If “Don’t Know What You Got (Till It’s Gone),” the epochal 1988 power ballad by hard rock and blues band Cinderella, were released today, it wouldn’t take long for it to land somewhere on Kix Brooks‘ weekly countdown show. After all, country radio is where power ballads now reside, from Carrie Underwood’s “Blown Away” and Jason Aldean’s “Don’t You Wanna Stay” to Keith Urban’s “You’ll Think of Me” and Justin Moore’s recent Mötley Crüe rerun “Home Sweet Home,” which admittedly didn’t quite live up to its chart expectations. While hip-hop influences may get more buzz and be positioned as the “cooler” genre, Eighties rock bombast has informed country music since well before Nelly ever spit out a verse about “whipping ‘cross the border, Florida into Georgia.”
Last year, the give and take between rock and country came full circle when Tom Keifer, the longtime leader of Cinderella, released his debut solo album, The Way Life Goes, written and recorded entirely in Nashville. Keifer, a Philadelphia area native who relocated to southern New Jersey during the Cinderella heyday, moved to Nashville in 1997. With his band on hiatus — swept away, like so many other Eighties titans, by the advent of grunge — he was in search of somewhere to make new music, a solo album, and viewed Music City as a creative ground zero.
“I’ve always loved country music and I’ve always believed a great song is a great song. In the Nineties, for the first time in many years, I found myself not part of a band anymore, and South Jersey, while it has talented people, isn’t such a hotbed for songwriters and musicians like here. This is the place to be to write and record a solo record,” Keifer said during a visit to the Rolling Stone Country office, recalling his Nineties exodus south. “I liked a lot of the country songs at that time and thought they were very well-written. I started writing with Kostas [songwriter Kostas Lazarides], who wrote a lot of Patty Loveless and Dwight Yoakam hits. I loved that traditional country sound — but I wasn’t trying to make a country record.”
An inordinate number of Keifer’s peers have since followed suit: Aerosmith’s Brad Whitford, Mötley Crüe’s Mick Mars, ex-Crüe singer John Corabi, Slaughter’s Mark Slaughter and the Nelson brothers, among others, all call the Nashville area home. Even former Kiss guitarist Vinnie Vincent lived nearby until mysteriously going off the grid.
Consider it Sunset Strip South.
“I would agree with that,” Keifer says of the glut of Eighties rock stars who have set up shop in Tennessee. “I can’t speak for the reasons why everyone moved here, but for me it was the songwriting and musicians, because I was trying to do something new. I was in the Cinderella bubble for years. As big of a drag as what happened in the Nineties was, it also shook the foundation and we were forced to move on. Cinderella didn’t part ways because we wanted to, or we hated each other, we just no longer had an outlet.”
Nashville afforded him that, and after years of writing, a guest spot on an album by friend Andy Griggs and a much-documented battle with vocal cord paralysis, Keifer resurfaced with The Way Life Goes. A collection of 14 blues howlers, Stones-y rock and, yes, big ballads, the album calls to mind Cinderella but with an even more rootsy undercurrent.
“The Flower Song” written during a Nashville co-write session with Survivor’s Jim Peterik features Keifer’s restored voice at its most soulful; “Ask Me Yesterday” is a bittersweet ode to nostalgia; and “Thick and Thin” doubles as a stripped-down pledge of devotion to spouse Savannah. A Nashville songwriter, Keifer’s wife often performs with her husband on tour and co-produced The Way Life Goes with him and Chuck Turner (who engineered some of Johnny Cash‘s American recordings). Savannah was at the board when Keifer let go the album’s opening vocal — an improvised shriek of frustration to announce the song “Solid Ground” that is on par with any of his Cinderella-era wails.
“Everybody loves that scream,” grins Keifer and raising his arms, his bracelets clanging against one another. “You can thank Savannah for that, because she was producing me that night, and I was actually pissed off at something — at outside forces, not her. I wasn’t planning on doing that scream, but I just let it out. She hit the ‘talk’ button and said, ‘We’re not touching that. That’s the one.’ That was right out of the box.”
Keifer is aware that many disciples of Eighties rock bands wanted to scream themselves when Nirvana and the grunge era arrived in the early Nineties and knocked groups like Cinderella, Poison and even Guns n’ Roses out of favor. But Keifer says that fans had an almost immediate alternative, a replacement genre with a similar optimistic sentiment to fill the void: country music.
“Two things attracted the Eighties fans immediately to country: The big shows and amazing songs. Garth Brooks was blowing up, and he was flying around on ropes, and Shania Twain, with Mutt Lange [who produced Def Leppard], made an album that sounded like an Eighties rock record,” Keifer says. “As much as I liked the grunge bands, the songs were different in the sense that lyrically they were darker. They didn’t make you feel good. Country was doing songs that made you feel good. At the end of the day, the song is what matters to people’s soul and heart. So rock fans were gravitating here because the songs were fun, and they reminded them lyrically of the songs of the Eighties.”
But, according to Keifer, it’s not only fans who, as Dee Snider said, wanna rock. “Any time you meet someone who is a country artist or writer or player here, what they want to do is rock. The Band Perry obviously has a lot of rock elements to them. I’ve seen them many times on awards shows and they have an Eighties rock influence,” he says. “And I love when Carrie Underwood did ‘Paradise City’ [at the 2013 CMA Music Festival]. When I heard she was going to do that, I thought, ‘Well, that’s some big shoes to fill.’ But she nailed it.”
One day upon moving to Tennessee, Keifer was watching television — these days, he and Savannah are diehard viewers of ABC’s Nashville — and an ad came on in between the videos on CMT that perfectly connected the dots between country and Eighties rock.
The product? An Eighties power ballads compilation CD featuring songs like Warrant’s “Heaven,” Winger’s “Headed for a Heartbreak” and Cinderella’s “Don’t Know What You Got,” which originally appeared on the band’s Long Cold Winter LP (one of Rolling Stone Country‘s 50 Rock Albums Every Country Fan Should Own).
“I turned on the TV and saw Monster Ballads being advertised on CMT!” Keifer says, somewhat incredulously. “I was like, ‘OK, someone has it figured out.’ The thing sold millions of records.”
He pauses and smiles. “And thank God I had a song on there.”