“Omaha, somewhere in middle America ...”
Way back in 1993, many of us pulled shrink wrap off a brand-new, gold-colored CD, popped it in the stereo and heard those words.
For the Counting Crows, “Omaha” wasn’t exactly a hit. But the band’s debut album, “August And Everything After,” was an absolute smash, and among the hits was this little gem about a place where “it’s the heart that matters more.”
Friday is the 25th anniversary of the song’s release, and the Counting Crows happen to play Stir Cove on Thursday.
“Omaha,” the album’s second track, was actually written years earlier.
“I remember that song very well,” frontman Adam Duritz told The World-Herald. “It’s kinda funny. I had that song for a while. I tried it in all of my bands. Nobody could play it. People could not get the feel right.”
It eventually appeared on a Counting Crows demo tape, dubbed the “Flying Demos,” that the band sold at its early shows.
Lyrically, that demo version is the same, but its sound is driven by a loud and crunchy electric guitar riff, giving it much more of a rock ‘n’ roll feel than the acoustic guitar- and accordion-driven version of the song we know so well.
When Duritz was writing, he recalled the psychedelic rock song “Omaha” by Moby Grape.
“R.E.M. covered that song, and I always loved it. I thought it was so cool,” Duritz said. “I loved the sound of the word, ‘Omaha.’ It’s got a great timbre to it. It’s a very sonorous word.”
It fit in with what he was writing about.
“Then I started writing this song about going through your life and things changing. I started singing the word ‘Omaha.’ It was a place at the core of what I was talking about. It’s somewhat significant to me that it was the place in the center of the country,” he said. “I spent my childhood driving around it. I spent all my summers in the back of a station wagon driving across Texas and Mexico and Arizona ... on these vast stretches of the road.
“I was always very fascinated with the breadth of the country — how (expletive) big it is. When I started writing the song, that word had been in my head forever. It seemed at the heart of what I was doing.”
Though it’s remembered fondly by locals and Counting Crows fans, it technically never was a hit.
“Round Here,” “Mr. Jones” and “Rain King” from the same album each were, landing on various Billboard charts. They propelled “August and Everything After” to eventually sell more than 7 million copies in the United States.
Despite its non-hit status, “Omaha” was decidedly a thing around here. (Big surprise, right?)
In April 1994, the song was designated “the official song of the city” for the year. Five of seven Omaha City Council members voted in favor of the resolution, which then-councilman Lee Terry said “reinforces the well-known fact that people all over this country look to Omaha for inspiration, musical and otherwise.”
Shortly thereafter, a Counting Crows concert was announced for the Omaha Civic Auditorium Music Hall later that year.
“What makes Adam’s songs ring true is that he’s a great poet and he has a great sense of place,” keyboardist Charlie Gillingham told The World-Herald shortly before the show. “His characters are always doing something in song and his places have meaning. The sound and the name of the city gives you a feeling of being out on the road.”
Duritz remembers the fervor. He was then a shy guy, and suddenly becoming famous didn’t sit well with him.
And that’s about when Counting Crows came to Omaha.
“It was right in the height of the insanity, getting huge after ‘SNL’ and everyone was crazy for us,” he said.
He continued: “They wanted to give us a key to the city. They wanted to have a big ceremony. I was so freaked out that I couldn’t deal with it. I heard about it and was like, ‘That sounds great.’ I went out that afternoon in Omaha to a Target or something like that searching for movies or records or something. I got like mobbed in the store, and it freaked me out. I said, ‘I can’t do it. No. I cannot come.’ I chickened out.”
Still, the band continued with its success, releasing six more albums and banking a bunch more hits.
But “Omaha” still sticks with people.
Before Counting Crows play Stir Cove, I had to ask Duritz: Would they be playing the song?
His answer: Look for it in the setlist.
“ ‘Omaha’ has been played a lot the last few years. It came back in in a way. It’s been a pretty constant song for the last few years at least,” he said.