Country music and rock'n'roll have always been uneasy bedfellows, ever since Elvis Presley appeared on America’s Grand Ole Opry radio show in 1955 and offended country purists with his amalgamation of hillbilly music and R&B.
As rockabilly and rock’n’roll became national and then global phenomena, the poles moved further apart. To those outside the southern US states, country music stood for political conservatism, and was played by rednecks and racists.
On the other side of the coin, the country industry saw rock’n’rollers as decadent, long-haired beatniks, probably communists, who threatened everything that was decent about the USA.
Nevertheless, country music was always a part of rock’n’roll. Elvis’s first batch of singles for the Sun label mixed up blues and country songs in equal measure: That’s All Right Mama, Blue Moon Of Kentucky, Milkcow Blues Boogie, Baby Let’s Play House, Mystery Train; check the double-CD Sunrise for the collected works of Presley’s vital Sun recordings to hear how ‘country’ early rock really was.
In those days Presley was marketed as a country singer. He played country festivals and performed on country shows like the …Opry, The Midnight Jamboree and The Louisiana Hayride, and in 1955 he received the award for most promising new artist from the Country Music Disc Jockey’s Convention.
Sam Phillips was the man who discovered Presley. Subsequently, Phillips’ Sun record label in Memphis became the incubator for a whole range of rockabilly artists. Carl Perkins got the first major crossover hit of the rock era with his own song Blue Suede Shoes, which stormed up the R&B, pop and country charts.
He followed it up with a slew of rockabilly classics such as Honey Don’t, Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby, Matchbox and Lend Me Your Comb.
Then there was Jerry Lee Lewis, the fiery piano player on Perkins’ Matchbox, who went on to become a rock’n’roller and release classic tracks like Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On, Great Balls Of Fire, Breathless and Real Wild Child. Other artists, such as Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash, presented their own unique blend of pop, country and rockabilly music.
Other crossover artists followed. Chuck Berry’s debut single, the nationwide US hit Maybellene, was, as he explains in his autobiography: “My effort to sing country-western, which I had always liked.”
The Everly Brothers were more pop-oriented, with sweet harmonies and a ‘Nashville sound’, while Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and Buddy Holly all started out as country singers before the revolution inspired by Elvis and Carl Perkins pushed them towards rock’n’roll.
Over in England, The Beatles were huge fans of the rockabilly sound. Paul McCartney has described how he presented George Harrison to John Lennon as the kid who could play Bill Justis’ Raunchy, an early rockabilly hit on Sun records.
Throughout their career The Beatles wore their rockabilly influences with pride, and covered Carl Perkins’ Matchbox, Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby and Honey Don’t.
Country music was sometimes at the forefront of The Beatles’ own compositions, too, such as on 1965’s What Goes On and Run For Your Life from their Rubber Soul album. The Beatles’ most overt country song, however, was their cover of Buck Owens’ Act Naturally, on Help.
Owens was an exponent of the Bakersfield style of country music, named after the California town where it had developed. The Bakersfield style was country music influenced by rock; i.e. played on electric instruments and with a solid backbeat.
The Beatles had all been fans of Owens since they’d picked up some of his records during their first US tour in 1964. As late as their White Album, recorded in 1968, Ringo was singing in a country style, without a trace of irony, on his own composition Don’t Pass Me By – complete with country fiddle.
The Rolling Stones, too, allowed country influences into their music. As a boy Keith Richards had idolised Roy Rogers. In 1964 the band recorded Hank Snow’s I’m Movin’ On.
As Richards was later to say: “I always loved country music. To me it’s one of the essential ingredients of what’s now called rock’n’roll.” Later, when Richards met one of the founders of country rock, Gram Parsons, it would push his interest in country music to new levels.
Meanwhile, back in the States, a Los Angeles bluegrass movement started up in the early 60s featuring bands like The Dillards and the Kentucky Colonels, the latter including Clarence White who later became lead guitarist with The Byrds.
Also taking part in this scene were future rockers like Jerry Garcia (later in the Grateful Dead), Chris Hillman (The Byrds) and Bernie Leadon (The Eagles).
When Hillman went on to join The Byrds in 1965, his country and bluegrass leanings were smothered in the predominant folk-rock sound that gave the band its breakthrough hit with their cover of Bob Dylan’s Mr Tambourine Man. However, he did infiltrate their sound with country influences from early on, suggesting they cover the country song Satisfied Mind for their second album, Turn, Turn, Turn.
