Well, we finally got a chance to collaborate. This piece was the idea of my good Twitter friend, colleague, and great dude Zackary. You can find him on Twitter at @swamp_opera. He’s got a pretty cool website going looking at both the history of the genre and some modern stuff. Many thanks to him for allowing us to publish the piece on my little publication. With any luck, we’ll be seeing him again on here.
It’s not an easily defined term, nor is there a true consensus on its actual roots. Some say it dates back to the hillbilly-meets-blues fusion from the likes of the Delmore Brothers, Rose Maddox, Tennessee Ernie Ford and Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith among others. For some, it’s the rockabilly stylings of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins that gave birth to it. Some people even credit The Beatles for releasing a Buck Owens cover of “Act Naturally” in 1965.
Others simply say that over time, rock music developed more of a country music style. Author John Einarson offers his idea that country-rock was found simply through experimentation, and basically, you know it when you hear it.
Really, much like “outlaw-country,” country-rock is defined more around a phenomenon that occurred in a specific period of time rather than a fundamental, concrete sound. While that was going on in country music, the other side of the music world saw children of rock embracing country music.
Before we get into that, let’s establish how we got there. The year is 1966 — there’s antiwar and anti-draft protests engulfing America’s college campuses. Nashville was no different. The large youth contingent at Vanderbilt ensured Nashville would also be caught up in the 60s movements. Kristofferson, himself a veteran, wrote “Vietnam Blues,” a more contemplative look at protesters and military service. He was certainly anti-war but pro-veteran. But the Nashville establishment, as can be imagined, was mostly defending the war. Marty Robbins’ “Ain’t I Right” labeled antiwar protesters as communist sympathizers. Ernest Tubb, Loretta Lynn, Stonewall Jackson, Johnny Sea, Autry Inman, and Bill Anderson all took stances on the issue. Willie Nelson even released “Jimmy’s Road,” a 1968 antiwar ballad that saw things a tad differently from the rest of Nashville.
Certain country artists endorsed Richard Nixon during the 1968 presidential campaign. Indeed, less than ten years later, Nixon (with the walls closing in around him thanks to Watergate), found a temporary refuge at opening night of the new Opry House, performing with Roy Acuff and receiving a warm ovation despite the controversy of his Presidency swirling around. Country music was indeed a conservative home for President Nixon. Yet others supported third-party candidates such as George Wallace, the alternative to Nixon and Hubert Humphrey.
When asked later how he felt about Nixon taking stage at the Opry, the legendary Ernest Tubb said to Whisperin Bill Anderson, “Just between me and you, I wish it had been another president.” The counterculture was making its presence felt in the home of country music. But much of mainstream country music artists and fans had no patience for their recreational drug use, loud rock music, anti-war protests, and long hair.
Little did they know those hippies loved country music.
Going back to the Beatles, it’s easy to see how this love for the music happened. After all, by performing country-tinged material of their own, the Beatles were letting the audience know that “hey, it’s alright to be a hillbilly!”
There’s also the fact that rockabilly and the Nashville Sound spun off in two completely different, tired directions by that point. Its reputation with the younger audience had suffered. In an effort to keep up with rock, country DJs and record labels had sold their souls to countrypolitan- a genre defined by elaborate string arrangements and syrupy vocals. It had its moments, but countrypolitan for the most part was bland and un-hip. While rock music was the home of edginess and free-spirits, country music at that point was outdated and adult-centric- conservative, backwards and corny.
While we know now that country music was a building block for rock & roll, younger fans simply didn’t want to listen to country. We didn’t have the internet. This was an age when people rediscovered older artists in music by listening to tribute albums (for example, Merle Haggard’s tributes to Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills inspired a young man by the name of George Strait).
Thankfully, certain artists knew what was going on.
This brings us to actual “country-rock,” a movement that took place during the ’60s and ’70s centered in Southern California in which certain musicians wanted to adopt a more “back-to-basics” sound. Gram Parsons, Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, Clarence White, and Chris Hillman are among the fathers of the movement. McGuinn was the leader of the Byrds while the band’s bassist, Hillman, was a veteran bluegrass mandolinist who played with brothers Rex and Vern Gosdin. They were initially called The Golden State Boys (and later on The Blue Diamond Boys before settling on The Hillmen), but in 1964, Hillman left to take up a bass position as a member of the Byrds.
Of course, there were traces of it beforehand too. Bob Dylan’s 1966 double-album Blonde on Blonde is arguably the first attempt at bridging the gap between country and rock music. No, the songs didn’t really sound like traditional country at the time, but Dylan recruited Nashville stalwarts such as Wayne Moss, Charlie McCoy and Hargus “Pig” Robbins. Dylan pushed in an even more country direction on 1967’s John Wesley Harding along with 1969’s Nashville Skyline, an album which even features Johnny Cash on the first song, “Girl From The North Country.”
