This country-rock song was about as direct -- musically and lyrically -- as R.E.M. got during their earlier years. Known more for their oft-mumbled, oblique lyrics and murky music -- often an integration of seemingly disparate influences that may, at any given moment, range from obscure English art punk to "America's Beatles," the Byrds, to rural Georgia folk art -- "(Don't Go Back To) Rockville" is unapologetic in its non-ironic employment of the county motif. Bear in mind that the lion's share of the band's audience was, in 1984, still predominantly arty college students who liked "underground" music. And this was way before alt-country became a hip buzzword. But true music fans would have seen the song in its intended context, coming from a band from the South, who quite obviously respected traditional country music and its influence on rock & roll. Certainly a band who was so often compared to the Byrds would have realized the importance of country and traditional folk music to that legendary group, as well as countless others ranging from the Beatles themselves to the Velvet Underground, the Clash, and X. Such astute music fans as R.E.M.'s Peter Buck would most likely have listened as closely to Hank Williams, Buck Owens, Kris Kristoferson, and neo-traditionalists like Dwight Yokum as they would have to Wire and Gang of Four.
No, again, it was not the country influence that surprised; it was the almost unadulterated presentation of it on "(Don't Go Back To) Rockville" and the album Reckoning's (1984) breakthrough single, "So. Central Rain." Unlike many of the band's songs, "(Don't Go Back To) Rockville" was country music mixed with nothing else; well, maybe a little pop, but it is really only R.E.M.'s enthusiastic amateur approach that keeps the song from sounding like purely straight country. If some Nashville cats got a hold of it, though, you could be sure that the raw material is there for just such a result.
The jangle of Buck's Rickenbacker is there, but it takes a back seat to lush strumming acoustic guitars and upright piano. The most striking news for fans that had been following R.E.M. for their first few records were the lucid, overtly country-themed lyrics: "At night I drink myself to sleep and pretend/I don't care if you're not here with me/'Cause it's so much easier to handle/All my problems if I'm too far out to sea/But something better happen soon/Or it's gonna be too late to bring you back." Even while the band was sharpening the focus on their enigmatic, dreamy music on Reckoning, the lyrics usually remained impressionistic and half-heard. Clearly this is not the case on "(Don't Go Back To) Rockville."
And there is good reason: Usual lyricist, lead vocalist Michael Stipe takes a back seat on this song to bassist/vocalist Mike Mills. While it would be tempting to think that Mills was just following some sort of country-lyric template, there is nothing in the words that seem insincere; he was apparently inspired to write the song about a crush he had at the University of Georgia who was leaving to go back home to Rockville, MD. The woman, Ingrid Shorr, recalled the moment in a piece she wrote for the journal Hermenaut: "In the spring of 1980 I was at college in Athens, GA. My once-good grades had given way to behavior that my parents were starting to get wind of, and they instructed me to come back home to Maryland for the summer. I didn't want to go. Everything in Athens was so...fresh and exciting. I had just started taking part in the innocent decadence that would sustain the scene for the next several years. And I was just beginning a romance with Mike Mills, the bass player in the weeks-old R.E.M. A few weeks before the end of spring quarter he said to me -- we were at Tyrone's, the local rock club, standing between the Rolling Stones pinball machine and the Space Invaders game, playing neither -- 'I finally meet a girl I like and she's got to go back to Rockville.'"
That's the genesis of "(Don't Go Back To) Rockville," one of R.E.M.'s most beloved songs. The lyrics, like their author, are endearingly straightforward. "The song isn't so much about me as about me taking off for some other place, leaving him behind: 'I know it might sound strange but I believe you'll be coming back before too long.'"
Stipe breaks (at least for a moment) with his own tried and true style, a style that, while often deeply emotional and evocative, often obscured the man behind the words. While he may have only been singing someone else's lyrics, as a character, he goes out on a limb artistically, leaving himself vulnerable, perhaps even personally so. And the experiment reaps quantifiable benefits: The band writes a beautiful, classic song that illustrates their ambition and growth.