In 1966 Chris Hillman wrote his first songs for The Byrds, Time Between and The Girl With No Name, and brought in Clarence White to play on his songs, lending a distinctly country air to The Byrds’ sound for the first time.
One of the original members of The Byrds, Gene Clark, who had left in 1966, recorded one of the best examples of early country rock with his first solo album, Gene Clark With The Gosdin Brothers.
The album featured Clarence White, and bluegrass musicians Doug Dillard from The Dillards, plus Vern and Rex Gosdin. Gene Clark went on to record two superb albums with Doug Dillard – 1969’s The Fantastic Expedition Of Dillard And Clark is one of the finest examples of early country rock.
But despite including some of his best work in songs like She Darked The Sun and Train Leaves Here This Morning, both written with future Eagle Bernie Leadon (the latter song turned up on The Eagles’ debut album), it did nothing for his profile.
Meanwhile, The Dillards continued, minus Doug, and in 1968 recorded a groundbreaking album of bluegrass/rock fusion called Wheatstraw Suite.
Buffalo Springfield, one of the West Coast’s most influential bands, included the ex-drummer of The Dillards, Dewey Martin. The band’s first album, 1967’s Buffalo Springfield, bore tinges of country rock, especially in Stephen Stills’s Go And Say Goodbye.
Their third and last album, 1968’s Last Time Around, in songs like Carefree Country Day and Kind Woman – delicious slices of blissed-out, dope-suffused, California sunshine – carried the blueprint for the laid-back West-Coast sound that would define the immediate future of country rock.
Over on the East Coast, The Lovin’ Spoonful were clearly allowing country influences to seep into their folky sound on their third album, Hums Of The Lovin’ Spoonful, with songs like Lovin’ You and Nashville Cats.
Perhaps the biggest impetus towards a full-on country-rock movement was the roots revival in rock that occurred from 1968. This came directly out of Bob Dylan and his work with The Band.
Dylan had felt himself alienated by the psychedelic rock movement – in later years he was to say: “There was a lot of stuff happening that I just didn’t understand in that period.”
In 1966, instead of following the trend of acid rock, with its experimental sounds and studio trickery, Dylan hiked off to Nashville to record what would be his ground-breaking double album Blonde On Blonde.
The band on that record was made up of some of the country music scene’s best session musicians, although the songs were hardly informed at all by country music.
Dylan had been persuaded to go to Nashville by his producer Bob Johnston, to introduce some discipline after sessions in New York with The Hawks had been unsatisfactory.
But creatively Dylan was firing on all cylinders. The result sounds like nothing before or since, what Dylan himself called “that thin, that wild mercury sound”, claiming that it was the closest he ever got to realising the sound he heard in his head.
As it turned out, Blonde On Blonde was the end of a chapter for Dylan. As the psychedelic movement gathered momentum, he ducked out of the game. A motorcycle crash in July 1966 led to a time of seclusion.
As he recovered he hooked up again with his touring band The Hawks (soon to be renamed The Band) and started jamming tunes in the basement of the house known as Big Pink, in Woodstock, upstate New York.
The tapes that came out of the sessions were passed around the music industry and offered as songs for other bands to cover. Most were given the acid-pop and psychedelic rock treatment, like Manfred Mann’s Mighty Quinn and Brian Auger & The Trinity’s This Wheel’s On Fire, with vocals by Julie Driscoll.
This missed the point entirely, for what Dylan and The Band were exploring in these sessions was the sound of an American past: blues, country, hillbilly, folk, sea shanties and Appalachian dances. As Greil Marcus says in the sleeve notes to Dylan’s The Basement Tapes album (1975), it conjures “a feeling of age, a kind of classicism”.
As The Basement Tapes wasn’t officially released until the mid-70s, the first manifestation of this new back-to-the-roots approach was Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, his first official album since Blonde On Blonde. Like its predecessor it was recorded in Nashville, but this time on a more limited scale, with a stripped-down band and sparse arrangements. Released in January 1968, it officially flagged up a roots movement in rock music, and the final track, I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight, was Dylan’s first full-on country song – pedal-steel guitar and all.
