Country Rock Originators
by Jim Allen | February 25, 2013
Today, no one bats an eyelash at the combination of rock and country -- in fact, that blend has been one of the most bankable to come out of Nashville for some years now, and in the rock realm, alt country long ago made the melding of sturm und twang about as novel a fusion as peanut butter and jelly. But back in the '60s, as far as the rock world was concerned, country music was as square as you could get -- strictly the province of grandparents and the straight-arrow conservatives who represented the antithesis of the blossoming counterculture.
Fortunately, a few hardy souls knew better: dogma-defying artists who were hip to the power of country's deep-dish storytelling and killer musicianship. By the mid-'60s, the borders between rock and country were already starting to erode, as Bakersfield mavericks like Merle Haggard and Buck Owens assimilated the rough-and-ready energy and (literal) electricity of rock, and it wasn't longer before a visionary crowd of country rockers from the other side of the fence began responding in kind.
Long before the advent of alt country, cowpunk or any of the other variants that came along in the '80s and '90s, the heavy lifting in the country rock corner was being done by a batch of L.A.-based (but not -born) rockers with honky-tonk hearts. Stephen Stills and Neil Young were stoking Buffalo Springfield's Sunset Strip sound with some down-home kindling as early as 1966. Maturing pop stars like Rick Nelson and The Monkees' Michael Nesmith got a whiff of the wood smoke and anted up by forming The Stone Canyon Band and The First National Band, respectively. Bob Dylan started booking time in Nashville studios and injecting a little Music City croon into his folkie drawl. And the enfants terribles of the Byrds/Flying Burrito Brothers axis were the first to really make the coalition of country and rock come across to the hippie nation as cool; the sequined Nudie suits bedecked with marijuana leaves didn't hurt, but Gram Parsons' poetic songwriting drove the whole thing home with an impact that's still being heard in today's Americana troubadours.
By the '70s, cosmic cowboys were thick on the ground in Laurel Canyon, and word had spread across the country. Country rock became the coin of the realm, with scores of worthy practitioners coming to the fore, from cult heroes (Goose Creek Symphony, Mason Proffit) to hit-bound acts (Poco, Pure Prairie League). Somewhere just past the midpoint of the decade, the genre started losing its edge to slickly produced soft-pop merchants who put a blemish on country rock that it would ultimately take rough-hewn artists like Steve Earle and Uncle Tupelo years to remove. But in the late '60s and early '70s, when the amalgam was still fresh, country rock's pioneers blew the paisley-patterned clouds of psychedelia aside with the winds of an earthy revolution.