McGuinn and Hillman were looking to explore the country music genre after Crosby and Clark departed the band (along with drummer Michael Clarke), so they employed Parsons as a salaried concert keyboardist (it’s important to note he was never an official member of the band), the driving force behind their landmark album, 1968’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The album, featuring songs by George Jones, Woody Guthrie, Merle Haggard, Cindy Walker, Bob Dylan and The Louvin Brothers, featured only moderate sales to begin with, but it also opened the gate for future country-rock releases.
Remember how Nashville wasn’t too keen on those ol’ hippies? Well it sure did show as Columbia Records snagged a guest spot for the Byrds on the Grand Ole Opry on March 15, 1968. They were neatly dressed and even sang “Sing Me Back Home” by Merle Haggard along with Parsons’ own “Hickory Wind,” but the audience still reacted either viciously or not at all just because they were hippies (By the way, leave it to the great Marty Stuart to now perform at the Opry with Clarence White’s guitar).
A visit with a hostile Ralph Emery even inspired McGuinn and Parsons to write a song called “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man.” Indeed the divide between the country and rock worlds has much less to do with the actual music and more with the supposed political affiliations of the two genres. The artists themselves want to play the music they want to play. Yet the loud minority of fans shouting about politics or left vs. right creates a divide the artists don’t actually want.
Still, country fans weren’t the only ones who didn’t care for it. Regular Byrds’ fans were confused by the band’s transition, but Parsons was quite serious in his endeavor, leading him to leave the group that same year to form the Flying Burrito Brothers (accompanied later by Hillman) and later, a solo career.
Despite his creative genius, Parsons never could latch onto a mass audience. Yet although Parson failed to make much of a commercial impact, his influence was certainly large. He palled around with Keith Richards. As we will discuss shortly, he also made a heavy impression on Emmylou Harris before meeting a tragic end among the Joshua Trees.
Instead, it was his rivals, the Eagles that attained the success. Originally beginning as Linda Ronstadt’s backing band, the Eagles went on to have many hits on the charts. Ironically, the Eagles would later distance themselves from the country-rock moniker. Bernie Leadon (also of the Flying Burrito Brothers) left the band and was replaced by Joe Walsh. Walsh brought the harder rocking sound the Eagles were looking for.
As for Ronstadt, she recorded her own country-rock album in Hand Sown … Home Grown in 1969, with 1970’s Silk Purse pushing her even further into country. With guest appearances on The Grand Ole Opry and The Johnny Cash Show, it was no wonder she eventually went on to have a hit with Hank Williams’ “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You) in 1974. “When Will I Be Loved” followed the next year to become her first №1 on the country charts.
But country-rock wasn’t just a sound that rockers were gravitating toward or an avenue for further success. There was an authentic effort made by many in the rock world to appreciate, understand, and record music that paid tribute to the country artists that were inspiring them. From Gram Parsons being present during the recording of the Rolling Stones epic album Exile on Main St. to the Beatles aforementioned cover of “Act Naturally,” these rock artists weren’t just playing dress up- they wanted to record serious country rock. And out of that came another rocker with serious hippie cred- Neil Young.
Neil Young had rural, country roots in his blood. Growing up in rural Ontario, Young was influenced by both the early country rockers on the radio like Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis and the rural surroundings of his childhood.
The combination of hippie lifestyle and rockabilly musical influences melted together and allowed Young to record one of the landmark country rock albums in music history- Harvest. Filled with classics like “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold,” the album was a sentinel moment in music. Sparse production and a touch of country instrumentation made it a perfect country rock record. And as far as I’m concerned, “Harvest,” the title track, was down the line country music. Johnny Cash would later cover “Heart of Gold” while Waylon would record “Are You Ready For The Country?” as the title track of his 1976 album.
Even the Rolling Stones got in on the action. Their love for George Jones was and is well-known. But Gram Parson was also hanging around with the band, and the Stones would record country rock songs as diverse as “Dead Flowers” (later poignantly covered by Townes van Zandt), “Sweet Virginia,” and “Wild Horses.” Keith Richards’ love for country music is now well documented with the guitarist penning and speaking great tributes to both The Possum and The Hag. They even covered Waylon’s “Bob Wills Is Still The King” during a tour stop in Texas. You see, again, these rockers weren’t trying to make a mockery of country. They were embracing it. Ironic, isn’t it? While the youths of America were calling it uncool, their rock idols were turning to it for inspiration.
Emmylou Harris, a protege of Parsons, is one of the few artists to crossover into country music (not counting the many rock acts who’ve tried to make the jump just to salvage their careers). From folk, to rock, to pop and finally country, Harris’ contributions to the genre have been undeniable. She sang harmony on Parson’s 1973 album, GP and later recorded with him on 1974’s Grievous Angel. Parson’s death of a drug overdose left her understandably devastated. Can you imagine losing your closest friend at a young age? Parsons was 26 at the time of his death.
