Desperadosby John Einarson
As told by the musicians who made it happen, Desperados: The Roots of Country Rock revisits country rock's rise to the top of the charts. Music scholar John Einarson delves into the years from 1963, when Buck Owens and his Buckaroos brought an electric edge to their Texas honky-tonk tunes, to 1973, when The Eagles released their album "Desperado" on David
As told by the musicians who made it happen, Desperados: The Roots of Country Rock revisits country rock's rise to the top of the charts. Music scholar John Einarson delves into the years from 1963, when Buck Owens and his Buckaroos brought an electric edge to their Texas honky-tonk tunes, to 1973, when The Eagles released their album "Desperado" on David Geffen's label. Einarson examines how folk, rockabilly, blues, Nashville country, Tejano, bluegrass, and other musical idioms influenced a generation of journeyman musicians. He traces the paths taken by the songsmiths, the bands in which they served their apprenticeships, and the songs they wrote together, as they steadily shaped the country rock sound. The protagonists of this story include talented but troubled Gram Parsons, a virtuoso determined to burn out before he faded away; the versatile and appealing Linda Ronstadt; Mike Nesmith, the Monkee from Texas who returned to his musical roots with a trilogy of country-rock albums; TV heartthrob turned country rocker Rick Nelson; folkie songbird Emmylou Harris before she made it in Nashville; and many others.
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Sing Me Back Home
It's a beautiful idiom that's been overlooked so much, and so many people have the wrong idea of it.... How little they know.
Musicians loathe pigeonholes. They go out of their way to avoid categorizing their muse. Journalists, critics, and record companies, on the other hand, love to dream up definitions and labels to lump together music that, while sharing similar attributes, is as diverse as the individuals who create it. Rock & roll itself is less a narrow genre than a melting pot of country & western, gospel, rhythm & blues, folk, jazz, and more. The results are often unique: a product of happenstance and what the cook has brought to the mix. If it tastes good, others attempt their own variation, and before long someone else comes along to identify the spices, count the number of stirs, apply a label, and market it.
Take country rock. In the late sixties, a small faction of young, longhaired musicians sought to inject some country music into their rock & roll. They worked in southern California, but their roots represented a broad spectrum of the North American experience. From a variety of personal perspectives and motivations, these musicians either played country with a rock & roll attitude, or added a country feel to rock, or folk, or bluegrass. There was no formula. They were concocting an entirely new brew.
"I'm not comfortable with the category of country rock," offers Michael Nesmith, one of the genre'searlypurveyors, whose trilogy of albums in the early seventies with the First National Band are considered fine examples of country-influenced rock. Nesmith's inability (and the inability of others) to come to terms with the label is symptomatic of the difficulty of defining the entire country rock genre itself. "Categorizing music is pretty much a waste of time. There's nothing wrong with it, but it's hard to do. There is an arbitrariness to it. I understand why an ethnomusicologist would say, `Well, here's a striation. Here's something that's different and distinguishes itself from other types of music, so it should have a name.' I don't go around saying that is this music, and this is that music. It's all just music to me." For Nesmith, the music he created became country rock not by some predetermined plan or grand scheme, but merely the result of drawing on his Texas roots. "I was bringing together those early influences, but not consciously. I didn't wake up one morning and think, `You know, I've got all these influences, I think I'll bring them all together.' I was like everybody else: those influences were utterly invisible to me. The idea that this was country rockI didn't know from country rock. I wasn't trying to do country rock, I was just trying to do music. I didn't set to stake out any territory, or say `I'm going to make rock & roll meet country.'"
Existing largely on the fringe of the contemporary music mainstream, playing a brand of music deemed commercially risky by record companies, these same musicians found common interests and pockets of support to sustain their vision of uniting the disparate music idioms of country and rock. Like those notorious outlaws whose oasis was the Hole-In-the-Wall Hideout, these renegade rockers found a creative wellspring in enclaves like the Troubadour and Palomino clubs, where kindred spirits offered an eager if limited audience. Here, bonds were formed and new associations born. From this milieu would emerge a brand of music later termed "country rock," whose identity derives from a variety of country music influences also present in the work of several seminal artists, including the Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, Poco, and the Eagles.
Though the name sounds straightforward enough, country rock is, in many respects, a branch of the rock & roll tree that may be one of the most difficult to accurately and inclusively define. Is it country with a rock beat, rock with a country twang, or something else entirely? What comprises country rock is largely in the ear of the beholder, and few of the genre's best-known purveyors agree on its components. Like Justice Potter Stewart who, when asked to define pornography, responded, "I can't, but I know it when I see it," the term "country rock" has come to embrace a varied group of artists whose only common link may be the fact that they all saw the positive qualities in traditional country music and, at some point, crossed each other's paths. For several years country rock operated on the periphery, finding wider acceptance and commercial success in the early seventies with a group of musicians who had served their apprenticeship among the finest early exponents of the genre: the Eagles. Their pedigree was impeccable, as were the sources of their inspiration: Hearts And Flowers, Dillard & Clark, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons, Poco, Rick Nelson's Stone Canyon Band, Longbranch Pennywhistle, and Shiloh, a veritable "Who's Who" of country rock innovators. "We'd watched bands like Poco and the Burrito Brothers lose their initial momentum," notes founding Eagle Glenn Frey on the formation of the group in the early seventies. "We were determined not to make the same mistakes." The four members of the Eagles learned their lessons well and brought a collective experience to bear on the sound of the group, a radio-friendly soft rock with a dash of country flavoring. Today, you are just as likely to hear Eagles music on country radio as on a rock station. What radio has recently dubbed "new country," with artists like Marty Stuart, Travis Tritt, Restless Heart, Clint Black, Diamond Rio, Little Texas, and Confederate Railroad, is the direct descendant of what the pioneering country rock musicians first attempted some three decades earlier.
