Sometimes it takes a true fan to open a songwriter’s work for you, to reveal poetic treasures obscured by the well-worn hooks that propelled the musician to fame.
Just about everybody liked The Boss back in the day, at least in the surfacey way that connects us with artists whose hits are part of the soundtrack of our lives.
I owned the obligatory Springsteen albums back then and was particularly fascinated with Nebraska. But when Springsteen’s star was on the rise my husband and I had a small budget and had just moved to a small town that limited our music purchasing opportunities. We tended, when we made it to the city, to locate releases by artists we knew before we moved to our little mountain valley: Mellencamp. Petty. Dylan. Dire Straits. U2. Bruce Cockburn. John Stewart (the singer, not the comedian). Rich Mullins.
There were others, too, some of whose names I avoid for fear of eyerolls, but you get the picture. As the years went on and music became far easier to acquire, we followed Counting Crows, Hootie and the Blowfish and Toad the Wet Sprocket among others.
The Ghost of Tom Joad caught my attention because I’m a sucker for a musician who reads. I respected Springsteen for sure, but I really didn’t know his work.
Then I discovered Kevin Heider’s podcast Song & Story about two years ago, and I began to feel the lack.
Song & Story filled a music void I didn’t know I had until I heard Heider’s voice in this promo for his show. I was (pun intended) hooked. I saw Song & Story as a potential source of new music and was rewarded with a rich experience of artistic conversation each time I listened. Even though I seem to discover a new podcast almost every week lately, I still never miss Song & Story because it’s smart and soulful, funny and real and it keeps me me in awe of the wonderful new music still being written.
Song & Story is in a special class of media I like to call “evidence that all is not lost.”
As a regular listener, it didn’t take long to catch on to the fact that Heider, a talented songwriter in his own right, loves Bruce Springsteen.The generational gap between the two artists intrigued me because Heider, who was only born just before Born in the USA exploded on the American music scene, clearly knew the entire Springsteen canon.
Episode by episode of Song & Story, Heider dropped his hero’s name in the most endearing ways (the reference at the end of this one made me laugh out loud), and I slowly realized that it wasn’t too late for me.
If he could absorb Springsteen’s work album by album decades after their release (he tells the story in the bonus episode Springsteen & Me: from Nebraska to OHIO) why couldn’t I? Heider referenced Springsteen’s work in so many ways that I kept building a private playlist with the help of my podcaster guide and I’m so glad I did.
Then last fall, Heider released a tribute album, and it’s a gem. Recorded in his old bedroom in his parents’ house, OHIO is Heider’s stripped-down, Nebraska-style rendition of ten Springsteen classics.
Whether you’re a longtime Springsteen fan or a latecomer to the party like me, OHIO: A Tribute to Springsteen is a must.
Appropriately, Heider (a Dayton native) opens his tribute with Springsteen’s 1995 “Youngstown,” (The Ghost of Tom Joad) a sorrowful song beginning “here in northeast Ohio,” that honors the pain of workers in the Rust Belt’s factories and steel mills surviving through wars and economic highs and lows that have left entire regions impoverished and people devastated: “Once I made you rich,” the narrator reminds his boss, “rich enough to forget my name.”
Multiple listens to this multigenerational song will tell you all you need to know about Springsteen’s poetic powers and social conciousness. Then Heider takes us to Nebraska’s “Atlantic City,” Born in the USA’s “Dancing in the Dark” and the Flannery O’Connor-esque “The River.”
Because “Youngstown” ends in the fires of hell, Springsteen’s 2002 “The Rising,” narrated by a 9/11 World Trade Center firefighter is a perfect inclusion; it reveals Springsteen’s unstoppable heart despite the pain he refuses to shy away from. The song’s resilient spirit, rich with religious imagery even as the tragedy unfolds evokes the trancendence of resurrection and hope:
Come on up for the rising
Come on up, lay your hands in mine
Come on up for the rising
Come on up for the rising tonight
The meditative “Jesus Was an Only Son” (Devils and Dust) follows, and then we’re on to celebrate the down-to-earth joys of family and love, with “My Lucky Day” (Working on a Dream) and “Tougher than the Rest” (Tunnel of Love).
I’ve always loved the way Heider shares stories about his life when the context makes sense on his podcast. He clearly loves his wife and children and he’s honest about his struggles as an independent artist and family man.
If you’ve listened to him talk about how long it took him to get his wife Kristin to admit she even liked him, well, the video cover of “If I Should Fall Behind,” (the song he and his wife danced to at their wedding) just might bring a tear to your eye.
And the album’s final track, “My Hometown” (Born in the USA) brings it all…home.
OHIO: a Tribute to Springsteen is a simple pleasure, a labor of love, a collection to be savored, a soulful tribute to one of America’s finest rock and roll icons.
Icons fade and their memory becomes reduced to a few famous lines, a roster of hits and a handful of images like the classic cover of Born in the USA unless others reimagine and reinterpret their work, keeping it fresh and alive on new soundtracks in other lives.
That’s why I love OHIO and why I’ve been taking a deep dive into the River Springsteen. How did I not know his work any better until now? I can’t really say but the discovery is enriching my heart and I’m indebted to one of his truest fans for directing me to the treasure.
If you’re looking for evidence that all is not lost, I highly recommend a roadtrip from Nebraska to OHIO.
Heider charts a heartfelt map, distilling an incredible body of work into a simple offering that celebrates family love (watch this video!), calls us to social justice and fills our hearts with hope. Come on up for the rising.
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More on Heider’s podcast: Music, Meaning and a Piece of Maria: How the Song and Story Podcast Can Fill the Music Void You Didn’t Know You Had.
Elsewhere on the web, see Naming Sin: Flannery O’Connor’s Mark on Bruce Springsteen and Springsteen’s Catechist: Flannery O’Connor’s Influence on Bruce Springsteen (exerpted here), both by one of my favorite cultural commentators, Father Damien Ference.
It’s not too late to catch Springsteen on Broadway on Netflix, which you no doubt have if you’re a true fan. If not, you really have to see it, and if you do, I’m pretty sure you’ll get why Heider bought all of Springsteen’s albums in the space of two years, and why I’m intent on my own deep dive. Springsteen is a master storyteller who moves me to hunger for a more merciful stance to those around me, and for a more intent gaze at the myriad mysteries of life.
Featured photo by Jose Antonio Gallego Vázquez on Unsplash. Kevin Heider’s images by permission of the artist.