The follow-up punch came in August 1968 when The Band released Music From Big Pink, the album that came directly out of the 1967 basement jams with Dylan. It’s an amazing collection of songs, a veritable scrapbook of Americana, including a crunching country-rock sound on The Weight.
The influence that album had on the rock community was enormous. The biggest artists in rock, including The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, were forced to reassess their music; Eric Clapton was inspired to split up Cream, seeing its brand of psychedelic blues as suddenly irrelevant.
Other big albums released directly after …Big Pink had clearly felt the touch of its hand: The Beatles’ White album featured slices of country and western, either in parody (Rocky Raccoon) or in earnest (Don’t Let Me Down), and the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet was suffused with its spirit.
The Byrds’ Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, released in August 1968, has been called the first fully-fledged country rock album, and certainly it has had the most lasting influence.
On the TV documentary series Dancing In The Street, Roger McGuinn of The Byrds explained: “We’d already known that a country influence could work in pop music – we’d heard the Beatles song Act Naturally, and I’d written Mr Spaceman, which was a two/four kind of country-ish sound. So we started going in that direction, and decided to do an album in Nashville and hired some country guys to come and help us out.”
What’s interesting about that account is that it fails to mention Gram Parsons. Parsons was a southern musician who had been working in the folk scene in the early 60s with The Shilos.
In 1965 he joined the International Submarine Band, and under the influence of John Nuese, the band’s guitarist, he rediscovered a love for country music.
The International Submarine Band was influenced by the country music coming out of Bakersfield, California, from artists like Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. Combining the Bakersfield approach with a more rock’n’roll attitude, they started to develop a country-rock sound that reached fruition in their first and only album, Safe At Home, released in 1967.
Parsons later said that Safe At Home was “probably the best country album that I’ve done”. It failed to sell, but Parsons did go on to have a huge influence with the next band that he joined.
The Byrds had had a troubled history, having parted company with principal songwriters Gene Clark in the mid-60s and David Crosby a couple of years later. In 1968, with only two members left and an imminent tour, they were desperately in need of some new blood. Chris Hillman thought about Gram Parsons, whom he’d met completely by chance in a bank queue a few months previously.
At the time, Roger McGuinn was plotting an ambitious double concept album that would track the history of American music. His plan was to start with Appalachian style, move on to modern country music, and then into electronic music, and finish with the band’s take on the music of the future.
Gram Parsons loved only country music, though, and with the support of Chris Hillman he took control of the band and steered them into a new style, dropping McGuinn’s concept by the wayside.
Within weeks the band were in Nashville to record their next album, which was Sweetheart Of The Rodeo.
The Byrds followed the recording of the album with a tour that took them to London. Here they met up with the Rolling Stones, and Gram Parsons began a close friendship with Keith Richards.
It was partly under his influence that Parsons got second thoughts about going on to play concerts in South Africa, once Richards had explained that other musicians were boycotting the apartheid regime. At the last moment, Parsons decided not to go. He also quit the band, having been with them for barely five months.
Soon afterwards, Sweetheart Of The Rodeo was released – with some of Parsons’ songs removed and a couple of his lead vocals replaced by Roger McGuinn’s. It turned out to be the band’s worst-selling album up to then. Although it received great critical praise it failed to ignite a country-rock revolution.
What finally did spark that revolution was Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, released in May 1969. On his third album to be recorded in Nashville, this time Dylan went all-out country. It starts with a duet with Johnny Cash, no less. It also includes his biggest-ever hit single, the steel guitar-drenched Lay Lady Lay.
Many Dylan fans and critics were disappointed with the album, seeing its short running time (under 30 minutes) and unsophisticated lyrics as a backwards step from the messiah who had done so much to take rock music forward throughout the 60s. But because of the respect that Dylan commanded, the album was taken as a serious statement of intent from one of rock’s true pioneers.
Some saw hidden messages in the new simplicity, others perceived it as further impetus to the new roots movement in rock.
This was backed up by The Band’s second album, released later that year. Called simply The Band, and with a sepia-tinted cover photo that looked like it had been taken in the 19th century, plus a musical approach that was soaked in the mythic strands of Americana that they had explored during the basement sessions, this timeless album cemented The Band’s influence on the rock scene and contained the greatest music of their career.
With superb songs like The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and Up On Cripple Creek they continued to mine the mythology of the south and deliver their own inimitable groove.
