Saturday, March 15, 2008

Who invented country rock?

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.

The Beatles

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)
(buy album).

There is a good article about the International Submarine Band in Oxford American.

Ray Charles

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

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.


No single person "invented" country rock. It's creation was the natural result of a rock musicians being open to the influence of country music, and vice versa. But I would still call Gram Parsons the face of country rock, if nothing else. Here's one of his best songs:

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.


Anonymous said...

Great post and topic, you pretty well have it all covered, it would be a wonderful primer for those wanting to know about Country Rock.

My feelings - yes, Buddy Holly, The Everly's and The Beatles combined elements of Country with Rock, but in my opinion, The Byrds perfectly fused the two sounds to come up with a whole new one and they did it consciously, the original Space Cowboy's. I agree that Gram Parsons was the face of Country Rock and The Eagles the most renown Country Rock act, you can draw a straight line from The Byrds to them.

Paul said...

Thanks Snuh, I agree with your thoughts about the Byrds. There were always performers that combined elements of country and rock but The Byrds were among the first to do so with the intention of creating a hybrid style. The Lovin' Spoonful and Buffalo Springfield have to be included in the mix from 1966 forward.

Also, I think a lot of credit should go to Buck Owens for electrifying his country style so much. Buck Owens was the country artist that most energized the rock crowd. His music could be called rock-country.

tired said...

rock-country... lol.
This is one of the finest posts I've ever seen on a blog. killer soundtrack.

del does a really great version of nashville cats. gotta love that tune.

steve miller said...

Great post. I agree Nashville Cats is a great recording by Lovin Spoonful. Have you heard Flatt and Scruggs' version? I assume it's earlier-not sure.

scott pgwp said...

Wow, thanks for this post. Tons of stuff on here I didn't have before.

About the Byrds - I actually think Notorious Byrd Brothers is a better "country rock" album. Sweetheart is a fantastic album but it is so overtly country; Notorious was more subtle about bringing in that pedal steel and making it work in a rock scenario. "Wasn't Born to Follow," "Change is Now," and "Old John Roberton" all incorporate country into the Byrds' established sound. I think Sweetheart is a lot more elementary in terms of how it fuses the two genres together. (I think it's just because a lot of those songs just don't sound like "The Byrds" to me.)

Paul said...

Thanks Scott. I hear what you are saying about Notorious and Sweetheart. To me, the songs on Sweetheart are country songs played by a rock band. The songs on Notorious are rock songs with some country elements. The early Byrds song that is closest to being a pure mix of, say, 50% rock and 50% country might be "Time Between" from the Younger Than Yesterday album.

brendan said...

you know what else is worth a mention..

The Beau Brummels have two albums, Triangle and Bradley's Barn. Some people feel they are more country-pop, or folk, than country-rock, in any case they offered exceptionally unique contributions to the genre.

Doctor Mooney said...

Great post! Excellent blog you got over here! I added you to the 115th Dream sidebar! Long overdue!


Paul said...

Doctor Mooney, Thanks! I love your blog.

Brendan, Good point. Here's one from Triangle: The Beau Brummels – 9 Pound Hammer (mp3) (buy album)(1967).

Tired, Thanks. I just learned something new from your succinct and helpful blog.

Liz said...

I've been wanting to read something like this for a long time, thank you!

alt-gramma said...

What an enjoyable post! Entire books have been written on this subject, but how much better it is when you can actually listen to the songs being referred to.


I'm with the crowd on this one. Great post...the sounds were solid!!

I know Dylan isn't the focal point of your analysis, but since you are clearly a fan, I thought I'd introduce you to my new novel, BLOOD ON THE TRACKS, which I think you'd enjoy.

It's a murder-mystery. But not just any rock superstar is knocking on heaven's door. The murdered rock legend is none other than Bob Dorian, an enigmatic, obtuse, inscrutable, well, you get the picture...

Suspects? Tons of them. The only problem is they're all characters in Bob's songs.

You can get a copy on or go "behind the tracks" at to learn more about the book.

Bryan said...

I would also include Mike Nesmith (Monkees) into the mix...

