Big Country was formed in Dunfermline, Scotland by ex-Skids Stuart Adamson (guitar/synthesizer/vocals), Bruce Watson (guitar), Tony Butler (bass), and Mark Brezicki (drums). They made their mark in the UK with "Fields of Fire
" a #10 hit in that territory. "In A Big Country" was their next single; they went on to have three more UK Top 10 hits: "Chance," "Wonderland" and "Look Away."
When they disbanded in 2000, Adamson became a country singer/songwriter, but got depressed after his second marriage collapsed. His wife declared him missing in November 2001 and the following month he was found hanged in a hotel room in Honolulu, Hawaii.
From its opening notes, "In A Big Country" bursts with fresh energy. The Celtic guitar parts produce a signature bagpipe sound as lead signer Stuart Adamson yelps "Sha!" and urges listeners to remain resilient and "Stay Alive!"
"The lyrical idea was about having hope, a sense of self in times of trouble," Adamson told Melody Maker in March 1990.
Steve Lillywhite produced this track. This came at a time when he was emerging as one of the top producers in the business, known for his work with Peter Gabriel and U2.
Lillywhite's impact on this song was dramatic when compared with the demo. Changes included delaying the chorus until after the second verse, adding the iconic bagpipe guitar break, and having Adamson sing the bridge an octave higher.
In America, this was the only Big Country hit of significance; it didn't garner much radio play, but the video was huge on MTV, which was two years old and becoming a cultural force. The network ignored the group's next US single, "Fields of Fire," which tanked their efforts in America.
The video was directed by Lindsey Clennell, who was one of the first to ply this trade. Some of his other credits include videos for The Clash ("White Riot," "1977"), Black Sabbath ("Trashed," "Zero the Hero") and the Stranglers ("Golden Brown," "No More Heroes").
Stuart Adamson was inspired to write "In A Big Country" after hearing what producer Steve Lillywhite was able to achieve on Big Country's "Fields of Fire" single. Adamson later wrote in liner notes for a re-release of their debut album, The Crossing, "The music I felt wasn't like the music I had grown up hearing, or rather, not like any one of them. It was all of them jumbled up and drawn into something I could understand as mine. I found I could play this music and connect the guitar directly to my heart. I found others who could make the same connection, who could see the music as well as play it."
This song's working title was "Stay Alive." Booking agent John Giddings suggested that the name be changed to "In A Big Country." When Steve Lillywhite heard the demo, he was moved to tears, according to Allan Glen's book Stuart Adamson: In A Big Country.
"In A Big Country" was nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best Rock Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal, but lost out to "Synchronicity" by the Police.
The video got a positive review from MTV's Beavis and Butthead, largely because of the 3-wheel vehicles. Quoth Butthead, "This is like a James Bond movie."
In 1999, Adamson told a group of fans that his favorite lyrics were:
I'm not expecting to grow flowers in a desert
But I can live and breathe
And see the sun in wintertime
In concert, Adamson would often introduce the song with the final words of its chorus: "Stay Alive!," before the drum intro. Reconciling the resilient message with Adamson's eventual suicide was difficult for fans.
In 2012, Mike Peters, singer for The Alarm, selected "In A Big Country" for BYUTV's documentary series The Song That Changed My Life. Peters was inspired by the song during The Alarm's early years, and later during his battle with leukemia. Peters fronted Big Country tours in 2010 and 2011, and also sang and co-wrote Big Country's full-length 2013 album The Journey before returning to other projects.
The version that opened the album The Crossing is almost one minute longer than the single, adding an extended drum intro.