One need not look very hard to find country influences in the very roots of rock & roll. From the twang of Scotty Moore's guitar on Elvis Presley's earliest Sun recordings, like "That's Alright Mama" and "Blue Moon Of Kentucky," to Carl Perkins' rockabilly "Blue Suede Shoes," country influences permeated rock & roll from its inception. Add to that Jerry Lee Lewis pumping out "Crazy Arms," the Everly Brothers' sweet Kentucky bluegrass harmonies, and Ricky Nelson's recordings backed by James Burton's "chicken pickin' guitar," and you hear the strong country-swing present in their rockabilly. What these and other artists did, consciously or otherwise, was to take the country & western music they grew up with and loved, and give it a bit more of a kick in the ass. "If you really want to go back to the roots of country rock," suggests Chris Hillman (a founding father of sixties' southern California country rock with the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers), "it was Elvis. I'm talking Elvis when he was at Sun Records, when he was good, that initial stuff he did for Sam Phillips. That was untouchable. That was country rock, and, of course, rockabilly, it's all the same thing. After Elvis went in the army, forget it, it was over." Adds Nesmith, "I'm not sure rock & roll is that much different than country music. When you look into the origins of these things, you go back to Sun Records and what was going on down in the South. There was a type of amalgamation of sounds and music that was really not self-conscious at all. Nobody was doing anything except playing songs. It only later dawned on everybody that you could call that country rock. But I think when you start doing that, you could sort of keep going back farther and farther to where rock & roll first met country music." That meeting may have taken place in the music of country & western's most revered tunesmith, Hank Williams. Though Hank once declared drums suitable only for parades and not country music, he nonetheless brought a driving rockabilly rhythm to some of his best-known songs, like "Jambalaya" and "Move It On Over," which sounds remarkably like the inspiration for Bill Haley's "Rock Around The Clock." Hank is reputed to have learned his craft as a teenager from an old black blues player in Montgomery, Alabama, named Tee-Tot Payne, and that bluesy rhythm stayed with him throughout his brilliant, albeit brief, career.
"To my mind, the most classically `country rock' type of music, or what I would refer to as country rock," offers former Burrito Brother Rick Roberts, "is also referred to as rockabilly, stuff like `Six Days On The Road,' which had that driving beat to it. People who were considered to be at the cutting edge of rock & roll were basically country guysElvis, the Everly Brothers, Conway Twitty, Jerry Lee Lewissome of those guys who made the shift over. Nowadays that stuff sounds pure country." Buddy Woodward, founder of alternative country rockers the Ghost Rockets, answers the question: "What is rock & roll? It's western swing, country music, and the blues. Rockabilly is bluegrass with drums. Take Bill Monroe, take away the banjo and fiddle, put in a big old fat-body Gretsch guitar and a drum kit, and it's rockabilly. It's Carl Perkins and early Elvis Presley."
Divisions between country, pop, and rockabilly were far less significant early on. "The distinction between country music and pop music, especially in Texas, had not been born," Nesmith, who grew up on a steady diet of what would later be categorized as country & western music, remembers. "There was a Top Forty radio show that I used to listen to on Saturday mornings, back in 1952-53, and it was very broadbased and general, not a country music program. It was just the music we listened to. But the guy who would have the Number One record would be Hank Williams, and so forth. So I was influenced by country music, but it wasn't called country music, it was just music."
Even the term "country & western" is an arbitrary phrase dreamed up by the urban-based editors of Billboard magazine (the music industry equivalent of Variety) in the late forties to lump together two hitherto disparate musical styles: country music (derived from the same Appalachian mountain music that gave birth to bluegrass through the likes of Bill Monroe, filtered through Roy Acuff), and western music (the lonesome wail of the cowboy laments, and ballads of the Old West popularized in postwar America by movie matinee idol Gene Autry and Roy Rogers' Sons of the Pioneers). It seemed to these northern city dwellers a logical union and an opportunity to create a separate country & western chart. The term is anachronistic today, given that western music (the cowboy element at least) has become almost a lost art form, save for the valiant efforts of artists like Michael Murphey and Ian Tyson, two artists who remain dedicated to preserving both the old songs and the tradition of storytelling in newer ballads. The distinctions were obvious to most who had heard both styles. Presley's influences were country, not western.
Country & western music of the forties and fifties has often been termed "white man's blues" for its heartache and lovelorn themes. "It's white man's music, as opposed to the black man's music," claims Chris Hillman. "It's the workingman's song, workingman's music: white man's blues. I mean, we are saying the same thing as a black man. `My old lady left me,' or `this happened or that happened,' because we have our way of expressing things and they have theirs."
