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Country Rock Turns A Page, 1974-1975 April 14, 2010

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Most of us who are fans of the genre like to think that the crescendo was building and country rock would become entrenched, a standard format for rock music. As soon as we began to believe it, it began to unravel.

In the last post I did not write one word about the Eagles 1973 release “Desperado”. On one hand it’s odd that no one seemed to notice. On the other, I would have thought that readers who pointed out my obvious omissions in previous posts would have pointed this out. Nevertheless, there is a method to the approach: I will spend time demonstrating the contrast between “Desperado” and 1974’s “On The Border” was indicative of a genre declining, not rising.

“Desperado” was a masterpiece. I say this not being an Eagles fan and, frankly, I have never owned this album in any format. Nevertheless, one look at the playlist reminds you how much of a gamble, how much of a career risk this was to this group for its second album.

First, it was a concept album. Concept albums were for The Who (“Tommy”), King Crimson (“Court of the Crimson King”) and the Beatles (Sgt. Pepper’s”). In short, British rock bands did this sort of thing in a big way in the late 1960s and 1970s. This is not something people would anticipate from this set of folk, bluegrass and rock musicians. Glen Frey and John David Souther did the SoCal folk scene prior to Frey hooking up with Don Henley, Randy Meisner (ex-Poco) and Bernie Leadon (ex-Burrito and Dillard & Clark Expedition) to back-up Linda Ronstadt.

The Eagles’  first album was very good. I don’t for a moment believe anyone could have predicted the form and success of the next.

Second, sales were not as good for “Desperado” as “Eagles”. The former topped at #41 and the latter at #22 on the Billboard chart. This “disappointment”, I believe, gave room for the Eagles’ departure from country rock and follow-up with “On The Border” (1974) that would reach #17, and “One Of These Nights” (1975) that reached #1. But we’ll get to that in a bit.

Let’s take a quick look at the “Desperado” song sequence:

Side one

  1. “Doolin-Dalton”
  2. “Twenty-One”
  3. “Out of Control”
  4. Tequila Sunrise
  5. Desperado

Side two

  1. Certain Kind of Fool
  2. “Doolin-Dalton (Instrumental)”
  3. Outlaw Man
  4. “Saturday Night”
  5. “Bitter Creek”
  6. “Doolin-Dalton / Desperado (Reprise)”

If you like country rock music with elegance and grit, this is your album. If you remember the sadness and emptiness in the moments of your youth next to the days of believing you were indestructible, then, this is your album. For grit, my favorites are “A Certain Kind Of Fool” and “Outlaw Man”. For moments of introspection there is the title track, “Tequila Sunrise” and “Saturday Night”. For moments of feeling unbeatable there’s “Twenty-one”, “Out Of Control” and “Bitter Creek”. It was an album every bit as moody, intelligent and strong as a twenty-something. This was a reflection of the moment, set in the old west, measured, possibly, so as not to be misconstrued as teenage angst by the “establishment”. But for us at the time, we heard it. We felt it. We believed it.

Leave it to the Eagles to begin to break it down as soon as they built it!

“On The Border” is a country rock album, but with the addition of Don Felder, the Eagles turned squarely toward rock. Again, we can assess it all we like, but the playlist tells the story:

Side one

  1. Already Gone
  2. “You Never Cry Like a Lover”
  3. “Midnight Flyer”
  4. “My Man”
  5. “On the Border”

Side two

  1. James Dean
  2. Ol’ 55
  3. “Is It True?”
  4. Good Day in Hell
  5. Best of My Love

In my opinion, “Midnight Flyer”, “My Man”, and their biggest hit to date “Best Of My Love” were the only nods to the genre. The Eagles had made the move. Leadon may have lasted another album, but with Felder coming on board, slide guitar replaced pedal steel and banjo and “One Of These Nights”, as previously mentioned, would go to #1. Who could possibly argue the decision? “Lyin’ Eyes” would be all the Eagles would offer country rock fans on “One Of These Nights”. They, too, were truly already gone.

So, what were we left with in 1974 and 1975 to be hopeful for? Let’s take a look:

Gram Parsons, Grievous Angel, January 1974

Poco, Seven, April 1974

Marshall Tucker Band, A New life, may 1974

New Riders of the Purple Sage, Home Home On The Road, April 1974

Poco, Cantamos, November 1974

Linda Ronstadt, Heart like A Wheel, November 1974

New Riders of the Purple Sage, Brujo, November1974

Gene Clark, No Other, December 1974

Heartsfield, Wonder Of It All, unknown 1974

Marshall Tucker Band, Where We All Belong, unknown 1974

Waylon Jennings, The Ramblin’ Man, unknown 1974

Jerry Jeff Walker, Walker’s Collectibles, unknown 1974

Waylon Jennings, This Time, unknown 1974

Pure Prairie League, Two Lane Highway, Spring 1975

Flying Burrito Brothers, Flying Again, October 1975

Emmylou Harris, Elite Hotel, November 1975

New Riders of the Purple Sage, Oh What A Mighty Time, unknown 1975

Willie Nelson, Red-Headed Stranger, unknown 1975

Emmylou Harris, Pieces of the Sky, unknown 1975

Waylon Jennings, Dreamin’ My Dreams, unknown 1975

Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, self-titled, unknown 1975

Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, Tales From The Ozone, unknown 1975

