The greatest country album that never was

“Woke up this morning my house was cold 
Checked the furnace, she wasn’t burning 
Went out in hopped in my old Ford 
Hit the engine but she ain’t turning” 

These are the opening lines to “One Step Up,” a song off of Bruce Springsteen’s 1987 album, “Tunnel of Love.” 
The line about the engine, I always heard, and still like to hear as, “...buddy, she ain’t turning.” Buddy or not, lyrically, it doesn’t get more country than this.   Just on paper, it feels like it could be a lost Billy Joe Shaver cut that never made Waylon’s “Honky Tonk Heroes.”   From just the words, and the twang that Springsteen adds to his delivery, obviously an affect as there is no twang in Asbury Park, you can tell Springsteen has absorbed his fair share of Texas and Nashville heartache.  The lyrical mood of the album is often somber and dark, its a different dark place than what is painted on his sparse “Nebraska” album, more of an emotional grappling, not the whole good vs evil thing, but there is no less urgency.

The production on the “Tunnel of Love” is pretty similar to the previous studio album, “Born In The USA,” and nothing out of the ordinary from what was going on in the mid to late 80s:  reverb drenched drums mixed prominently, more synthesizer than Hammond, chorus guitar sounds, that vibe.  And the production is probably what sets it apart from what was seeping the cracks of the Nashville machine at the time, what is sometimes referred to as “the great quality scare” by some folks in Music City, but indeed, with the exception of the title track, the entire second side of Tunnel could have been scattered throughout Steve Earle’s 1986 album, “Guitar Town,” or the follow up, “Copperhead Road.” Apparently, I’m not the only one to notice the country side of “Tunnel of Love,” as the second track, “Tougher than the Rest,” has been covered by a wide range of country artists, including, Emmylou Harris, Travis Tritt, and Chris Ledoux. Which is an interesting choice, in my opinion, as I find "Brilliant Disguise" and "One Step Up," a little more country.

For me, “Tunnel of Love” represents a slight departure for Springsteen.  The Boss had always thrown in some twang here and there, but never as much as he did on this record.  But, like “Nebraska,” which was a departure in its austerity, the twang and  left turn to a few extra synthesizers and affected guitar swells in the title track didn’t feel wrong, or feel any less like Springsteen.  Which is a gift that great artists have:  the ability to blend elements from outside of genre and add new textures, styles, and arrangements to their sound, while still keeping it distinctively “them.”  

Why I got on this topic, though, is that, “Tunnel of Love” came out in 1987.  I was in the 3rd grade, and I remember “Tunnel of Love,” and also the “Joshua Tree” by U2.  Looking back, it feels like one of the first times I really explored music, and not just the stuff that found its way to my ears through my dad’s cassette tapes or pop radio, at this point in my life I was listening to songs and processing them, and stuff was really beginning to stick.  And, I really dug the stuff off “Tunnel of Love.” 
“Brilliant Disguise” was a certified smash, and was pretty ubiquitous, but there were smaller tracks that I also enjoyed and absorbed:  “One Step Up”  the title track, for some reason, Tunnel of Love is an album that I somehow embraced more than the completely unavoidable stuff that was being shoved down my ears at the time.  This album was not the cultural phenomenon that “Born in the USA” was.  But, it somehow affected me more.  For one thing, I personally like the album better, so, there’s that.  But, I think as I mentioned previously, the fact that during the time it came out, I feel like I began experiencing music in a more conscious way, I think it made for a bigger impact as well.  And, there’s always just the sort of hidden gem element of it, finding greatness in a section of the catalog that is usually passed over. 

Well, I started writing this about how “Tunnel of Love” is the greatest country album that never was.  Then I sort of moved into how and why it affected me.  Now I can't really see any significance in any of this.  Sigh.Yeah.  I don’t know.  Sorry.  Maybe I’ll figure it out later and edit. 

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