect on youth through the lens of lost summer love. The track’s accompanying video sees the protagonist in three stages of life: a young boy, a teenager, and a middle-aged man. At each step, he looks back with regret on his past relationships, which, unfortunately, can be a familiar story.
6. “Night Moves” (Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band)
Another Bob Seger number, “Night Moves,” marked the moment he went from local Michigan phenom to national rock n’ roll icon. According to Seger, according to his website, the meaning of the song “still has the exact meaning it always had for me: the freedom and looseness that I had in high school. This romance actually took place after high school, and it was actually about a real person. Her boyfriend was in the service, and when he came back, she married him. My first broken heart.
7. “Free Fall” (Tom Petty)
Similar to “American Girl”, “Free Fallin” has become one of Petty’s most iconic songs. It also touches on a similar topic: escapism. Inspired by driving along Ventura Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley. With an iconic opening guitar line and earworm chorus, “Free Fallin” is as classic as it gets.
8. “Summer of 69 (Bryan Adams)
A coded reference to “making love in the summer”, “Summer of ’69” marked an international hit for Bryan Adams and remains one of his most popular songs to this day. He sets the nostalgic scene from the start, I got my first real six string / I bought it at the nickel / I played it until my fingers were bleeding / It was summer 69.
9. “Jet Airliner” (Steve Miller Band)
“Jet Airliner” sees Steve Miller Band documenting their time on the road, flying from place to place while fondly remembering home. While a touring musician’s essays may not be the “authentic American experience,” so to speak, the visuals of the American highway they include in the song are duly nostalgic and familiar to anyone who has takes a trip out West.
10. “Born in the USA” (Bruce Springsteen)
You can’t discuss Heartland Rock without mentioning The Boss. Arguably the artist who coined the subgenre moniker in the first place, no one exemplifies the Heartland mentality better than Bruce Springsteen. One of his most iconic songs, “Born in the USA”, is about the turbulent homecoming of a Vietnam veteran. He sings, Born in a dead man’s town / The first kick I took was when I hit the ground / You end up like a dog that’s been beaten too much / “Till you pass half of your life to cover you.
Photo by Marc Hauser/Sacks & Co