Friday, June 29, 2012

Streets of Bakersfield: Buck Owens and the Bakersfield Sound

Buck Owens and Don Rich during their mid 60's heyday

In my recent post on country rock I did a lot of digging to find out more about the roots of country rock.  I mentioned toward the end of that post that it was only when I was older that I started to gain a greater appreciation for country music.  When I was a kid I totally detested it, particularly when my mother would torture me with songs like “Elvira” by the Statler Brothers, or anything by Kenny Rogers (seriously, is there a dumber song than “Coward of the County”?  Even my well-established love of story songs hasn’t been enough to make me like that song).   

It has only been in the last decade or so that I’ve (a) acquired enough age to appreciate country more—I seriously question the sanity, intelligence, and taste of anyone who professes to like country music who is under 30 years of age, country is something I feel you have to have been kicked around by life a bit to appreciate; (b) been able to delve deeper into the roots of country and really find what I like.  I can honestly say that I am now a fan of country music, though with some huge caveats.

Caveat number one is that I still prefer country ROCK to country almost any day.  My first exposure to “country” was highly indirect and initially occurred through an appreciation of 80’s LA post-punk, in particular the so-called cowpunk of bands like X and the Long Ryders.  In the 90’s I briefly got into alt country through my appreciation of bands like the Geraldine Fibbers; in the late 90’s and early 2000’s I got further into alt country through my love of Wilco and Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt.  In the late 90’s I also saw Iris Dement in concert for the first time and was blown away by her sweet pure country voice.  Also in the late 90’s I was finally able to “sample” some songs by Gram Parsons, about whom I’d hear much but of who’s music I’d heard very little.  Parsons’ solo efforts, as well as his work with the International Submarine Band and the Flying Burrito Brothers, was as hardcore country as I’d ever listened to, and in fact was probably a little TOO country for me at first.  For most of my adult life, I’ve been very much an urban person, attracted to modern art and punk rock and contemporary jazz and classical music; I feel way less comfortable in redneck situations.  

But I’ve definitely gained a greater appreciation for real, raw country music, which led to my recent revelation that I don’t actually dislike country, what I actually dislike is NASHVILLE country, i.e., the slick, overproduced pap that is simply twangified pop music that has oozed out of Nashville for the past 40 years.  And so Caveat Number Two is that the only country that I really will listen to and enjoy is stuff nobody who is a regular country fan has ever heard of.  It was in the 60’s that Nashville producers started crafting a slicker, more polished country sound to appeal to pop fans and cross over to the pop market; one of the first such movements was called “countrypolitan” in an effort to emphasize it’s accessibility to city folks as well as rednecks.  This is not to say that artists like Patsy Cline (I love “Crazy” and “I Fall to Pieces”; I also like "Angel of the Morning" by Merrilee Rush for its stately adulteress dignity) didn’t put out some good songs during this time, but in subsequent decades this polish came at the price of grittiness and authenticity. 

But country music isn’t just produced in Nashville, and what I’ve finally come to understand is how much I love some of these other, often less commercial strains of country music.  Specifically, I recently discovered that what I REALLY like is the country music produced in the California farming and oil town of Bakersfield.  As I mentioned in my previous post, part of my attraction to this sound may be because I actually lived in Bakersfield in the early 70’s (specifically for part of 1973) and remember enough of its hardscrabble charm to appreciate this music on a more fundamental level.  But more importantly, I’ve come to appreciate this music for exactly what it is:  a rawer, simpler, more rock and roll version of country than what was being produced in Nashville at the time (or since).

Arguably the king of the Bakersfield sound is Buck Owens.  I mostly remember Owens from his lengthy stint as co-host of the cornball hillbilly comedy show Hee Haw in the 70’s (and into the 80’s though I obviously wasn’t watching it by then), but during the 60’s Owens almost literally put Bakersfield on the map in musical terms by the slew of hit singles he produced.  Owens’ sound was the antithesis of the overproduced Nashville sound; raw, simple, clean country that focused on Buck’s Texas drawl and acoustic guitar as well as electric guitar and some light rhythm.  Few if any overdubs, no strings or horns, no choirs, just a few instruments played extremely efficiently.

Buck Owens is rightly credited for bringing this clean and simple country sound back to the charts, but an unsung hero, the real architect of this sound, was his guitarist Don Rich.  Rich is revered by true country fans for his rockabilly-influenced electric guitar playing and high singing harmonies, both of which perfectly complemented Buck’s acoustic guitar and lead vocals.   Rich gave Buck Owens a sound that was both rooted in country history as well as forward facing toward the rock generation.  Sadly, Rich died in a motorcycle accident in the mid-70’s; Buck was supposedly never the same afterward.

I recently purchased the album Buck Owens:  21 #1 Hits off iTunes, and I am enjoying it immensely.  Often collections that focus on #1 hits only can give a skewed view of an artist’s output; after all, not all of an artist’s best songs always hit #1, and plenty of songs that aren’t so great become #1 songs.  But this collection really provides an excellent overview of Buck’s most successful (both commercially and musically) period, from around 1963 through the mid-70’s (the collection also includes a re-recorded version of “Streets of Bakersfield” from the 80's featuring Dwight Yoakam).    Buck’s first #1, 1963’s “Act Naturally”, is one of his best songs, featuring Rich’s clean, twangy rock-infused picking and high harmony with Buck; this song was actually covered by the Beatles on Help! (it was released as the B-side of “Yesterday” in the States).    His second #1, “Love’s Gonna Live Here” is another jaunty slice of Bakersfield country; Rich’s picking here is funkier, less reverbed than on “Act Naturally” and is a perfect accompaniment to Buck’s simple acoustic strumming.    “I Don’t Care (As Long As You Love)” is similarly fantastic and owes a debt to the early country of Roy Acuff and Jimmie Rodgers.

In 1965, Owens had a staggering four #1 singles “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail”, “Before You Go” (with its incredible, ringing guitar intro by Rich), the phenomenal instrumental “Buckaroo” (named for his backing band the Buckeroos and sounding like Richie Valens’ “La Bamba” filtered through “Day Tripper” by the Beatles; this is still the only instrumental song ever to top the country charts), and the slow ballad “Only You (Can Break My Heart)”.  In 1966 Owens barely slowed down, producing three more #1 hits, “I’m Waiting in Your Welfare Line” (with its terrific chorus “I’ve got the hungries for your love, and I’m waitin’ in your welfare line),  “Think of Me” (with its Spanish rhythm and Rich’s high, ringing guitar), and the funky “Open Up Your Heart” (with its tejano beat).  1967 brought three more #1’s, the oddly named lament “Where Does the Good Times Go”, the slow, soulful “Your Tender Loving Care”, and the high-tempo rom “Sam’s Place”. 

The next year, Buck’s incredible streak showed signs of tapering off.  His singles branched out from his typical formula, and while several charted, he had only one #1, “How Long Will My Baby Be Gone”. 1969 brought “Tall Dark Stranger”, with its cowboy choruses and greater emphasis on acoustic and Spanish guitar, and the oddly suggestive “Who’s Gonna Mow Your Grass”, with Rich playing his electric guitar through a fuzzbox for a weird, pseudo-psychedelic roar that sounds more like “Sneaky” Pete Klenow’s work with the Flying Burrito Brothers.  

Buck continued to have chart success but his staggering run of #1 singles was nearly at an end; his final #1 was 1972’s faintly embarrassing “Made In Japan”, with its hokey chop-socky guitar and corny lyrics.  This is one of the few musical missteps on this amazing album.  From 1963-1969 Owens had something like 19 #1 songs, an amazing feat.  But more importantly, he did so on his terms and against the prevailing grain of the Nashville sound.  For this reason Owens can truly be considered an original country punk, making music that was rawer and simpler and achieving success on his own terms.  Another thing I love about Buck’s music is how much it pulls on, and would influence, Spanish country or tejano music.  Many of the rhythms and guitar textures Buck used in his songs come from that Spanish/Tex-Mex influence, and his music in turn was a huge influence on the burgeoning tejano music  scene.  Tejano typically uses more accordion and a firm 2/2 beat—which can be heard on Buck’s re-recording of “Streets of Bakersfield” with Dwight Yoakam—but many of the flourishes Buck put into his songs came from a Hispanic influence that as a long-time (former) Californian I appreciate and respect.  Buck was making music for ALL of the honky tonk folks of the California Central Valley.  His music pulls more on the Western music aspects than on the Country music aspects of country western music, and as a lifelong Westerner I appreciate that immensely. 

Buck wasn’t the only superstar to emerge from the Bakersfield scene; the other was Merle Haggard.  Haggard’s influence on country, country rock, and alt country was massive, gargantuan.  Haggard played briefly in Buck Owens’ band and through Buck he absorbed some of the simplicity of the Bakersfield sound, but Haggard had one of the most captivating lyrical muses in the history of country music, fed no doubt by a colorful life spent in and out of jail and working the oil fields around Bakersfield.  I particularly love some of his key early hits with his group the Strangers, like “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive”, “The Bottle Let Me Down”, “Swinging Doors”,  and “(My Friends are Gonna Be) Strangers”.  Merle was also a pioneer in what eventually came to be called “outlaw country”, with artists like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings jumping on board in the 70’s. 

I respect Haggard but I am also less comfortable with his reactionary redneck side, which is highlighted on songs like “Okie from Muskogee” and “The Fighting Side of Me”; Haggard has claimed at various times that these songs, which glorify a narrow-minded, jingoistic take on American values, were written tongue-in-cheek, but I think they ring a little too true to be parody.  In contrast, Buck Owens embraced, and was embraced by, the counter-culture during the 60’s; as mentioned above, his “Act Naturally” was covered by the Beatles (Buck was supposedly a big fan of the Beatles, unusual among country artists at the time), and Buck famously played a series of shows at the Fillmore West to an audience of appreciative hippies.  And while I think I prefer Haggard’s voice over Owens’, Buck had a much better band (specifically guitarist Don Rich).   But Haggard was also arguably a better lyricist, and his songs have found new life in some of my favorite country rock covers, including “Big City” by Iris Dement, “Silver Wings” and “I Can’t Hold Myself in Line” by John Doe,  “White Line Fever” by the Flying Burrito Brothers,  and “Kern River” by Dave Alvin.

Buck and Merle put Bakersfield on the map, but there were musicians playing in Bakersfield before them.  Tommy Collins was arguably the first Bakersfield artist to gain recognition by the country music establishment in the 50’s.  I only have two songs by Collins, “Whatcha Gonna Do Now” and “You Better Not Do That” off the album Country Music’s Greatest Hits of the 50’s; both are kind of tinny and twangy and owe more to the Appalachian country sound than Owens’ more western-influenced sound but you can hear glimmers of the stripped-down Bakersfield sound here. 

Wynn Stewart was a stepping stone between Tommy Collins and Buck and Merle.  I am just starting my Stewart collection but right now my favorite song by him is “Wishful Thinking”, even though its sound is busier and more polished than Buck or Merle’s.  I also like “Big Big Love” and “I’ve Waited a Lifetime”, the latter of which comes the closest to the high lonesome simplicity of Buck Owens’ work. 

