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How U2 Fell in Love With Nashville and Influenced Today’s Country Music

From four-wheeling with Johnny Cash to providing contemporary country with one of its most popular guitar tones, the band’s Music City roots run deep

U2, Bono, country music, joshua tree

U2 have had a long history with country music and Nashville since 1987's 'The Joshua Tree.'

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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.”

U2

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 t