This post is inspired by an e-mail from reader Tom who took issue with my off-the-cuff comment in an earlier post that Gram Parsons “wrote the book” on country rock. I had been referring to Parsons' work with The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, & as a solo act, and wrongly implied that Parsons invented country rock. Tom, who knows his stuff, pointed out that several country rock songs were released before The Byrds put country-rock on the map in the Summer of 1968 with Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
This got me thinking about who did invent country rock? Let's look back at the period between 1954 (when rock and roll was first popularized) through 1968 (Sweetheart) to see if we can find an answer to that burning question.
Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968)
Sweetheart of the Rodeo, released in the Summer of 1968, was the Byrds first and only LP made with country-rock icon Gram Parsons. While Sweetheart may not have been the first instance of country rock, its released marked the arrival of country-rock as a full-fledged "style."
Here is Gram Parsons' vocal and songwriting highlight from Sweetheart:
The Byrds - Hickory Wind (buy album) (1968).
Hickory Wind played a key role in the The Byrd’s legendary March 15, 1968 visit to the Grand Ole Opry. Read about it here.
Here's a video of The Byrds (sans Parsons) performing another song from the same album. On this cover of Bob Dylan’s You Ain’t Going Nowhere, The Byrds are joined by bluegrass great Earl Scruggs:
Now let's turn back the years...
Rock and Roll’s Origins (Elvis Presley, The Everly Brothers, & Jerry Lee Lewis)
All music styles are combinations of earlier styles. Rock and roll is a mixture of country, blues and R&B. Country's influence can be heard in Elvis Presley's cover of this Bill Monroe classic:
Elvis Presley - Blue Moon Of Kentucky (buy album) (1954).
The Everly Brothers were another early rock group with a strong country element, and they also served as a key influence on The Beatles and Gram Parsons.
The Everly Brothers - When Will I Be Loved (buy album) (1960).
After the peak of their popularity in the early 1960’s, the Everly Brothers re-located to California and, in 1968, released a great "lost" country-rock LP called Roots
Another early rock and roll great heavily inspired by country music was Jerry Lee Lewis. Check out this Hank Williams cover from Jerry Lee's incredible Live at the Star Club.
Jerry Lee Lewis – Your Cheating Heart (Hank Williams cover) (buy album) (1964).
Here's another Sun Record star, Johnny Cash, playing one of his greatest country/rock hits: VIDEO - Folsum Prison Blues (Live).
With country-influenced artists like Elvis, The Everly Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Buddy Holly (who learned to sing copying Hank Williams' Lovesick Blues) present at the birth of "rock," it's easy to see why rock was such a fertile ground for the development "country rock" as a distinct style.
Beatles fanatics claim that the Fab Four invented pretty much every recent style of popular music from folk-rock to psychedelic to heavy metal. When it comes to country rock (another claimed Beatles innovation) they might have something of a point. Steve Earle called Beatles For Sale the “hillbilly Beatles record.” It's no question that The Beatles were fans of country music and incorporated some country sounds into their music. Their record contract apparently included a provision calling for them to receive advance copies of all Buck Owens’ releases. You can hear some Beatles' twang in this track from the Hard Day’s Night soundtrack:
The Beatles – I’ll Cry Instead (buy album) (1964).
More twangy Beatles' songs from 1964-1966 include I’m A Loser, Baby’s In Black, Honey Don’t (Carl Perkins cover), I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party, Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby (Rex Griffin cover), Act Naturally (Buck Owens cover), I’ve Just Seen a Face, Run For Your Life, and What Goes On.
Here's a video of Ringo doing his best Buck Owens: VIDEO - Act Naturally (Live).
The pre-Sweetheart Byrds
Interestingly enough, one of the most proficient country-rock acts before Sweetheart was The Byrds themselves. They exhibited a country influence from the very start of their recording career, primarily due to the influence of Chris Hillman, who later left the band with Gram Parsons to form the Flying Burrito Brothers. Here are three country-rock songs from three albums released before Sweetheart.
The Byrds – Mr. Spaceman (buy album) (1966).
The Byrds – Time Between (buy album) (1967).
The Byrds – Wasn't Born To Follow (buy album) (1968).
The Byrds also covered the country standard Satisfied Mind on their second album, Turn! Turn! Turn! in 1965.
While Gram Parsons may have pushed The Byrds into making an entire album of country music, it probably took only a slight nudge, especially with Hillman's help.