The Bakersfield sound has remained incredibly durable over the decades since its mid-50’s to late-60’s heyday.  As mentioned, a wide array of pioneering country rock artists idolized Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, including Gram Parsons, as well as members of The Speckled Bird, Poco, and the Byrds.  In the 80’s, Dwight Yoakam was a standard-bearer for the Bakersfield sound and even released an entire album of Buck Owens covers.  In the 90’s and 2000’s the main musical progeny of the Buckaroos are probably Texas’ Derailers, who almost perfectly capture the clean lines and facile elegance of mid 60’s Buckaroo sounds (and who, like Yoakam, have released an entire album of Buck Owens covers called Under the Influence of Buck).   I am just getting into these guys but pretty much everything off their 1996 album Jackpot but specifically “My Heart’s Ready” (Don Rich is smiling somewhere at the funky guitar twang here), the honky tonk stomp of “This Big City”, “I’m Your Man” the quickstep of “Where Ya Been”, and the marvelous title track.  “Whatever Made You Change Your Mind”, “Someone Else’s Problem”, their gender-reversed cover of the Crystal’s “Then She Kissed Me”,   and “The Right Place” off 1999’s Dave Alvin-produced Full Western Dress are some other terrific old school Bakersfield western songs.  I also like “The Get-Go” and “The Sun Is Shining on Me” off their 2008 album Guaranteed to Satisfy, though these move away from the crisp sparseness of Buck’s best work and more toward the work of those who interpreted Buck in a rock setting, specifically the Byrds.  The big, chiming rock guitars and soaring harmonies that start “The Get-Go” are straight from the Byrds playbook (with a dash of “Drive My Car” or “Ticket To Ride” by the Beatles) and even though it departs from the country simplicity of the Bakersfield sound I still like this work a lot.  They started migrating away as early as 2003’s Genuine, specifically on the Beatlesque song “Scratch My Itch”, and on 2006’s Soldiers of Love they channel Jerry Lee Lewis and “Day Tripper” on “Get ‘er Done”  and Chuck Berry and the Killer on “Hey, Valerie!”  It’s great to see a band evolve, and while I lament their migration away from their Buck influenced origins I can’t fault them too much for trying to move toward something new.

In a similar way, North Carolina’s Two Dollar Pistols channel Merle Haggard and the Strangers.  Lead singer John Howie Jr.’s voice reminds me a lot of John Doe’s of X, which I have always been a fan of (Doe recorded two of the best Haggard covers ever so that's not a bad person to emulate).  I’m just getting into this band but I love their series of duets with alt country chanteuse Tift Merritt from 1999 that evokes the best of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, most notably on “Just Someone I Used To Know”, “(I’m So) Afraid of Losing You Again”,  and “We Had It All”.  I also like “You Ruined Everything” off their 2002 album of the same name and “Too Bad You’re Gone” off 2004’s Hands Up! 

Wayne Hancock plays a hardcore honky tonk music closer to Hank Williams than Buck Owens and with an incredible mix of western swing, rockabilly, big band swing, jump blues and even 50’s crooner pop.  I am really becoming a huge fan of his; right now he along with the Derailers is at the top of my current favorite artist list.  I really enjoy the spare, simple arrangements of much of his work, most notably songs like “Thunderstorms and Neon Lights” off his 1995 album of the same name; this song is just infused with the spirit of Hank Williams through and through.  Another of my favorite songs of his is the title track off 1997’s That’s What Daddy Wants—I love how his Hank Williams vocals meld with the swinging guitar twang, which has elements of Tal Farlow and even Django Reinhardt in it, and the braying sax and rumbling tympani give this a jump blues feel similar to the music of the Brian Setzer Orchestra (his song “Juke Joint Jumping” off his debut also has this same honky tonk plus jump blues feel, with rockabilly guitar flourishes tossed in for good measure).  I also enjoy the rockabilly/swing/honky tonk feel of “Lose Your Mind” and “Big City Good Time Gal” from his 2003 live album Swing Time.   The title track from 2006’s Tulsa swings and bops, and the shout-out chorus spelling of “Tulsa” owes a big debt to jive numbers like “Pennsylvania 6-5000”, and his yodeling vocals on “Goin’ Home Blues”  evoke Jimmie Rodgers as much as the immortal Hank.  Finally, “Jump the Blues” off his latest album, 2009’s Viper of Melody, continues his streak of great swing songs.  I’m no two stepper but this music makes even me want to get up and get in the line!

Sean Reefer and the Resin Valley Boys also play some old tyme yodeling Hank Williams style country in a 40’s/50’s style, with plenty of amazing fiddle work combined with clean electric picking.  There’s only one album by him on iTunes, 2003’s Texas Hill Country, but I like pretty much everything off it.  Particular favorites are the sweet, twangy picking and fiddling of “The Other Side”  and Reefer’s yodeling “Whiskey Bottle”.

 Georgia’s Joey Allcorn, also heavily influenced by Hank Williams, isn’t quite as yodeling or twangy as Reefer or Hancock; his voice is more nasally and sounds more alt country than hardcore neotraditionalist, but his overall sound is nevertheless rooted in classic country and western sounds.  His song “50 Years Too Late” off his 2006 album of this name is a lament about how he missed out on the heyday of country; in this way it reminds me of Saint Vitus’ similarly themed “Born Too Late”, which laments their missing out on metal’s 70’s era.  I also like the sweet Hawaiian steel guitar on “Honky Tonk Ramblin’ Man” off All Alone Again.  

The retro outlaw sounds of J.B. Beverley & the Wayward Drifters from Virginia are also something I’m really enjoying now.  “Dark Bar and a Jukebox” from his 2006 album with the same name really summarizes my feelings about country music—‘You won’t find no country on country radio’.  Amen.  Beverley played in a punk band called Bad Habits before forming his western swing infused outfit in the late 90’s. I also like his yodeling delivery on “Lonesome, Loaded and Cold” from this same album.  And I love the finger snapping ditty “Walked Across Texas” off his 2009 album Watch America Roll By.    

Moot Davis, from New Jersey of all places, is another retro stylist mining a less commercial country vein.  His vocals fall just to the right side of country for me but are much closer to traditional Nashville sounds.  In some ways he comes off like a country version of Chris Isaak (whom I’m definitely a fan of)—kind of alt country lite.  Again, I’m still just exploring his work but so far I enjoy “Thick of It Now” off 2004’s Moot Davis, “Talkin’ About Lonely” off 2007’s Already Moved On and his duet with Elizabeth Cook “Crazy In Love With You” off 2012’s Man About Town.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Crazy Diamonds and Madcap Laughs: The Music of Famous 60's Burnouts

Syd Barrett in the mid-70's

My previous post on country rock, and specifically the part about Gram Parsons, made me think about how hard the 60’s were on rock people.   Many leading lights of the 60’s died young, most of them not outliving the decade by too many years.  Janis Joplin, Mama Cass Elliot, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, all of them died way too young.  There’s even an internet meme called “The 27 Club”, which focuses on how most of these musicians, as well as musicians from other eras (including blues great Robert Johnson and grunge icons Kurt Cobain and Mia Zapata and even a more recent loss, Amy Winehouse) all died at the age of 27.

But the 60’s had another group of casualties; these didn’t die, but basically went insane, either as a direct result of over-consumption of hallucinogenic drugs like LSD or through other mechanisms.  I’ve long been a little obsessed with these damaged geniuses and their Van Gogh-like descents through creativity into madness.  The general public often conflates genius with madness (or at least eccentricity); the idea of the mad scientist or the creative-yet-disturbed artist (like the aforementioned Van Gogh) are clich├ęs widely accepted by the masses.  But I’ve never felt that genius and madness were necessarily connected; there are plenty of talented folks that could arguably be considered geniuses who are perfectly sane and well-adjusted, and conversely there are tons of crazy folks who are no more talented or creative than average.  In fact, I often wonder if my attraction to these people has more to do with them being the exception to this rule:  I want to know what happened and why they were unable to avoid such a terrible fate.

One of the most legendary of these 60’s icons is Alexander “Skip” Spence.  Spence was born in Canada but move to the Bay Area in California as a child.  In the mid 60’s he was in the thick of the whole San Francisco scene, playing guitar in an early incarnation of Quicksilver Messenger Service before being asked to play drums for the Jefferson Airplane.  Spence played drums on their debut album The Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, co-writing the song “Blues from an Airplane” with Marty Balin.  This pre-Grace Slick version of the Jefferson Airplane was actually a fantastic band, splitting the difference between folk-twinged Beatles-influenced pop, 60’s garage rock, and nascent psychedelia.  “Blues from an Airplane” has an ominous bass-tinged beginning and crashing, cymbal-heavy drums from Spence.  The backing vocals remind me of something the Godz might have recorded around the exact same time.  “Bringing Me Down” has a twangy country/garage guitar lead-in, a sleazy, strutting drum line from Spence and Balin’s shrill vocals simply scream 60’s garage rock.  This would have fit perfectly onto Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets compilation of 60’s garage punks. “Let’s Get Together” is more mellow, a hazy slice of pre-psychedelia written by Chet Powers; this song would achieve greater recognition when the Youngbloods remade it as “Get Together” and had their biggest hit with it.  It features Grace Slick’s predecessor on vocals, Signe Anderson.

Skip Spence (and Anderson) left the Airplane prior to their recording of what would be their magnum opus, Surrealistic Pillow, in 1967.  This might be as good a place as any to mention that I consider “Somebody To Love” to be one of the greatest songs the 60’s ever produced, it’s clanging, chiming guitar and jangly, edgy, driving tempo are just to me the perfect distillation of that heavy psychedelia period and the sonic template for everything from the Velvets to the Stooges.  I just love this song.  The band included another Spence composition, the sweet, jaunty “My Best Friend”, which sounds like a precursor to the electric folk pop of the Mamas and the Papas

Anyway, Spence proceeded to form one of the great lost bands of the 60’s, Moby Grape.  The Grape was formed by former Airplane manager Matthew Katz around Spence but bad decisions and bad breaks derailed the band before they could truly make their mark.   Moby Grape sounded much less overtly psychedelic than the Airplane, often bouncing between whimsical psychdelia-tinged folk pop and Grateful Dead style jams.  “Hey Grandma” off their first album sounds like vintage Dead; galloping rhythms, noodling guitar, crisp harmonies.  “Mr. Blues” is a more formal electric blues workout.  “8:05” is sweetly affecting guitar pop with folk harmonies. Two of Spence’s compositions are present on this first album, the surging, urgent “Omaha” (it reminds me of “American Ruse” by the MC5), and “Indifference”, which has a sultry strut and vocal harmonies that sound like Crosby, Stills and Nash.

It was between the release of their debut album and the recording of their second album, Wow, that Spence began to deteriorate mentally.  According to bandmates, Spence was hanging around with a lot of shady characters who were plying him with hard, heavy drugs almost constantly.  While recording the album in New York, Spence apparently had an almost complete psychotic break, and legendarily attacked bandmate Jerry Miller with an axe before being hauled off to famous NYC prison the Tombs and eventually to the insane asylum Bellevue, where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.   

