How U2 Fell in Love With Nashville and Influenced Today’s Country Music
A few hours before U2 took the stage at Bonnaroo last month in Manchester, Tennessee, to perform their first-ever headlining U.S. festival show, a stop on their Joshua Tree 30th anniversary tour, the Les Paul Foundation took the opportunity to honor the band’s guitarist the Edge with the Les Paul Spirit Award.
“[Les Paul said he] was always after that sound that had never been heard before,” the guitarist said in a brief acceptance speech backstage. “I was just researching a little bit of his early music, and I came upon this track ‘Josephine.’ … It could have come out of the U2 studio. It is like Les, playing with echo; the only difference is that he invented the slapback tape echo that he was using, so I owe a great debt of gratitude.”
And, in a full circle moment, today’s country artists owe their own thanks to the Edge, whose jangly, ethereal, delayed guitar sound has slowly become a hallmark of contemporary country hits, represented in songs from Eric Church and Dierks Bentley to Old Dominion and Lady Antebellum.
But it’s not only the Edge who has influenced country music. The band as a whole made a lasting effect on the genre with the release of their game-changing 1987 LP The Joshua Tree. A romanticized vision of all things Americana, boldly crafted by a quartet of wide-eyed, Irish New Wave stars unafraid of giving themselves away as giddily earnest interlopers, it’s an album that conquered America like a Spielberg blockbuster and forever altered the sonic complexion of rock, pop and, yes, country music.
In the three decades since The Joshua Tree, the Edge and U2 have managed to pay what they borrowed for the album back to country music, a genre the band has a deeper bond with and influence on than many fans might realize. Not only did Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. manage to ingratiate themselves with icons of American roots music like Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan and B.B. King in the late Eighties and early Nineties, they codified those relationships with a series of collaborations that make up one of the most interesting corners of the U2 catalog, often overshadowed by a decades-spanning streak of megahits.
U2’s country-tinged – or overtly country – highlights are many. There’s “She’s a Mystery to Me,” a Bono- and Edge-penned Orbison ballad that ended up being the late singer’s swan song; “The Wanderer,” the Zooropa-closing Johnny Cash collaboration that gave the world an idea of what Joy Division performing “Atmosphere” at Folsom Prison might have sounded like; and “Slow Dancing,” a waltzing weeper of a duet written for Willie Nelson that’s so stirring and tragically underappreciated, it’s a crime it can’t unseat a certain Toby Keith collab from the Red Headed Stranger’s set list.
It’s hard to overlook “Love Rescue Me” – the Rattle and Hum country-gospel ballad, co-written with Bob Dylan and recorded with Cowboy Jack Clement at Sun Studio – when discussing U2’s country leanings as well. Or Bono’s arresting, last-call solo cover of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Dreaming With Tears in My Eyes,” or his contribution to Carl Perkins’ 1996 Go Cat Go! LP, “Give Me Back My Job,” an all-star sing-along with Perkins, Cash, Nelson and Tom Petty.
Even Mullen’s drumming has often nodded to country and Americana music, with his percussion contributions to Emmylou Harris’ 1995 Daniel Lanois-produced Wrecking Ball all but essential.
But the most on-the-nose display of U2’s country love affair lies in the band playing dress-up – opening a 1987 L.A. stop of their first Joshua Tree Tour in Western wear as Galveston-based country quartet “the Dalton Brothers.” Watch YouTube clips of the performance, as the group takes the piss out of Texas and Tennessee by talking in bad Southern accents, swilling from whiskey bottles and murdering a rendition of Hank Williams’ “Lost Highway” – both confounding audiences and proving they did indeed have a sense of humor in the Eighties.
The only other number in the Daltons’ repertoire – an original two-stepper titled “Lucille” – isn’t half bad, especially since U2 has always been better at playing their own songs.
“You don’t ever hear the Edge playing somebody else’s music,” recalls Dave Ferguson, who engineered U2’s 1987 Sun Studio sessions with late producer and Country Music Hall of Famer Cowboy Jack Clement for the Rattle and Hum album. “[Country] was Greek to them. We were sitting there playing simple country stuff in Jack’s office. They were having to watch our hands for [the changes]. The Edge figured out how to take an echo box and an amp and a guitar and make a whole sound out of it for a band.”