With Dylan’s endorsement and The Band’s influence, the country-rock movement was primed for take-off.
Free of The Byrds, Gram Parsons teamed up with Chris Hillman on mandolin, Chris Ethridge on bass and ‘Sneeky’ Pete Kleinow on pedal steel to form the Flying Burrito Brothers. He said he envisaged his new band as an expression of “cosmic American music”, a blend of soul, R&B, rock’n’roll and country.
The Burritos wanted to bring the rock’n’roll sensibility to country – the cover of their debut album The Gilded Palace Of Sin summed it up: the band decked out in rhinestone suits and cavorting with groupies in the desert, like a Nashville version of the Rolling Stones Released in 1969, it was a potent brew and a signpost for a new style of country rock.
Songs like Wheels and My Uncle had counter-culture subject matter (motorbikes and draft-dodging respectively) in a country rock setting, and Hippie Boy articulated Parsons’ dream of putting hippies and rednecks together and watching them get along just fine.
The album was critically lauded but failed to sell. It faced the problem that has dogged the relationship between country and rock throughout its unsettled history: country radio found it too rock; rock radio found it too country.
The Burritos belatedly brought in ex-Byrds drummer Michael Clarke and set out on a string of under-rehearsed live events where the emphasis was on a fast-living, drug-fuelled, poker-playing, rock’n’roll lifestyle, and the music took a backseat.
According to eye witnesses, the band were a mess on stage, not able to convey the promise of their album, or even play or sing in tune a lot of the time.
When the Rolling Stones went to Los Angeles in late 1969, staying at Stephen Stills’ house near Laurel Canyon, Parsons was one of the prime hangers on.
At this time, mutual respect and influence between Gram Parsons and Keith Richards affected the direction of both musicians. Keith played Parsons a rough take of Honky Tonk Women, and Gram played it back to him in a more country style – how it turned up as Country Honk on the Stones’ Let It Bleed album.
Richards has said he learned all about country music from Parsons: “We used to sit around at the piano for ages, trying to figure out little licks, and he’d show me the different ways that Nashville will play it from Bakersfield,” Richards said. Parsons explained that the influences were two-way: “They wanted to get further into what I was doing, and I wanted to get into what they were doing.”
For the Burritos’ second album, Burrito Deluxe, released in April 1970, Chris Ethridge left and Bernie Leadon joined. Throughout the time Parsons had been mixing with the Stones he’d neglected to focus on his music, so much so that when it came to record they had no new material. The result was a less satisfactory album, although Cody Cody showed some of Parsons’ delicate touch.
But the standout track was a brand new song by Jagger and Richards called Wild Horses. Richards had sent Parsons a demo of the song, which the Stones had recorded in Alabama while on tour, and asked him to suggest a pedal-steel player to play on it.
Parsons asked if he could record the song himself, and with their blessing had it released a year before the Stones themselves recorded it for their Sticky Fingers album (which also contained another pure country classic in Dead Flowers).
Parsons later mythologised the Wild Horses episode by claiming that the song was written for him. Whatever the truth of it, it was certainly the Stones’ most successful dalliance with country music. As Parsons himself said of it: “It’s a song you never get tired of.”
After a motorcycle accident, Parsons became less committed to The Flying Burrito Brothers and more reliant on drugs. It all came to a head during a series of ramshackle gigs in 1970, when Chris Hillman fired him after a particularly poor stage performance.
The band carried on without Parsons as a smooth country-rock outfit in various incarnations right up until the late 90s. Parsons developed a heroin habit, and reconvened with the Stones in the south of France for the recording of their epic double album Exile On Main Street.
While there, he contributed to the general drug-inspired mayhem and inspired the country-rock anthem Sweet Virginia, and contributed the harmony vocals on the finished recording.
Back in America, the Grateful Dead returned to their own roots when they embraced country rock after hearing Dylan’s Nashville Skyline. Guitarist Jerry Garcia had been a participant in the West Coast bluegrass scene since the early 60s, and in 1969 country standards started cropping up in the Dead’s legendary live sets.
The band’s relationship to their country roots was clarified when they released two studio albums in 1970 that were heavily cloaked in the spirit of old-time American folk and country music: Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty.
