The Real Eighties: Guitars, Cadillacs and Hillbilly Music

In this – the “American” week of my “The Real Eighties” series – I’m focusing on American bands.

Of course, the first day was the return to roots-y music (and yes, I missed a slew of bands), which meant a lot of references to sixties R&B-based rock and roll.  Yesterday, of course, was Latin day, with Los Lobos.

But the eighties were a bit of a renaissance for that other singularly American genre, country-western.

Country-Western had spent most of the seventies mired in an attempt to “cross over” with the pop charts.  The C&W charts were dominated by the bilious, pop-ified likes of Kenny Rogers, Barbara Mandrell, Eddie Rabbitt, Alabama and a slew of other more forgettable product.

There was a backlash, of course; the “Outlaw Movement” – Waylon Jennings, Willy Nelson, Hank Williams Junior, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash studiously avoided crossing over, and did about the only memorable C&W of the decade, at least to this rock and roller.

Now, in the nineties Country made a huge roaring comeback, with artists like Garth Brooks, the Judds and a slew of others twanging it up old-school style (with a healthy dose of bleeding-edge technology and pop hooks thrown in for good measure).

But it was the country, and alternative-country, of the eighties that tied those two together, and breathed a bit of life into country’s somnolent hulk.

More below the jump, so the rest of the blog can actually load…

In the years before heroin addiction, jail time, bankruptcy and socialism turned him into a carnival freak show, Steve Earle put the nasty back into country.

“Guitar Town” twanged away unapologetically…

…and, later in the decade, “Copperhead Road” – with guest artists like Telulide and the Pogues – dug into appalachian music’s gaelic roots; not just for music, but for cultural matieral.  The title cut is a malevolent ode to the scots-irish moonshiner culture through the ages….

…on an album that had him labeled, for a while, as “the country Springsteen” (helped by the inclusion of a cover of Bruce’s “Nebraska” as the flip side of the radio edit of “Copperhead Road”.

More traditional – and more subversive, in its own way – was Dwight Yoakam, who unapologetically did the straightest, purest honky-tonk music this side of fellow Bakersfield, Californian Buck Owens.

In between was songwriter John Hiatt – older and arguably wiser, having spent a chunk of the middle of the decade in spin dry, and coming back with several albums of wry, wonderful writing that used its southern accent almost like an instrument in its own right.

And, as the decade ended, Social Distortion closed the circle – mixing traditional country and punk rock in a way that sounded a lot more natural on record than by way of description.

8 thoughts on “The Real Eighties: Guitars, Cadillacs and Hillbilly Music

  1. Back in the 80’s I had a job doing field service for a company that maintained the data processing equipment at public utilities. I was low guy on the totem pole so while the other guys were flying to Southern California and Florida, I was driving around the Midwest in an SUV with a load of computer parts in the cargo area. My monthly route took me to Chicago, Cincinatti, Akron, Detroit, and parts in between.
    Any way, I listened to a lot of country music on those long drives. The artists you highlight with this post were my buddies, or so I thought of ’em.
    Listening to them now on Heartland Public Radio’s “Today’s Classic Country” channel makes for a heavy dose of nostalgia: Cruising through the low hills and valleys of Ohio in high summer, Michigan’s UP in peak Autumn color, and hugging the river bluffs on Highway 61 between St. Paul and LaCrosse. 61 cuts through some lovely forested hills in northern Iowa, too.
    No cell phones, 55mph speed limit. It was different world in those days.

  2. Terry, although I don’t share your affinity for country music, I also did the road trips for my company in the 80’s, when the only thing that seemed to come in on the radio were country stations, especially at night. Ah; memories!

  3. The artists you highlight with this post were my buddies, or so I thought of ‘em.

    Dwight and I graduated from the same high school, so I knew him before he hit it big. He was ahead of me so I just knew him and his music. He was always pure country even when it was completely uncool, but most folks cut him a lot of slack because as a musician he was good. I wasn’t a fan of country at the time, but I did love to hear him do his stuff.

  4. Slow Turning was the first John Hiatt song I heard. Bought the CD and loved it, still do. In his concerts, and in this video (which I hadn’t ever seen before) he is perpetually on the verge of uproarious laughter, usually at himself. His music captures what it’s like to be a man as well as Springsteen, in my opinion. Great, great songwriter.

  5. Steve Earle is a reallly talented guy. When he was younger, he did the “angry young man” thing really well. It wore thin as he grew older and….angrier. Still makes good music, with some good Townes covers every once in awhile.

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