Glenn Frey and the Power of Cowboy Chords

G, D, and C.

The cowboy chords. They are the songwriter’s lifeblood, all ringing 5ths and muscle memory. Glenn Frey and his SoCal writing partners loved them some cowboy chords. His flock was masterful at woodshedding those basic shapes into deceptively simple country-rock classics.

G, D, and C make up 90% of “Already Gone” by the Eagles. It’s a pretty easy progression to figure out, but if you need a little help just stop by On June 9th, 1993 a guy named Steve from Ontario posted the chords on that site along with a little note. In quaint typewriter font circa the days of dial-up, Steve called “Already Gone” one of the best “FOAD” songs there is. Even before I consulted my Urban Dictionary, I knew what he meant.

Right Steve was, and thanks to cached pages, right Steve will eternally be. I too blasted teenage heartache away by yelling along with Frey’s victory song. Actually, Jack Tempchin and Robb Strandlund wrote “Already Gone”, but any major dude will tell you it’s the disdain in Frey’s delivery which sells a line like “you’ll have to eat your lunch all by yourself.” Years before he crooned about the river of darkness beneath the neon light, Frey was captain DILLIGAF.

The Eagles’ founder and unquestioned leader, Glenn didn’t sing lead as often on their later records (“We had Don Henley!” he offered by way of explanation). Still, it was always his lonesome Cali by-way-of Detroit twang that spoke to me most directly. Don’s voice was the identifiable radio staple, tuneful and iconic. Glenn’s, on the other hand, was wounded and snotty. Just the way I’ve always liked my frontmen. Oh yeah, and his denim jacket-handlebar-mustache look circa 1973 remains the gold standard for Americana badasses from Adams to Earle.

Unlike some, I have (almost) nothing but praise to offer for Messrs Henley and Frey’s avian-monikered cadre. I carry the Eagles’ country-rock in my heart right beside Big Star and Townes. Sacrilege? Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man. Can’t I tell the difference between craft and the mercurial, unreliable spark of true genius? Yes, I know the difference. So did Frey, but he knew better than to believe in some divine inspiration bullshit. Enough brilliant 60s visionaries burned themselves out. He hedged his bets on the ninety-nine percent perspiration part of Edison’s equation.

Glenn Frey (along with songwriting partners Don Henley, Jack Tempchin, and on that one fateful cut, former neighbor Jackson Browne) knew how to polish a G, C, and a D until they shone like turquoise on their bracelets. Rough edges rubbed off, catching the light just right.

I have a difficult time watching the remaining Eagles and Browne perform “Take it Easy” at the 2016 Grammy awards. The absence of Glenn’s relaxed alpha energy upsets the balance for me. I am watching a bunch of talented players running a song. Not a band. Those sterling harmonies, the envy of their 1970s peers, don’t reach the same heights without Glenn’s everyman lead vocal gluing them together.

Henley, a tense presence on his best days, looks distracted and ornery, racing to the finish line. Center stage, Browne’s boyishly handsome face is finally showing its age. His famously soulful eyes mist over at lyrics he and Glenn penned so many songs ago. Maybe he is remembering the days before cocaine and ambition ousted the peaceful easy feeling from Los Angeles. Browne stumbles on the last chorus, jumping the gun into “I wanna know if your sweet love…” before its time. He doesn’t want to be on that stage. Who would?

Mainstays Timothy B. Schmidt and Joe Walsh look equally sad and duty bound throughout the brief tribute. Somehow this gig cements the awful finality of Glenn’s passing. Randy Meisner and Don Felder, ex-Eagles who have contentious relationships with Frey and the band, are not present. As a nod to the band’s earlier, less complicated days, OG member Bernie Leadon is sitting in tonight. Leadon peels off “Take it Easy”’s signature guitar licks with feeling and only a smidge less precision than in his prime. The solo evokes palpable nostalgia from the crowd, inspiring a round of warm, spontaneous applause. He and longtime sideman Steuart Smith’s relative anonymity may separate them from the core members, but tonight they flank their hurting comrades like emotional pillars. The Eagles were titans of the Troubadour; now, they are mortal like the rest of us.

As I observe these seasoned ringers, my attention drifts to their hands. I can see that “Take it Easy” is built on the same foundation as “Already Gone” and so many of their other hits: G, D, and C. Watching the guitarists’ weathered digits switch between those million dollar chords, I consider the brilliant simplicity of the country rock they mainstreamed. How much effort did it take to get “Take it Easy” to sound so unfussy, so utterly laid-back?

“It’s a girl my lord, in a flatbed Ford, slowing down to take a look at me.” If Jeff Tweedy dropped that verse, critics would praise the down-home sentiment. But Glenn and his Eagles didn’t ask for permission or approval. They shunned expensive chords and stuck with their five dollar favorites. Genius is overrated.

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