It was while in Bellevue that Spence supposedly wrote what would become his one and only solo record, Oar.  Upon his release from Bellevue in 1968, Spence supposedly drove directly to Nashville on his motorcycle and recorded it, and it has been widely debated ever since.  The debate, in essence, can be summarized as follows:  genius or madman?  Gold or crap?  While some of the songs are interesting, many are pretty spare, even skeletal.  At times they sound like the mutterings of a lunatic (which in a sense they are).  And it is fiercely debated whether anyone would have actually cared about this independent of Spence’s prior history and his legendary breakdown.    “Little Hands” comes the closest to the bluesy jam-band-meets-the-Byrds creations of Moby Grape. On songs like “Cripple Creek”, “Dixie Peach Promenade”, and “Broken Heart”, Spence’s stentorian baritone and spare picking evoke Johnny Cash but you can also hear the future echo of southern gothic bands like the Birthday Party here.  “Diana” is a sweet acoustic number and almost sounds like some of Robert Plant’s post-Zeppelin work.  “Margaret-Tiger Rug” throbs on a heavy bass and spare drum taps and Spence’s muttering vocals.  “Weighted Down (the Prison Song)” is melancholy and spare.  “War In Peace” has a shimmery late 60’s guitar sheen and lurching tempo that again evokes Zeppelin at their less overtly metallic.  “Book of Moses” is pure folk blues, with the rainstorm sound effects adding an eerie vibe along with Spence’s higher pitched, almost straining vocals.  “Lawrence of Euphoria” is as odd as its title, another off-kilter slice of skewed acoustic folk.  “Grey/Afro” is a subdued, droning song in which Spence mutters almost unintelligibly below the sonic moan and martial drumming.  The original Oar ended with “Grey Afro”, but in subsequent releases other songs have been appended to Oar, most of which continue on in the same vein.  One of the strangest is the subdued folk sketch “Furry Heroine”, which was covered by Beck as “Halo of Gold”.

Alas, Spence never really recovered, and the rest of his life was more or less a downward spiral of drug and alcohol addiction and mental illness.  His former bandmates tried to support him for awhile but given Spence’s several and debilitating mental disabilities he was eventually re-institutionalized, and spent much of the rest of his life cycling between institutions, homelessness, and stays with friends or in his trailer in San Jose.  He died at age 57 in 1999 of lung cancer.  Spence never worked effectively as a musician post-Oar with one possible exception, a scratchy recording of a Spence song, “All My Life (I Love You)” was recorded around 1972 and has since found release on iTunes.  This is actually one of his best songs, a hard rocking but soulful meditation on love that serves as a fitting coda to his strange, remarkable career.

But the influence of Oar has been huge.  In 1999, the cover compilation More Oar: a Tribute to the Skip Spence Album was released, and contained covers of the songs on Oar by artists as diverse as Robert Plant, Beck, Mudhoney, Robyn Hitchcock, Flying Saucer Attack, and Tom Waits.  What was perhaps most interesting about this collection is how right these varied artists sound covering these songs.

Probably the next most celebrated 60’s burnout is Syd Barrett.  Barrett was a founding member of Pink Floyd in the mid-60’s, helping to record and release their first album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn.  Piper was an impressive debut, one of the first and most comprehensive psychedelic albums of the 60’s that built effectively on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album and extended it,  and which was written almost entirely by Barrett.  Among the standout tracks are “Astronomy Domine”, with its odd, flat vocal harmonies and rambling guitar and eerie keyboards; “Lucifer Sam”, which sounds like a psychedelicized version of the “Peter Gunn” theme; the epic, clanging “Interstellar Overdrive”; and the spritely “The Gnome”.  Barrett and Floyd’s take on psychedelia was playful, almost whimsical, with almost intentionally child-like or silly lyrics, jaunty melodies, and strange musical accompaniments. 

But like Spence (and at almost exactly the same time), Barrett was rapidly falling apart.  Heavy drug use (particularly of LSD) and growing mental instability were causing Barrett to behave increasingly erratically and antisocially.  In the months prior his performances with the band and interviews had deteriorated badly, and he often just stood on stage strumming a single chord or even not playing at all.  Initially, the members hoped to keep him on as a non-performing songwriter but even this proved to be too much for all parties to handle, and in spring of 1968 the band announced they were parting ways with him.  Unlike Spence, Barrett had no final break with reality requiring incarceration or institutionalization, but he drifted farther away from the public eye.

Also like Spence, he did embark on a solo career, in Barrett’s case one that lasted for two albums instead of just one.  Both were released in 1970 and feature hazy, introspective songs centered on Barrett’s off-kilter lyrics.  “Terrapin” (co-written with Jerry Garcia), off the Madcap Laughs, is slowly strummed bluesy folk with Barrett’s sing-song voice and strange time stops interspersed.  “No Good Trying” and “No Man’s Land” are electric and feature some acidulous guitar; they come close to capturing Barrett’s psychedelic rock with Floyd and are two of my personal favorites.  “Love You” is jaunty and silly, as is “Dark Globe” (the latter was later covered by R.E.M.).  “ “Here I Go” is another standout, as is “Octopus”, twee acoustic romps.  “Golden Hair” is much more somber and solemn.  “Long Gone” and “She Took a Long Cold Look” and the rest of the songs on the album hew to the same fractured take on acoustic folk as most of the other songs here.

Barrett’s other 1970 album, Barrett, boasts far better production that greatly improves the material.  Humble Pie drummer Jerry Shirley and Floyd members Rick Wright and David Gilmour play here (wright and Gilmour produced the album, often without Barrett’s input since he was incapable of assisting) and better flesh out the arrangements more than was done on the Madcap Laughs.  As a result the album is a huge improvement over the sketchy Laughs.  Album opener “Baby Lemonade” clearly benefits from this additional production; Wright’s keyboards and Shirley’s drumming pump this song up and give it much greater depth than anything on Laughs; it’s one of Syd’s best post-Floyd songs.  “Love Song” and its quirky, tinkling piano and droning organ is another terrific track.  “Dominoes” sounds like a more subdued rendition of “Happy Together” by the Turtles.  “It Is Obvious” sounds like John Lennon leading the Doug Yule era Velvet Underground through a folk standard.  “Rats” is much louder and more strident and Shirley’s peppy drum beat keep things moving along nicely while Gilmour’s noodling guitar provides embellishments to Barrett’s random ramblings.  It is followed by the slower, lurching, almost threatening “Maisie”, a warped blues workout.  “Gigolo Aunt” returns to Syd’s usual quirky, perky vibe, but is saved from being another tossaway acoustic sketch by the organ flourishes and some nice guitar licks from Gilmour.   “Waving My Arms in the Air” and “I Never Lied To You” are typical Barrett musings.  Effervescing Elephant” sounds like a goofy kid’s song, particularly with the tuba accompaniment.  In all Barrett was a vast improvement over Madcap Laughs, for which Barrett could thank his former Floyd mates. 

Barrett never recorded another proper album, but rumors about additional studio outtakes from his first two albums floated around for almost two decades before a compilation was released in 1989 called Opel.  Opel contains alternate versions of songs from his first two albums as well as a few previously unreleased songs, including the title track and “Word Song”, which continue on in the vein of Madcap Laughs.  Many of the alternate takes have subsequently been appended to the original releases and are available elsewhere.

Barrett did become involved briefly in a musical project in the early 70’s involving Twink of the Pink Fairies and Henry Cow guitarist Henry Firth called Stars but after a couple of gigs (one of which supported the MC5) Barrett quit.  He also supposedly played with Steve Peregrin Took of Tyrannosaurus Rex and Shagrat, and was famously asked by both the Sex Pistols and the Damned to produce their albums (the Pistols’ first, the Damned’s second).  Barrett drifted further and further from public contact throughout the 70’s; eventually in the early 80’s he returned to live with his mother in Cambridge, focusing his talents on another artistic love, painting.  He died in 2006 at age 60 from pancreatic cancer.  In 1987 a covers tribute album was released that featured the Shamen, Opal, and the Soup Dragons, among others, and artists as diverse as John Lennon, David Bowie (who covered “See Emily Play” for Pinups) and Robyn Hitchcock have said to have been influenced by him. 

Less well known than either Spence or Barrett but nevertheless regarded as another burned out 60’s visionary is Roky Erickson.  Erickson was a founding member of the seminal Texas psychedelic group the 13th Floor Elevators, who along with Moving Sidewalks (which contained future ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons) were two of America’s first psychedelic groups.  The Elevators’ single “You’re Gonna Miss Me” is a wild slab of galloping 60’s garage rock, punctuated by Erickson’s fierce, punky vocals and wild primal screams.  The Elevators developed a significant following but in 1968 (which was apparently a bad year for acid-damaged musicians), Erickson started acting erratically and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Houston where he received electroshock treatment.  A year later he was busted for possession of marijuana and was essentially given the choice of going to jail for 10 years or pleading insanity and chose the latter.  He was sent to a home for the criminally insane, where he received more electroshock treatments and Thorazine.  Erickson continued to write and perform however, even in this psychiatric prison; over the years a few homemade tapes of performances while still incarcerated have surfaced, including the songs “Devotional Number One” and “God Is Everywhere”, odd, affectingly warped acoustic numbers.  “Gone and Number” is more high fidelity and features rambling vocals but is a sweet love song.   “You’re an Unidentified Flying Object” is similarly pleasant, a nice acoustic jaunt.  But my favorite of these old recordings is “Save Me”; here Erickson’s beautiful voice peeks from under the low fi nature of the recording and is simply magnificent.  This is strong evidence that he was an extremely talented if disturbed man.  These songs are particularly poignant because most of Erickson’s other solo offerings were obsessed with aliens, demons and other forms of disturbing imagery. 

Upon his release in 1973, Erickson put together a band known as the Aliens which released some interesting music.  One of their best songs is “Two Headed Dog”, which sounds like a cross between twangy 70’s Tom Petty rock and crunchy Ted Nugent hard rock; this song was later covered by punk guitarist Jeff Dahl, and “Mine Mine Mind”, a garage punk ditty that again has Tom Petty-esque overtones, mostly in Erickson’s twangy Midwestern vocals.  “The Wind And More” is another phenomenal track, another Nugent-y number showing that if his legal and mental troubles hadn’t sidetracked him he might have achieved as much success as fellow Texan Billy Gibbons did with ZZ Top.

Unlike Spence and Barrett, whom I didn’t get into until the late 90’s when I was able to sample a few of their songs via online means, I actually was into Erickson in the 80’s when I was in college. At the time I worked at the campus radio station and Erickson released an album called Don’t Slander Me in 1986 that I listened to and liked, particularly the title song, which returns more to his shrieking 60’s wild man persona vocally.  A few years later a collection of acoustic recordings was released called the Holiday Inn Tapes, and this is instead a return to his mid-70’s mellowness.  A particularly stellar song is “The Times I’ve Had”, which sounds like Zeppelin’s “Going to California” but contains some touchingly autobiographical lyrics, such as “let me tell you about the times I’ve had; ain’t so good and they ain’t so bad”.  Other standouts are an acoustic, almost rockabilly run through “Don’t Slander Me” and “May the Circle Remain Unbroken”, a cover of another song of his from his 13th Floor Elevators days in the mid-60’s.  This is a fabulous album and a perfect entre into the amazing talented world of Roky.

But Erickson was in slow decline during the 80’s and 90’s, becoming ever more isolated and mentally ill as his schizophrenia affected him more deeply. For a time he became obsessed with the mail, and would spend hours reading junk mail and contacting the senders.  He was eventually arrested for stealing some of his neighbors’ mail.  But in 2001 his brother took over care for him and he started receiving some high quality health care and has continued to improve psychologically.  He has continued to play around at various festivals.  In 1990 a tribute album Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye was released containing covers by such artists as the Butthole Surfers (who were both fellow Texans and huge fans; BH drummer King Coffey had put out an Erickson album on his Trance Syndicate label in the 90’s), R.E.M., the Jesus and Mary Chain, ZZ Top, Julian Cope, and Richard Lloyd.  In 2006 a documentary of Erickson’s life was aired and some of his best songs from his 13th Floor Elevators and Aliens days were assembled for the soundtrack, which is available on iTunes.  In 2010 Erickson released another incredible album, True Love Cast Out All Evil with the band Okkervil River.  On this album Erickson has mellowed and sounds wise and comfortable with himself.  This is a really terrific album that should have received more attention and accolades than it did.  The title track is a great slice of country rock, an introspective ballad anchored by this fantastic backing band.  Roky seems to be in a much better place now and it’s great to see him making music again.