Country legend Waylon Jennings agrees, "Country music is the same thing as blues, the same man singing the same song about the good and bad times, the woman he's got, the woman he wants." Nesmith sees the similarity in the musical arrangements that country music and blues share. "The blues scale that you hear, from Stevie Ray Vaughn to B. B. King playing on the guitar, really only works against three chordsthe three-chord progression. And country music really only works against that same three-chord progression. That's where people are making that connection. Country music, which is played by white men, uses these three chords and they're the same three chords used by blues players, who are mostly black men. So when they say it's white man's blues, it's more a musical definition. But there's also the high lonesome quality about it, and the `she done me wrong' aspect. If you look at how country rock comes together, it really comes together in the blues. It's not so much that rock & roll and country come together, it's more that country and blues are joined at the hip."
But somewhere along the way that country element got left behind as rockabilly evolved into rock & roll music. Migrating across the Mason-Dixon Line from the deep South, where rockabilly originated, and moving into urban areas like New York to mix with black rhythm & blues, doo wop, and hit-parade pop, country music and rock & roll parted company to go their separate ways. Rockabilly lost its innocence as it moved uptown to New York and Los Angeles to become rock & roll, while country (or country & western) music remained the dominion of the rural South. A few performers attempted to bring the two together again with some success, including Ray Charles' series of country-flavored albums, as well as crossover artists like Charlie Rich and Conway Twitty. The American folk music revival of the early sixties drew on the Appalachian acoustic ballad form, country blues, and bluegrass styles, with folk artists regularly delving into traditional country music for their repertoire. Even the folk world's favorite son, Bob Dylan, was not averse to introducing country stylings into his early folk ballads.
At the height of the folk boom in the early sixties, Nesmith came out to Los Angeles from Texas to play his country-influenced folk music in the coffeehouses. "There wasn't much of a distinction between folk music and country music," he notes. "You could get away with doing a lot of different stuff in folk music. When Jim McGuinn started out before the Byrds, he used to come into the Troubadour and bring his twelve-string in, sit down, and play Beatles songs. Then he would switch over and play some old hillbilly song. I never got the feeling there was any attempt on his part to join musical forms, I just thought he was playing music, good music, the music he wanted to play. Which he did well. So when he did Sweetheart Of The Rodeo years later, I never thought, `Oh my gosh, this is groundbreaking.' That was just McGuinn playing his guitar, doing the same thing he's always done." The Lovin' Spoonful's Jerry Yester opines, "Anybody who came from the folk tradition was influenced by country music just by its own nature, because country music came out of folk music."
Ex-Burrito and founding Eagle Bernie Leadon suggests the lineage of country rock can be traced directly from the folk boom. "The folk phenomenon, or folk scare as some people call it, really started in the late fifties after people like Pete Seeger and the Weavers (who had been black-listed) were starting to regain the right to perform live, record, and be on television. There were magazines like Sing Out, then came the Kingston Trio, Dylan, and Peter, Paul, and Mary, and that whole wagon. Out of that came many of the late sixties, early seventies folk rockers, and, later, country rockers came directly out of that folk movement: the Byrds, Lovin' Spoonful, Buffalo Springfield. The folk boom introduced folk and bluegrass instruments to the middle and upper-middle classes, the college crowd who started playing banjos and acoustic guitars. But some of them realized that the guys in the folk groups were being pretty pedestrian in their technique, and that if you really wanted to see how a banjo could be played you had to check out Earl Scruggs or one of those guys." As a result, the folk music movement rekindled an awareness of traditional country music as a pure and honest form. Young players began to look beyond the Kingston Trio's folk pop to search out the original sources of folk, bluegrass, and country, and in so doing revived interest in American roots music. Notes Herb Pedersen, a member of the Dillards, and later with Chris Hillman in the Desert Rose Band: "There was a real fervent, almost religious thing among the bluegrass community out here in California, guys out here who, like us, weren't around it. Chris Hillman told me he once took a train ride from San Diego all the way up to Berkeley to take a mandolin lesson from a guy named Scott Hambly, who was an early influence. Anything you could find to help you get better, you did. You didn't grow up on your dad's knee playing the banjo, so you had to go where it was. Even when Chris went with the Byrds, he still had a love for traditional music. When I would see him from time to time, he'd still be talking about mandolins and that kind of music. That kind of thing doesn't leave you. It's a part of you."
When the British Invasion hit North American shores like a hurricane in early 1964, several of its leading proponents brought with them an appreciation for rockabilly and country music, notably the Beatles. They covered Carl Perkins' "Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby," "Honey Don't," and "Matchbox," as well as Buck Owens' "Act Naturally," and country-influenced original material like "What Goes On." There were also the Rolling Stones, who took Hank Snow's "I'm Movin' On" into rhythm & blues territory. In so doing, these musicians were bringing country influences to a whole new generation turned off by Nashville's slick country pop.
At the same time, a raucous rumbling from further west was stirring up younger players' interest in the direction of country music. Out in Bakersfield, California, a couple of hours' drive northeast of Los Angeles, a group of country artists were giving their raw, no-holds-barred brand of honky-tonk the electric edge it needed. These were country music's original outlaws, long before Waylon and Willie. Buck Owens, Wynn Stewart, and Merle Haggard were redefining country music, filtered through Fender Telecaster electric guitars and Mexicali rhythms, a vibrant, exciting music that served as a precursor for everyone, from the Flying Burrito Brothers and Poco to Dwight Yoakam. Bakersfield offered a bridge between country music and the Beatles. Owens even incurred the wrath of the country music establishment by openly admitting his fondness for the Beatles, and the "Fab Four" showed their admiration for Buck's recordings when they covered them. "I thought having the Beatles do `Act Naturally' was the ultimate," enthuses Owens. "I had all the Beatles albums since they first came along. Don Rich and I thought they were wonderful. Could you really like Bill Monroe and the Beatles? 'Course you could."