Songs like Uncle John’s Band fell under the influence of Crosby, Stills & Nash-style vocal harmonies, while Dire Wolf was pure country rock, featuring Garcia’s debut on pedal-steel guitar.
After those two albums, Grateful Dead members Garcia, bassist Phil Lesh and drummer Mickey Hart got involved with the New Riders Of The Purple Sage, a band that allowed them to indulge in country and western music, while with the Grateful Dead they could go back to epic cosmic jamming.
Garcia later took up the banjo for another bluegrass project, Old And In The Way, releasing one self-titled live album in 1973 (which contains a superb cover of Wild Horses).
In the early 70s on the West Coast of America a new kind of soft rock was emerging, much of it country influenced.
Harmony vocals, pedal-steel guitars and a soft-rock backbeat typified the style, which first came to prominence with Poco, the band formed by ex-Buffalo Springfield members Richie Furay (lead vocals and guitar) and bassist Jim Messina, with Rusty Young on pedal-steel guitar.
Poco’s first album, 1969’s Pickin’ Up The Pieces, was the blueprint for this Californian country-rock approach. The band’s second album, Poco, included the instrumental El Tonto De Nadie Regresa with some superb pedal-steel work by Young.
Paul Cotton replaced Jim Messina and they recorded From The Inside and A Good Feelin’ To Know, which showcased some of Furay’s finest songs. Crazy Eyes was probably their greatest album.
Disillusioned by their lack of success, Furay left to join JD Souther and Chris Hillman in the Souther Hillman Furay Band. Although conceived by music industry figure David Geffen as a country-rock supergroup, the new band failed to live up to its promise on either of its two albums: the self-titled debut and Trouble In Paradise.
The Souther Hillman Furay Band was no doubt an attempt to emulate the success of Crosby, Stills, Nash & (sometimes) Young, the acknowledged LA supergroup of the era.
CS&N’s second album, Déjà Vu, was wrapped in the same sepia-tinted cover styling as The Band’s second album, and had country-ish edges in songs like Country Girl, Everybody I Love You and Teach The Children, the latter including some cool licks from Jerry Garcia on pedal-steel guitar.
Outside of the group, Neil Young’s After The Gold Rush and Harvest showed definite country colourings on songs like Out On The Weekend and Old Man, but on the other hand his song Southern Man was a direct swipe at the redneck culture of the south. Meanwhile, in 1972, Stephen Stills released Stephen Stills/Manassas, an ambitious double album with a band including Chris Hillman and Al Perkins that moved from bluegrass and country to hard rock and Latin salsa.
Their second album, Down The Road, reduced the country content to zero, and the band split as Stills concentrated on other projects.
After the Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons formed the Fallen Angels, which included members of Elvis Presley’s band, as well as Rick Grech, previously bassist and violinist with British proggers Family and prototype rock supergroup Blind Faith, and a young female singer called Emmylou Harris.
The rapport between Parsons and Harris was pure magic from the start, and he became something of a mentor to the talented singer.
That band backed Parsons on his first solo album, GP, which was a return to the form he had demonstrated on the Burritos’ debut, encompassing a wide range of emotions, from ballads like She to rockers like Big Mouth Blues.
Most striking were the stunningly beautiful duets with Emmylou Harris, including We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes In The Morning and That’s All It Took. GP was an artistic success, but major attention from the record-buying public still eluded Parsons.
His next solo album, Grievous Angel, while less inspired than GP, still had some transcendent moments. Particularly poignant were songs like the Return Of The Grievous Angel, based on a poem which seemed to be about Parsons himself and his increasingly wayward lifestyle, while covers of Hearts On Fire and Love Hurts provided more superb vehicles for Parsons and Harris’s powerfully resonant duets.
The album ended with Parsons’s only totally new song on the album, the prophetic In My Hour Of Darkness.
Shortly after finishing Grievous Angel, and still wrestling with personal demons as a result of splitting up with his wife of two years, Parsons took a vacation with a few friends to his favourite place in the world, Joshua Tree, in the Mojave Desert, east of Hollywood.
On his second day there, after a heavy day of drinking, he went back to his room and pumped his system full of morphine. His companions found him out cold, and despite attempts at resuscitation the 26-year-old was dead before he reached the hospital. The incident took a final macabre twist when his body was stolen in LA by his road manager, taken back to the Joshua Tree National Monument and set on fire, apparently in accordance with Parsons’ wishes.