The fourth member of the “60’s burnout club” is Sky Saxon.  Saxon didn’t end up in an institution, but he did spend a considerable chunk of the 70’s affiliated with a strange Hollywood cult known as the Source Family.  Saxon first achieved renown as the lead singer of the seminal LA 60’s garage band the Seeds, who had a minor hit with “Pushin’ Too Hard”, a galloping, twangy gem that features Saxon’s yowling Jagger-esque vocals and was featured in Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets compilation.  Another song, the slower “Can’t Seem To Make You Mine”, was covered by the Ramones.  “Girl I Want You”, with its fuzzy/buzzy guitar and pulsing organ fills, is another Seeds classic.  “The Tripmaster” is ominous and reminds me of early Doors, while “Mr. Farmer” is an upbeat splash of sunny psychedelia. 

But, like the artists above, Saxon’s story took a turn for the deeply bizarre as the 60’s ended.  In 1969, Saxon became involved with the Source Family, a bizarre spiritual cult centered around James Edward Baker, aka Father Yod aka YaHoWha.  Baker, a decorated WWII hero, moved to Los Angeles after the war and became a follower of various beatnik and Eastern philosopies.  In the late 60’s he opened one of the first health food restaurants in Hollywood on Sunset Strip and eventually started his own spiritual commune which lived in a mansion in the Hollywood Hills.  The Source Family practiced a random mix of free love (Father Yod reputedly had thirteen “wives”), vegetarianism, kindness to animals, Eastern spiritual meditational practices, and so forth.  All members, including Saxon, adopted the surname “Aquarian” (his official name was Arlick Aquarian).  The cult was better tolerated than many other 70’s outfits because they didn’t proselytize, had better grooming standards, and didn’t beg.

Music was another central concept of Baker’s cult, and Saxon became involved on the musical end after joining the group in 1973.  He would eventually assist in the release of a 13 CD set of their music called God and Hair (the cult is reputed to have over 65 albums worth of music from the 70’s alone).  The cult’s band, named Ya Ho Wa 13, produced strange extended neo-psychedelic jams; several of these can be found on YouTube and are worth a listen—“Time Travel”, “Two”, “Fire in the Sky”, and “Wolf Pack” actually aren’t bad, in a Spinal Tap blues/jazz, jazz/blues jam kind of way.  “I’m Gonna Take You Home” is a driving, building jam that strangely reminds me of “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by Bauhaus.  Imagine if Charles Manson had guided his Family toward music and not toward murder, this is what it might have sounded like.  Interestingly, these recordings have become highly sought-after by collectors for their rarity and oddity.  In fact, collector and avid Ya Ho Wa 13 fanatic David Nuss (himself a member of an odd musical collective called the No-Neck Blues Band, also known as NNCK), met with surviving members of the cult in the 2000’s and worked with them to release another collection of Ya Ho Way 13 songs called Magnificence in the Memory

Father Yod died in 1975 in a bizarre hang gliding accident in Hawaii that authorities felt was better left unsolved (actually, this last part about the authorities is untrue but sadly the rest of it isn’t).  Saxon continued to make music both within and outside the confines of the Source Family/Ya Ho Wa 13, under a bewildering array of related hippie-esque monikers, including the Starry Seeds Band, Sky Saxon & Firewall, King Arthur's Court, and Shapes Have Fangs the Universal Stars Peace Band, Sky Sunlight Saxon, Star's New Seeds Band, Sunlight and the New Seeds, and even a reconstituted Seeds.  In 1977 he released a bludgeoning EP called Expression, which contains “In Love With Life” b/w “Starry Ride” (some generous soul has uploaded this to YouTube), which evokes the finest of the MC5 and Stooges; this is actually one of the best things Sky put out in his life.  Supposedly Mars Bonfire of Steppenwolf and Ron Bushy of Iron Butterfly contribute to this work.  In 1986 he put out an album with Steve and Jeff McDonald of Redd Kross and Brian Corrigan of Chemical People under the name Sky “Sunlight” Saxon and Purple Electricity.  None of this is available on iTunes (though a couple of modern day Saxon albums are)”Starving for Your Love” by Sky Saxon and Firewall from 1986 is actually a pretty decent recreation of the garage punk of the 60’s Seeds.  Prior to his death in 2009, Saxon also played a number of gigs, including a beautiful, sloppy, feedback-drenched jam with Fuzztones member Rudi Protrudi and members of the Cheeks

As mentioned above, Sky never experienced any major psychiatric problems or had any break with reality that necessitated being institutionalized.  However, to quote All Music Guide’s description of him and his work, “Much of his post-Seeds work fit the mold of a curious 1960s relic, a hippie acid casualty with a strong cult following, in the mold of Roky Erickson”, and that he released “a series of singles that increasingly reflected a drug-induced separation from reality”, which is why I felt his work was best discussed here.    All four of these artists experienced some major dislocations after the dream of the 60’s died, and maybe that’s one reason why I still cherish their work.  They believed in, and bought into, the 60’s revolution of sex, drugs and rock and roll, and ended up paying for it with their sanity, at least for a time. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Hickory Wind: Country Rock, Cowpunk, and Alt Country

Gram Parsons, the patron saint of country rock

I was thinking about my previous post about solo albums, and in particular my assorted ramblings regarding the magnificent post-Byrds solo career of Gene Clark, who released three collaborative albums in the 60’s and three more proper solo albums in the early 70’s that have come to be regarded as absolute classics.  It got me thinking about country rock in general.  Of course, country music and rock and roll share ancestry going back to the 50’s, before rock became more of an amalgamation of country, blues, R&B, and pop.  But it was in the mid 60’s that artists first tried to find some kind of middle ground between traditional country and post-Beatles rock.  The mid 60’s were a time where many artists were looking back to rock’s multitudinous roots; for example, the explosion of interest in American blues was instrumental in the burgeoning English rock scene, and artists such as the Yardbirds, Faces, Rolling Stones, and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers were delving deeply into an electrified form of blues.  Folk and traditional music was also receiving greater attention as well. 

Country rock had it's origins in several places, one of which was the (re)discovery of bluegrass and Appalachian country harmonies by the early 60's folkie crowd; gospel artists like the Louvin Brothers were a major inspiration for a dizzying array of country rockers.  Another was the jumped-up electrified honky tonk of the "Bakersfield Sound", as best exemplified by Buck Owens and in particular Owens' guitarist Don Rich, whose guitar work on hits like "Act Naturally" (which even the Beatles covered on 1965's Help! with Ringo Starr on lead vocals) and "I've Got a Tiger by the Tail"  illustrated to young rock and rollers how close rock and country truly were.   A third, an unexpected, influence on country rock was jazz/blues/everything genius Ray Charles, specifically two of his early 60's albums, Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music and Country & Western Meets Rhythm & Blues.  Specifically, the fusion of R&B rhythms with country music was revelatory for young musicians like Gram Parsons, who viewed this as the start of what he called "Cosmic American Music", i.e., a blend of previously fairly distinct American musical idioms, specifically the more "white blues" of country and African American rhythm and blues. 

 While artists as varied as Bob Dylan, and the aforementioned Stones and Beatles flirted with country sounds on occasional songs early in their careers, country rock really arose as a distinct genre of rock in southern California in the mid'60's with a small and incestuous group of musicians who all played together or saw one another play.  California might at first blush seem to be an unusual place for such a venture to take place, but actually since the 30's Dust Bowl migrations California had received a massive influx of migrants from Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas among other states, all of whom brought their love of, and ability to make, country & western music.  Honky tonk towns like Bakersfield, which is a major oil and ranching town, aren't much different from similar cities in the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles.  I actually lived in Bakersfield for a short time in the early 70's and am pretty familiar with it's rural "charms".

In the 60's this migration continued as urbanization drove people into cities like Los Angeles and San Diego.  Moreover, as the Beatles hit America as a bona fide phenomenon, young people started moving to Los Angeles (and New York City and San Francisco and Memphis and Nashville) to become music stars.  One such group was the Dillards.  Brothers Rod Dillard (who played guitar) and Doug Dillard (who played banjo) left Missouri and headed to California in the early 60's.  The Dillards' sound was rooted in but not strictly limited by traditional bluegrass as well as folk.  They quickly integrated into LA's burgeoning folk scene, which was also rediscovering bluegrass at this time.  The Dillards quickly received acclaim (they were even on TV's Andy Griffith Show in 1963) and cut one of LA's first true bluegrass records, Back Porch Bluegrass highlighted by Doug's almost insanely fast banjo picking, which was so lightning fast it brought up charges that their records were sped up (they weren't).  However, their album didn't sell, nor did their next two, Live . . . Almost and  the more traditional Pickin' and Fiddlin', which was their first collaboration with country fiddler Byron Berline.  Their 1966 single "Nobody Knows" is considered by some to be the first true country rock release, though the rock aspect is filtered through a Byrds-influenced folk rock.  Moreover, their 1968 album Wheatstraw Suite (which contained "Knows") was massively influential and is one of several seminal country rock albums released that year.  Another pioneering LA bluegrass outfit, the Kentucky Colonels, featured guitarist Clarence White, who would work with the Byrds, Gram Parsons and other country rock pioneers.

Indeed, if anyone could be said to be at ground zero of the country rock explosion, it was the Byrds.  The sea change in American rock created by the immense popularity of the Beatles in America post-1964 essentially crippled the American acoustic folk movement, and Dylan going electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival gave folk its death blow.  In the new post-Beatles, post-electric Dylan world, many artists attempted to produce an electric folk/rock hybrid, and none were more successful than the Byrds.  Their singles "Turn Turn Turn" and "Mr. Tambourine Man" were hugely successful, and for a time became America's "answer" to the Beatles. 

But the Byrds had an eclectic background, and Chris Hillman and Gene Clark both had musical roots in bluegrass and country.  Hillman played in the seminal San Diego folk/bluegrass group the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers while Clark's childhood in Missouri had immersed him in country and rockabilly.  As early as their second album, 1965's Turn! Turn! Turn!, the Byrds covered a country song, "A Satisfied Mind" (a Porter Wagoner song), though this was not done in a particularly country style and was instead done in a psychedelic folk rock manner.  On their next album, 1966's Fifth Dimension, their song "Mr. Spaceman" has country overtones but is still more of a jangly folk-rock exercise.  It wasn't until 1967's Younger Than Yesterday that the more overt country influence came to the fore, specifically on three of Chris Hillman's compositions, "Have You Seen Her Face", "The Girl With No Name", and even more so on "Time Between", which features Clarence White's country guitar picking as well as acoustic guitar by country singer Vern Gosdin.  Their cover of Carol King's "Wasn't Born to Follow" has weird country picking fused with psychedelic guitar and Moog work while "Change Is Now" has some very distinct country guitar work by Clarence White and James Burton as well.  Other folk rock bands like Hearts and Flowers (which featured future Eagle Bernie Leadon), the Buffalo Springfield, and even the Lovin' Spoonful were also experimenting with country and bluegrass flourishes at this time as well.

