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Country Rock 1973: To Be Or Not To Be March 22, 2010

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It can be argued when rock music started to be infused with country music. I have taken readers back as far as 1964 with the Beatles but others could argue for Elvis, Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the like, and possibly make a case IF there was no discernible difference between genres (i.e., Rockabilly and Country Rock). I believe there is a difference and I have, based on that position, fundamentally ignored certain artists who some might believe need to be included. Furthermore, there is a country music side of the equation I have not addressed, along with some notable female artists, and I will try to rectify that in this and the next installments.

There was an enormous wave of influential music produced to propel country rock as a genre from 1968-1972. As rock bands re-shaped themselves (e.g., Byrds) or crumbled and new creations arose (e.g., Buffalo Springfield), or artists simply wanted another creative outlet (e.g., Jerry Garcia with NRPS), the genre built a firm footing and seemed poised to grow. However, 1973 would bring a storm that seemed to begin to scatter some bands while the creative juices seemed to be running out or not so sweet.

Let’s take a look at the releases that shaped 1973:

Gram Parsons, GP, January 1973

Waylon Jennings, Lonesome, On’ry and Mean, March 1973

Byrds, self-titled (Reunion), March 7, 1973

Michael Nesmith, Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash, Recorded in March 1973

Eagles, Desperado, April 17, 1973

Bob Dylan, Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid (soundtrack), July 16, 1973

Waylon Jennings, Honky Tonk Heroes, July 1973

Gram Parsons, Grievous Angel, recorded in July 1973, released January 1974

Lynyrd Skynyrd, Pronounced…, August 13, 1973

Jerry Jeff Walker, Viva Terlingua, Recorded August 18, 1973

Poco, Crazy Eyes, September 15, 1973

Neil Young, Time Fades Away, October 15, 1973

Creedence Clearwater Revival, Live In Europe, October 16, 1973 (recorded in 1971)

Commander Cody, Country Casanova, November 1973

New Riders of the Purple Sage, The Adventures of Panama Red, December 1973

Willie Nelson, Shotgun Willie, Unknown date 1973

Everly Brothers, Pass The Chicken & Listen, Unknown date 1973

Ricky Nelson, Garden Party, Unknown date 1973

Charlie Daniels, Honey In The Rock, Unknown date 1973

Chet Atkins, Alone, Unknown date 1973

Gram Parsons

Much has been written and tributes paid to Gram Parsons (November 5, 1946 – September 19, 1973). For whatever he was or was not, one thing is certain to my ear: he had an evocative voice and style. He wanted to create what he called a “Cosmic American Music”. Most people could interpret that as simply drug-enhanced hippie cowboy music and, in truth, that’s fairly accurate. As I have stated in another installment of this trilogy, the post-Sweetheart Byrds were probably the best at fulfilling Parson’s concept. Bands like The New Riders of the Purple Sage and Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen and Michael Nesmith did it, too, I believe, but put more of a country kick to it.

GP assembled the best available musicians at the time. How could it be a mediocre recording with the likes of Emmy Lou Harris, James Burton, Buddy Emmons, Al Perkins, Glen D. Hardin, Byron Berline, Alan Munde, and Ric Grech? It could not even when Parsons tried.

Grievous Angel saw Harris, Perkins, Berline and Hardin (along with Ronnie Tutt who had done some drum work on GP) return, and added Emory Gordy on bass, Linda Ronstadt (on harmony vocal for “In My Hour of Darkness”), Herb Pederson and Bernie Leadon. Again, even if Parsons had tried this could not have been a mediocre record. This was another one of those rare albums where it’s difficult to find a clinker. It’s just that good. Unfortunately, it would be the last we’d hear from Parsons except through compilations of previously unreleased material like on Sleepless Nights (1976) with the Burritos and Live 1973 (1982) or The Complete Reprise Sessions (GP and Grievous Angel combined with other material, 2006) and Live At The Avalon Ballroom 1969 (with the Burritos, 2007).

Byrds

In an earlier installment I called the Byrds reunion album a disappointment. It was in the sense that few original songs were included notwithstanding the fact that all five original members were present. Two Neil Young songs, one Joni Mitchell song and a David Crosby re-make is too much unoriginal material for the likes of the Byrds at that moment in time. They did sound good in spite of it. “Born To Rock N Roll” and “Long Live The King” were the major clunkers while “Cowgirl In The Sand” was anemic at best. The Byrds were done and it wasn’t the high note fans might have hoped for.