Despite his lack of success during his lifetime, Gram Parsons’ reputation as one of the pioneers of country rock has grown steadily since his death, influencing artists as diverse as The Eagles, Elvis Costello and Beck.
During the time that Parsons had been working on his solo albums, a new band of country rockers had formed out of the LA scene, and they were busy nailing a sound that catapulted country rock into a global phenomenon. They were called The Eagles, and they went on to become one of the biggest bands in rock history.
The core members of The Eagles first came together as the backing band for Linda Ronstadt, who was herself forging a country/rock hybrid on the LA model. Bernie Leadon, Randy Meisner, Glenn Frey and Don Henley were enticed away from Ronstadt by David Geffen, industry legend and manager of Crosby Stills Nash & Young. Geffen arranged for them to go to England to record with producer Glyn Johns.
The result was a fine debut album, The Eagles, released in 1972 to instant success. The mix was perfect: 12-string acoustics, Crosby Stills Nash & Young-style harmonies, banjos, pedal-steel guitars and lyrics that reflected the West Coast hippy dream. Songs like Take It Easy and Peaceful Easy Feeling created the perfect sunny West Coast vibe, while Witchy Woman added depth, introducing a sense of mystery.
The Eagles’ second album, Desperado, was a projected concept album based around the idea of rock-star-as-cowboy-outlaw, and in the title song contained one of The Eagles’ finest and enduring ballads, a beautiful ode to a lonesome renegade soul.
Their next album, On The Border, included My Man, Bernie Leadon’s tribute to Gram Parsons, and James Dean, a riff-based song with a harder rock sound. Album number four, One Of These Nights, contained one of their best pure country songs in Lyin’ Eyes and another monster single hit, Take It To The Limit.
But despite their enormous success at this point, Bernie Leadon quit the band during a tour at the end of 1975 and was replaced by Joe Walsh. With Leadon gone, the band lost a lot of their country sound for their next album, recorded over eight months and released at the end of 1976.
They didn’t suffer for it, though, as Hotel California became their biggest-selling original album, and one of the best-selling rock albums of all time. At last The Eagles had found a credible rock sound, with punchy songs like the riff-heavy Life In The Fast Lane, along with a darker direction from the lyrics written by the newly emerging voice of band drummer Don Henley.
The title track is an all-time classic, and its outro resonates with one of the most memorable guitar workouts of all time.
The LA scene had pushed country rock into a mellower direction, but a new breed of southern rockers provided a corrective. The Allman Brothers Band were one of the most successful and influential US outfits of the early 70s, defining a style that was largely blues oriented, with hints of country, wrapped in classic southern styling. Duane Allman was a superb guitarist who had already made a name for himself on the session scene with his work at the legendary Muscle Shoals studio.
His talented younger brother Gregg was a fine vocalist and keyboard player; Dickey Betts was another extremely talented guitarist; Berry Oakley played a mean bass; and two drummers, Butch Trucks and Jaimoe Johanson, provided a powerful syncopated rhythmic drive to the band’s sound.
Two studio albums, The Allman Brothers Band and Idlewild South, met with limited success, but the word about the band grew steadily as they worked a punishing touring schedule. The Allman Brothers Band soon developed a reputation as an awesome live band, indulging in lengthy but exciting jams with the improvisational precision of a jazz band wedded to a gutsy country/blues/rock style.
In the summer of 1970, mutual admiration led to Duane Allman jamming with Eric Clapton during the sessions for the latter’s album with his new band Derek & The Dominoes. Duane ended up contributing guitar to a number of songs on the album, most famously providing the main lick to the riff of Layla, the standout song that gave the album its title and its biggest hit.
The next year provided a high point for the Allman Brothers when they released a truly great live album, The Allman Brothers Band At Fillmore East. This double-vinyl record showcased the band’s enormous musical talents through some slick arrangements and monumental jams.
But that career high was followed by tragedy later that year, when Duane Allman, aged just 24, was killed in a motorcycle accident.
The Allman Brothers Band’s 1972 album Eat A Peach included some of Duane Allman’s last sessions and continued their success, but the band were devastated by the death of their spiritual leader.
