Distinct from Alternative Country, Progressive County, Cowpunk, Psychobilly, No Depression, and Outlaw Country, all of which represent countrified rock or rockified country, the basic genre “country-rock” refers to the first wave of artists who blurred the dividing line between traditional country and contemporary rock styles. From 1968 to about 1975, country-rock was one of the biggest selling genres in rock, with fully mainstream artists like The Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, and Neil Young working in the idiom.
At its heart it was essentially country music, filtered through the rock experience; amplification, big backbeat, countercultural lyrical concerns, emphasis on hooks.
Rock ‘n’ roll, after all, was originally the marriage of blues and country; Muddy Waters plus Hank Williams, so to speak. By the time of the British Invasion, rock and country had gone their separate ways. Country audiences didn’t dig the Beatles’ long hair and British accents, and rock fans didn’t dig country’s corniness and redneck machismo.
The rift was a cultural one, more than a musical one. The styles remained more similar than dissimilar; even the British bands like the Beatles played some country music on their albums.
However, the true forefather of the genre is Gram Parsons, who died in 1973 at the age of 26, but managed in his short, tragic life to ignite what would turn into a multimillion dollar rock subgenre, and also bridge the gulf between the two styles, which were cousins after all.
Parsons, with his International Submarine Band, recorded what most consider to be the very first country-rock record ever, Safe At Home in 1967. The album went nowhere, but gained notice among musicians in particular, who were impressed by the convincing country music played by this rock group. In particular, 20-year old Floridian and Harvard theology major dropout Parsons seemed visionary beyond his years.
At about this time, the Byrds were undergoing a major lineup reshuffle. Up to this point identified as kings of the folk-rock movement, the Byrds invited Parsons to join. This shifted their sound dramatically from folk-rock to country, and their 1968 album with Parsons, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, was considered the first true country-rock album to receive mainstream attention. The country artists they drew from stylistically mainly were from the Bakersfield school; Merle Haggard, Buck Owens. The spirit was one of exploration.
Parsons and original Byrd Chris Hillman would soon depart, and form their own band, The Flying Burrito Brothers. Their 1969 debut, The Gilded Palace of Sin was another country-rock effort that didn’t sell many copies but influenced a wide range of musicians. Folkie Bob Dylan would release “Lay Lady Lay” and his countrified Nashville Skyline in 1969. Keith Richards befriended Parsons, and the two spent much time together; Parson’s influence can be heard all over the Stones’ 1971 release Sticky Fingers. The Grateful Dead released two heavily countrified albums in 1970, Workingman’s Dead, and American Beauty.
1969-1970 is when country rock broke into the mainstream. Buffalo Springfield dabbled in it, and much of Neil Young’s early solo music is informed by country more than folk. Poco released a successful debut album with strong country leanings. The original Flying Burrito Brothers would eventually break up, with Bernie Leadon joining the Eagles, and two members joining Stephen Stills’ Manassas, a country-rock vehicle.
While none of this led to much acceptance among country audiences, it did gain some. The cultures remained different; for rock listeners, country represented an organic back-to-the-earth movement of sorts, a chill-out from the intensity of the 60’s. As such, it never truly crossed over to the point of integrated rock and country audiences; the cultures and attitudes remained different, with attitudes towards the Vietnam war in particular, largely divergent.
By the time Parsons died in 1973, country rock was at its peak; a look at the charts from that year will reveal dozens of country-rock or country influenced tunes; by mid 70’s country had gone mainstream pop as well, with lightweight AM acts like Firefall, Michael Murphey, David Loggins, and the Australian Olivia Newton-John scoring huge country flavored hits.
But as with the blues-rock rediscovery, country-rock’s supremecy would ultimately wane and disappear altogether. As the 80’s began, the pop charts were virtually devoid of country hits, and rock had gone new wave. Still, in the shadows, a new generation of indie bands like the Long Ryders and Green On Red began grafting country to a post-punk aesthetic, others like Gun Club mixed rockabilly with punk, Steve Earle would score country-rock hits for a major label; it wouldn’t be long before a new wave of country rock developed, spawning the cowpunk, psychobilly, alternative country, and No Depression subgenres. And greater integration between rock and country audiences.
Some important or influential artists and songs from the first country-rock era:
1. Flying Burrito Brothers: Juanita
It’s hard to choose a representitive song off this outstanding debut, the material is that strong. The influence this album had on influential musicians cannot be overstated, even if the album itself might seem somewhat unexciting to the modern listener. For those who tune into it, it is a treasure. A near perfect blending of country music and light psychedelic rock, it is a showcase for the talents of Gram Parsons, who delivers these weepers with conviction, and Chris Hillman, who supplies the perfect harmonies. It only reached #164 on the charts, but The Eagles would take a similar formula to megastardom.
