Heartland rock hit full stride in the ’80s as Bruce Springsteen was filling up stadiums with his anthemic hits and John Cougar Mellencamp’s roots music was pumping out sly social commentary over the airwaves.
Though the term heartland rock can mean a great many things, the pervasive idea of the subgenre and its artists is that they seek to express the authentic American experience. Whether that’s with Laurel Canyon folk, swampy blues, or a brawny country flavor, these artists are of the belief that rock can offer something deeply communal with rich character-driven vignettes.
Below, we’re going through 10 heartland rock songs from Springsteen, Mellencamp, and more that shine a light on the American experience.
1. “Jack & Diane” (John Mellencamp)
Despite having a number of hits to his name, “Jack & Diane” remains John Mellencamp’s sole chart-topper.
According to Mellencamp, the song was originally based on the 1966 Tennessee Williams film Sweet Bird of Youth, but when record executives were hesitant to release a song about interracial love, Mellencamp changed the song to be about two typical midwestern teenagers coming of age— a familiar story that a wide span of the country can relate to.
2. “Rock and Roll Never Forgets” (Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band)
So now sweet sixteen’s turned thirty-one / You get to feelin’ weary when the work day’s done / Well all you got to do is get up and into your kicks / If you’re in a fix / Come back baby / Rock and roll never forgets, Seger sings on this Night Moves track.
According to Seger, it’s rock n’ roll that is the fix for any dilemma. Whether you’re afraid of growing up or the news has you feeling rundown, Seger has an Americana beat and a rolling guitar riff to get you through.
3. “American Girl” (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers)
Allegedly written about a student who jumped from the University of Florida bell tower in Petty’s hometown, the song follows one girl’s dream of finding a little more life somewhere else. Whether or not the story is rooted in truth, anyone who has ever dreamt of “getting out” can look to “American Girl” for a little bit of comfort.
4. “Hold On Loosely” (38 Special)
“Hold On Loosely” enters the conversation with the Eagles’ “Life in the Fast Lane” with a clever comparison between love and a treacherous drive out on the highway – Just hold on loosely / But don’t let go / If you cling too tightly / You’re gonna lose control. The song became 38 Special’s first top 40 hit and reached No. 3 on the rock charts.
5. “The Boys of Summer” (Don Henley)
“The Boys of Summer” sees Don Henley reflecting on youth through the lens of lost summer love. The accompanying video for the track sees the protagonist in three stages of life: a young boy, a teenager, and a middle-aged man. At each stage, he looks back regrettably at his past relationships, which, unfortunately, can be a familiar tale.
6. “Night Moves” (Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band)
Another Bob Seger number, “Night Moves” marked the moment he turned from a local phenom in Michigan to a national rock n’ roll icon. Per Seger, from his website, the song’s meaning “still has the exact meaning it’s always had for me—the freedom and looseness I had during high school. That romance actually took place after high school, and it actually was about a real person. Her boyfriend was in the service, and when he came back she married him. My first broken heart.”
7. “Free Fallin'” (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 an ear-worm chorus, “Free Fallin” is as classic as they come.
8. “Summer of ’69 (Bryan Adams)
A coded reference to “making love in the summertime,” “Summer of ’69” scored an international hit for Bryan Adams and it remains one of his most popular songs to date. He sets the nostalgic scene right from the beginning, I got my first real six-string / Bought it at the five and dime / Played it ’til my fingers bled / Was the summer of ’69.
9. “Jet Airliner” (Steve Miller Band)
“Jet Airliner” sees Steve Miller Band document their time out on the road, flying from place to place while fondly remembering home. Though the trials of a touring musician may not be the “authentic American experience” so to say, the visuals of the American highway they include in the song are duly nostalgic and familiar to anyone whose taken a trip out West.
10. “Born in the U.S.A” (Bruce Springsteen)
You can’t discuss Heartland Rock without bringing up The Boss. Arguably the artist that ushered in the moniker for the sub-genre in the first place, no one exemplifies the Heartland mentality more than Bruce Springsteen. One of his most iconic songs, “Born in the U.S.A,” is about the rocky return home of a Vietnam veteran. He sings, Born down 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 beat too much / ‘Til you spend half your life just coverin’ up.
Photo by Marc Hauser / Sacks & Co