Further tragedy struck the following year when Berry Oakley crashed his motorcycle and died of brain damage shortly afterwards. Surviving guitarist Dickey Betts developed a more country influence to his guitar sound, and hillbilly elements were more pronounced on the next album, on which he took the lead in the band, Brothers And Sisters (1973). It was their first No.1 album in the US, and yielded the hit single Ramblin’ Man.
But fame took its toll. Gregg Allman took to the rock’n’roll lifestyle, hiking off to California and marrying Cher – twice. In 1976, faced with a drugs bust, he testified against a member of the band’s entourage and a supposed friend, which led to the band splitting.
Despite vows never to re-form, they got together again in 1978 but they never managed to reach the artistic heights of their first five albums.
Another brother act from the south, the Marshall Tucker Band, had an altogether more country spin on the southern rock sound. Toy Caldwell had learned guitar from his father, an accomplished country guitarist, and his brother Tommy played bass guitar in a similar thumb-picking style (there was no Marshall or Tucker in the band, by the way).
The Allman Brothers’ manager, Phil Walden, was impressed by their unique combination of powerful rock and slick country styling and signed them to Capricorn in 1972.
Their self-titled debut was a great success, and its opening track, Take The Highway, made a huge impression on FM radio. They released some strong follow-up albums in A New Life, Where We All Belong and Searchin’ For A Rainbow, and had a hit single in 1977 with Heard It In A Love Song. But tragedy rocked their world when Tommy Caldwell was killed in a car crash in 1980, after which the band never recaptured their former success.
Charlie Daniels was a seasoned country fiddler and guitarist, and something of an elder statesman compared with the other southern rockers.
Born in 1936, by the early 1970s he was an experienced session musician and songwriter who had played with a diverse range of country, folk and rock artists, including Flatt & Scruggs, Marty Robbins, Ringo Starr, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan; he had even had one of his songs covered by Elvis Presley.
But when Daniels released his debut solo album in 1970, it was the southern-rock style that he turned to. Owing something to the Allman Brothers Band, but more country-based, it’s a fine album from a true musical maverick, and includes such delights as Pope And The Dope and the extended guitar work of Thirty Nine Miles From Mobile.
He formed the Charlie Daniels Band in 1972 to record his second album, John, Grease And The Wolfman, but his breakthrough came with the hit single Uneasy Rider, from the following year’s Honey In The Rock album.
After that came Fire On The Mountain, which features a cameo from Dickey Betts, and in 1975 another fine album arrived called Nightrider. Both consolidate the consummate blend of blues, country, bluegrass and rock that the Charlie Daniels Band made their own.
Subsequently, Daniels moved away from southern rock and back towards his roots in country music. He did score a crossover hit in 1979, though, with The Devil Went Down To Georgia, the legendary tale of Johnny and his fiddle battle against Satan.
The success of the Allman Brothers Band and the Marshall Tucker Band created a buzz around the south. Al Kooper, the session musician who had played with Bob Dylan on many of his greatest records, including Blonde On Blonde, was in Atlanta in 1973 to set up a new competitor label to Capricorn, called Sounds Of The South.
One night he was at the Funnochios club when a band called Lynyrd Skynyrd happened to be on the bill. The band impressed Kooper enough for him to see them five more times that week, and to make them the first band to be signed to his new label.
In the shape of Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd, in 1973, vocalist Ronnie Van Zant and the triple guitar line-up of Gary Rossington, Allen Collins and Ed King had produced a monstrous debut, with highlights like Tuesday’s Gone, Mississippi Kid, Things Goin’ On and the anthemic Freebird, which became a monster hit when it was released as a single the following year.
The band’s southern redneck image was to the fore on their second album, Second Helping, with the song Sweet Home Alabama responding harshly to Neil Young’s Southern Man. The lyrics pulled no punches: ‘Well I heard Mr Young sing about her/Heard old Neil put her down/Well I hope Neil Young will remember/Southern Man don’t need him around anyhow.’
Later, Rossington put the record straight about the redneck image: “Since the 70s, we would drop the Confederate flag when we played Sweet Home Alabama ’cos we were from the South. Between the race issue and the radical skinheads and people like that who use the flag as a symbol, when we drop it people get the wrong impression of us; people think we’re against blacks… but we’re not, we’re just from the South and proud of that.”