By the mid-sixties, young players listening to both Buck and the Beatles were beginning to find one another in tiny, out-of-the-way clubs in southern California, and beginning to integrate the two forms. The growing turn back to country music was also a reaction to, and a rejection of, the overblown excesses of the psychedelic, acid rock music scene of 1967's much vaunted "Summer of Love." A change was first signaled by Bob Dylan, whose acoustic-based, stripped-down folk-country album, John Wesley Harding (recorded in late 1967 and released early the next year), was a clarion call to others for a return to a simpler, more honest, and wholesome music. There was no meaning, no message, in the aimless guitar meanderings or free-association lyrics of the drug-drenched psychedelic groups. At the height of the Summer of Love, the International Submarine Band, led by Gram Parsons, dared to play straight country (Buck Owens and Merle Haggard) to startled patrons in Sunset Strip clubs alongside acid rock groups like Love and the Doors. For players like Texas-born Al Perkins, the California music sceneboth San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury freak scene and L.A.'s hip Sunset Striphad become too far out to hold any appeal. "When the blues and acid rock and hippie thing became a part of our society, the people who had grown their hair long but who still loved country music wanted to play it, even though long hair might get them beaten up in some of the clubs they were going to. I think that was probably the beginnings of country rock." Alienated by the prevailing music scene, these musicians sought comfort in their roots.
As more musicians drifted westward, bringing with them their affection for country music, a burgeoning country rock scene soon emerged out of southern California. The bond between these like-minded musicians was a strong sense of camaraderie. An almost incestuous fraternity of country music-influenced players supported one another, sitting in at each other's gigs, guesting on each other's albums, and forming new alliances. "There was a real community among some of the bands," acknowledges Douglas Dillard. "I used to go sit in with the Buffalo Springfield, and I played with the Byrds. Chris Hillman and Sneaky Pete played on our albums, and Michael Clarke went on tour with us. Then he went on to join the Burritos. Bernie Leadon went from us to the Burritos. It was pretty interchangeable. We all just had a lot of fun in those days." A glance at the credits and careers of Clarence White or Bernie Leadon, for example, reveals a virtual family tree of the entire country rock field. The atmosphere was less about competition, more about common ground.
Southern California's close-knit music community provided a fertile environment for the cross-pollination of country and rock in the mid- to late sixties, though the musicians involved were almost exclusively non-Angelinos. Although associated with southern California, country rock draws its roots from much farther afield. "L.A. is a cosmopolitan area," postulates Byrds bass player John York, "and a large portion of the people in the music industry here came from somewhere else to make a name for themselves, and they all had a certain amount of baggage. I think that's one of the forces that created that particular style of music, different pieces of that puzzle were brought here. Country rock has a lot to do with the guys who came to L.A. from other places in the country: like Gene Clark coming from Missouri, and Gram Parsons from Georgia, and the Eagles coming from all overthey all grew up on country music. When they came to L.A. they were still carrying that with them, and entering into an existing music scene. Because they had that with them, every chance they got, they breathed that into whatever they were playing. So if you have a bunch of guys playing rock & roll who grew up on country music, it's going to alter the shape of the music."
Larry Murray of Hearts And Flowers waxes nostalgic over the sense of joie de vivre that permeated the early country rock scene in and around Los Angeles. "There was something happening at that time among a number of musicians who knew each other and were interested in what the other fellow was doing. There was so much support from other players. If we weren't working a gig of our own, we were always going to clubs to watch others play. And I don't think that has existed since. It was a moment in time. We were all so close back then. The best part of my life was that period of time, and hanging out at the Troubadour. It's too bad we don't see one another much anymore. I would venture to say that any of those people, no matter how big they became after that, or how much of a failure after that, would tell you that particular time and place was just magical." Adds the Byrds' Gene Parsons, "There was a certain competitiveness and rivalry too, but there was a real respect and camaraderie among the musicians. It was like an extended family back in those days, and that was what made it so wonderful."
For the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's John McEuen, the community aspect of the country rock scene was not unlike that of the folkies in New York. "L.A. had its Village, it's just that you had to drive to all its parts, unlike New York, where all the clubs were within four or five blocks and you could walk from one to the other. It was southern California, so you were hearing all these influences. We knew what these other people were doing. There were a lot of influences crossing everyone, but it wasn't intentional, like `Let's go rip them off.' Orange County, southern Californiathe Troubadour, Ice House, the Golden Bear, the Ash Grovenever got enough credit, and was equally as important as Greenwich Village, yet never thought of that way."
