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Genre Playlist: Country Rock

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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.

The Byrds: Sweetheart Of The Rodeo (1968)   Gram Parsons: Grievous Angel (1973)   Charlie Daniels Band: Fire On The Mountain (1975)   Flying Burrito Brothers: Burrito Deluxe (1970)

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.

Michael Nesmith: Magnetic South (1970)   The Eagles: Desperado (1973)   Nitty Gritty Dirt Band: Will the Circle Be Unbroken (1972)   Firefall: Firefall (1976)

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.

The Everly Brothers: Roots (1968)   Linda Ronstadt: Linda Ronstadt (1971)   New Riders Of The Purple Sage: New Riders Of The Purple Sage (1971)   International Submarine band: Safe At Home (1968)

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.

Emmylou Harris: Elite Hotel (1975)   Swampwater: Swampwater (1970)   Bob Dylan: John Wesley Harding (1968)   Dillard & Clark: The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark (1969)

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
The Flying Burrito Brothers: Gilded Palace Of Sin (1969)
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: Pickin' Up the Pieces (1969)
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: The Eagles (1972)
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: Nashville Skyline (1969)
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 Byrds: The Notorious Byrd Brothers (1968)
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
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band:  Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy (1970)
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
Neil Young: Harvest (1972)
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
Pure Prairie League: Bustin' Out (1972)
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
Amazing Rhythm Aces: Stacked Deck (1975)
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: Lost In The Ozone (1971)
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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About uao


    You show a picture of NRPS’s album cover, but they don’t make the playlist? For shame, especially after wasting a slot on the Eagles.
    Other than that, great list and a great article, country-rock is a hard niche to explain, but I know it when I hear it,m and I know what I like.

  • Eric Olsen

    really great list, though I agree with Ski on the New Riders, although I certainly don’t see the Eagles as a wasted spot. “Lonesome LA Cowboy” “Panama Red” – kind of hard to leave off the Dead and the Band also! Linda’s “Long Long Time” is about as drenched in romantic despair as it gets.

  • uao

    I love NRPS as much as the next guy (and a lot more than the Eagles). But a top-10 without the biggest selling band of the genre would get the Eagles fans on my case. And there’s millions of ’em.

    I’d boost these lists to a dozen if there were just one more hour in a day.

  • Eric Olsen

    not a criticism, just tossing in thoughts and additions to lighten your load

  • uao

    I probably shoulda stuck a 😉 on my last comment. I encourage argument about who should or shouldn’t qualify on these lists; it’s 11-20 where the music gets interesting in any genre.

    I also realize I found no space for the Ozark Mountain Daredevils.

  • One person who deserves a nod in the early days of country rock is none other than Mike Nesmith. There were some dandy country-inflected tunes penned or co-penned by Nesmith, not just “Different Drum”, but some cool tracks on the first and second Monkees albums as well – “Papa Gene’s Blues”, “Sweet Young Thing”, “The Kind Of Girl I Could Love”. Nesmith’s work with The First National Band was also seminal in the history of country rock.

    And let’s not forget Buffalo Springfield….

  • Eric Olsen

    TP, good point about Mike N, I don’t think of Buffalo Springfield as overtly country as the others, more like rootsy psychedelia (or something)


    Seems to me that these days anyone who sings with a southern accent gets hung with a “country” tag. You want some modern country rock, check out Mofro.

  • Great piece. Janis Joplin’s recording of “Me and Bobby McGee” (1971) might have been worth a mention – I’d consider it a real classic of country-rock (and proof that Janis could do pretty much anything.)

    For another more recent (if short-lived) success, Maria McKee and Lone Justice come to mind.

  • Good grief, the Eagles! And no mention of Canned Heat or CSN&Y. Tell me: do you prefer decaf or the real thing?

  • uao

    I drink a dozen cups of the real thing a day, hans; I’m wired. But I usually drink it tepid– like my remarks about the Eagles 😉


    I wouldn’t consider either of the above to be country rock.

  • Antfreeze

    There were a couple other little bands you might have heard of too. Skynard and Marshall Tucker. Allman Bros. etc. etc.

  • Eric Olsen

    I would be careful to distinguish primarily “Southern rock” from what is in reality “Western rock”

  • Vern Halen

    Love this genre. I don’t know if the Byrds cover of Goin’ Back is country rock at all, not to my ears anyways, but to each his own.

    I’m always amazed at how Gram Parsons hijacked the Byrds & turned them into a country rock outfit overnight. He must’ve been very charismatic, or maybe Roger McGuinn was ready for the change. The Byrds later work, although it qualifies as country rock, I think pales in comparison to Sweetheart, but there are those who think it’s great. Once again, to each his own.

  • Taloran

    Several folk artists of the day crossed into country rock as well – Gordon Lightfoot and Jonathan Edwards immediately come to mind.

    Both “folk” and “country rock” are used loosely here.

    I do not think of Canned Heat as a country-rock outfit, but rather blues-rock, leaning towards blues. While CSN(&Y) have certainly recorded their share of countrified music, I think it’s a bit of a stretch to label them country-rock. Hot Tuna did some country-influenced stuff too, but I don’t think they fit in the category either.