Paul said...


I was focusing on country-rock's origins during and before 1968. My understanding was that Nesmith's contributions to the genre came later, but I could be wrong since I'm no expert on Nesmith's work.

Anonymous said...

You have omitted a key album from your analysis. Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes. Although issued officially many years later, it was available and very well known to fans and musicians as a bootleg before the term country rock was even thought of. You have to remember that country music was generally considered as red neck, right wing. Bob Dylan changed that. As you mentioned, the first official sign was on John Wesley Harding, which he then capped with Lay Lady Lay, but he saowed the seeds before that.

frankenslade said...

Great collection of songs! As you conclude, the country was always there with the rock. The real question is, who coined the term country rock?

snigger said...

Gram Parsons liked to call his style "Cosmic American Music" rather than country-rock. He was also influenced by soul and gospel. I agree country-rock was not invented. Gram's Cosmic American (Guilded Palace of Sin) was the first LP with a audible country-influence that was accepted by the mainstream. Ironically the mainstream at the time was called "underground".

Anonymous said...

Yes ,fine,thank you,
Did you hear Grateful deads American beauty and workingman's dead ?

DSZILCH said...

You seem to have forgotten one of thee key players in the game of country rock....Mike Nesmith!! Mike was incorporating country elements to the Monkees sound as early as their first album in 1966, something he would do throughout all their records. Then he formed the First NAtional Band, who were on par with the Burritos for prime grade A country rock! Nesmith!!!! Never gets the credit he deserves!!!

Anonymous said...

Somebody should start a Mike Nesmith blog.

LD said...

Excellent post. I think country-rock obviously begins in the mid-60s, but the influence of Elvis and Carl Perkins cannot be understated. Sure, Elvis' Sun work included country songs, even his lesser work at RCA featured the best working COUNTRY band in Nashville -- the hotshots at Studio B. When talking about the origins of country-rock, Elvis' studio backing band played on a billion country hits and they have to be in the discussion.

Perkins is in the discussion because it was specifically his country-to-the-bone, chicken-pickin guitar style that gobsmacked George Harrison. If The Beatles have a country influence musically ... vocally it was clearly the Everlys ... you can point straight to Carl Perkins (as well as Buck Owens, obviously). Take away George's guitar from their "country" songs and you're left with pop songs with maybe a country lilt. It's also worth noting that Carl was an integral member of Johnny Cash's band from the mid-60s thru the mid-70s and if that band ain't country-rock, country-rock doesn't exist.

Finally, I think guitar slingers like James Burton, Joe Maphis, and especially, Clarence White, never get enough love in these discussions. (I'm tempted to include Don Rich, but Buck Owens generally gets name-dropped and Rich is usually mentioned there). Regardless, these guitar badasses were a mutual admiration society ... CW actually learned to play Tele with Burton's and Maphis' direct input ... and it wasn't unusual for them to get together for after hours picking sessions that lured the likes of Gram Parsons. Also, venues like The Palomino and Nashville West in Southern California were hosting bands that blurred the lines between country and rock well before Sweetheart. In fact, White's group with fellow future Byrd, Gene Parsons, wasn't called Nashville West by accident. And NW recorded their country rock album in 1967, so on that basis alone they're in the discussion. But the roots are even deeper. Who do you think The Byrds hired to give their country-ish songs legitimacy beginning with the Younger Than Yesterday album? Clarence White. I'd go so far as to say that Clarence White's influence on the origin of country-rock is as underrated as Gram's is overrated.

Paul said...

I plead (relative) ignorance on The Monkees and Mike Nesmith. That's why we have a comment section here. Please tell me what songs released in 1968 or before are country rock. I do not consider Last Train To Clarksville to be country, but I don't know their whole catalog...

Paul said...

Id - I am with you on the whole Clarence White thing. I have been working on a separate post devoted exclusively to the importance of Clarence White. That's one of the reasons that I did not make a big deal about Clarence in this post. Also, the original intent of this post was to focus on early examples of released country-rock music. Nashville West will be featured in the Clarence White post.

Thanks for your great comments.

LD said...

