Chrissie Hynde moved back to Akron to care for her aging parents and possibly begin her own retirement. But like so many other times in her life, fate intervened. She opened a vegan restaurant, began re-absorbing the Midwestern atmosphere that defined her upbringing, and then, after a six-year gap since the last Pretenders album, began to write some new songs. Those tunes turned into the consistently excellent Pretenders album, Break Up the Concrete, which came out in October. Typical for Hynde, nothing about the swinging, stinging, swaying Concrete is typical. "[It's about] hanging out in America more," says Hynde, explaining the album's distinct country influences. "I've been living [in London] for 35 years, but I've been going back to Akron. I suppose that influenced it more than anything."
Concrete is a stripped-down hillbilly hot-rod of an album, a more direct evocation of the chugging punkabilly influences that steered the earliest incarnation of the Pretenders in the late '70s. From the four-on-the-floor rave-up "Boots of Chinese Plastic" and the title track to the wistful country yearning of "One Thing Never Changed," Break Up the Concrete sounds like an archival predecessor of the band's 1979 debut.
"It's hard for me to talk about writing songs, because I'm not that prolific and I don't have a formula," says Hynde. "I eventually sit down with a guitar and some notebooks and maybe smoke a joint. Or 50."
Returning to her Akron roots provided a variety of inspirations for Hynde. Once again witnessing the economically decimated downtown that sparked "My City Was Gone" more than 25 years ago, Hynde opened VegiTerranean, a vegan restaurant, to help revitalize Akron's core. She then had a musical experience that shaped her mindset before she began recording Concrete. "I did a thing with Jerry Lee Lewis at the Akron Civic Theater, a tribute with a bunch of country musicians," says Hynde. "I felt like I was going in a direction I'd never anticipated, something I'd always avoided."
A decade ago, Hynde entered a tumultuous period, both within and beyond the Pretenders. The modestly successful ÁViva el Amor! (1999) marked the end of her long relationship with Warner Brothers, while 2002 notched a new contract with Artemis, yielding the vibrant Loose Screw album. The year also brought an end to her marriage to Brazilian artist Lucho Brieva. Since then, Artemis folded, and Hynde has concentrated on touring with the Pretenders. With her two daughters with long-ago paramour Ray Davies and ex-husband Jim Kerr grown and gone, her recent hometown return inspired an unexpected songwriting spike.
"'One Thing Never Changed' is one I wrote in Akron." says Hynde. "There's a train that runs through Akron, and I knew I wanted to write a song about that train, which is something I heard all my life. That was when I was coming into this kind of roots feeling."
Another of Hynde's Akron songs, "The Last Ride," is inspired by an early-morning stroll through a nearby cemetery, coincidentally the resting place of Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bob Smith. Hynde was enjoying a peaceful, meditative morning, when she found herself surrounded by hundreds of bikers who had come to pay their respects to Smith on Founder's Day, AA's anniversary.
"It was a very strange experience, because I used to hang out with bikers, but it was a whole different scene," says Hynde with a laugh. "I've never been surrounded by that many bikers and not think I was gonna get gangbanged."
Hynde rehearsed the songs with her current, longtime lineup, but they weren't getting the sound she envisioned. So she took a break and headed to Joshua Tree, California, where country-rock legend Gram Parsons' body was cremated by friends.
"I laid down in the spot where they took Gram and had my epiphany," recalls Hynde. "Then I went to Los Angeles and I met with a guy who happened to be with Shangri La Records: Steve Bing, he's the one who brought Jerry Lee to Akron. And I said, 'Can I talk to you in terms of A&R? I just need a different sound or something.' And he said, 'What about [Jim] Keltner?' And I said, 'Yeah, fuck, what about Keltner?'"
With the legendary drummer on board, Hynde assembled longtime bassist Nick Wilkinson, along with guitarist James Walbourne and pedal steel player Eric Heywood, and hit the studio with no expectations.
"I brought them all in, we rehearsed, no producer," says Hynde. "I said, 'This is how it should sound,' and we ran through them a few times and just nailed it."
So why did Hynde choose Break Up the Concrete as the title of her new effort?
"On the last tour when we were with ZZ Top and the Stray Cats, that sort of bus psychosis was starting to set in," says Hynde. "When you're touring America, it's not romantic truck stops anymore. All you see are Bob Evans signs and concrete and cars. It had become my personal mantra for months - break up the concrete. It defined what the whole album was talking about in some ways, which is a return to some kind of sanity."