U2, wanting to record at Sun Studio in Memphis on a day off during the original Joshua Tree Tour, sought out Clement on the recommendation of T Bone Burnett, who informed the band that Clement – Sun’s house engineer in the studio’s heyday of Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley – was still alive and making records in Nashville. At the time, Clement had just co-produced Townes Van Zandt’s 1987 comeback album At My Window with Jim Rooney, while U2 were packing stadiums the world over, living like wallpaper on MTV, dominating radio and moving copies of The Joshua Tree in eye-watering multiples. And yet, emblematic of the vast chasm between the country and rock worlds at the time, some folks still hadn’t heard of the band, Clement among them. So he was fairly unfazed when the office of Rattle and Hum producer Jimmy Iovine reached out with an inquiry.
“I just got this call, people wanna record down at Sun, some band called U2,” Ferguson, a one-man Nashville institution who has been a go-to console whisperer for Johnny Cash, Sturgill Simpson, Dan Auerbach and dozens of rock and country luminaries in between, recalls his boss telling him. “I said, ‘Shit, Jack, that’s great!” He says, ‘What kind of music is it?’ And I said, ‘It’s rock! That’s a huge rock band.’ And he goes, ‘Well, I guess I’ll tell ’em we’ll do it.'”
U2’s Clement-produced, Ferguson-engineered single-day Sun Session was immortalized in 1988’s Rattle and Hum film and soundtrack album. The session, which saw the band backed by the Memphis Horns, yielded three classic U2 tracks: the Dylan co-penned “Love Rescue Me”; the Apollo Theatre-ready send-up to Billie Holiday “Angel of Harlem”; and “When Love Comes to Town,” a swampy blues boogie written for B.B. King, who appears on the song and would join U2 for a three-continent world tour in 1989.
“They loved [Clement] right away,” Ferguson recalls. “He was exactly what they wanted. They wanted somebody who knew how to record in that Sun room.”
That was key, given that in 1987 Sun had been restored as a mini museum and reopened as a tourist attraction. Acts still recorded there (Def Leppard among them, oddly enough), but not all that often. Ferguson remembers recording the band live on a ratty Akai 12-track with some microphones on loan from Chips Moman. That raw approach was a far cry from the fastidious, surgically precise approach producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois took with The Joshua Tree – where the band spent weeks laboring over “Where the Streets Have No Name” alone.
“It was really easy,” Ferguson recalls. “They kind of arranged the songs as they went.”
Clement’s organist, Joey Miskulin, who played B3 on the session, wrote arrangements for the Memphis Horns on the spot, with the Rattle and Hum documentary crew sharing the tracking room’s tight confines. “What’s in the movie is the real thing, that’s just the way it was that day,” says Ferguson. “[The band] had a great time, man. They’re really nice dudes, you know? … They’re not assholes.”
Ferguson believes Clement played a part in U2 developing a more-than-passing interest in country music.
“I remember them talking about Hank Williams and stuff in Jack’s office,” Ferguson says. “I think those guys were not ignorant to it, [but they knew] the big acts, the acts that people all know.”
A 2003 Uncut magazine feature on the making of The Joshua Tree and accompanying CD compilation of songs that inspired the album does include obvious country and folk staples, like Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” But the list also includes deeper country cuts like Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight,” Jimmie Rodgers’ “In the Jailhouse Now,” Bill Monroe’s “Goodbye Old Pal” and Molly O’Day and the Cumberland Mountain Folks’ “Heaven’s Radio.”
Traces of those influences are subtle but significant throughout The Joshua Tree and its 1988 follow-up Rattle and Hum. You can hear them in the Edge’s Dobro intro to “Running to Stand Still,” and in the banjo-pickin’-at-half-speed church guitars and slide-guitar solo of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” – a piece of Eighties pop gospel that’s been covered numerous times by bluegrass musicians like Wanda Vick and Dale Ann Bradley. Shades of country music are also present in the bluesy shuffle of “Trip Through Your Wires,” and in the Western imagery and jangly shimmer of “In God’s Country” – adapted by bluegrass group the Infamous Stringdusters on 2010’s Things That Fly LP – and in the light touch of Mullen’s deft train beat on “All I Want Is You.”