Poco

A Good Feelin’ To Know” (1972) was supposed to catapult Poco to the next level: an Eagles-like stardom, an enduring legacy. When it did not, “Crazy Eyes” signaled the end of the Richie Furay era for the band. In fact, “Crazy Eyes” was a better record than “Good Feelin’ To Know” but, like “From The Inside”, it had an ominous feel.

There was plenty to love for the country fan: “Blue Water”, Fool’s Gold”, “Brass Buttons” (by Gram Parsons), and “Magnolia” (by J.J. Cale). There was plenty to love for the rock fan: “A Right Along”, “Let’s Dance Tonight”, and “Here We Go Again”. Then there was the title track: all 9 minutes and thirty-nine seconds of symphonic bombast interspersed with Rusty Young’s banjo respites. I thought it was majestic and a fitting tribute to Gram Parsons. One reviewer at the time said the music of the song “Crazy Eyes” moved like a giant robot through a city. That’s accurate. Yet, all the elements were there: tight harmonies and superb musicianship. And it would be all-in for Richie Furay, who would leave to form the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band with Chris Hillman and J.D. Souther. Poco would survive losing both founding fathers (Furay and Messina) and there will be more about them in the next installment.

They Don’t Belong At All

Admittedly there are some odd entries for 1973. In my opinion, it is in part due to the rise of “outlaw country”. That electrified brand of country that was personified by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson in the 1970s, but brought to us by a rather unexpected source: Chet Atkins. One writer said that Atkins, while a record producer for RCA on Nashville’s “Music Row”, kept Waylon and Willie in the fold not because of brisk sales, but because he believed in them – he believed they would “catch on”. And catch they did!

As the rock side of the equation had its member leaning over to country, the country side had its members leaning over to rock. Lynyrd Skynrd is no more country rock than Bruce Springsteen EXCEPT for “Give Me Three Steps” from their 1973 debut album. Waylon and Willie and one-offs like Skynrd’s “3Steps” helped make the Toby Keith’s and Big & Rich’s of the contemporary country world possible.

What is mainstream country music now would have seemed incredible, impossible, to Music Row execs at the time…except Atkins, of course.

Outlaw Country, Southern Rock, Hippie/Slacker/Doper Cowboy, even Southern California Rock, all piled on to help make 1973 a wild year.

Jerry Jeff Walker

In the middle of the hot summer of 1973 came Jerry Jeff Walker with “Viva Terlingua”. This was an odd combination of New Riders of the Purple Sage, Panama Red vintage, Waylon and Willie, drinkin’ and carousin’ vintage, with a self-effacing sense of humor. There are several memorable tunes, not to mention Gary P. Nunn’s “London Homesick Blues” that has had quite a run as the theme song for the PBS show “Austin City Limits”.  “Up Against The Wall, Redneck Mother”, “Backslider’s Wine”, “Gettin’ By” and “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train” were all in the lazy country rock wheelhouse, even if not originally intended as such. And played live, well, there is a relaxed nature in this recording that doesn’t allow you to feel bad. And in the summer of 1973, that was quite an achievement.

What now?

Gram Parsons had died of a drug overdose in September. “PigPen” of the Grateful Dead died of a stomach hemorrhage. Jim Croce died in a plane crash. The Everly Brothers broke up on stage at Knot’s Berry Farm. The Byrds and Burritos were gone and Poco was unraveling. Yet, there was hope.

New Riders of the Purple Sage

You could almost hear fans and casual listeners say, “We waited all year for this”, when “The Adventures of Panama Red” finally made it to the record stores in December 1973. While this was a studio album, it was a perfect mate to Walker’s “Viva Terlingua”. With more humor, if that’s possible. New Riders of the Purple Sage, flying without Jerry Garcia, hit their stride with David Nelson, John Dawson, Dave Torbert, Spencer Dryden and Buddy Cage taking over on steel guitar. It was the up-tick needed to leave an odd year.

The next installment will take us into 1974. Maybe things will be better.

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