2. Poco: Pickin’ Up The Pieces
Poco was formed from the ashes of Buffalo Springfield after Neil Young and Stephen Stills departed. Guitarist/singer Richard Furay and bassist Jim Messina put together this band in 1969 with steel guitarist Rusty Young, drummer George Grantham, and future Eagle Randy Meisner. Meisner left the band before this debut album, which was recorded as a quartet. The album peaked at #63, a respectable showing at the time for an overtly countrified album. The band was originally called Pogo, but Pogo cartoonist Walt Kelly objected. Fans of The Eagles might like Poco.
3. The Eagles: Take It Easy
The Eagles were megaplatinum titans; their anthology, Greatest Hits 1971-1975 remains the biggest selling album of all time. Very derivative of the country rock that earlier L.A. bands like Poco (Randy Meisner’s old band) and the Flying Burrito Brothers (Bernie Leadon’s old band) played, the Eagles rocked a little harder, and provided richer hooks; as a result they found the formula that would make them millions. Don Henley had been in the band Shiloh, and Glenn Frey had been a backing musician for Bob Seger. The four met while backing Linda Ronstadt, and formed the Eagles. “Take It Easy” was their first hit, reaching #12, and remains one of their freshest; a primary example of the genre.
4. Bob Dylan: Lay Lady Lay
Bob Dylan seemed to be heading towards country with his previous album, John Wesley Harding, but with the 1969 release of Nashville Skyline, his country experimentation became explicit. “Lay Lady Lay” is an enduring country song, sung in a rich croon that Dylan had never before displayed (and seldom since used), and remains one of his most beloved songs. The album charted at #3 and the single made it to #7, making this one of Dylan’s best chart showings ever, and it helped establish country-rock as a commercially viable style.
5. The Byrds: Goin’ Back
The addition of Gram Parsons to the Byrds in 1968, and their subsequent album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, were milestones in the development of country rock. In fact, the Byrds had been dabbling in country rock before Parsons’ arrival, on their The Notorious Byrd Brothers album from early 1968. “Goin’ Back”, a Gerry Goffin/Carole King tune, gets an unlikely but authentic sounding country treatment, with pedal steel guitar augmenting the band. This song has been covered by some notable artists, including Dusty Springfield, Nils Lofgrin, and Richard Thompson.
6. Nitty Gritty Dirt Band: Mr. Bojangles
The longest lived country-rock group of them all, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has recorded and released albums regularly from 1967 to the current day. Originally a folkie jug-band, they developed a countrified sound by 1970, incorporating such non-rock instruments as a mandolin and banjo comfortably into their sound. Their cover of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” was a top-10 smash; the rest of this album consists of a diverse collection of originals and cover versions of Michael Nesmith, Randy Newman, and Kenny Loggins songs. The band focused on the country audience from the late 70’s onward, and had an incredible string of 14 consecutive top-10 country hits in the 1980’s.
7. Neil Young: Heart Of Gold
Harvest, the only #1 album of Neil Young’s long and storied career, is primarily a country rock album, but like much of Young’s works, veers off in other directions, too. “Heart of Gold” is an honest piece of strongly Nashville-inspired material, deceptively simple and to the point, with prominant pedal steel and harmonica. It was also the only #1 single of Young’s career; for many, Harvest remains a favorite Neil Young album. Young himself dismissed it in his liner notes to Decade, calling it “middle of the road”, and consciously moved back towards harder rock.
8. Pure Prairie League: Aimee
Bustin’ Out, the second offering from Ohio’s Pure Prairie League, initially flopped upon its 1972 release, prompting RCA to drop the group from its roster. However, in an odd turn of good fortune, the band’s touring paid off, and the album’s single “Aimee” began getting radio airplay two years after its release, prompting RCA to re-sign them, unfortunately without leader Craig Fuller, who would turn up in a new band, American Flyer. “Aimee” is a pretty irresistable slice of country-rock confection; instantly hummable, it became a staple of country-rock bar bands around the country.
9. Amazing Rhythm Aces: Third Rate Romance
Formed in Memphis, the Amazing Rhythm Aces represented a rootsier, closer-to-the-source brand of country-rock unlike the more pop oriented west coast bands. Steeped in a soulful southern-rock sound, and employing country instrumentation and covering the likes of Charlie Rich, the band managed to place records on the country chart as well, becoming a true crossover for a brief period. “Third Rate Romance” reached #14 on the pop charts, and #11 on the country charts.
10. Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen: Hot Rod Lincoln
Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen were perhaps the hardest rocking of all the early 70’s country-rock acts. Their music was a mix of basic, rootsy R&B flavored 50’s rock cut with sweaty, tough country numbers. “Hot Rod Lincoln” was a fluke hit, reaching #9 on the pop charts, although the band never came close to repeating that success. Commander Cody (George Frayne IV) disbanded the group in 1976, but continues to tour and record today.
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