Clubs like the strictly country & western Palomino on Lankershim in North Hollywood and the folk bastion the Troubadour on Santa Monica in West Hollywood were a beacon for young musicians arriving in Los Angeles seeking a haven for the music they loved. Offers Nesmith, "The Palomino house band, Red Rhodes and the Detours, was this extraordinary collection of players. Leon Russell from Oklahoma was the piano player. You'd go down there, and everybody was hanging out there listening to and playing the music. Bonnie Raitt was there all the time. Wednesday night was open microphone night at the Palomino, and Monday was the hoot night at the Troubadour." The Troubadour became a kind of union hall, where out-of-work pickers could usually find a gig among friends. Three-time national fiddle champion Byron Berline migrated from Oklahoma to L.A. in time to witness the Troubadour fraternity. "It was an amazing time and so much fun. The Troubadour was the focal point, the club everybody went to. I could have gone every night and picked up a session. Every time I went there the place would be jammed, and I'd meet somebody new there every night. `Oh yeah, man, I want you to play on my record.'"
Linda Ronstadt found the Troubadour a suitable base of operations. "We all used to sit in a corner of the Troubadour and dream. The Troubadour was like a café society. It was where everyone met, where everyone got to hear everyone else's act. It was where I made all my musical contacts, and found people who were sympathetic to the musical styles I wanted to explore." For a young East Texas country rock group with stars in their eyes named Shiloh, the club was their Mecca. "The Troubadour was the first place I went to when I got to L.A.," enthused drummer Don Henley. "I had heard how legendary it was, and all the people who were performing there. The first night I walked in I saw Graham Nash and Neil Young, and Linda Ronstadt was standing there in a little Daisy Mae dress. She was barefoot and scratching her ass. I thought, `I've made it. I'm in heaven.'" Not long afterward, Henley would meet up with another Troubadour habitué, Glenn Frey, and plans to form the Eagles would be hatched over beers at the bar.
Years later Henley would return to those Troubadour days, drawing inspiration for the Eagles' poignant "The Sad Café," a eulogy to the club. "Those were great times," he recalled to journalist Bill Flanagan, "like when Doug Dillard's girlfriend tried to run him over in front of the club. He was with another woman, and she drove right into the front window of the Troubadour trying to hit him. It had been everyone's favorite hangout. The Dillards, during the revival of bluegrass, would stand up at the front bar and sing a hymn, and everyone would join in. It was the center of the universe as far as I was concerned."
"It wasn't the Troubadour, it was the karate studio next door," protests Suzi Jane Hokom, Douglas Dillard's girlfriend at the time, scotching that myth. "But it was pretty wild in those days."
Shiloh guitarist Al Perkins found the club's convivial social atmosphere conducive to new liaisons. "I think a lot of that was really the social atmosphere in town. I've never been a drinker, so I never was out doing a lot of the clubs in my spare time, but a lot of the guys, particularly those who were single, would hang in the club, socialize and talk. I think people gravitated toward one another, particularly in country rock, because it was new and fun, this fusion of acoustic music, bluegrass, country, and rock being born."
The fraternizing, however, was not strictly confined to darkened nightclubs. According to Nesmith, it spilled out into the canyons above Hollywood and beyond. "We were all part of a group of people who hung out together, knew each other, and were friends. Most everybody lived out in Topanga Canyon, and there'd be these Topanga festivals, players getting together and playing. Linda Ronstadt was living up in the Canyon, and Jackson Browne was living next to her. On the weekend everyone would go down to Will Geer's ranch. Peter Fonda, Brandon De Wilde and J. D. Souther would show up, and Gram Parsons was around then. You divided yourself out according to how hard a drug you took. If you were just a smoker, you were over here, and if you had harder habits, you were over yonder. Everybody was hanging out under their own particular tree."
But it was more than mere drug preference that separated country rockers. There are several strands of the country rock thread that render a simple definition of the genre more difficult. Between 1965 and 1973, at least four unique approaches to country rock can be delineated based on the path each artist chose to take, and the influences they drew upon. There were those who saw country rock as young, longhaired musicians adapting a traditional country music form with a little more emphasis on the rhythm: country music refined through rock sensibilities, attitude, and experience. "It was rock & rollers, or people who had that look, playing Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, and all that stuff," says Al Perkins. "And they played it with a different style, a little more rock. They looked rock & roll but played country." Exponents of this approach included the International Submarine Band, whose leading member, Gram Parsons, would go on to bring a country tone to the Byrds' seminal Sweetheart Of The Rodeo before he and founding Byrd Chris Hillman flew the coop to front the much-revered Flying Burrito Brothers. "Country rock," opines Hillman, "involved taking a white blues and adding more back beat, more emphasis on the rhythm section, adding the ingredient of the black emphasis on the rhythm: giving the white man a little more rhythm, which he desperately needed. Gram and I discussed all this thirty years ago. We were listening to r & b, all these Stax artists, and putting more back beat in what we were doing. It just sort of melted into what we were doing. That's country rock." Parsons would later team up with Emmylou Harris to play George Jones to her Tammy Wynette, turning his dream of "Cosmic American Music," a bridge between the redneck and the hippie, into reality. "Gram was the first person I had come across since leaving country music and entering rock & roll," stresses Hillman, "who really listened, and understood what country music was, understood how it felt to play it." Indeed, the Burritos stage repertoire under Parsons' direction consisted largely of country & western standards drawn from the catalogs of such artists as George Jones, Lefty Frizzell, Buck Owens, and Merle Haggard.
Others who took their country music with a rock & roll chaser included the Great Speckled Bird and Nashville West, a short-lived yet influential quartet featuring future Byrds members Gene Parsons and innovative guitarist Clarence White. The Great Speckled Bird was folk duo Ian and Sylvia Tyson's experiment in country rock, and drew inspiration from both Roy Acuff and Buck Owens' Buckaroos to give their country more oomph. "What we were all doing," states Ian Tyson, "was expressing our love and respect for the real vital country music of the times, represented by artists like Buck Owens and Merle Haggard."