  • country music has quietly, without much fuss, became my favourite music over the last few years, much to the disdain of my ex-fiancee, but the hell does she care, since the jock sonnabitch on the arm now most likely only listens to stuff about fuck you, ho, in detuned E.

    Anyhow, i don’t make any distinction really between alt. country, country-rock etc. the only distinction i make is between country and glossy nashville pish.

    great stuff here, although i do think Lay Lady Lay is a really overrated number from a really underrated album. There are much better songs on there, i think.

    As for Burrito Brothers, it’s have to be Hot Burrito #2 for me, and i’d need Parsons’ solo Return Of The Grevious Angel, one of the most infectiously hauntingly beautiful things he ever wrote. I dig the importance of Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, but i think it’s a fairly patchy record, sadly.

  • Vern Halen

    I recently saw Festival Express, and was amazed at how the Dead, the Band, etc. so easily moved between rock & country/folk. In fact, after a while, it seemed to be all of a seamless piece. Even blues artist Buddy uy fit right in there. I guess sticking music into different genres wasn’t a priority in those days. We should all be so lucky.

  • crooked spine

    I thought Festival Express was a fascinating movie. I actually drove two hours just to see that movie, back before it was released on DVD. (Had I known that it was soon gonna be at my local video rental shop, I wouldn’t have bothered!) The scene on the train where Rick Danko & Janis Joplin are singing along with the Dead’s guitarists was especially memorable.

  • As far as more current music goes, I would say that the Silver Jews are probably the best contender for the top “country rock” band around. They combine a very country/folk sound with a sort of slacker rock a la Pavement (coincidentally, two of the original members of the band were in Pavement and Stephen Malkmus has appeared on a couple albums, including their upcoming release). They’re not only the best of the current “country rock” scene, but one of my personal favorite bands as well. American Water and Bright Flight are their two best albums, in my opinion, with AW leaning a bit more towards the rock side (and featuring Malkmus on several tracks, including singing lead vocals) and BF being more straightforward country/alt-country (and no Malkmus to be seen).


    I am so glad I got to see most of the Band (-Robbie Robertson) perform live, they were truly more than 5 guys playing together, and they had their own sound, but they could back anyone and sound just right. While “The Last Waltz” is a great live recording, fans of Dylan or the Band should definitely give a listen to “Before the Flood”.

  • HW Saxton

    How odd that no one has mentioned C.C.R
    yet. So many of their hit tunes were or
    are C&W/Rockabilly influenced.”Bad Moon
    Rising” is a straight cop from Elvis’s
    “Sun Sessions”,”Looking Out My Back Door
    is as country as it is pop,it even name
    checks Buck Owens, “Lodi” is straight up
    C&W. The “Willie & The Poor Boys” LP has
    a great version of “Cotton Fields” and
    to call “Down On The Corner” C&W tinged
    wouldn’t be much of a stretch.

    Then, there is also the great “Wrote A
    Song For Everyone” a country/folk tune
    on “Green River”,straight up Rockabilly
    covers of Roy Orbison’s “Ooby Dooby’ and
    the Elvis version of Arthur Crudup’s “My
    Baby Left Me” on the “Cosmo’s Factory
    album. And that’s just to mention a few
    tunes off the top of my head. There is
    also a CD of CCR’s country influenced
    material”Creedence Country” that bears
    witness to this and rocks about 10 times
    harder than such aural swill listed here
    like “The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band”,”Pure
    Prairie League” et al to say the least.
    Both of which groups were only one-shot
    wonders at best.Country “influenced”,OK
    if you insist but,rocking? NO Way.

    John Fogerty’s “Blue Ridge Rangers” LP
    is even more directly C&W and a lot more
    rocking with hi energy covers of tunes
    by Webb Pierce,George Jones,Dickie Lee,
    Red Foley & Hank Williams Sr.Of course,
    theres the great and somewhat bluegrass
    influenced title track.Yet,there’s not
    even a mention to either CCR or of John
    Fogerty here.This seems like something
    of an oversight to me.Or just a matter
    of personal taste I guess.

    Most of the aforementioned acts were not
    even really “C&W” influenced and surely
    did not “Rock” in any sense of the word
    but were more like remnants of the Folk
    scenes of the early/mid 1960’s with such
    acts like Commander Cody,The Flying BB’s
    and later Byrds being the most obvious
    exceptions here.I’d also give mention to
    “Asleep At The Wheel” who came out about
    the same time as did Commander Cody and
    who were mining a similar vein of C&W,
    Western Swing and Rockabilly.Just my two
    cents worth,that’s all.

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  • MRF Usher

    Bob Dylan is mentioned many times, but what about The Band. Their “Up on Cripple Creek”, “Ophelia”, “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” epitomized the rock band experimentation into country music in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Their music brought in so many types of music including rock, blues, jazz, bluegrass, R & B and good old fashioned country music. They were giants of the era, although their rep was they were Dylan’s backup group. They were a highlight of the era. It is really too bad they will never get Robbie Robertson and Levan Helm on the same stage again.
    We will also miss Rick Danko and Richard Manuel, may they rest in peace.