Bono, the Edge and Clayton returned to Tennessee months after the Sun sessions, as Ferguson recalls, to hang out for a few days in Nashville and geek out with Clement and his crew at his famed home studio, Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa. With country singer Pat McLaughlin in tow, the Nashville set took the Irish kids out for a night of partying at Lower Broadway’s then seedy, rundown strip of honky-tonks. By evening’s end, liquored-up members of U2, mostly unrecognized by bar patrons, were onstage for a Dalton Brothers-esque jam at since-shuttered honky-tonk Norma’s Dusty Road. To this day, only so many Nashvillians actually know the story. Bar owner Norma Bogle recalled it in a 2001 story in the Nashville Scene: “That drummer [Larry Mullen Jr.] got behind the drums and was beatin’ the hell out of ’em. … I couldn’t hear nothin’ else, so I went up there and threw him off the stage. My kids like to kill me when I told ’em about it the next day. ‘U2 who?’ I said. I’m still not sure who they are.”
According to Ferguson, it was actually Bono who jumped behind the drums and loosed his inner Animal. Mullen skipped the Nashville trip, which would ultimately have a major impact on the band and another fellow music legend in the Nineties.
“That’s when we introduced them to Johnny Cash,” Ferguson says.
Clement and Ferguson took the U2 guys to Cash’s spread in Nashville-adjacent Hendersonville for lunch. “Hell, they hit it right off,” Ferguson recalls. “[Johnny] had 50 acres fenced in. He had a lot of deer in there, but he also had these emus, you know, they’re like an ostrich. So we’re riding in Johnny’s Range Rover, and Johnny saw one of those emus and he just punched [the gas] and tried to run over one of those damn emus. He said, ‘I hate those fuckin’ things!’ [The U2 guys] really got a kick out of that. They could see that Johnny was a real cut-up and a clown.”
Given the immortal status Cash now holds, it almost seems like a joke to consider how little respect Music Row gave him in the Eighties, the decade during which he was dropped by Columbia Records, and in the Nineties, when he was jettisoned by Mercury. But their loss was Rick Rubin’s gain.
“I think it was the Elvis and Roy Orbison connection to Sun that turned those guys on.” – Engineer Dave Ferguson
The producer signed Cash to his American Recordings label and returned the singer to relevance. In the era ruled by Garth Brooks and Shania Twain, the Rubin-produced, Grammy-winning American Recordings series saw Cash cross over in his own way, endearing himself to rock audiences by reinventing songs by Nine Inch Nails, Soundgarden, Beck and Tom Petty in his own austere image. His post-traumatic cover of U2’s “One” – from 2000’s American III: Solitary Man – turns the 1991 mega-hit on its head, adding a shaky, weathered-voiced tension where the original was a yearning stadium ballad searching for resolution. There couldn’t be a more fitting tribute to the biggest single on Achtung Baby, a record that knocked Garth Brooks’ Ropin’ the Wind out of the Number One slot on the Billboard Top 200 Albums Chart when it debuted in November 1991, ending Brooks’ seven-week reign.
Recorded with Eno and Lanois in Berlin just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Achtung Baby is the album where U2 chopped down The Joshua Tree (as they put it) with Euro-heavy dance grooves and guitar tones borrowed from Ministry and KMFDM. It’s also where the group redefined itself, escaping from the Eighties time capsule before the lid was shut to become a band of the Nineties. And yet – even with buzz-saw industrial funk and exotic grooves of singles like “The Fly” and “Mysterious Ways” – Achtung still has its place in the country conversation, thanks to cuts like the Orbison homage “So Cruel” and the could-have-been-born-on-Music-Row hit “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses.”
In a 2013 interview with Rolling Stone, Keith Urban credited Achtung Baby with inspiring him to shake up his formula on his acclaimed eighth studio album Fuse. Urban said he watched It Might Get Loud director Davis Guggenheim’s 2011 documentary about the making of Achtung numerous times before heading into the studio to record Fuse.
“That’s where I found myself at,” Urban said. “I can keep making the same record, but I don’t want to do that,” going on to explain how he was influenced by U2’s “fusion of machinery and organic elements.” It’s a trend that, evident in hits by everyone from Sam Hunt to Eric Church, has been increasingly prevalent in the four years following Fuse.
While Johnny Cash’s “One” cover is typical of the “young man’s rock as old man’s country” reinventions of the American era, his relationship and kindred connection with U2 went deeper than the Rick Rubin treatment. “The Wanderer” – the closing track on U2’s 1993 multi-platinum art-rock LP Zooropa – written for Cash by Bono, and sung by the Man in Black – defies both the U2 and Cash canons, combining rhythmic and textural elements of Nineties synth-pop with a Countrypolitan lament fit for the closing credits of a Seventies western.