 But if country rock has a true patron saint, it was Gram Parsons.  Parsons was one of the most unique and legendary figures in the history of rock and roll.  He was born in 1946 into two prominent Southern families, and grew up privileged though rebellious.  While still in high school, Parsons played with a number of incipient rock bands before finding some small success in the then-burgeoning folk scene, joining the Shilos in 1963.

In 1965, Parsons went north to attend Harvard University, where he soon dropped out, but not before hearing Merle Haggard and experiencing a musical epiphany.  Shortly after, Parsons  and guitarist John Neuse and some other members of the Harvard folk scene had formed a band which they called the International  Submarine Band.  Neuse is widely credited with convincing Parsons to pursue a country rock approach, which he then did with vigor.  The Submarine Band, despite their quasi-psychedelic name, played a twangy, primitive form of neo-country/rock fusion, and recorded an album released in 1968, Safe at Home, that showcased this startling new sound.  Parsons originals like “Luxury Liner” and “Do You Know How It Feels To Be Lonesome” sounded perfectly at home next to covers of classic country songs by Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash

By the time this album was released, however, ISB had ceased to exist.  After moving to Los Angeles around 1967 (prior to this the band had relocated to New York City but had failed to achieve much notice), Parsons hooked up with Byrds bassist Chris Hillman, who then recommended him as a replacement for the recently departed Michael Clarke and David Crosby.  Parsons left ISB and joined the Byrds in time for the recording of Sweetheart of the RodeoSweetheart was originally conceived by Byrds leader Roger McGuinn as a double concept album in which the Byrds would explore all major facets of American popular music of the 20th century—bluegrass, blues, jazz, R&B, rock, and even supposedly electronic music.  But Parsons prevailed upon them to focus on the country aspect, and, like ISB’s first and only album, Sweetheart, recorded in Nashville in spring of 1968, ended up being a mix of Parsons-penned originals and covers of country standards.    While the entire album is excellent, two of the former stand out.  “Hickory Wind” is a sort of nostalgic lament for his lost Southern roots, and has become one of Parsons’ signature songs.  Similarly, “One Hundred Years From Now” has Gram telling a woman to ignore the gossip of friends and neighbors who are telling her that he’s unreliable; I actually prefer the slower, sparer take #2 that’s on the extended and remastered version of Sweetheart.  Their covers of Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and “Nothing Was Delivered” are excellent too; the former is jaunty, and McGuinn sings it in a very Dylanesque manner, while the latter injects a few more traditional Byrds style vocal harmonies, and both are well seasoned with Lloyd Green’s pedal steel guitar.  Their take on Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd”, which lionizes the legendary Depression era gangster, is highlighted by Chris Hillman’s beautiful mandolin and John Hartford’s sweet fiddle.  Hillman takes lead vocals on two lyrically contrasting tracks, the Louvin Brother’s “I Am a Pilgrim” and Merle Haggard’s “Life in Prison”.  Still, even in such esteemed and talented company, Parsons and his songs stand out.

It should be kept in mind that at this point in the late 60’s, the divide between traditional country and rock and roll was arguably the widest it would ever be.   Rock, and the youth/hippie culture which was its greatest proponent, was considered a bunch of filthy degenerates, long-haired sissies, and anti-American rabble rousers by the extremely conservative country establishment. Country, in turn, was widely derided as corn-pone redneck music by rock and roll fans (one year later the show Hee Haw would debut, a show that did nothing to dispel this image of country as cornball and hokey but that also brought the music of country great Buck Owens, who was a tremendous influence on Gram Parsons and some other country rock pioneers, to a larger audience).  The Byrds were not made particularly welcome in Music City, which considered them a bunch of drugged out longhairs.

Therefore it probably wasn’t surprising when Sweetheart tanked; particularly considering how radically different it was from the previous Byrds album; in fact, most music savants would be hard pressed to name an album by a name band that was more of a departure from their signature sound, unless of course you count Vanilla Ice’s foray into douche metal after his ignominious departure from douche rap.  Hillman and Parsons both departed the Byrds soon after and formed the Flying Burrito Brothers.  In a conventional sense, the Burritos were a logical extension of what Parsons, Hillman and the rest of the Byrds created on Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and in some ways this album makes more sense when considered as part of the Burrito’s canon and not the Byrds’.   They were joined by Parsons’ former ISB bandmate Chris Etheridge on bass and piano and “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow on pedal steel guitar.  Ex-Byrd Michael Clarke, who had also been working with ex-Byrd Gene Clark’s post-Byrds band Dillard & Clark, later joined on drums.

The Burritos released their debut album, Gilded Palace of Sin, in 1969 and like Sweetheart of the Rodeo it was and is widely recognized as an instant and monumental country rock classic.    “Christine’s Tune” has Hillman and Parsons swapping harmonies over a jaunty, propulsive beat punctuated by Klenow’s occasional blasts of pedal steel guitar through a fuzzbox, arguably the closest Parsons got to what he liked to call “Cosmic American Music”, which splits the difference between acid damaged psychedelia and hardcore Bakersfield country-tonk.  “Wheels”, with its underwater-sounding guitar licks and yet more fuzzed out guitar from Klenow, is a close second in this regard.  “Hot Burrito #1” is a slow, sad, introspective country ballad by Parsons, while “Hot Burrito #2” is a little more upbeat with yet more jarring acid country guitar licks and some big beautiful gospel-tinged organ.  “Sin City”, a cautionary tale of the mercenary nature of the Los Angeles recording industry, was later covered by Beck and Emmylou Harris.  “Juanita” is another great Parsons country weeper that has elements of autobiography (particularly when it discusses the bottle of wine and the pills off the shelf).  But my favorite song on this album, and one of my favorite Parsons song of all time, is their cover of the soul classic “Dark End of the Street” (this song would later achieve wider dissemination when it was performed by fictional Irish soul band the Commitments in the movie of the same name).  Parson’s high lonesome voice and the twangy, almost garage rock guitar licks accompanying it, bring a newfound winsomeness to this yearning classic.  The Burritos also effectively cover another soul staple, “Do Right Woman”.

The Burritos toured to support Palace but, largely because of the aforementioned wide divide between (then-current) psychedelic rock and country music, were mostly met with puzzlement and derision.  This situation was exacerbated by Parson’s Dionysian appetite for drugs ranging from cocaine to psychedelics, which adversely affected his performances.  At this point Chris Etheridge left the band, Hillman moved over to bass, and former Hillman bandmate in the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers and future Eagle Bernie Leadon joined on rhythm guitar. 

The inclusion of the soul covers on Gilded Palace of Sin reflected Parsons’ participation in the big, amorphous jam sessions with Delaney and Bonnie (which would eventually give birth to Eric Clapton’s Derek and the Dominoes, culminating with his career apogee “Layla”).  It was through these jam sessions that he supposedly again hooked up with Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, which would usher in yet another amazing Parsons interlude.   Parsons had met Richards during the Byrds' tour of England to support Sweetheart and instantly connected with him.  At this time the Stones were completing recording of Let It Bleed, which contains some of their first real forays into country tinged rock, as can be seen on songs like “Country Honk”, their countrified version of "Honky Tonk Women", to which Gram convinced them to add fiddle player Byron Berline, who had played with Dillard & Clark.  Parsons therefore fit in both pharmaceutically and musically with the Stones during this period.  It was with Parsons’ influence that Keith and Mick wrote and recorded the bona fide Stones country rock classic, “Wild Horses”; Parsons covered the latter on the Burrito’s second album, Burrito Deluxe, a year before the original found release on the Stone’s  1971 Sticky Fingers album.    In general Deluxe was a less traditional, more upbeat album than Palace, but it also reflects Gram's growing indifference to the Burritos project; “Lazy Days” is more of a throwback to early rock and roll and has a twangy rockabilly beat torn straight from the Chuck Berry playbook, and “High Fashion Queen”, while clearly retaining some county flourishes is again more of a straight-ahead rocker.   “Man in the Fog” features new member (and future Eagle) Bernie Leadon’s dobro and is jaunty and almost Cajun-sounding.  But overall Burrito Deluxe has fewer standout tracks than its predecessor, and it too was a commercial flop.  The Burritos gigged listlessly, with perhaps their highest profile gig coming, appropriately enough, in support of the Stones at their infamous Altamont concert.  Parsons left the Burritos soon after as his performances continued to deteriorate (he was actually asked to leave by Hillman).  Gram and his girlfriend ended up spending part of 1971 living a dissolute life at Villa Nellcote in the south of France with the Stones as they recorded their sprawling, magnificent Exile on Main Street.  He was eventually asked to leave by Richards’ girlfriend Anita Pallenberg for his negative influence on Keith (take a minute to contemplate that), but also supposedly by Mick because of his professional jealousy of the time Parsons and Richards spent together musically.

Attempting a solo career upon his return to the States, Parsons then had yet another magical moment, bringing Emmylou Harris on board for his solo debut, GP.    If Gram Parsons had never done anything else in his all-too-brief career, just for being part of the team that discovered Emmylou Harris (actually it was Gram's successor in the Burritos, Rick Roberts, who actually discovered her), who has (in this reviewer’s opinion anyway) the most sublime, magnificent country voice of any female artist in history, he’d be legendary.  For GP Parsons brought on board a highly respected and capable set of sidemen, many of whom had played with Ricky Nelson and Elvis himself, and as such had impeccable rockabilly credentials.  Among them were pianist Glen Hardin and guitarist James Burton, both of whom had played extensively with The King as well as Merle Haggard in the late 60’s and into the 70’s.  Hardin and Burton had both also played with Rick(y) Nelson's band throughout the 60's, including his forays into country in '67.  Gram's selection of them (as well as the other less noted but no less talented and professional musicians that played on both his solo albums) was puzzling but inspired.  It was puzzling because most people in the rock establishment had nothing but contempt for Elvis and his Vegas stage show at the time, which was considered tacky and about as UNrock as you can get.  It was also puzzling because at that time neither Hardin nor Burton had particularly solid credentials in the country music establishment either; their work with Rick Nelson, while admired decades later, at the time was considered an obvious attempt of a former teenbopper rock idol to demonstrate his maturity and wasn't particularly admired by anyone in the country music business.  However, it was inspired because Hardin, Burton and the others were consummate professionals whose crispness and reliability brought out the best from the ever-stoned Parsons.

Unfortunately, GP was no more successful than his ISB or Flying Burrito Brothers albums despite this high quality.  But from the first time she opens her mouth on “We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes in the Morning”, Emmylou gives notice that one of the most rightly celebrated and treasured voices in the history of music has arrived.  Country music can be divided into B.E. and A.E, Before Emmy and Anno Emmy.  “A Song For You” and “She” are softer, more tender, and highlight the interplay between Parsons and Emmylou ; “Song For You” in particular illustrates how much she brings to this equal collaboration of talents.  “Streets of Baltimore” is a Parsons-Etheridge writing collaboration, and here Emmylou just provides sweet, subtle backing vocals.  Perhaps the best track here is “That’s All It Took”, focusing as it does on Gram and Emmylou’s sweetly intertwined vocals and Byron Berline’s (who had played with Dillard & Clark) equally smooth fiddle playing.  “Cry One More Time” is Gram’s take on horn-and piano-heavy roadhouse blues (with a bit of twangy countrybilly guitar thrown in for good measure), and a honking sax punctuates the peppy “Big Mouth Blues”, distinctly non-country touches all but they expand the reach and scope of the music in an admirable way.

