Chrissie Hynde moved back to Akron to care for her aging parents and quite possibly begin her own retirement. But, like so many times in her career and life, fate intervened.
She opened a vegan restaurant, reabsorbed the Midwest atmosphere that defined her upbringing and then, after a six-year gap since the last Pretenders album, songs began to suggest themselves.
Finally there was an album’s worth, which yielded the consistently excellent Break Up the Concrete. As is typical for Hynde, nothing about the swinging, stinging, swaying Concrete is typical.
“Hanging out in America more,” Hynde says, explaining the album’s distinct Country influences. “I’ve been living there for 35 years, but I’ve been going back to Akron. I suppose that influenced it more than anything.”
Returning to the middle American landscape where she first fell in love with Rock clearly impacted Hynde. 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 of “Boots of Chinese Plastic” and the title track to the wistful Country yearning of “One Thing Never Changed,” Break Up the Concrete is so seminal it sounds like an archival predecessor to the band’s 1978 debut.
“It’s hard for me to talk about writing songs because I’m not that prolific and I don’t have a formula,” Hynde says. “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. Again witnessing the economically decimated downtown that sparked “My City Was Gone” more than two decades ago, she opened VegiTerranean, a vegan restaurant, to help revitalize Akron’s core. Hynde then had a musical experience that shaped her mindset going into Concrete’s process.
“I did a thing with Jerry Lee Lewis at the Akron Civic Theater, a tribute with a bunch of Country musicians,” she says. “I felt like I was going in a direction I’d never anticipated, something I’d always avoided, really.”
A decade ago, Hynde entered a tumultuous period both within and beyond the Pretenders. The modestly successful Viva El Amor! in 1999 marked the end of her long Warner Brothers relationship, while 2002 notched a new contract with Artemis, the vibrant Loose Screw album and the end of her marriage to Brazilian artist Lucho Brieva.
Since then, Artemis folded and Hynde has concentrated on strictly touring with The Pretenders. With her two daughters — by 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 of the songs) I wrote in Akron,” Hynde says. “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 her Akron songs is “The Last Ride,” 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, then suddenly 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,” she says with a laugh. “I’ve never been surrounded by that many bikers and not think I was gonna get gangbanged.”
Hynde eventually ran through songs with the longstanding current Pretenders, but they weren’t accessing the sound she envisioned. She took a break, heading to Joshua Tree, Calif., where Gram Parsons’ manager had held the singer/songwriter’s impromptu 1973 cremation.
“I laid down in the spot where they took Gram and had my epiphany,” Hynde recalls. “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 her regular bassist Nick Wilkinson along with guitarist James Walbourne and pedal steeler Eric Heywood and hit the studio with no expectations and no prior discussion.
“I brought them all in, we rehearsed, no producer,” Hynde says. “I said, ‘This is how it should sound,’ and we ran through them a few times and just nailed it.”
The whirlwind recording of Break Up the Concrete was so spontaneous that the album’s final track listing is in the exact running order that the songs were recorded, except for one minor adjustment.
“It was blink and you miss it,” Hynde says. “The first one we recorded was ‘One Thing Never Changed,’ and all the rest are recorded in exactly the sequence we recorded them in. When we listened back, it seemed odd starting with such a slow song so we put that on at the end.”
So why did Hynde choose Break Up the Concrete as the banner for her new Country-tinged direction?
“On the last tour when we were with ZZ Top and The Stray Cats, that sort of bus psychoses was starting to set in,” she says. “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.”
THE PRETENDERS play the Taft Theatre on Friday. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.