On the other hand, some musicians approached country rock not from the country side but from rock music, adding country music instrumentation to create a wholly original concept: rock with country textures. This approach became the basis for Poco, a group formed from the ashes of the much-loved Buffalo Springfield, when Richie Furay and Jimmy Messina decided to incorporate pedal-steel guitar into a rock lineup. "Some people define country rock from a lyrical standpoint," offers Furay, "but I define it from the musical aspect. It's not so much the sob-in-your-beer lyrics, it was the collection of musical instruments and the way that they were played that gave it a certain sound, like with the steel guitar and banjo. For us, it was introducing steel guitar and Dobro into rock music, and later banjo and mandolin. All these instruments can work together." Rusty Young gave Poco its country edge, though he feels country rock offered a lyrical content that reflected more contemporary themes. "Country rock, to me, is music that has the feel and lyrical content of rock with the instrumentation of country music, such as mandolins, steel guitar, acoustic guitar, and so on. When the country rock craze of the early seventies began, it took the best of country music, but gave it words that a young person could relate to." Poco created a remarkable body of work that brought a youthful country effervescence to rock & roll.
Before Gram Parsons took them, albeit briefly, down a more traditional country road on Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, the Byrds had already been experimenting as far back as 1965 with rock tinged with a country feel. "It all begins with the Byrds," asserts Hillman. "And I will argue that point with anybody. Not that we claim all credit." It was Hillman who brought his years of experience in bluegrass and country music to the pioneers of folk rock. "I came into the Byrds as a bluegrass mandolin player, that's what I was comfortable doing. The Byrds recorded a country song on their second album in 1965, `A Satisfied Mind,' which is a Porter Wagoner hit I brought into the group, and we recorded it. It's an old country song, so we were really making those jabs, but still we had no inkling of what it was we were doing. I had come from a country background. It wasn't really until Younger Than Yesterday, in 1966, when I started doing those country things. That's the chronological order of it. From that album and cuts like `Time Between,' which is probably the first country rock song. What we did in the Burritos came out of the Byrds. The Byrds set the tone, and the Flying Burrito Brothers did it."
Though the Sweetheart Of The Rodeo album offered the Byrds' own take on traditional country music, following that album's release, and Gram Parsons' abrupt departure, the group returned to a rock base with country leanings, provided by Clarence White's innovative pullstring bender, a device invented by Gene Parsons to simulate a pedal-steel guitar. "There was a different awareness among the younger musicians who had listened to a lot of rock & roll," suggests the Byrds' John York, "so the back beat and rhythm section was a lot stronger. And the guitar playing was very country, but there was a certain freedom that straight country music didn't haveit may have been the same kind of licks, but there's a whole different awareness and freedom on how to use those licks. It was a lot more open. In most country music, the producers are basically controlling everything, whereas it wasn't like that with the country rock bands. They were free to do what they wanted to do, and that came from their rock & roll experience and attitude."
Ricky Nelson's early teen idol rockabilly success was channeled into a country vein by the late sixties, after he hooked up with a group of seasoned rock players to form the Stone Canyon Band. Together they recorded several albums of pleasant country-flavored rock made all the more appealing by former Buck Owens' Buckaroo Tom Brumley's marvelous pedal-steel work and Randy Meisner's high harmonies. Nelson's single, "Garden Party," became one of the first country rock Top Ten hit records of the early seventies.
Another country-flavored rock group was the First National Band. Following his exit from the Monkees, Mike Nesmith formed the group that owes much of its country flavor to Red Rhodes' innovative pedal-steel work and Nesmith's Texas drawl. "It was impossible to avoid," laughs Nesmith. "I could sing `Moon River,' and it would sound like a country song. There was no way to avoid it. When I opened my mouth and sang, that's the way it sounded." Others who integrated a country attitude to their rock included The Band, whose use of traditional Appalachian harmony, fiddle, and mandolin lent their music an authentic, down-home, rustic roots quality; Linda Ronstadt, known more as an interpreter than an innovator, who had an uncanny knack for gathering some of the finest country rock players to support her; and, ultimately, the Eagles, who first realized their potential as Ronstadt's backing group.
Still, other artists under the country rock umbrella took their cues from folk and bluegrass and brought to that a country and rock orientation. Among these artists were Hearts And Flowers, the Dillards, and the Dillard & Clark Expedition. Steeped in traditional bluegrass and authentic mountain music from their upbringing in rural Missouri, the Dillards evolved their own bluegrass/country/pop amalgam. "It was controlled by a subconscious urge to do something different," explains Rodney Dillard of the quartet's musical progression toward country rock in the late sixties. "It was part of the creative process. I just thought, `Wouldn't it be nice if we took Dillard harmonies, that mountain influence, and added other things to it with a little heavier rhythm feel?'" Their groundbreaking 1968 album, Wheatstraw Suite, is hailed far and wide for its innovative integration of contemporary country and rock with bluegrass and folk, and served as inspiration for the Eagles' later work. Preferring to stick with the more traditional bluegrass form, Douglas Dillard left the group and joined ex-Byrd Gene Clark to create some of the finest acoustic-based country rock of the genre. "Gene always loved country music, coming from Missouri," claims Dillard. "So he just combined all his knowledge of music, and that's basically what he came up with. My roots are bluegrass, but we didn't have any sound in mind, like rock & roll or country. We were just writing and recording what we did. Basically, we just had a lot of fun." Clark's post-Byrds work revealed that Chris Hillman was not the only member with an appreciation of country music.