Lynyrd Skynyrd’s success started to take its toll, especially during the tour to support their third album, Nuthin’ Fancy. Drummer Bob Burns was sacked after throwing a cat out of a hotel window and attacking the tour manager with an axe; guitarist Ed King walked out; Van Zant cut Gary Rossington’s hands during a fight.
The band did, however, get back on form for their ’76 live album One More From The Road and their next studio album Street Survivors, with new guitarist Steve Gaines. But Skynyrd’s glory years ended in tragedy later that year when their aircraft crashed while they were on tour, killing singer Van Zant and guitarist Steve Gaines and leaving the survivors emotionally scarred.
The bridge between southern rock and country music was personified in Hank Williams Jr, son of one of country music’s legendary figures. For his Hank Williams Jr & Friends album he recorded songs by the Marshall Tucker Band. And after an horrific accident in 1975 he took inspiration from the success of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers Band in order to get his career back on track.
As he told Jimmy Guterman (quoted in Peter Doggett’s Are You Ready For The Country): “Phil Walden had the best line about all these guys. They’re not country singers. They’re not hillbillies. They’re white blues singers. That’s what my daddy was, and that’s what I am.” Allman Brothers guitarist Dickie Betts guested on his album The New South, and he became a leading ambassador for the southern rock sound.
The southern rock movement also took in the likes of Wet Willie, a more soul-oriented band who broke through with the title track of their fourth album, Keep On Smilin’, in 1974. They’re best heard on their excellent live album Dripping Wet.
A more hard-rock approach came from Blackfoot, fronted by multi- instrumentalist Ricky Medlocke, who had played banjo with his father at the age of three on American TV country show The Tom Dowdy Show and later had a short stint as drummer with Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Blackfoot’s high point was 1979’s Strikes album, which included an inspired cover of Free’s Wishing Well and the band’s biggest hit, Highway Song, which has been compared to Skynyrd’s Freebird.
Little Feat were a more diversified band from California, but their unique blend of country, rock, soul and blues has definite links with the southern rock movement.
Formed out of Frank Zappa’s Mothers Of Invention by virtuoso musicians Lowell George and Roy Estrada, Little Feat’s music was a unique and offbeat amalgamation, and they recorded some superb albums in the early 70s including Sailin’ Shoes, Dixie Chicken and Feats Don’t Fail Me Now. After splitting the band to go solo, George died of a heart attack in 1979. The band did regroup after his death and were still operating into the noughties.
By the late 70s, country rock and its southern rock outgrowth had been battered to the ground, virtually killed off by the challenges of disco, glam rock, punk, new wave and heavy metal. But new spins on the sound of country and rock continued to emerge.
In the mid-80s a new bunch of groups in America were, perhaps artificially, grouped by the media into a style that was dubbed cowpunk, represented best by Green On Red and the Long Ryders.
The 90s saw the advent of alt.country, spearheaded by Uncle Tupelo. Other bands followed, including Uncle Tupelo spin-off Wilco, The Jayhawks, Whiskeytown, Sparklehorse and Lambchop, all integrating country stylings into a postmodern melting pot incorporating everything from punk rock to soul.
Since its peak in the late 60s and early 70s, country rock and southern rock styles have been appropriated and adapted by a whole range of artists, proving that the heart of country music refuses to die.
According to the RIAA’s tot-up at the end of the 20th century, The Eagles’ Greatest Hits had sold a stunning 25 million copies, vying for the title of the biggest-selling album of all time with Michael Jackson’s Thriller and AC/DC’s Back In Black. The Eagles regrouped in 1994 for a hugely successful tour of America, while Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers Band have both continued to operate through various line-up changes.
Elsewhere, country elements are clearly detectable in rock artists as diverse as Bruce Springsteen, Nick Cave, Elvis Costello and Beck. Alt.country has developed into a broader Americana movement, with the likes of Ryan Adams and Lucinda Williams achieving cult status by treading a thin line between country, indie and rock.
Gram Parsons’ spirit lives on in Emmylou Harris, who has recorded uncategorisable works of great beauty such as 1995’s Wrecking Ball, with covers of songs by Dylan, Hendrix and Young, transforming her sound into something timeless.
It seems that there’s no getting away from the white man’s blues, the sound of the desert and the hills that stretches back to the beginnings of rock music itself and continually strides onwards into its future.