This is a song that sounds great when the volume is fully cranked!
“In a Big Country” was the best selling single by a Scottish band called Big Country. The song came from an album called The Crossing that was released in 1983. One of the things that helped make “In a Big Country” such a popular song was that it was released just as MTV was being launched. The hunger with which MTV sought new content caused the video for this song to get swept up and placed into high rotation. Just like that, a song about depression became one of the 1980s’ most recognizable songs! Wait! What?
The classic lineup for Big Country consisted of singer/songwriter Stuart Adamson, drummer Mark Brzezicki and guitarists Tony Butler and Bruce Watson. Adamson wrote most of the band’s music, which also included minor hits such as “Wonderland”, “Fields of Fire” and “Harvest Time”. But “In a Big Country” is easily the band’s most well known track. One of the stylistic choices the band made that helped to give the song such a distinctive sound was to funnel the sound of their guitars through a device known as an MXR guitar pedal which, in turn, made their guitars sound like bagpipes! This gave the band an added Scottish element to their sound and their image. The ironic thing about that was that although Big Country played out of Scotland, not a single one of its members was Scottish. Bruce Watson was from Canada and the other three were from England.
As mentioned off of the top, “In a Big Country” is actually a song about living with depression. In fact, the underlying story of this band and, in particular, lead singer Stuart Adamson, is an instructive tale for anyone who believes that only certain people suffer from mental illness and that those suffering are easy to spot. Adamson began to demonstrate a love of music and an aptitude for playing guitar while still a child. As a teenager in 1977 he helped form a band called Skids, which actually managed to have a Top Ten hit in the UK with a song called “Into the Valley”. As the 1980s dawned, Adamson recruited the other members of what was to become Big Country. By all accounts, Adamson had a lot going for him. He was young, handsome, talented and successful at a very early age. He became married to his high school sweetheart at age 22, and by the time he turned 27 he was the father of two. In the middle of fathering his two children, the song “In a Big Country” blew up and raced to the top of the charts while appearing on MTV multiple times a day. In a matter of a few years, Adamson went from being a teenager in a band called Skids to being a family man, as well as one of the music world’s brightest young stars. Unbeknownst to those of us watching from afar, Stuart Adamson was not holding up well under the spotlight’s glare.
I once heard a Canadian singer speak on the topic of alcoholism. Sean McCann was one of the founding members of the Canadian band Great Big Sea. A few years ago McCann quit the band while GBS was at the height of its success. He says he had to quit in order to save his marriage and his life. You see, Sean McCann had become a raging alcoholic. He described how easy it was to make alcohol such a prominent part of his life. He spoke of touring and playing in small town after small town. Great Big Sea might play four or five nights out of each week while on tour. To those who came to see a Great Big Sea concert in their home town on a Tuesday night, that evening out became a big event in their lives. To McCann, as an entertainer, it may have been a Tuesday night in some small locale, but to the audience members, it might as well have been a Friday night. It was an occasion to get dressed up and party. This atmosphere made every night of the week seem like a Friday to the band. Every night was an occasion. Every show required the band members to be up and jovial, even if they were tired and not feeling their best. So after every show McCann and his bandmates poured themselves a drink or two or three or more to help them get through their show and the after parties that always followed. Before he knew what was happening, he was drinking full bottles of Jack Daniels or a dozen beer or more every night, all in the course of meeting, greeting and socializing with fans of the band and any local musicians they might meet along the way who wanted to spend a little time and play a few tunes with their heroes. To hear McCann describe it, becoming an alcoholic was an easy lifestyle to fall into.
Stuart Adamson was also an alcoholic. Despite how he may have appeared in his music videos that played on MTV, Adamson was struggling to maintain his sense of equilibrium in a world where the demands being placed upon him were spinning out of control. It is not easy to be the next big thing and believe me, Big Country was certainly well positioned to be big stars. Adamson was a family man. He was one of the boys in a small-time band that suddenly became big. He was grounded and level headed, from all accounts. Then came fame and fortune and companies who wanted a piece of the action. Lots of them. Everyone wanted to be associated with the band. Everyone wanted to sign them to promotional deals. Everyone came with money-making ideas. The noise became too loud. By the time “In a Big Country” reached the top of the US charts, Stuart Adamson had long enjoyed a pint or two with the band. Now that the entourage had grown considerably, a pint or two turned into so much more in terms of temptation. The pressure also grew for the band to start churning out follow-up hits. The lifestyle all became too much for Adamson. His marriage broke down. His alcoholism grew in response, and soon Adamson lapsed into clinical depression. In what started becoming a pattern when his depression flared, one day Adamson left the band and simply disappeared.
Over the course of the next few years, Stuart Adamson became an unreliable bandmate, father and friend. As quickly as Adamson would disappear, he would reappear. Sometimes he came back on his own. Sometimes his bandmates and friends would have to search for him. Adamson managed to continue writing songs and performing with the band, but he did so on an inconsistent basis. The band never had another song that charted after “In a Big Country”. They did release a few more albums and conducted a few more tours, but it was never the same. The band plateaued and soon fell off the public’s radar. This suited Adamson, who managed to find love with a new woman and became married for the second time in his life. He even traveled to the U.S., to Nashville in particular, where he started a new rockabilly band called The Raphaels. On the surface, his life appeared to be stabilizing. Perhaps Stuart Adamson was one of those people who was better suited for life on a smaller stage. But for those of you who know anything about mental illness and addiction, relapses are always a concern.
Despite getting remarried, Adamson’s second marriage was collapsing under the strain of his behaviour. To add fuel to his personal fire, Adamson had also been charged with Driving Under the Influence and was set to appear in court. With his music career crumbling, his second marriage ending and now a DUI charge pending, that was all more than enough to send Adamson into a downward spiral. In November of 2001, Adamson disappeared again. This time, no one could find out where he had gone. Urgent bulletins were dispatched. Friends and associates were all contacted. But still, Adamson stayed missing. Finally, on November 26, 2001, he was discovered. He had committed suicide in a hotel room in Hawaii. Stuart Adamson was 43 years of age.
I’m not expecting to grow flowers in the desert
But I can live and breathe
And see the sun in wintertime.
- Lyrics to “In a Big Country” by Big Country
Once you come to know of the personal struggles that made up Stuart Adamson’s life, it is impossible to listen to this song and hear anything other than a cry for help. And yet, at the time, I never thought anything about these lyrics at all. It was a rocking song with a big sound. I loved listening to it at high volume. Crank it, baby! “In a Big Country” sounded awesome!
They say that as a writer you should write about what you know. Well, that is what Stuart Adamson did with “In a Big Country”, and nobody got the message he was trying to convey. We all just bopped along to a song by a Scottish band without any Scottish players, playing guitars that sounded like bagpipes, singing a song about struggling with mental illness that nobody really heard. And as a result, one day Stuart Adamson disappeared. Now he is gone. However, we are still here. As is his song. Let hearing it remind us all to pay better attention to ourselves and to the people in our lives. In the end, that is all that matters.
The link to the official website for Big Country can be found here.
If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction or mental health issues, please seek help. A good place to start (at least in Canada) is your local mental health association. The official website for the Canadian Mental Health Association can be found here.
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