Jerry Jeff Walker, Ridin’ High, unknown 1975

Marshall Tucker Band, Searchin’ For A Rainbow, unknown 1975

Let’s look on the bright side

Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt were no strangers to success before they “took off” in the mid-1970s. Harris had traveled and recorded with the self-appointed founder of “Cosmic American Music”, Gram Parsons, for about two years and until his death in 1973. She emerged as a talented solo act with her “Hot Band” including veterans such as James Burton and Glen D. Hardin. For her part, Ronstadt was a hit-maker with the Stone Poneys and Michael Nesmith’s “Different Drum” in the late 1960s so her emergence was no surprise at all and she moved from genre to genre with ease. These were but two talented women who began to take their place in country rock, and move typical country singers like Dolly Parton toward the up-tempo brand of country music that would soon supplant what Patsy Cline helped to create.

The next Poco, Burritos, Pure Prairie League phase

I recall a Rolling Stone review that stated something along the line of “if you forget the previous six albums, ‘Poco Seven’ is pretty good.” Maybe. As a fan I can count “Drivin’ Wheel”, “Rocky Mountain Breakdown” and “Angel” as the only gems here. It had seemed that the loss of Richie Furay had been a set-back. But as sure as 1974 had April (when “Seven” was released), it also had a November that opened with “Cantamos” (from what I understand this means “we sing” in Spanish). Rusty Young was beginning to emerge from behind the pedal steel and dobro to contribute three songs and sing. This put Poco right back into the country rock game, unafraid to compete with the brashness of “On The Border” but keeping their feet on familiar ground. Nevertheless, “Cantamos” saw them reach a low ebb in the charts, settling at #76 (“Seven” made it to #68 and “Crazy Eyes reached #38). How to make it back to respectable charting and money?

“Head Over Heels” was the first album away from the Epic label. ABC Records saw something they liked and Poco made it back to “Crazy Eyes” territory, with “Head Over Heels” charting at #43. It came at a price for the genre: only “Keep On Tryin'” and “Lovin’ Arms” might have been loosely defined as country rock. The rest, rock music. But, the boys had to make a living and this was a triumph even in its departure. Nevertheless, 1976’s “Rose of Cimarron” would bring Poco back to the genre in a big way.

Across town in 1974 Eddie Tickner, Chris Ethridge and Pete Kleinow got together with Gib Guilbeau (ex-Nashville West), Gene Parsons (ex-Byrds) and Joel Scott Hill (ex-Canned Heat) to put together the next version of the Flying Burrito Brothers. Again, if you set aside the first four Burrito albums, you could say “Flying Again”, 1975) was a reasonably good first attempt by well-above-average musicians. Like “Desperado” the playlist tells the story. It rocked like the original Burritos. It was road weary and sad like the original Burritos. It brought something new to the table in Guilbeau’s Cajun fiddle. It looked like the Burritos were going to pull off what Pure Prairie League was about to pull off: a nearly wholesale change that worked. Ultimately, the wings would rust and fall away but for the moment, it looked like a bright future for the next Burritos.

Back in Cincinnati, RCA had re-released “Amie” from Pure Prairie League’s “Bustin’ Out” album at the moment a new configuration was set to take the stage and produce a new album. It was a beautiful, unanticipated push through the barroom swinging doors that would make newcomers Larry Goshorn and Mike Reilly’s life easier with veterans John David Call, Michael Connors, George Ed Powell and Billy Hinds. “Two Lane Highway”, from RCA like the previous releases, got a boost from Chet Atkins, Emmylou Harris and Don Felder (on mandolin). It topped the chart at #24 in 1975 with a rollicking sound like NRPS but with the restraint of the good Tennessee country boy, Atkins. “Two Lane Highway” demonstrated that the genre was not dying, it just needed a good-timey push to get it back in the right direction. This album was truly a high watermark for the genre in 1975.

They are out there: the best of the rest

NRPS carried in 1974 with their live album “Home Home On The Road” and followed it with “Brujo”. For the latter, Torbert would be replaced on bass by Skip Battin (ex-Byrds, soon to be Burritos). This line-up would also appear on the 1975 album “Oh What A Mighty Time”. Like Poco’s “Deliver'” in 1970, NRPS live album gives the listener a true sense of the energy the original line-up gave its audiences. “Brujo” was a bit of a disappointment but it seemed the band recovered nicely with “Mighty Time”. To be sure, NRPS will be remembered for bringing a fun, or a slacker’s looseness, to the table. The genre wasn’t going to die on their watch, but it would take a turn that seemed to indicate it would fall out of favor soon.

