NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Bruce Springsteen’s Country Sensibility

His New Album, Wrecking Ball, Looks at America Today

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

I find it very reassuring that at least one major American musical artist is angry about what has happened to this country in recent years. And he’s channeling his anger into music, which is about all he can do these days. But these are things someone needs to say.

So why should a country music listener be concerned with what Bruce Springsteen is writing and recording?

Because he’s writing and recording what some country music artists should be writing and recording these days. Sure, he has the luxury of very secure artistic freedom garnered from a lifetime of worthwhile music and from sizable earnings from recording and touring. But he doesn’t have to do it. Like many other vintage rock stars, he could just phone in a few new songs for an album and continue to tour and fill venues solely on the basis of the old hits. But the message is that he cares about this country. And cares deeply.

Springsteen is no stranger to social topics and commentary, as listeners to his past work know. Albums such as Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad show a genuine concern for the human condition.

I have spent the past few days listening to cuts from Springsteen’s new album, Wrecking Ball (to be released March 5), and what I am hearing is what a lot of Americans perhaps should be listening to. And what some country music standard-bearers should be paying attention to. At least now and then. Not every Springsteen song is a sermon. “Jack of All Trades” here, for one example, is a stately-sounding song of affirmation of romantic love. But when he feels a subject or situation needs addressing, he is not afraid to step up to the plate and take his swings.

“I have spent my life judging the distance between American reality and the American dream,” he said in a recent press conference in Paris.

“What was done to our country was wrong and unpatriotic and un-American, and nobody has been held to account,” he said. “There is a real patriotism underneath the best of my music but it is a critical, questioning and often angry patriotism.”

The closest thing we get in the way of real reality and social commentary in country music these days is a Willie Nelson Chipotle commercial on the Grammy Awards telecast. Isn’t it amazing how much more socially relevant Willie has become since official Nashville turned him out to pasture several years ago at his retirement age? His latest extracurricular recording is titled “Hell and Back Again,” the theme song for a documentary on the Afghanistan war.

Social issues have long been a part and parcel of country music, from Hank Williams’ anti-Joseph Stalin “No, No, Joe” and Roy Acuff’s anti-Stalin “Advice to Joe” to Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill” to Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” and Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American).” But when commercial success today demands chartable, radio-friendly back roads song and hell-raising beer-and-babes videos, there ain’t much room anymore for unwelcome songs of complaint in the country music room.

The first single from Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball is “We Take Care of Our Own,” a bitter diatribe about exactly how this country no longer does in fact take care of its own. Like his song “Born in the USA,” “We Take Care of Our Own” is more a sad lament than a joyous celebration.

I’ve been stumblin’ on good hearts turned to stone
The road of good intentions has gone dry as bone
We take care of our own
We take care of our own
Wherever this flag’s flown
We take care of our own

He moves on to recall the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina:

From the shotgun shack to the Superdome
We yelled “help” but the cavalry stayed home
There ain’t no-one hearing the bugle blown

And there’s real anger in the “Death to My Hometown.” What on the surface first sounds like a jolly Irish jig singalong is actually a bitter indictment of the robber barons who have ruined this nation. Bruce is not going to let them off easy.