Parsons’ final album, Grievous Angel, was sadly released posthumously, as Parsons had overdosed on drugs the previous fall.  It contains two of my favorite Parsons compositions, “Return of the Grievous Angel”, a sweet honky tonk that Harris (and Hardin’s understated but moving piano) elevates to mellifluous sonic poetry with her yearning voice.  By the time this was recorded, Parsons was in his final drug-induced spiral, while Emmylou’s star was starting to shine in a way that couldn’t be ignored (despite Parsons’ widow’s deliberate attempts to downplay her contributions to this album upon its release).   “Hearts on Fire” is almost dirge-like but again Harris’ vocals ring out like a clarion call.  But for me the acme of this album is “In My Hour of Darkness”, which walks a perfect line between being slow and being measured and again Harris’ contribution elevates this from being merely wonderful to being utterly sublime. 

After Parsons’ departure and subsequent death the Burritos continued with Rick Roberts, and while they were clearly not the same band after Parsons’ departure, his own composition “Colorado” is nearly the equal of Parsons’ many evocative country ballads.  Maybe it’s because Colorado has been my own home now for almost fifteen years but this song has always been a huge favorite of mine despite Parsons’ absence.  The definitive version of this song is the live version on Close Encounters to the West Coast, which highlights Klenow’s ringing pedal steel guitar and Roberts’ decidedly non-twangy and moving vocals.

The final leg in country rock’s holy triumvirate aside from Gene Clark and Gram Parsons is Richie Furay, who quite honestly doesn't get nearly the recognition he deserves.  Furay was a founding member of the seminal 60’s folk rock outfit Buffalo Springfield along with Neil Young and Stephen Stills but after the breakup of that band Furay formed Poco with fellow Springfield alumnus Jim Messina in 1968.  Poco leaned farther toward the rock end of the country rock spectrum and were characterized by Furay’s distinctive, higher pitched vocals.  Released in 1969, Pickin’ Up the Pieces is equal parts psychedelic-tinged rock, country-tinged rock, and folk-tinged rock that makes it eerily similar to the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo.  Their take on country rock tends to be more upbeat and peppy than Parsons’, particularly on songs like “Calico Lady”, “Short Changed” (with its fuzzed out , echoe-y guitar and wild screaming vocals), the jaunty “Pickin’ Up the Pieces”,  the instrumental “Grand Junction” (named, presumably for the town on the western slope of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains), and “Consequently So Long”, but on ballads like “Tomorrow”, Furay shows himself to be a near equal of Parsons himself. 

Poco continued to release excellent country rock albums throughout the 70’s, and achieved a breakthrough with 1978’s hit single “Crazy Love”.  My favorite songs of theirs come off their fourth album A Good Feelin' To Know, and their fifth album, 1973’s Crazy Eyes.  "Go and Say Goodbye" and the title track off Good Feelin' are vintage Poco sway-and-clap feel-good ditties. “A Right Along” is more of a groovy cowboy boogie with a terrific rock riff punctuated with country guitar flourishes, another great example of Parsons’ “Cosmic American Music”.  “Magnolia” is like a doleful variant of the story song “Wildfire”, but “Let’s Dance Tonight” is a little more upbeat.

Poco were never as respected as any of Gram Parsons' projects (ISB, the Burritos, his own solo career), but here's the thing:  Poco are way more fun to listen to.  Gram's music is so dense and pure that it's not music you typically throw on for a quick listen.  I definitely get in moods where I want to hear some of his work, but I have to be in that mood and I only get into it occasionally.  In contrast, I can throw some Poco on pretty much any lazy, sunny Sunday afternoon and it puts a smile on my face.  Richie Furay's take on country rock focused on the joy of it--the porch-sittin', toe-tappin', two-steppin' variant of country rather than country as Serious Art Form.  Furay and Poco made music that was fully intended to put a smile on your face and a happy hitch in your step rather than bowl you over with its country authenticity.

Furay left Poco in 1973 and became part of one of the most interesting musical projects of the early 70’s.  Superagent David Geffen, flush with his prior supergroup success in managing Crosby, Stills, and Nash and the country rock of the Eagles, decided to see if lightning would strike again and put together a country supergroup, consisting of Furay, former Byrd and Flying Burrito Brother Chris Hillman, and periennial musical sideliner J.D Souther.  Souther  is sort of an unsung LA country rock hero, who famously lived with (and played in the band Longbranch Pennywhistle with) future Eagle Glenn FreyJackson Browne was their downstairs neighbor.  Souther ended writing songs for the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, and others.  The band split up the singing and songwriting, and the music was quite top notch.  The highlight to me, and one of my favorite obscure songs of the 70’s, is the leadoff song “Fallin’ in Love”.  Furay takes lead vocals here and the song rolls along like a good time feel-good 70’s country lite rock ditty that the Eagles would have been proud to have written.  Furay sings the hell out of it, and his genial, high pitched vocals (with just the right amount of twang) drive this song along with sweet organ rills that give it an almost gospel feel.  This should have been a massive hit given how popular the “California sound” was at this time; anyone who is a fan of the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, etc. would love this great, happy song, it's one of my favorite songs of all time.  It’s followed by Hillman’s more sedate “Heavenly Fire”, but Souther’s “The Heartbreak” is another fantastic, strutting country rock number and his vocals are strong and firm.  Furay returns with his ballad “Believe Me”, another standout track that Furay really puts his full force into.  “Border Town” has a funky guitar line that reminds me of the Doobie Brothers’ “Listen to the Music”.   I also like Hillman’s up-tempo “Safe at Home” and “Rise and Fall”.  Souther Furay Hillman Band did respectably, reaching #11 on the U.S. album charts, but was nowhere near as successful as either their inspiration (Crosby, Stills, and Nash) or their contemporary competition (the Eagles).  Its follow-up, Trouble in Paradise, was less countrified and emphasize the funkier rock elements of their sound; “Move Me Real Slow” almost sounds like a Joe Walsh song.   SHF ended up a mere footnote (albeit an interesting one, and as mentioned I consider “Falling In Love” at least as enjoyable as anything Gram Parsons ever wrote or recorded), but listening to their two albums is almost like peering into an alternate universe in which these guys became huge stars while the Eagles toiled in obscurity.  Furay’s “For Someone I Love” sounds eerily like mid-era Eagles, “New Kid In Town” or “Best of My Love” for example, just breezy mid-70’s California lite rock, while Souther’s Latin-influenced “Mexico” sounds like a lost bastard son of Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville”.

But the country rock outfit who had the first major hit was Long Beach's own Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, who had been around in different incarnations since the mid-60's but broke up and reformed in the late 60's.  Their folky cover of the song "Mr. Bojangles" off their 1970 album Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy was a big hit that year.  In 1972 they released the massive triple album May the Circle Be Unbroken, in which they collaborated on many country and traditional standards with respected older country musicians such as  Maybelle Carter, Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, and Merle Travis.  I'm still working my way through the Dirt Band's catalog, there's so much here and I just wasn't familiar with it until recently.  Another country rock pioneer, and a surprising on at that, is former Monkee Michael Nesmith, who released four country rock albums in the early 70's.  I am still exploring these albums but so far some of my favorites are "Nine Times Blue" and "Keys to the Car" off Magnetic South, the jaunty "Silver Moon" off Loose Salute, and the simple, spare and elegant work of nearly everything off And the Hits Just Keep Comin', but notably "Roll with the Flow", the beautiful "Two Different Roads", and "Keep On".  

The Eagles of course surfed out of LA’s country rock scene to worldwide fame and fortune at around this time, becoming one of the biggest selling acts of the 70’s and all time with their blend of country touches, rock elements, and a bushelful of mellow 70’s vibes.  All four original members had paid considerable country rock dues prior to the formation of the Eagles.  Randy Meisner was an original member of Poco before personality disputes drove him out during the recording of the debut album, and he later was also a formative member of Rick Nelson's Stone Canyon Band.  Bernie Leadon had played with just about every other country/folk rock band on the LA scene, including the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers, Hearts & Flowers, Dillard & Clark, and the Flying Burrito Brothers (for the recording of their second album); in his post-Eagles career he even briefly joined the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band!  Drummer Don Henley was a member of Texas country rock ensemble Shiloh, who had been signed to their record label on the insistence of Kenny RogersGlenn Frey had been in Longbranch Pennywhistle with J.D. Souther when he approached superagent David Geffen in 1970 about getting a record contract; Geffen reputedly told him he needed to be in a group, and he quickly approached Henley who agreed to join him, initially as the touring and support band for Linda Ronstadt.  However, they eventually signed with superagent David Geffen's Asylum Record label and released their self-titled debut album the next year.  My favorite songs by the Eagles are their more mellow cuts like “Take It Easy” off their debut album and “One of these Nights” and “Peaceful Easy Feeling”.  But on this first album there is much more balance between the mellow 70's vibe of Frey and the more traditional country rock approach of Leadon and Meisner.  Leadon's "Earlybird" and Meisner's "Tryin' are much closer to the groovy country of Poco.  Their second album, Desperado, was better known for Frey's "Tequila Sunrise" and Henley's "Desperado", but "Twenty-one" is a brisk country two-stepper and "Saturday Night" is a cowboy campfire song with Crosby, Stills, and Nash style vocal harmonies.

But in the late 70’s, The Eagles drifted farther and farther from their country roots, and country rock itself started falling out of favor as more urban music such as punk, new wave and disco started making greater inroads on the music charts.  However, in the early 80’s it started to be revived, primarily in the place where it originated:  Southern California.  This movement was dubbed “cowpunk”, a term most of the artists detested.  Three Southern California post-punk bands in particular did much to re-introduce country elements into rock music.  The first of these bands of course was X, who were fairly accomplished musicians when they formed in 1977-1978 and were also older than snotty punks like the Germs and so had a longer view and greater appreciation of rock music and its roots in particular (Billy Zoom was in fact a noted rockabilly guitarist prior to joining X).    In 1985 the members of X and a few other friends released an album under the name the Knitters entitled Poor Little Critter on the Road which is a magnificent melding of country, blues, folk, and the energy of post-punk.  There are several highlights here; John and Exene’s dual vocal romp through the traditional song “Walking Cane” is outstanding and showcases Doe’s ever-maturing country singing ability.  Indeed, Doe’s solo cover of Merle Haggard’s “Silver Wings” is one of my favorite country (rock) songs of all time, just a sweet, beautiful song and Doe’s voice really shines here.  He and Exene glide through one of the punkiest songs in X’s catalog, “New World”, giving it an acoustic twang that would make it not stand out on a country station.   And finally, Doe’s own “Cryin’ but My Tears Are Far Away” is an out and out classic, highlighted by Martin Lund’s subtle accordion playing and Dave Alvin’s magnificent electric guitar picking.  This too is another fabulous song.

