Southern rock has always had a close kinship with country music, but in the implosion of rock as a relevant mainstream format, heartland rock has also become an offshoot, if not an official subgenre of country. From artists like American Aquarium, Lucero, and Matt Woods whose themes center very much around the abandonment and despondence of America’s heartland archetype, to even elements of the music of mainstream artists like Jason Aldean and how every other country radio single sounds like a rewrite of Bob Seger’s “Night Moves,” heartland rock’s heavy influence is ever present and effusive in country these days.
The reason the same heartland themes keep coming up in new country and rock songs is because they continue to be poignant and potent, and probably are more relevant today than in the heyday of Mellencamp. Flyover country is more overlooked than ever, yet still holds a romantic pull in the way the decay exposes a by-gone poetic beauty in America’s past sense of simplicity.
Songwriter Erik Dylan can sing from experience about the plight and enduring pride of the heartland as a fifth generation Kansas native, and does so on his new record Heart of a Flatland Boy. Though this LP and Dylan’s music is fiercely independent, he’s put in time writing for some pretty major country stars, including Kip Moore who apparently discovered Erik at an open mic back in 2011. But don’t let that be an indication of what to expect from Dylan’s sound.
Heart of a Flatland Boy is refreshingly raw and energetic, with tightly-wound songs all written or co-written by Dylan, and a straightforward but effective production approach, blurring the lines between country and heartland rock in both the sound and themes, and painting a mental picture of places and people that are filled with a meaningfulness that’s just not embodied by those dwelling in the prosperous regions of America.
It’s an unbreakable spirit in the face of insurmountable odds, a self-reliant attitude wrapped up in an underdog appeal. That’s what Erik Dylan encapsulates in songs like “Flatland Boy,” “It Ain’t Broke,” and “Astronaut,” which all are delivered with a snarl, holding fast to an indomitable attitude that hides from itself and others the ever-present possibility of failure around every corner.
As hapless as flatland life can be when it comes to finding and keeping jobs, and holding onto the family plot and the frontier way of life, there’s also the ever-present risk of heartbreak. A song like “Willie Nelson T-Shirt” takes a small detail at the end of the relationship and makes it into an emotion we can all relate to. “Girl That Got Away” does almost the same thing, but in the opposite direction—relating the loss of opportunities to how timing can be so cruel, and makes the sense of loss linger that much more heavily.
“The Good Life” is the only song that gives you the sense Erik Dylan’s been employed writing songs for the mainstream in the past with its line about sippin’ a little 90 proof, but he makes up for it with others like “Fishing Alone,” arguably the best-written, and most country-oriented track on the album.
The issue with heartland-inspired country rock is it’s been done so often, it is hard to stay out of the well worn grooves traversed by others that have come before. The list is very short of current songwriters who are better and more revered by their peers than Will Hoge, but sometimes the sameness of his songs make even him hard to listen to continuously. Surprisingly though, Erik Dylan’s Heart of a Flatland Boy remains fresh-sounding throughout, while still familiar enough to make it easy to like, even if by the end you feel like you could go for a song that isn’t so dour, and works in a bit more diverse subject matter.
America’s heartland is filled with the great forgotten, but they’re remembered often and eternally in the songs of its tribesmen who venture to the bigger cities to sing about an element of authenticity missing in the population and prosperity zones. Just like how an abandoned house out on the prairie seems to constitute an artistic masterpiece in how it slowly melts back into the countryside, the songs of the heartland have a sway upon the human spirit both trenchant and enduring.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)
– – – – – – – – – – –