Heartland Punk? What’s A Heartland Punk?
You work five days a week, loading crates down on the dock. Well, not really, because that would be, like, really heavy work. And ports are increasingly automated now anyways, so you probably couldn’t get a job loading crates even if you wanted to. Bet their cafeteria doesn’t even serve gingerbread lattes.
Blue collar or not, there’s something in the rebellious spirit of punk rock that has naturally found a kinship with the romantic anthems of heartland rock. Taking cues from the small town tales and everyday chronicles of Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty, songwriters like Laura Jane Grace, Brian Fallon and Mike Ness have forged heartfelt tunes that find meaning in small moments and believe that every day offers another shot at rock’n’roll redemption. With summer being so far away, we figured we’d pluck the most heart-on-sleeve punk rockers and plonk them into a playlist that will make you want to find destiny at the end of the highway. Or at the very least, Woodall Services off the M1.
So if your job sucks, you’re dreaming of endless summer nights, or just a flannel-wearing cliché, this one is for you. Crank it up and run ’til you drop.
Lookers - The Menzingers (After The Party, 2017)
Along with the diners and teenage romance that litter the territory, few things are more heartland rock than wistful nostalgia. Philly punk rockers The Menzingers cram all three into Lookers, from last year’s excellent After The Party, and in the ‘sha la la’s of the chorus, tip the hat to – or full on rip off – the Tom Waits song Jersey Girl, a boardwalk ballad covered by The Boss himself. A perfect blend of driving forward while looking back over one shoulder. Except don’t do that irl, because that would be bloody daft.
What Can I Do If The Fire Goes Out? - Gang Of Youths (Go Father In Lightness, 2017)
Australian indie-rockers Gang Of Youths are kind of a big deal down under. So is last year’s double album Go Farther In Lightness, which won four ARIA Awards (basically the GRAMMYs of Oz) and explores relationships, coming of age and close brushes with death. What Can I Do If The Fire Goes Out? addresses singer David Le’aupepe’s personal crisis of faith, but in its heart-pounding rhythms and ‘savage desire for a soul untamed,’ feels like a universal cry for anyone caught between a rock and a hard place. Or a cry for a warm jumper.
Because Of The Shame - Against Me! (White Crosses, 2011)
Against Me! faced years of flak from the DIY punk community – who regarded them as sell outs the moment they got past the first rung of the ladder – long before 2007’s major label release, New Wave. The subsequent vitriol would reach its peak when Laura Jane Grace wound up in jail for battery after an altercation with one such naysayer in Tallahassee, Florida, but she would also receive an encouraging letter from Springsteen, who wrote, “If you’re not reaching out beyond the audience you have to the greater audience you might have, you’ll never find out what it’s worth, and how much meaning you can bring into your fan’s lives.” Words she evidently took to heart when penning its followup, White Crosses, which doubled down on the anthems yet still retained its punk core. Despite describing the funeral of a close friend and her own feelings of regret, Because Of The Shame barrels forth with cinematic piano and huge vocals that refuse to be defeated.
Story Of My Life - Social Distortion (Social Distortion, 1990)
Chain-gang singalongs and country punk rattle drive Mike Ness’ autobiographical account of unrequited love, holes in jeans and his desire to sing the elementary school blues. With a wistful backwards, glance his storytelling has much in common with the street narratives of heartland rockers – and a mutual influence in Johnny Cash – but Social Distortion belt it out with a little more outlaw swagger.
Surrender - The Smith Street Band (Throw Me In The River, 2014)
It doesn’t take a private investigator with a PhD in Band Nameology to deduce that the Aussie punk’s moniker is a wink at Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band. Except Wil Wagner’s broad accent and motormouthed delivery is definitely more Melbourne tram route 86 than Route 66. Buzzing with a passion and drama, Surrender is a jittery explosion of love, fear, hunger and celebratory defiance all at once. Because being alive is pretty rad.
What I Lost - Cold Years (single, 2018)
Cold Years may call Aberdeen home, yet the chorus-drenched guitars and youthful dreams of What I Lost evokes a place far beyond the outskirts of that city’s granite walls and flipping big seagulls. So many seagulls. The young punks owe much to The Gaslight Anthem, yet their upcoming EP Northern Blue shows that they’re quickly outgrowing the shadow of their influences with their own gritty tales of fading youth in lines like, ‘Backstreets of forgotten monuments to the nameless faces.’
Unsatisfied - The Replacements (Let It Be, 1984)
Along with a lust for life, heartland rock has always come with its fair share of defeat when things fall apart. The early life of The Replacements could read like a Bruce Springsteen song, only one with more alcohol and dick jokes. Their ability to grab defeat from the jaws of success is well known, but at their heart were four midwestern kids making raucous punk rock shot through with desperation. Nowhere is that better heard than on Unsatisfied. Paul Westerberg may dare you to ‘Look me in the eyes and tell me that I’m satisfied,’ but the howling pedal steel and twelve string guitar adds a poignant vulnerability to his bark.