At around the same time, LA’s Long Ryders were emerging as the torch bearer for the whole Byrds jangly/country sound.  They released their first full-length album in 1984, Native Sons, that sounds like nothing more than Gram Parsons come back to life to join a Clash-influenced 80’s version of the Byrds or Burritos.  Most of the songs rock far harder than Parsons ever did but lead vocalist Sid Griffin’s voice nevertheless has that excellent twang.  “Final Wild Son” is a quickstepper with twangy guitar flourishes and comes the closest to the Burrito’s sound.    “Still Get By” is more rocking and has jangly Paisley Underground elements similar to the Three O’Clock or early Bangles, but “Ivory Tower” is more measured and has good country harmonies from Griffin and Steve McCarthy.  “Run Dusty Run” gallops along with odd, affecting Beatle-esque harmonies and an almost surf guitar sound; “Wreck of the 809” sounds like a countrified version of “She’s Not There” by the Zombies.  The best song, and one of my favorite songs of all time, is their magnificent “I Had a Dream”, which has to be the absolute apogee of the LA Paisley Underground, the perfect updating of the jangle-pop 60’s of the Byrds with the driving energy of early 80’s punk.  There’s little country here except Griffin’s slight Kentucky twang to the vocals, but aside from that quibble this is one of the best songs to emerge from this seminal LA scene.  I was introduced to this song when it the video for it was played on an LA video show around ’84 or so and even then it was one of my favorite songs and it has remained so ever since.  There aren’t enough words of praise for how good this song is or how much enjoyment it’s brought me over the ensuing (nearly) three decades since its release.  The deluxe version of Native Sons available on iTunes contains the four songs from their debut EP, 10-5-60, including the jangly “Join My Gang”, which kind of reminds me of “I Want You Back” by the Hoodoo Gurus.  Two other great Long Ryder songs are “I Want You Bad”, a driving country rocker off their BBC Radio One in Concert live album, and their single “Looking For Lewis & Clark”, which walks a perfect line between hard rock, jangle pop, and country.

Other LA bands dabbled in country/roots sounds, including Los Lobos, Blood on the Saddle, Rank and File (formed by Chip and Tony Kinman after the breakup of the Dils), Gun Club, and the Blasters; even Fear released a country album (though it was probably mostly through a desire to shock and annoy).  But one band that stood out even though they only released two albums was Lone Justice.  Their 1985 eponymously titled debut album yielded two minor hits, the sublime “Ways to be Wicked”, which was written by Tom Petty (and it shows)-- lead singer Mariah McKee’s ringing, fierce country voice sound second to only Emmylou here-- and “Sweet Sweet Baby (I’m Falling)”, which is less country and more of a straight ahead bar rocker with soulful back vocals.   The band, already solid enough, was augmented by pros like Benmont Tench on keyboards, and Tony Gilkyson (who would soon join X) and Little Steven Van Zandt on guitar.  Straight-ahead rockers like “East of Eden” and “After the Flood” really benefit from this solid studio help and sound like the equal of Tom Petty’s late 70’s work.  “Pass It On” is another big, bold number that features McKee’s terrific vocals.  Alas, on Shelter, the 1986 follow-up to their debut album, Lone Justice abandoned much of the country elements in favor of more generic 80’s production, though “I Found Love” still retains a country twang under the 80’s sheen and is actually at least as good as anything on their debut.  Lone Justice broke up soon after but McKee went on to a long respected solo career.

Though they weren’t part of LA’s cowpunk scene, Toronto’s aptly named Cowboy Junkies were another breakout success that fused a country vibe with alternative rock approaches.  Their magnum opus was 1988’s Trinity Sessions, recorded in a single day in a church in Toronto and which featured very stripped down and subdued takes of a wide range of songs.  They are probably most noted for their slow, soft, sweet cover of Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane”, which became a hit for them in the U.S., but their other covers, including “Blue Moon of Kentucky”, Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight”, “Mining for Gold”, and Merle Haggard’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” are all spectacular, driven as they are by lead singer Margo Timmons’ sultry voice.  “Blue Moon” is my favorite CJ song of all time, and I’m someone who LOVES Elvis Presley’s original.

Aside from the Cowboy Junkie’s modest success, the cowpunk movement never made many inroads in popular music, but it did serve as a stepping stone between the country rock of the 60’s and early 70’s and the alt country movement of the 90’s.  One of the first alt country acts was Uncle Tupelo, who played a turbocharged throat-grabbing variant of country rock that pulled heavily on the growing grunge movement for some of its guitar power.  Released in 1990, Tupelo’s No Depression has since become a touchstone for the alt country movement.  My favorite song on this album, and one of my favorite Uncle Tupelo songs of all time, is album opener “Graveyard Shift”, which highlights this sturm and drang approach to country; this is not twangy high lonesome country, this is country more in Jay Farrar’s yearning, soulful voice (that nevertheless has a powerful snarl) and a few flourishes riding a guitar roar that would not have sounded out of place on a Nirvana album.  This song grabs you by the neck and drags you into this new, more powerful approach to country rock. “Before I Break” is another song with a big crunchy guitar that bludgeons the listener while Farrar and Jeff Tweedy croon their intertwining vocals.  “Outdone” and “Factory Belt” keep the slamming guitar raging but smooth it out a little and are magnificent as well.  It’s on their cover of the gospel standard “No Depression” as well as “Whiskey Bottle” and “Life Worth Livin’” that Tupelo reveals their softer, more contemplative side; the latter is particularly wonderful and has lyrics that explore the bleakness of life.

Their 1991 follow-up, Still Feel Gone, continues in this vein but more frequently reins in the guitar roar for a more traditional take on country, nowhere more evident than on “Watch Me Fall”, which contains more traditional country instrumentation and is sung by Tweedy.  Tweedy’s “Gun” owes a huge debt to the Replacements and “Punch Drunk” sounds at times like a Dinosaur Jr. song.   1992’s March 16-20, 1992 moves completely away from their punk past and is completely acoustic.  “Sandusky” is a magnificent banjo and guitar picking song, and their cover of the Louvin Brothers’ “Atomic Power” is fantastic.  I also love their cover of the traditional song “I Wish My Baby Was Born”.  Uncle Tupelo’s 4th and final album, 1993’s Anodyne, is an exquisite parting shot.  My favorite songs are the melancholy “Slate”, with its wonderful fiddle work, “The Long Cut” (which revives the guitar roar of their debut) and the utterly fantastic “Chickamauga”.

Uncle Tupelo broke up the next year, and Farrar soon formed Son Volt with a new set of musicians and carried on in much the same vein; my favorite Son Volt songs are the lurching, crunching “Drown” and the sweet country lilt of “Windfall” off their debut album Trace (which comes really close to Gram Parsons’ work on Grievous Angel), “Driving the View” from Wide Swing Tremolo, and the alternately echoe-y and pounding “Jet Pilot” from Okemah and the Melody of Riot.  Tweedy and Tupelo bassist John Stirratt formed Wilco, which has been driven less by a country rock approach but is instead centered on Jeff Tweedy’s odd, affecting voice and introspective alt folk.  The Beatle-esque “Misunderstood”, with its soft piano building to the cacophonous ending with Tweedy shouting “NOTHING! NOTHING! NOTHING! NOTHING AT ALL!”, off 1996’s Being There is a terrific track, as is the wah-ed out rocker “I Got You (End of the Century)”, which is one of my favorite Wilco songs because it reminds me of my son’s birth (my wife and I had just gotten into Wilco around that time).  I absolutely love this song.  The low key “Sunken Treasure” and the contrastingly big and loud “Outtasight (Outta mind)” are other high points off this album.  The weird, buzzing “I’m Always in Love” off 1999’s Summerteeth is trippy neo-psychedelia.  But Wilco’s big breakthrough came with 2001’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which was rightly recognized as a classic.  The lurching “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” is classic Tweedy, awkward but affecting, and “Kamera” and “Pot Kettle Black” are happy and sweet acoustic romps. But it’s the moving, evocative “Ashes of American Flags” that has become the standout track.  Even though it was recorded before the 9/11 attacks, this introspective, down tone song, with its line “I would like to salute the ashes of American flags” instantly became associated with this tragedy.  I always think of this song when I think of that terrible day.

Almost unheralded in their mid-90’s heyday were LA’s Geraldine Fibbers, who also melded (post) punk fury to sweet aching country melodies and themes.  Formed by former Ethyl Meatplow leader Carla Bozulich in 1994 upon that band’s demise, the Fibbers were a radically different direction from the electronic/industrial sound of Meatplow and their wildly sexual S&M influenced stage shows.  My (future) wife and I had seen Ethyl Meatplow on a couple of occasions, opening for bands like L7 and Celebrity Skin, and had been stunned by the nudity and wildness of their shows, but we were also impressed by Bozulich’s strong, clear voice and based largely on her vocal talents we bought the Fibbers’ 1995 debut release Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home.  This album contains two striking songs, “Lily Belle” and “Marmalade”.  “Lily Belle” is a baroque country gothic opus which begins with some sweet fiddling before building to a crashing, atonal crescendo that then resolves down and Bozulich’s intensely emotional voice kicks in; this soft-then-quiet pattern repeats twice more, culminating  with Bozulich almost screaming, leagues from the sweet country twang that starts the vocals before resolving sweetly again.  This is one of the strangest but most compelling alt country songs ever recorded for sure.  “Marmalade” begins with a strumming electric guitar that reminds me of “Drown” or “Rhinoceros” by the Smashing Pumpkins and a softly sawing cello; again Bozulich’s amazing drawling vocals start somewhat softly but the chorus is fantastic, building somewhat atonally but plateauing with Bozulich’s sweet country voice playing counterpoint to a raw guitar in a way that’s amazingly pleasant.  These two songs are excellent alt country documents that showcase Bozulich’s distinctive vocals and lyrics.  They also do a mean cover of George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today”, which can be found on their album The Poop Alley Tapes.

Another of my favorite female country singers is the staggeringly talented, utterly magnificent Iris Dement, who sounds like she walked right out of Appalachia circa 1931.  I first was exposed to her simply unbelievable voice when I saw her open for Chris Isaak in Denver in 1998 and left absolutely blown away by how talented she was.  In one 45 minute set she sang with a ringing country voice that echoed through the ages and as if that wasn’t enough she played guitar, harmonia, accordion, and piano too.  It was a lot like that scene in the Simpsons episode where Homer hears Lurleen Lumpkin’s voice for the first time.  Now, I love Chris Isaak and have seen him many times in concert, and every time he puts on a terrific, high energy show, but I barely heard him that night, until he brought Iris back out for an Everly Brothers song encore, which was the highlight of the evening.  What was especially great was that prior to doing so, Chris launched into this long, effusive introduction about how “this little lady is just about the most talented person I know and I’m lucky to have her with me on tour”.  This was particularly gratifying to me because when Iris was doing her set I was surrounded by a bunch of fat, overly made up middle aged women who were complaining about Dement—“Who is this chick?  She’s too twangy!  Where’s Chris?” and Chris’ intro shut them up for sure! 

Another thing that amazes me is that while she was born in Arkansas, Dement moved to California when she was three and spent her formative years growing up in Cypress, a city not five miles from my home town of Long Beach.  To some extent it amazes me to think that she grew up so close to me (and not too far off in time either) when I was listening to Depeche Mode and the Germs (and she was listening to her mother’s gospel records).  But Long Beach has always been less of a true city and more of a town, and it’s arguably the most honky tonk city in southern California (and not too far off of truly honky tonk places like Bakersfield, Stockton, and Fresno in terms of its hillbilly vibe).

