Country Rock... In the Beginning

According to the Recording Industry Association of America – the organization that awards gold and platinum certifications based on the number of albums and singles sold through retail and other ancillary markets in the United States – the best-selling album of all-time is EaglesTheir Greatest Hits Eagles(1971–1975). That title, originally released in 1976, has sold over 29 million copies. In addition, the career retrospective follow-up album, Eagles Greatest Hits, Vol. 2, from 1982, has sold more than 11 million copies. Simply put, on the basis of just those two albums alone, Eagles are among the top-selling American artists ever!

….I interrupt this blog to present a syntax service announcement: the past paragraph appears to missing the word “The” in three places, all preceding “Eagles.” It has always struck me as particularly awkward that the band was named Eagles, not The Eagles, as in The Beatles, just Eagles (trust me, you can look it up). That’s weird, right? Anyway, it’s their name and they can call themselves anything they like, so Eagles it is. I now return you to your regularly-scheduled blog….

Eagles were the primary purveyors of what is commonly known as country rock. “What’s country rock,” you may ask? Or, “Is country rock, a category of country, or of rock?” Or even, “How does country rock differ from southern rock, which also shares a number of similarities with country music?” Definitions certainly vary from one source to the next, but I’ll take a quick stab. Country rock was, for the most part, a west coast phenomenon in which rock musicians began incorporating elements of country into their music. Their audience was primarily made up of rockers, but there certainly was crossover appeal to fans of other genres, such as country (naturally), pop, and easy listening (now known as adult contemporary). Unlike southern rock, which generally had a hard edge, country rock tended to be more on the mellow side.

Many claim that country rock was born when Bob Dylan went to Nashville to record John Wesley Harding in October-November 1967 (released December 27, 1967). The Dylan connection grows stronger when considering that one of the first country rock bands, The Byrds, a California-based band, had their first big hit with a cover of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” in 1965. At that time, however, The Byrds were known as the foremost progenitor of the new folk rock genre. The Byrds didn’t move into country rock until the short-lived addition of Gram Parsons in early 1968, though founding member Chris Hillman also had a background in, and love for, country music. Further Dylan influence can be seen in his relationship to a group of Canadian musicians who served as his backing band in the mid-sixties. When those musicians struck out on their own in 1967, they tried on various names before eventually becoming known simply as The Band. Like The Byrds, The Band was adding country accents to their rock and folk mix.

The first country rock album, however, may have been The International Submarine Band’s Safe at Home, which was recorded in July 1967, but not released until the following March. ISB was led by the aforementioned Parsons, an unknown singer-songwriter-guitarist whose group disbanded before their album ever hit store shelves. Safe at Home quickly became an occupant of bargain bins in the few places it was ever stocked in the first place. In the meantime, The Band finished work on Music from Big Pink, released on July 1, 1968, while The Byrds completed Sweetheart of the Rodeo, released on August 30 of the same year. Both of those albums received initial critical approval, but very sluggish sales, though they are now considered seminal albums in the country rock genre and are consistent selling back catalog titles.

After a power struggle within The Byrds between acknowledged leader Jim (later Roger) McGuinn and Parsons, the latter left the band in mid-1968, again before his latest album hit store shelves. Parsons immediately formed The Flying Burrito Brothers, and within a few weeks was joined by Hillman. Together they wrote most of the songs for The Gilded Palace of Sin, another key album in the country rock canon, released in February 1969. In mid-1969, Hillman invited singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist Bernie Leadon (pronounced Led-un) to join the band. Hillman and Leadon had played together briefly in the bluegrass band The Scottsville Squirrel Barkers in the early sixties. After two albums – the first of which was the classic Burrito Deluxe; it was also the last to feature Parsons – Leadon, disappointed by the general lack of commercial interest in the group’s product, decided to leave.

Leadon, however, didn’t depart without prospects. Moonlighting from The Flying Burrito Brothers, he had fallen in with three musicians who were serving as the backing band for folk rocker Linda Ronstadt’s 1971 summer tour. Their names were Glenn Frey, Randy Meisner, and Don Henley. Together, the four decided to push out on their own. It was allegedly Leadon who proposed the name Eagles. Leadon was instrumental in helping to define the early sound of Eagles as a country rock group, and they immediately clicked with the public. He was prominently featured on their first four albums, the ones covered by Their Greatest Hits (1971–1975). By 1975, Leadon was becoming disgruntled with what he felt was a move away from country rock toward arena rock and voluntarily left the band. Eagles would continue for several years (not counting the periodic reunions), more in the mainstream of rock, but never totally abandoning their country rock roots.

After leaving The Flying Burrito Brothers, Parsons recorded two solo albums before dying of a drug overdose September 19, 1973; he was just 26 years old. Hillman stayed with the Brothers for four albums before stints in the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band, McGuinn, Clark & Hillman, and The Desert Rose Band among others. Parsons and Hillman, as much, or more so than Dylan, were the architects of country rock. Actually, I could make a pretty nearly equal case for several other artists who were active in the California music scene during that same period; you'll see a few of those listed later.

Based on what I’ve written above, the emergence of the country rock subgenre probably seems fairly convoluted. That, I can assure you, is just the tip of the iceberg. The number of configurations, entries and exits, and start-ups, revivals and reunions among country rock bands and their personnel is nearly mind-blowing! When it comes to country rock bands, there are about two-degrees of separation, as nearly every possible permutation seems to have been tried at one time, or another.

In addition to the various groups mentioned above, there were (in some cases, still are) a number of other notable west coast-based country rock bands, including Buffalo Springfield, Firefall, Little Feat, Moby Grape, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Poco. Two female artists are also commonly associated with the movement: Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt. The Des Moines Public Library can get you up to snuff when it comes to country rock, so visit us at any of our six locations, or online, and hear what you've been missing!