It’s time to shine the Vinyl Spotlight! Every now and then on Paloozapalooza, I like to focus on a random LP from my collection. This week, we have:
Jackson Browne – Running on Empty (1977)
Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty is an underrated classic. Sure, classic rock radio still plays some of these songs from time to time, but I never hear people rank Running on Empty among the all-time great rock records, and I think it most certainly belongs in that conversation.
Before I get too carried away, though, I should be upfront about something: I also have a deeply personal connection to this album. It was a favorite of my late uncle’s, who passed away tragically when I was still fairly young. He was always one of my absolute favorite people, and he made a considerable impression on me that remains to this day.
In addition, my physical vinyl copy of Running on Empty just happens to have belonged to another uncle who meant a lot to me growing up. So when I say I’m connected to this music, I really mean it. As I listen to these songs, I don’t just hear lyrics and music—I remember important family members who taught me a lot about the world when they were still fairly young themselves.
Even if you throw all of that out the window, though, this is one hell of a record! And it’s an interesting one too. Running on Empty is the rare live album where none of the songs had been featured on previous studio efforts, so you’re not just listening to live versions of songs you already know by heart. Also, it isn’t even really a traditional “live album” where the band performs a full show in front of a live crowd; some of the songs were recorded on the road, yes, but others were recorded in hotel rooms and on tour buses.
Running on Empty is also, in its own way, a concept album. The songs are about life on the road from the perspective of a touring musician, and each one hits the topic from another angle.
Let’s just start at the top, shall we? Browne kicks off the album with “Running on Empty,” which would go on to be its biggest hit. (You might think it’s a song about giving everything you have to give until there’s just nothing left and you’re metaphorically running on fumes. But, no … Browne literally wrote it about being on the road and being close to running out of gas.)
“Running on Empty” is 70s classic rock at its best. Close your eyes and that could be Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers or Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band playing, though Browne’s voice is obviously unmistakable.
On “The Road,” Browne rides a bassline straight out of “The Weight” and sings about the less glamorous side of touring across the country. And then we get to “Rosie,” which is one of the least obvious songs about, um, “self love” that you’ll ever hear. (I suppose even famous rock stars take care of business themselves from time to time, eh?)
There are three other specific songs I want to touch on here: “Shaky Town,” “The Load-Out,” and “Stay.” “Shaky Town,” written by session musician and songwriter Daniel Kortchmar, is pretty straightforward both lyrically and musically, but there’s something about it—maybe it’s the trucker imagery, the way they recorded it all in a hotel room, Browne’s strong vocal take, or all of the above—that just really moves me.
And then there’s “The Load-Out” and “Stay.” Technically two different tracks, “The Load Out” actually leads directly into “Stay,” and radio stations typically just play them together.
“The Load Out” starts with nothing but Browne and a piano as he sings his tribute to the unnoticed heroes of rock and roll: the roadies. Now roll them cases out and lift them amps / Haul them trusses down and get ’em up them ramps / ‘Cause when it comes to moving me / You guys are the champs, Browne sings as other instruments slowly start to make their presence known.
And then, boom, the full band comes in as Browne shifts to thanking the audience. Because without that relationship between the audience and the performer, there’d be no cross-country tours, no lonely motel rooms, and no live album.
This, of course, all leads right into the band’s cover of Maurice Williams’ “Stay.” It’s unexpected the first time you hear it, but once you know it’s coming, it’s almost like entirety of Running on Empty is building to that one perfect moment. It’s a great ending to a great record.
No wonder my uncles enjoyed it so much. I can’t wait to pass it on to the next generation of music lovers myself.
Stream the full thing below …