Harris’ own debut album, 1975’s Pieces of the Sky is another masterpiece in country-rock history. It took the common themes of country music such as home values and hard work and put a modern spin on it. It’s been described by some as a mixture of Appalachian string-band instruments, Bakersfield country, and rockabilly. She even dedicated “Boulder To Birmingham” to her late friend.
One could have a field day examining the members of her band as well. One musician who joined her band as a rhythm guitarist was none other than Rodney Crowell who would go on to have his own success in the ’80s with five number one singles on the album Diamonds & Dirt. He would later be replaced by Ricky Skaggs. Harris’ bassist, Emory Gordy Jr., became a producer who interwove the sound on records by the likes of Patty Loveless and Steve Earle. Her pianist, Tony Brown, became an MCA executive who signed and produced albums by Loveless and Earle as well as Marty Stuart, Joe Ely, Nanci Griffith and Lyle Lovett. Much like the aforementioned artists of country-rock, all of the artists listed here were also looking to pursue innovation in country music. Luckily, they also enjoyed chart success while doing it. All of them would also be important for country music’s rebound after the Urban Cowboy movement.
The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo might not have attracted any attention from Nashville, but another group of long-haired visionaries did. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band loved and respected the honesty and beauty of the older strains of country music and understood its importance. But despite their name being on the record, their excellent instrumental work throughout, and singing lead on four of the 38 songs that comprise these three LPs on their 1972 album, Will The Circle Be Unbroken, it’s hard to call this their album. You see, the masters they wished to pay tribute to were still around and still had plenty to say, so perhaps the best thing the band did here was step out of the way and give the legends a platform to show the music-buying audience how it’s done.
The folks on this album include country music’s matriarch Mother Maybelle Carter, the king of country music Roy Acuff, the king of bluegrass Jimmy Martin, three of the most influential guitarists in the history of the genre (Carter, Merle Travis and Doc Watson), the most important banjo player of all time (Earl Scruggs), Acuff’s longtime dobro player Bashful Brother Oswald, multi-instrumentalist Norman Blake, fiddle virtuoso Vassar Clements, legendary Nashville session bassist Junior Huskey, and, of course, the Dirt Band themselves who were not amateurs by any stretch.
Despite the fact that Bill Monroe turned down the opportunity to appear on the album, as soon as Jimmy Martin kicks things off with “The Grand Ole Opry Song,” you get the feeling that the ghosts of Jimmie Rodgers, A.P. Carter, Hank Williams, Uncle Dave Macon, Cowboy Copas, Carter Stanley, Red Foley, Ira Louvin, and so many others are right in the room with them and having one hell of a good time. That feeling only grows stronger when Maybelle begins playing “Keep On the Sunny Side.”
The end result was an album that brought traditional country music deep into the lives of a whole new set of fans. Call it a bridging of the gap, because even though Acuff wasn’t too keen at first to join, he loved that this music was being exposed to people who may not have otherwise heard it.
When talking about the country-rock movement, Nashville and L.A. usually get all of the attention. One of the most diverse melting pots during this time, however, was stationed in Austin, Texas. Cajun, western-swing, blues, honky-tonk … these were just a few of the ingredients. Doug Sahm in particular bridged the gap between the psychedelic scene and the dusty bars of San Antonio with the Sir Douglas Quintet. Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen were playing their own brand of honky-tonk infused rock at the Armadillo where Willie Nelson would later jump-start his country career.
It was also a place of musical gatherings. Between outdoor festivals and Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnics and Dripping Springs reunions, people were coming together over a love of music. Artists like Tom T. Hall, Billy Joe Shaver and Waylon Jennings regularly showed up to these events that catered to both bikers and hippies. Of course, it wasn’t the first time this happened. Bluegrass festivals in the ’60s brought country fans and folkies together and were mostly marketed toward young people.
Though the country rock scene did seem to peak in the mid to late 70s, the genre would live on. Steve Earle championed country rock throughout the 80s and 90s with landmark albums like Guitar Town and Copperhead Road. X, The Blasters, and Los Lobos were all early influences on the legendary career of Dwight Yoakam in 1980s Los Angeles. Country rock proved quite influential to the alternative country movement in the early 90s, with Uncle Tupelo drawing from both the Carter Family and 80s punk. Son Volt and Wilco would later carry on the torch with artist like The Black Keys, Old 97s, and Ryan Adams coming along. A diverse group of artists to be certain, but each borrowed something from country rock. Even a Red Dirt group like Turnpike Troubadours can thank country rock for its influence. Listen to a song like “The Winding Stair Mountain Blues” or “Before The Devil Knows We’re Dead.” That’s modern country rock.
In closing, country rock cannot be defined. But you know it when you hear it. The artists mentioned above are just a small sliver of the genre. Spread across several decades, country rock’s influence was large, important, and spurred revolution in country music itself when it was in desperate need of something fresh. Country rock has become a crucial part of both country and rock’s own history- another magical piece of the musical puzzle.