Steve Young and John Stewart came to country rock via the folk route. Young was a southern singer/songwriter of note, and an ex-member of the group Stone Country. Stewart had been with the Kingston Trio. Both recorded country-flavored, folk-based albums in the late sixties that would set the direction for other country-influenced solo artists. Young's obscure Rock, Salt, And Nails album included what would go on to become a true country rock classic, "Seven Bridges Road," later immortalized by the Eagles on their live album. Stewart's California Bloodlines, recorded in Nashville in early 1969, is regarded by many as a country rock classic. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band began life as an eclectic, acoustic-based, quasi-folk jug band before heading toward bluegrass music with "Mr. Bojangles," "Some Of Shelley's Blues," and the groundbreaking Will The Circle Be Unbroken, which did much to mend fences between southern California country rock and Nashville in the early seventies. My goal was to bring country instruments to as many people as possible," the Dirt Band's John McEuen asserts. "We definitely brought people who didn't listen to country and bluegrass to that music."
And there were those established rock artists who enjoyed a fleeting flirtation with country music, dabbling in the form as a brief diversion in their musical journeys, such as the Lovin' Spoonful's cute take on Music City's guitar pickers, "Nashville Cats," and the steel guitarflavored "Never Going Back," a song penned by John Stewart. Although starting out as a folk rock group before evolving a highly diverse and eclectic sound, the Buffalo Springfield (featuring Stephen Stills, Neil Young, and Richie Furay) released several tracks with a country feel, including their debut single "Go And Say Goodbye," as well as Furay's "A Child's Claim To Fame," and "Kind Woman," the latter embellished by the pedal-steel work of Rusty Young. Bob Dylan recruited the good old boys in Nashville to apply their sound to his groundbreaking Nashville Skyline, which was highlighted by his duet with the reigning king of country, Johnny Cash, on "Girl From The North Country." The two found the experience so rewarding that they recorded a whole album's worth of tracks that remain unreleased. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young's anthemic "Teach Your Children" featured pedal-steel guitar from the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia, a musician with significant bluegrass credentials. The Grateful Dead are another example of artists who dipped their feet in country music's waters on Workingman's Dead and American Beauty. Garcia would later form his own country rock group, The New Riders of the Purple Sage. For a time, it seemed that everyone wanted a touch of country in their rock. The Flying Burrito Brothers' Sneaky Pete Kleinow found himself in constant demand to lend his mellifluous pedal-steel tones to a variety of artists, from Fleetwood Mac to Joe Cocker.
Despite the heady atmosphere, healthy diversity, and groundbreaking achievements of the pioneering country rock artists, few enjoyed wider recognition or financial reward for their efforts. The sad fact remains that very little of this seminal country rock music was commercially successful during its time. Though labels like A&M, Epic, RCA, and Elektra weighed in with their best efforts to record and release country rock albums, few sold enough to even chart until the early seventies, when the Eagles' country-influenced rock turned the music world on its ear, selling tens of millions of albums and legitimizing country rock to the masses. But before the success of the Eagles, radio and record executives knew little about marketing this unique and original genre. Upon the release of his Rock, Salt, And Nails, Steve Young told The Journal of Country Music, "When we finished the album, we took it across town to A&M expecting them to flip out, but they said, `We don't know what to make of this. What is it? It's country music! What the hell are we going to do with it?' So they sent it to Nashville, and Nashville said, `No, it's not country. We don't know what to do with it either.' A&M couldn't figure out how to market the album. It never sold, but other musicians liked it." The common response was: too country for rock, too rock for country. "I know the `country rock' label hurt Poco," offers Richie Furay. "We couldn't get any AM airplay, and we didn't get much FM play."
"We worked hard, and didn't sell a damn record," laments Chris Hillman. "There was no commercial success for any of these bands. It was the pure love of the music, that's why we did it. At that time, we were dealing with a business where you could make three or four records. It was okay. Now we are in this disposable culture, and bands are here and gone in a year. If you're not a two million seller out of the chute, see you later." Promoters, too, found packaging country rock acts problematic, often having no understanding of the genre. Poco opened several shows for hard rock kings The Who, while the Flying Burrito Brothers were paired with retro-rock comedy act Sha Na Na. Near the end of their run, the Burritos were down to playing high school gymnasiums, while Hearts And Flowers found themselves at odds with belligerent audiences opening for The Doors, or Blue Cheer, an early heavy metal prototype.
"All of us wanted to achieve commercial success," responds Mike Nesmith to the notion that country rock retained its integrity by refusing to sell out. "Gram Parsons was working at that as hard as he could, and so was I. The idea that you could sell this music seemed like the perfect thing to do. Every country rock singer that I knew was wanting to have it widely accepted and sell a lot. There was no equivalent between selling records and selling out. The whole country rock movementhow well that music was lovedwasn't a function of somebody holding onto it like some precious little thing. Everybody was working really hard to try to make it popular, and have people make it a part of their lives. And the Eagles brought it all together."