Cool man, looking forward to it. I'm a total CW dork. And it's worth noting that Clarence White played with The Monkees on their mid-60s tune, Steam Engine, as Nesmith was a huge CW fan. See, the circle remains unbroken ;-)

Paul said...

Id - If there are any particular CW tracks that stand out for you as being particularly important or that you think need to be included in my CW post, please post a comment here or send me an email.



Stan Denski said...

As far as WHO coined the term.... No idea. It seems sort of generic as a description so I don't know that anyone really gets all that much credit for it.

As far as the origins.... Well, rock & roll has its origins in a multi-racial blend of black R&B and (for want of a better term) white trash country. If you want to read some interesting history, Google "ASCAP BMI wars" and see how BMI began as an ad hoc group and was signing all the people considered too raw or crude for ASCAP.

Rock & Roll has had Country Music in its DNA from its inception.

bob said...

wow- thank you

Ruby said...

As early as 1967, Mike Nesmith was recording country/rock stuff with the Monkees ("You Just May Be the One" and "Sunny Girlfriend," were released on Headquarters, and "Nine Times Blue " was recorded but not released).

Of course, the argument could be that anything he recorded with the Monkees that featured his vocals was country/rock, just on account of his voice!

Joel @ Postmodern Sounds said...

Thanks for the history. One thing I noticed in your list of examples was the interconnectedness of the people involved in developing the Byrds/Parsons/(eventually) Eagles country-rock sound. Every other example I could think up was somehow related to people already mentioned. Also, the simultaneity of much of these works in 1967-69 shows that it was much more a movement or scene than it was the work of some singular genius.

It did seem like some of your examples were specifically about the development of the Byrds/Parsons, etc. sound while others were about a more general hybridity of country and rock. I think that the Byrds/Parsons sound is but one specific manifestation of a larger tendency to mix genres. Others involving country music would be the combination of jazz and string bands in western swing and the incorporation of jump blues and boogie into 1950s country, both combinations being instrumental in the development of rock and roll.

I would like to submit one more example that I think relates directly to the Byrds/Parsons sound: the electrification of bluegrass band the Osborne Brothers in the mid-1960s. While not exactly country-rock, their incorporation of the pedal steel into more straight-ahead bluegrass instrumentation seems to me to be a precursor of the Byrds/Parsons country rock sound.

rockrobster23 said...

I listened to most of this in the order you presented yesterday, and that was an hour of fine listening.

If I had an award, I'd give it to you.

cato said...

Paul, you have outdone yourself!

Paul said...

Hey cato, great to hear from you. Thanks for the compliment!

bigrockcandymountain said...

Moon Mullican invented "Country Rock" all the way back in the late 30's through the early 50's. See "Cherokee Boogie" and "Seven Nights to Rock" in particular

Sal said...

Late add: The way I see it, Gram's greatest contribution to the sound was bringing it to the ears and instruments of more popular rock musicians at a perfect time. Country-rock existed long before him, and his enthusiasm for country seemed to become contagious only after Dylan moved towards it, starting with the curious Blonde On Blonde recording location of Nashville and culminating with Nashville Skyline. However it happened, we should all be grateful, because without a doubt, it's the country-influenced material of the late sixties/early seventies that has aged the best, which stands as a testament to roots music.

blusilva said...

Early samples of Michael Nesmith's country rock with The Monkees came from the two songs he penned on their eponymous debut: Papa Gene's Blues and Sweet Young Thing.

Anonymous said...

Keep up the GREAT WORK!

paul said...

what a great pice, i am having a country rock week on my own blog and really enjoyed this


Brent said...

Great job! Sadly it looks like none of the mp3s are working anymore.

I love finding current discussions on a style of music I sometimes feel like I am the only one listening to anymore.

Anonymous said...

I think one very underrated contribution to the Country-Rock spectrum is the band Hearts and Flowers. Their 1967 debut is a genuine example of country and rock music fused, with apparent psychedelic influences too. If you haven't heard them before I highly suggest checking them out. :)

Shooter Jennings said...

Shooter Jennings - 03-02-01 - Rock/Country Legend Continues......