“My father, he created a kinship with Bono,” Cash’s son, John Carter Cash, told CMT in 2014. “Bono had a vision for writing a song, and he and my dad wrote lyrics back and forth, talked on the telephone. … They had an instant connection because Bono and my dad were both like scholars.”
“[Johnny Cash] showed me his house, his ranch, his zoo (seriously, he had a zoo in Nashville), his faith, his musicianship,” Bono wrote in a remembrance on U2’s website following Cash’s death in 2003. “He was more than wise. In a garden full of weeds – the oak tree.”
U2 returned to Sun Studios a second time in 1987, to cut a demo of “She’s a Mystery to Me” with Clement, and ended up recording a raved-up cover of Woody Guthrie’s “Jesus Christ,” which appeared on the 1988 Guthrie/Leadbelly tribute compilation Folkways: A Vision Shared, as well.
“I think it was the Elvis and Roy Orbison connection to Sun that turned those guys on,” Ferguson muses. “The rockin’ part of it, you know?”
The story behind “She’s a Mystery to Me” is serendipitous and uncanny to say the least. The song – written by Bono and the Edge for Orbison’s 1989 Jeff Lynne-produced comeback, and ultimately final, album Mystery Girl – came to Bono in a dream. On the night of June 1, 1987, the singer fell asleep listening to the soundtrack to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, which, so fittingly, featured Orbison’s “In Dreams.” The next morning, he woke up with the song stuck in his head. Or so he thought.
As Orbison’s son and Bono’s longtime friend Roy Orbison Jr. recalls: “Bono, in his own words, said that when he woke up he had a Roy Orbison song in mind, and he listened to the album and the song wasn’t there, and so he started [writing] it.”
U2 was playing that night at London’s Wembley Arena, where Bono worked on the song at soundcheck, completely unaware that the elder Orbison and wife Barbara Orbison would turn up to surprise the band backstage. But the song’s seed was actually planted earlier, when Bono – having already been approached to collaborate with Orbison – first met the singer for a writing session at his Malibu home. Bono has a storied history of unfortunate injuries, this meeting among them. The singer made his entrance through a sliding glass door so pristinely polished he didn’t realize it was closed, and walked into it face first, busting his nose and falling backwards. “He was a little embarrassed,” the younger Orbison, then 16, remembers. “[He brushed] himself off, wiped his nose, and then told us what a beautiful view it was.”
Bono also has a history of losing his lyric notebooks. In 1981, one went missing at a gig, forcing the singer to write the entire October record in the studio. He also ended up misplacing the one with his ideas for Orbison’s “She’s a Mystery to Me,” and then lost the replacement on an airplane after the meeting with Orbison. Roy Jr., who sat in on the session, offers that in his opinion, what Bono came up with that day sounded a lot like what would become “One” four years later. “I always got the sense that Bono wrote two good songs for Roy,” he says. (It’s worth noting that, over the years, whenever “She’s a Mystery to Me” appeared in a U2 set, it’s often been as an a cappella outro to “One.”)
Roy Jr. takes credit for exposing his father to U2, by wearing out a copy of The Joshua Tree on the family car stereo on the daily ride to and from school. “He knew the modern bands, but he wouldn’t get stuck on a band too often. But U2 he liked. He listened to U2 [by] himself. … They were his favorite band at that time,” Roy Jr. says, mentioning that his father’s favorite cut on the album was “Running to Stand Still,” a song he recalls Bono saying was his own “Running Scared.”
As for the “She’s a Mystery to Me” writing session, Roy Jr. says, “[Bono] liked the idea that there was some pressure building. I imagined he was thinking of himself as being in an apartment building [with] a revolution going on in the streets, or maybe Mardi Gras, where you’re up on the balcony, with something bubbling up under the surface. That’s what he wanted with the beat and that’s what he wanted with the energy of the song. He came up with those great lines, you know, ‘Like a switchblade to my heart / Words tearing me apart.’ That’s good, that’s Orbison-y, but my dad never wrote anything quite so graphic.”
With couplets like those and an aching, descending melody that effortlessly winds around itself as if written by God for Orbison – the crooner of crooners – “She’s a Mystery to Me” is one of the finest songs Bono’s ever written. It’s shocking that he didn’t keep it for himself. Roy Jr. remembers the Bono-produced L.A. recording session for the song as “magic.”