As the second generation of country rockers, each of the Eagles had paid their dues in journeyman country rock groups. They embodied the spirit and integrity of the original visionaries of country rock, combined with exceptional musicianship, astute management, and good timing. "The Eagles were at the right place at the right time," confirms Chris Hillman. "They were well rehearsed, they were tight, and they worked at their craft. When we used to play at the Troubadour, Glenn Frey and J. D. Souther would be in the audience studying us." Gram Parsons' death in September 1973 was a turning point for the first generation of country rock pioneers. Some of them, by the seventies, had begun to distance themselves from their country rock roots. Others, like the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Emmylou Harris, turned squarely toward Nashville, with their sights firmly set on the country charts. Poco's relocation to Music City in the eighties proved less than satisfying. "Nashville is insecure," maintains Poco guitarist Paul Cotton. "They don't want change. When we moved to Nashville, they wanted to make us the next Alabama."
By the early seventies the Eagles had accepted the mantle handed down by Parsons and others to take the genre to commercial success. "You have to concede that the Eagles are the pre-eminent musical influence in the west over the last two decades," asserts Ian Tyson. "You just have to go into any bar in Alberta, Wyoming, or Montana, and if they're not forced to play Shania Twain covers, the band will be doing `Peaceful Easy Feeling.' The influence of the Eagles was tremendous. I never thought of them as a shlock band. They're still out there, no question, after Buck and Merle, they're the guys carrying it out in California."
What happened to the vibrant southern California country rock scene? "Country rock was really thriving on the west coast, from the late sixties into the seventies," reflects Byron Berline on the decline of the once fruitful scene, "but by the early eighties, it had dried up. Everybody was gone to Nashville or somewhere else. Even the country places were gonethe Palomino and the Troubadour." By the middle of the decade the Eagles began to lean less and less on their country influences, turning toward a more hard rock sound. "When they brought in Joe Walsh and started to be an r & b rock band, I just lost interest," says Chris Hillman. "They became this arena rock band, and it became boring, insipid. I gotta be honest with you, that stuff they did after that just doesn't stand up." Confirms Paul Cotton on Poco's move to a harder sound in the seventies, "The Eagles had gotten rockier, and it was inevitable. They had that pop door open, and we wanted to rock on in with the rest of them. On the Indian Summer album, we had the hard rock, orchestra, disco, r & b, but no more or less than the Eagles at the time. We knew there was only so much you can do with country, and it was bound to happen, especially after seven or eight albums."
Although the Eagles have been honored with induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in 1998, neither the Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons, Poco, nor the other pioneering country rockers are likely to receive such acknowledgment. The bluegrass fraternity has shunned the Dillards for abandoning their traditional roots for country rock. "Jim and Jesse cut a whole album of Chuck Berry songs in 1966 called Berry Pickin' In The Country," notes Ghost Rockets' Buddy Woodward. "It's a great album. And they used drums back then. The Osborne Brothers used drums, pedal steel, and piano. If you listen to `Rocky Top,' a bluegrass classic of theirs, there are electric instruments on it and drums. The Dillards weren't doing anything more than those guys were. The Osborne Brothers and Jim and Jesse will make it into the Country Music Hall of Fame, but the Dillards won't. Why aren't they getting the respect? I don't know."
Despite Emmylou Harris' admirable efforts to keep Gram Parsons' memory alive, Nashville has only recently come to recognize the significant contributions of the early country rock scene to the evolution of country music. The lines of demarcation remain. "Nashville is still a tight little clique of people," stresses Hillman. "Back in the late eighties, the Desert Rose Band was nominated for the CMA Horizon Award, best vocal band, all this stuff, and we lost. We did everything right and still lost. I just said, `We're never gonna win this. We don't live here.' It's the same reason why Merle Haggard has never been a member of the Grand Ole Opry, or Buck Owens or Dwight Yoakam. We're outsiders. It's almost like we're Yankee dogs, Northerners." Recognition from other circles has been forthcoming. In a plexiglas case, set among the memorabilia of the likes of Hank Williams and Patsy Cline at the Country Music Hall of Fame, stands Hillman's Nudie bolero jacket from the Desert Rose Band. "It indicates that somebody paid me a wonderful compliment," acknowledges Hillman. "Actually I think one of the best things that ever happened to the Flying Burrito Brothers," he concludes, "was to be included in the Smithsonian Country Music Collection. When I saw that I went, `Yeah, there we go. Somebody paid attention.'"
"What's funny," smiles Hillman, reflecting on his pivotal role in the evolution of country rock in the sixties, "is that I've fought that country rock label for thirty years. I cut an acoustic album recently, and the tracks just didn't make it, so I went and cut half of it over electrically. And who am I using? Jay Dee Maness, Jerry Scheff, John Jorgenson, Steve Duncan from the Desert Rose Band, and guess what we're gonna call it? It's country rock, I give in. And my wife said, `That's right, just let it go. That's what you do. It's country rock.' What does it matter to define it?"
Meet the Author
John Einarson is a respected rock music historian and the author of several books including For What It's Worth: The Story of the Buffalo Springfield and Neil Young: Don't Be Denied. He lives in Winnipeg, Canada.
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A great read for those fans of classic rock, country, alt-country, etc. This book gives in good detail to whole entire history of country/rock country from the early bands such as Buffalo Springfield, the rise of popular group the Eagles, and lots of alot bands.