Here's how you know you've made it in the music business: You've stayed strong for three decades on your own terms, on your own time, by your own rules, and over that time your influence has only grown. Each of your albums has been stronger than your last. You've been brought onstage by Bruce Springsteen, because he wanted to play one of your songs. You've seen high times and low ones, good days and tragic days, but every night you give 100%, and every morning you wake up still swinging.
This is the short version of the Social Distortion bio — the long version could be a 10-part mini-series. But over the past 30 years, the punk godfathers in the band have all but trademarked their sound, a brand of hard rockabilly/punk that's cut with the melodic, road-tested lyrics of frontman Mike Ness. Their searing guitars and a locomotive rhythm section sound as alive today as they did in '82, as do Ness' hard-luck tales of love, loss and lessons learned. "The most common thing I hear is, 'Man, your music got me through some hard times,'" Ness says. "And I just say, 'Me too.'"
Hard Times And Nursery Rhymes (produced, for the first time, by Ness himself) is the band's first record since 2004, but the break hasn't changed them much. It maintains Social Distortion's key components — an all-but-perfected mix of punk, bluesy rock n’ roll and outlaw country — but it also finds them stretching the boundaries of their signature sound. "I didn't want any one style of writing," Ness says. "I didn't want it to be all heavy, like "White Light, White Heat, White Trash." I wanted some heavy and some light. I wanted some fiction and some nonfiction. I wanted versatility."
That's evident right away. The record's first vocal track, "California (Hustle and Flow)," finds Ness and the band not roaring out of the gate so much as swaggering behind a chunky Stones-style locomotive groove. "This record has a lot of my influences," Ness says, "But how far you go with those influences is up to you. With this record I wanted to go a little farther. I wanted people to hear that second track and realize, 'Wow, this is not just another Social Distortion record.'" (For good measure the track has hints of "Ball and Chain" and the Stones' "All Down The Line" and, for the first time, female backing vocals. "I've been listening to records for years with (backing vocals), and I was like, "Hey, why don't I do that?" Ness laughs.)