“It was basically three guys – it was Bono playing guitar, dad singing and Jim Keltner playing drums – and they did it live. That’s the way that you dream of doing it, but it doesn’t always work, and this worked really well.” On loan from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, keyboardist Benmont Tench and late bassist Howie Epstein also appear on the track, having overdubbed their parts later on.
In 1987, when The Joshua Tree was released, albums by Randy Travis, Alabama, Reba McEntire and George Strait dominated the country charts. But country artists didn’t headline stadiums then the way they do now (U2 remains one of the only rock bands that can still fill such venues). These days, country superstars like Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan are moving tickets by the tens of thousands, with hits chock-full of anthemic hooks cribbed from the U2 playbook.
“I would say two of the most referenced guitar players in country music, ironically, now are the Edge and [Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’] Mike Campbell.” – Guitarist Derek Wells
“They are one of the primary non-country country influences,” Roy Orbison Jr. observes. “[Edge-style] jangly chords work really well in country music.”
“I really love the energy of U2,” Dierks Bentley told CMT in 2014. “The one thing that I really love about that band is their roots and ties to country music. You know, their relationship with Johnny Cash and guys like Cowboy Jack Clement and just their respect for the genre and the songwriting.”
Bentley, who, with help from the Punch Brothers and Del McCoury, covered “Pride (In the Name of Love)” on his 2010 bluegrass endeavor Up on the Ridge, and forged a friendship with Bono, has taken cue after cue from U2 on heartstring-tuggers like “Home,” “I Hold On” and “Here on Earth.” Even the singer’s lighthearted 2014 hit “Drunk on a Plane” lifts an otherwise novelty chorus into yearning “Beautiful Day” territory with big, bending guitar notes ringing high enough to cut through arena roofs.
The U2 influence is equally loud and clear in the dramatic build-ups of Eric Church’s “Give Me Back My Hometown” and Lady Antebellum’s “We Owned the Night,” and in other choice cuts by Urban, Kip Moore and Florida Georgia Line.
This is no coincidence.
Derek Wells – a lifelong U2 fan and Nashville session guitarist whose credits include Lady Antebellum, Blake Shelton, Maren Morris, Kenny Chesney, Dolly Parton, Thomas Rhett and many others, says that, in the past decade especially, he’s often tasked with copping the spacey, emotional gut-punch signature rhythms of the Edge and the delays that are hallmarks of hits like “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “Beautiful Day.”
“I would say two of the most referenced guitar players in country music, ironically, now are the Edge and [Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’] Mike Campbell,” Wells says. “Constantly, when [producers] want that spatial, effects-based guitar playing, the Edge is going to come up. That ethereal, effects-based, jangly, rhythm-delayed guitar, it’s the Edge – all roads lead to him.”
Wells says it’s gotten to the point where if it’s not Edge-isms producers are asking for, it’s some second-generation example of someone aping the U2 guitarist, like Walk the Moon’s ubiquitous 2014 Top 40 jam “Shut Up and Dance.” “It’s essentially the same delay thing from ‘Where the Streets Have No Name,'” Wells says.
“They’re a band that influenced everyone that grew up in the Eighties,” Lumineers singer Wesley Schultz told Rolling Stone Country this May, a day after his chart-topping Americana band kicked off a 13-show opening run of Joshua Tree Tour dates. “We just played our first arena run and [borrowed] elements – sometimes knowingly, sometimes unknowingly – from a band like that, that has trail-blazed [stadium rock]. I also think they’re an influence in the sense that, if you ever talk to Bono or read about him, he says [U2] was never interested in pop music. He named an album Pop because he was maybe trying to redefine [the term], but I think they were just generally interested in music that felt spiritual to them.”
Which, too, has always been a hallmark of country music. It’s a genre that has forever emotionally moved the listener, thanks to its true-to-life lyrics, everyman appeal and the way it gets to the heart of the human condition: be it longing, rejection, heartbreak or love.
U2’s catalog brims with hits and deep cuts alike that address those topics – from “Desire” and “With or Without You” to the underrated “Wild Honey” and the pedal-steel heavy sleeper “The Ground Beneath Her Feet.” In the hands of the right singers or producers, any of those might sound at home on country radio or on Americana records.
Listening to them with that in mind, it begs the question: Is U2 the unmarked bridge between traditional and modern country? Perhaps it’s hyperbole to answer yes. But it’s impossible to deny the impact the band has had on the genre – and how they’ve continued to pay it forward.
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