Gene Clark, “the Byrd who wouldn’t fly”, released his third solo album of the decade, “No Other” in 1974. He had produced “White Light” in 1971 and “Roadmaster” in 1972. None of them were true country rock albums, not the least of which was “No Other”.  At a huge cost for the time, more than $100,000 to produce and record, it landed at #144 on the charts. Why mention it? Sentimental favorite. I consider Clark and his former Byrd-mate Roger McGuinn as primarily folk or folk rock musicians, balladeers who would sometimes use up-tempo or country themes for their songs. He died at the age of 46 in 1991. He seemed to be a version of Gram Parsons who lived about 20 years longer and was left bitter by the experience and not uplifted. His voice, like Parsons’, was both haunting and engaging and not nearly as believable if he tried to sing a happy song as he was when he would sing of heartache or social injustice. I mention him because I believe those who did endure and gain a measure of success in the country rock genre, owe a debt of gratitude to Gene Clark for his accomplishments…and for what could have been.

Commander Cody and Asleep At The Wheel arrived at the genre from different places, literally and musically. Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airman were hometown boys to Ann Arbor, Michigan. Asleep At The Wheel hailed from Paw Paw, West Virginia, but soon became staples of the Austin, Texas, scene. Let’s look at AATW first.

1974’s self-titled album was followed by two in 1975: “Fathers & Sons” and “Texas Gold” (which made it to #7 on the country chart). There is no question they were a Western Swing band, as we look back on them today. At the time, AATW was an inventive country rock band, too, pushing the limits much the same way the 1975 version of the Burritos did delving into Cajun sound. Also, AATW had its single, “The Letter That Johnny Walker Read” top at #10 on the country chart in 1975. So, they broke into the “real” country chart in a big way while still dragging the college students and recently graduated along for the ride.

For their part, CC&HLPA came at country rock from the rockabilly and blues side. Yes, I know I have ignored rockabilly but CC was a country rock group at this time and like others drawing from different genres to set itself apart. While the charts may not say it was a rousing success, I believe CC contributed in a big way to the shaping of the next generation of the genre, like AATW, the one that made it mainstream to country. Who can forget “Lost In The Ozone” and “Hot Rod Lincoln”?

Marshall Tucker Band from Macon, Georgia, would show us how a southern band could fuse country without betraying its roots. Its self-titled debut appeared in 1973 and gave us “Take The Highway”, “Can’t You See” and “Ramblin'”. In 1974, “24 Hours At A Time” might be the most memorable from the album “A New Life”. It was the second album of 1974, a double one, with the opening disc in the studio and the second one “live”, “Where We All Belong” cut some new and important ground for the mixing of Macon-Capricorn Records southern rock and country rock. Toy Caldwell showed us his songwriting skills from the opening of “This Ol’ Cowboy” to “Try One More Time”. The live is electric and gives the band room to move on “Take The highway” and “24 Hours At A Time”. With all the talent in the band I believe it was Jerry Eubanks, or the band’s boldness in utilizing a multi-instrumentalist for flute and sax, that set Marshall Tucker apart from its competition during this time. Also, it made it into the mainstream. “Searchin’ For A Rainbow” topped the charts at #15. True, they would never do better, but I’m only going as far as 1975 so that’s a matter for another time.

A final band to add to the mix was considered a southern rock band, the Outlaws. But their self-titled 1975 debut album today sounds like mainstream country. “There Goes Another Love Song” went to #34 on the Billboard chart while the album made it to #13. This was not your Allman Brothers or Elvin Bishop southern rock group, this was Marshall Tucker on steroids.

Ultimately…

I have attempted to be as inclusive as possible, given my own prejudices and limited knowledge of certain corners of the country rock genre.

In the years after 1975, the genre didn’t disappear, but it was embraced so much by the Nashville establishment that you have to listen to the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday night on WSM in Nashville to get a taste of what country music was prior to its infusion of rock music. The Byrds that were booed at the Grand Ole Opry in 1968, would be considered tame by today’s Nashville standards and, most likely, welcomed with opened arms as upholding country music tradition.

How did this “sea change” happen in Nashville? I believe it was Chet Atkins’ openness to the likes of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. Outlaw Country was country music’s version of country rock, although they would never call it that. And by the time Waylon sang: “Don’t y’all think this outlaw thing’s done got out of hand?”, well, the horse was already out the barn!

Of course, it wasn’t just Atkins, but if we need landmarks in the musical journey, he would stand very tall and recognizable.

From the rock side, I still give it to the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Poco, the Flying Burrito Brothers and Jerry Garcia, for people recognizing that the steel guitar, banjo, dobro, mandolin and fiddle, have a place in juicing up good old country tunes, or creating brand new ones.

We have journeyed from 1965 to 1975. We witnessed many changes. I thank you for coming along for the ride.

“There’s just a little bit of magic in the country music we’re singin’…”

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