Went Looking For Warren Zevon’s Los Angeles - Lucero (All A Man Should Do, 2015)
You’re not likely to see Lucero’s name in lights over football stadiums anytime soon, but Ben Nichols’ sandpapery drawl and their ripped jeans country-punk fit the bill. Brian Fallon has cited The Memphis outfit’s whiskey-tinged Americana as an influence on The Gaslight Anthem’s Sink Or Swim, and this track sees Lucero themselves tracing the footsteps of American rocker Warren Zevon, writer of Werewolves Of London. A city of lights, closing bars and jukeboxes: it doesn’t get more heartland rock than that.
We Could Be Kings - Dave Hause (Devour, 2013)
The working man’s punk rocker and king of ‘aw shucks’ appeal, his band The Loved Ones were big on mixing punk rock grit with faith in old school rock’n’roll. On his own, his songwriting has drawn him even more into chronicling the everyday struggles of regular people. This tale of fast cars, unexpected pregnancy and young tragedy is classic heartland rock territory, but his upbeat optimism means even ‘We’re damned from the start,’ sounds like a victory cry. Catch him on tour supporting his buddy Brian Fallon this week.
Never Going Back - Hot Water Music (Light It Up, 2017)
We don’t really need to tell you that, before Justin Timberlake got in on the act, Chuck Ragan was the original beardy-man-in-flannel-shirt poster boy. It is his gift. It is his curse. And this hollered banger from last year’s Light It Up shows that Hot Water Music have no intention of toning down the blue collar anthemics. Still, listen to the blood-pumping beat and try not to shout ‘If you rest, you rust / Trade sorrow in for trust’. Then promptly cough up half a lung, because Chuck’s vocal cords are made of gravel and rusty tin cans.
The House That Heaven Built - Japandroids (Celebration Rock, 2012)
Canadian bands aren’t really known for their heartland rock sensibilities. Maybe that’s because in Canada, Heartland is a long-running TV show that follows a family through multiple generations on a horse ranch, with a snoozy theme tune to boot. Sod that though, when you could have guitars screaming from the amplifiers, drums that sound like they’re about to spontaneously combust, and rallying cries like, ‘If they try to slow you down, / Tell ‘em all to go to hell’. A pure cry of punk’n’roll salvation.
Paradise Shitty - The Lawrence Arms (Metropole, 2014)
And sometimes paradise ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Sometimes the streets are a symphony paved with gold, sometimes it’s just lined with concrete, cigarette butts and the odd turd. The Lawrence Arms get that, but even this bone-rattler from 2014’s Metropole is imbued with a sense of epic drama. There’s fatalism in the acoustic guitar and organ that closes out the song, as Brendan Kelly watches the years tick away, but also a desire to get out of dodge as he pleads, ‘Strap me to the station wagon roof and drive me out into the hills’. Of course, taking the bus would also do the trick, but that wouldn’t be nearly as dramatic, now would it?
Meet Me By The River’s Edge - The Gaslight Anthem (The ’59 Sound, 2008)
Brian Fallon has made no bones about his love for heartland rock, but come on, man! Meet Me By The River’s Edge namechecks not one, but two Boss tracks – No Surrender and Bobby Jean – in the first verse. Tot that up with the line, ‘I still love Tom Petty songs and driving old men crazy’ from the preceding track on The ’59 Sound, Even Cowgirls Get The Blues, and you have one hell of a heartland rock love-in. And we can’t wait to belt out every word when The Gaslight Anthem tour that album in full this summer.
Atlantic City - Automatic 7 (At Funeral Speed, 2007)
Well, this playlist wouldn’t be complete without a Springsteen cover, would it really? Most covers miss the biting desperation of Bruce’s chronicle of dying hope in a crooked town, but, credit where credit’s due, this hot-rodded take from Los Angeles also rans Automatic 7 gets it. Slamming guitars, chugging bass and gang vocals on the lines, ‘Everything dies baby, that’s a fact / But maybe everything that dies someday comes back’, and this really does feel like a last-ditch attempt at making good. It still didn’t change their fortunes, mind.
Gone - The Bouncing Souls (How I Spent My Summer Vacation, 2001)
There must be something in the water in New Jersey that makes it breeding ground for punk rock with a sense of defiant wonder. Maybe they grind up Springsteen records and put it in the drinking water. Or maybe it’s the corn syrup in all the soda. On this rabble-rousing closer to The Bouncing Souls’ How I Spent My Summer Vacation, though, Greg Antonitto puts it down to a song on the radio that ‘Went straight to my heart / I carried it with me until that darkness was gone’. And just like that, they’re outta there and off into the sunset.
WORDS: James MacKinnon