Gene Clark & The Gosdin Brothers
Gene Clark left the Byrds in 1966 to pursue a solo career. His first effort was an excellent, but unappreciated, country-rock album called Gene Clark With The Gosdin Brothers. The Gosdin Brothers were a bluegrass duo who went on to record an important country rock album of their own in 1968 called Sounds of Goodbye. Also featured on Gene Clark's first solo album were Chris Hillman, brilliant country guitarist Clarence White, and Doug Dillard of The Dillards (later a collaborator with Gene Clark on The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark)
Gene Clark – Tried So Hard (buy album)(1967).
The Gosdin Brothers later recorded this killer country-rock track (which went unreleased until 2006):
The Gosdin Brothers – Georgia (buy album) (1969).
The International Submarine Band
Gram Parsons first release came as the leader of the International Submarine Band. ISB formed on the East coast as The Like and were coaxed by Parsons to move west where they eventually broke up. Shortly after they broke up, Parsons and guitarist John Nuese obtained a recording contract from Lee Hazlewood's LHI label and, with new member Chris Ethridge, recorded the country-rock album Safe At Home under the International Submarine Band name. Shortly after the album was released Parsons joined The Byrds, dooming Safe At Home to obscurity for years.
The music on Safe At Home is great country-rock. There are some great Parsons originals, such as Blue Eyes and Luxury Liner, as well as a number of well-played country covers, like Miller's Cave and Do You Know How It Feels To Be Lonesome?
International Submarine Band – Luxury Liner (1968)
International Submarine Band – Miller's Cave (1968)
There is a good article about the International Submarine Band in Oxford American.
Ian Dunlop, an original member of the International Submarine Band is quoted in Ben Fong-Torres' book Hickory Wind saying that Ray Charles 1965 album Country and Western meets Rhythm and Blues was "key" in breaking the barriers between the band members and getting them "into this amalgram of truer country music, but with a rock or a slight rhythm-and-blues treatment."
Ray Charles – I've Got A Tiger By The Tail (Buck Owens cover) (buy album) (1965).
From the Country Side (Buck Owens & The Dillards)
Country-rock did not only develop on the rock side. Country music also changed in the 1960's as a reaction to the popularity of rock music. A number of acts added drums and became more electricfied. The leader of this movement on the country side was Bakersfield California's Buck Owens.
Buck Owens – My Heart Skips A Beat (buy album) (1964).
Here's a video of Buck Owens and Don Rich from 1966: VIDEO - Love's Gonna Live Here (Live).
In the meantime, The Dillards were experimenting with a combination of blue grass and folk/pop/rock. Here's one from their masterpiece Wheatstraw Suite:
The Dillards – Reason To Believe (Tim Hardin cover) (buy album) (1968).
Bob Dylan was heavily influenced by Hank Williams and famously recorded a number of songs with Johnny Cash. He was also a major innovator during the Sixties. So it’s not surprising that he was involved in the birth of country rock when he released the LP John Wesley Harding in late 1967:
Bob Dylan – I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight (buy album) (1967).
Here's a gum-chewing (?) Bob Dylan with Johnny Cash: VIDEO - One Too Many Mornings.
Pioneering Sixties Rock Bands
The Byrds and The Beatles were not the only major 1960s rock bands to dabble in country sounds. Here are four more bands from the same era:
The Lovin' Spoonful - Nashville Cats (buy album) (1966).
I just love this tune. It's a grower, but a quick one. After a few listens I was completely hooked. I especially like the line: "Well there's 1,352 guitar pickers in Nashville, and they can pick more notes than the number of ants on a Tennessee anthill. Yea, there's 1,352 guitar cases in Nashville, and anyone that unpacks his guitar can play twice as better than I will...."
Buffalo Springfield – Go And Say Goodbye (buy album) (1966).
Neil Young's, Steven Still's, and Richie Furay's first band is probably second only to The Byrds as a driving force behind country rock.
Moby Grape – Ain't No Use (buy album) (1967). (The extended remastered version is out of print as a CD, but still can be downloaded from Amazon.)
For more about this great album see here.
The Band - Long Black Veil (buy album) (1968).
The Band had been mining American roots music for years while working as The Hawks and backing Bob Dylan. Their first album, Music From Big Pink, released within days of The Byrds' release of Sweetheart of the Rodeo, included this cover of a Lefty Frizzell song.
The Flying Burrito Brothers – Sin City (buy album) (1969).
Special thanks to The Rising Storm for having so much great material to link to in this post.