To me, Dement is second only to the immortal Emmylou Harris (with whom she dueted on “Wheels of Love”) when it comes to female country singers, her voice is like a clarion bell, strong, sweet, emotive, with just the right amount of country twang.  Her 1992 debut  Infamous Angel was jaw-droppingly beautiful, a timeless chunk of pure country Americana that was instantly hailed as a classic; it’s hard to remember a more astonishing debut by any artist in any genre that was more mind blowingly incredible than this.  One hundred years from now Carrie Underwood will be entirely forgotten but country artists will still be covering these songs and the songs themselves will pull at people’s hearts and souls then as now.  There is literally not a bad song here, but among the very top moments are her cover of “Fifty Miles of Elbow Room”, “Hotter Than Mojave in my Heart” (I love the organ swirl at the beginning that reminds me of “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan), the more melancholy “These Hills” and “Our Town”. 

But there are two Iris Dement songs that I find simply transcendent on this album.  The first is the title track, “Infamous Angel”, a cautionary tale of excess and salvation that Dement gives passionate life with her incredible voice.  The topic, and lyrics, are pure, 100% Gram Parsons all the way, a song he’d have been proud to have written (I also think personally that Parsons would have shit his pants if he’d lived to hear Dement sing).  The second may be one of my favorite songs of all time of ANY genre, “Let the Mystery Be”.  This song is simply magnificent on every level.  First, I absolutely LOVE the subject matter: the gist of the song is that while lots of people worry about, and claim they know about, the big questions of life like where did we came from and what happens to us when we die, basically they DON’T know, and smart people like Iris are therefore content simply to “let the mystery be”.  It’s as succinct and effective an argument for agnosticism as I could ever imagine, a position I strongly agree with.  Both the topic and lyrics and the jaunty, folksy rhythm of this song are pure Woody Guthrie, American folk at its finest.   And then of course there’s Iris’ voice, which is just captivating.  What’s ironic to me is that her heavenly voice is enough to make a non-believer such as myself believe there actually MIGHT be a god!!!!!!

Three other Dement favorites of mine are covers; Dement’s magnificent, yodeling version of Jimmie Rodgers’ Depression era classic “Hobo Bill’s Last Ride”; her duet with Steve Earle “I’m Still In Love With You”; and her stunning take on Merle Haggard’s “Big City”, a song that I used to sing to my infant song at night and thus has even more emotional meaning to me.  But honestly, Iris could sing the phone book and I’d listen raptly to her from Aaron A. Aaronson to Zeke Zymysky.  As may be obvious by now, I have a TREMENDOUS crush on Iris and her gargantuan talent and it’s impossible for me to even attempt to be objective when describing her wonderful music.

Of course, many other bands have continued on in a country rock vein throughout the late 90’s and 2000’s.  One of my current favorites is Lucero, who formed in Texas in the late 90’s but soon relocated to Memphis.  In the 2000’s they have released several excellent albums driven by leader Ben Nichol’s gritty country-infused growl.  I especially love the lilting “Sweet Little Thing” off 2002’s Tennessee, which builds to a big rock chorus but keeps returning to its sweet, soft verses.  “Ain’t So Lonely” has a more traditional country feel that really evokes early Uncle Tupelo.  “Chain Link Fence” is louder and more up front with the guitar, but occasional resolves into softer interludes.  “When You’re Gone” is another hard-and-soft mix that works well.  2006’s That Much Further West fleshes out this approach, with songs like the title track evoking the work of Jeff Tweedy both in Tupelo and in Wilco.  “Across the River” is relaxed and comfortable, the organ giving it a fuller, lusher feel, but it glides along like a countrified version of “Peaceful Easy Feeling” by the Eagles.  “Tears Don’t Matter Much” is a reflective blend of thoughtful lyrics and jaunty guitar, while “Hate and Jealousy” starts with a big guitar riff that evokes Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” as interpreted by J Mascis before settling into a twangy country ditty.  A choice cut is “Tonight Ain’t Gonna Be No Good”, a sassy strutter that rocks and rolls with a strumming electric guitar and crisp beat, building to the stomping choruses at the end—this is one of Lucero’s best songs.

Equally treasured by me is their 2005 album Nobody’s Darlings.  Perhaps because it was produced by famed Memphis producer Jim Dickinson, who manned the board for the Replacement’s Pleased To Meet Me, this album evokes the roots-meets-punk sound of the Placemats more than nearly any album of the past 25 years.    To me the best track is the first, “Watch It Burn”, with its roaring, noodling guitar lines and chugging rhythm; Roy Berry’s drumming is particularly magnificent here, setting down the tempo with force and vigor.  But it’s the fuzzy, shimmery roar of the guitars that gives this song its amazing texture, that and Nichol’s nearly breaking voice.  The big, chunky guitar on “Anjalee” and the lurching beat that resolves into a driving rhythm makes this song a close second to “Watch It Burn”, really a magnificent song that brings to mind a harder rocking Bruce Springsteen, a “Rosalita” for the 21st century.  “Sixteen” slows things down a bit, but the guitars remain crunchy and driving, particularly in the chorus.  “And We Fell” has an R.E.M. quality to it, an almost melancholy Southern gothic feel, while “California” is another big loud joyful roar playfully alternating between its chugging verse and its raving chorus.  “Last Night in Town” also swings between chugging and shimmering with some sloppy feedback solos thrown in for good measure; somewhere Gram Parsons is looking down and smiling.

2006’s Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers found Lucero expanding a bit beyond the country punk constraints of their first few albums.  “What Else Would You Have Me Be” comes off like a Bruce Springsteen-meets-Kings-of-Leon middle America Joisey mashup; the piano in particular makes me think of “Born to Run”, but the chugging middle of the song seems to have been torn from Wilco’s “Misunderstood”.  Indeed, Rebels is characterized by a broadening of their sound away from just the guitar roar of Nobody’s Darlings, with keyboards, accordion, and fiddle fleshing out their previously stripped-down sound.  “I Don’t Wanna Be the One” has a skirling organ that builds in intensity and insistence until it takes over the song, much the same way John Cale’s droning organ solos commandeer the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray”; this is a really cool song for this reason alone but it’s also catchy and fun too.  “She’s Just That Kind of Girl” bolts out of the gates like “Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill” or “Flip Your Wig” by Husker Du, and what can you say that’s better than that?

In 2009 Lucero made their major label debut with 1372 Overton Park; album opener “Smoke” builds slowly from a musical refrain that almost sounds like Sparks’ “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us”, with lyrics that are ripped from Springsteen’s “Born To Run”, but the horns and keyboards which here work fairly effectively in building this opus become overbearing elsewhere, smothering the raw intensity of the guitars.  Sadly, they continued in this direction on 2012’s Women & Work.  While there’s nothing wrong with a group evolving, and in a certain light the horns make sense given their adopted hometown’s soul history, here’s hoping their next album gets them back toward their rawer earlier sound.

The other band I like at the moment that fuse country elements with rock, southern rock, and blues is Magnolia Electric Co.  I like “Dark Don’t Hide It”, “Montgomery” and “Don’t It Look Like the Dark”.  Their sound falls somewhere between the country rock of the Byrds and the alt folk roar of Neil Young.  Good stuff but supposedly frontman Jason Molina, who for all intents and purposes is Magnolia Electric Co., has retired from performing due to health issues.  Pity.

It must be said that, like a lot of people I guess, I came to country and country rock late in life.  I actively detested it in the 80’s, when my mother got into it and would torture me with it much as I would torture her with my punk and new wave music (she HATED “Jimmie Jones” by the Vapors, which was one of my favorite songs).  And if there is one genre of music that I totally despise it is pretty much anything that’s come out of Nashville proper in the last 30 years or so.  All of the pop pap masquerading as country just reminds me of Britney Spears or Justin Bieber tarted up with some fiddles and banjo and has nothing to do with the true musical values of real country music.  But I love all of the music described here, mostly because it ISN’T considered country by the country establishment and mostly because of the fact that this outsider label has allowed these artists to explore and experiment with country music in a way that country traditionalists won’t.

In the years since his death, Gram Parsons has received a lot of accolades for his distinctive take on country music, and is widely recognized as one of the pioneers of, and innovators of, country rock.  But it's hard to separate Parsons from his post-death mythos. His tragic early death from a heroin overdose, and the legendary immolation of his body by his manager Philip Kaufman, have obscured for many Gram's true accomplishments.  For on the one hand Gram was singularly UNsuccessful in his attempts to make what he called "Cosmic American music"; his attempts to bring rock, psychedelia, and R&B flourishes to traditional country were not widely appreciated in his lifetime.  And as mentioned above, Gram's country is so hardline, so monolithic, that it's not exactly easy listening.

Gram Parsons also failed himself and his own audience by succumbing to his own temptations.  Aside from his ending his own talented life too prematurely, much of Parsons' time was wasted in dissolute pursuits of hedonism.  He was the epitome of the rich, indolent hippie; his trust fund from his wealthy family prevented him from ever having to work, and as a consequence most of his  life was dissipated fruitlessly living the perceived rock star lifestyle.  He rarely committed himself to anything, even his own musical passions, and as a result his recorded legacy is spotty at best.  His best moments shine as bright as any landmark musical accomplishment of the past 60 years, but too often laziness and drug haziness prevented him from putting forth his best effort.  He was notoriously awful as a performer, typically too drunk or drugged out to give good effort.  He was a lackluster musician and often in concert his band or the roadies would unplug his instrument since it detracted more than it helped.  It's hard to listen to the Burritos or his solo albums and not feel like they could, and indeed should, have been better.  Gram's life is one of far too many could-have-beens and should-have-beens.

But on the other hand, Parsons succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.  In the early 70's a bewildering array of musicians WERE able to fuse a broad range of American musical idioms into a steamy gumbo of sound, including such acts as the Rolling Stones, Little Feat, Delaney and Bonnie and their collaborative work with Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs & Englishmen, Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue, and so forth.  These and other artists tried, and succeeded, to meld the wide spectrum of American music, from country to rockabilly to bluegrass to blues to folk to rock, and it is undeniable that Gram Parsons had both direct and indirect influences on many of these. Newer acts have continued to try to mine the "cosmic" country rock vibe established by Parsons, most notably  the Beachwood Sparks on songs like "Sister Rose" and "Confusion is Nothing New".

On the other hand, Gram has also benefitted not just from his own lionization and legend-building but from the demonization of others.  Specifically, many people have denigrated other country rock acts, most notably Poco and the Eagles and to a lesser extent Linda Ronstadt, for taking what Gram started and "watering it down", creating a kind of country rock lite that was more palatable to the masses.  I have major problems with this, the primary one is that it presupposes that these artists wanted, or should have tried, to sound like Gram Parsons.  It's pretty obvious that people like Richie Furay and Don Henley were NOT trying to recreate a cosmic form of Bakersfield honky tonk country, and I find it spurious of people to argue that Gram Parsons made music that was somehow "better" than these other artists just because it was different, and less successful.  These arguments also often get caught up in the Gram Parsons mythos while simultaneously deriding these other acts because they lived while Gram died, and they became famous and successful to boot.  There's nothing wrong with being successful OR ambitious, as long as you are still trying to make the music you feel speaks to, and for, you.  There's very little evidence that the Eagles began as some mercenary band of opportunists hoping to cash in.  They wanted to be successful, without a doubt, but they were still making the music they believed in.  I have no real problem with artists making music that becomes popular as long as it's still good music--well crafted and honest.  This is why I like a wide range of music that is patently commercial, everything from the Monkees to Rick Springfield to Kelly Clarkson.  Living isn't a crime, being successful isn't a crime, making music you believe in isn't a crime.  Conversely, it IS a crime to fritter your talents away in a druggy haze and deprive the world of your full talents.