Jan 172012

In the recent Laura Nyro thread Townsman alexmagic made some hyperbolic statements regarding Mike Nesmith. (Seriously, Mike Nesmith “is the most indefensible omission from the Hall of Fame?” I think I could successfully defend his exclusion from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as easily as I could defend his exclusion from the Baseball Hall of Fame.) However, he touched on one point that I think the uni-mind that is Rock Town Hall should explore, to whit, the thought that Mike Nesmith is “often given credit for launching the ‘country rock’ genre.”

There seem to be a lot of candidates for that. There are The Byrds, whose Notorious Byrd Brothers showed a bit of country and was released in January 1968, or the more often cited Sweetheart of the Rodeo, released in August, 1968. The latter made it all the way to #77 on Billboard and featured a number by another candidate for country rock launcher, Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.”

And there’s Graham Parsons & the International Submarine Band, whose Safe At Home came out in 1968. Wikipedia says their b-side cover of Buck Owens’ “Truck Drivin’ Man,” released in April 1966, is “now largely considered the first country rock recording.” It starts at 2:11 of the following clip:

Dylan’s Nashville Skyline came out in April, 1969, and that album was presaged by “Down Along the Cove” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” the final two cuts on John Wesley Harding. Here’s the latter:

[audio:https://www.rocktownhall.com/blogs/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/12-Ill-Be-Your-Baby-Tonight.mp3|titles=Bob Dylan, “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”]

Nesmith’s first post-Monkee’s album, and presumably the key to his claim, was Magnetic South, released in July, 1970. I know at various points in my life I’ve heard Nesmith solo recordings but none ever made an impression on me. I don’t know how influential he was but I know none of his albums charted any higher than #143. Here’s “Joanne” from that album:

And there is Rick Nelson. Rick’s Bright Lights & Country Music came out in 1966, Country Fever came out in 1967, In Concert The Troubadour in 1969, and Rudy The Fifth in 1971, the latter two featuring future Eagle Randy Meisner in Rick’s band. Rick continued in a very country vein for several years and albums more. Here’s a performance of “Louisiana Man” in 1969, with Rick’s Stone Canyon Band. That song was on Bright Lights & Country Music, which also featured “Truck Drivin’ Man”:

Can Rock Town Hall decide—once and for all—who launched country rock? Was it Mike Nesmith or Gram Parsons or Roger McGuinn or Bob Dylan or Rick Nelson? Or was it someone else? I’ll give my thoughts later on.


  44 Responses to “Once and for All: Who Launched Country Rock?”

  1. I’ve got some weird views developing on this subject, one that is way out of my wheelhouse. While trying to make sense of it, though, I’m coming across some cool videos I’ve never seen before, such as this 1971 Flying Burrito Brothers performance, with the band led by Chris Hillman:


  2. tonyola

    I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to push the beginning back to September 1965 and the Beatles’ version of Buck Owen’s “Act Naturally”. The guys did a credible and affectionate interpretation of the song, and Ringo’s “average guy” persona and voice were a perfect fit – indeed, the song could have easily been custom-written for him. “Act Naturally” was released as the B-side to the monster hit single “Yesterday”, and it also made #47 on the Billboard charts on its own. The Beatles also performed the song on Ed Sullivan in fall 1965. I remember it got quite a bit of airplay on Top 40 radio.

  3. While I agree that the Beatles had an appreciation of country and western — it takes more than a b-side to launch a movement — the title of the post. The crown rests fully on the head of Gram Parsons. Country rock was his full time thing — with his Submarine Band, The Byrds, The Burritos, his dalliance with Keef, and his solo stuff with Emmylou Harris.

    Mike Nesmith and Ricky Nelson are great entries too — thanks to eight-track cutouts, I used to listen to their early 70s stuff more than any 14 year-old should have.

  4. misterioso

    If any one person, I would say Dylan, but surely the Byrds were right there with him, as well as pre-Byrds Gram Parsons and post-Byrds Gene Clark. The last two tracks on John Wesley Harding are “Down Along the Cove” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” which certainly pointed the direction for Dylan’s next record (Nashville Skyline) as well as the Byrds’ move from country-inflected (some of Younger Than Yesterday and Notorious Byrd Brothers) to country (Sweetheart). JWH was recorded in fall of ’67 and released in Dec. Notorious was recorded in the second half of ’67 and released in Jan. 68. The ISB’s Safe at Home didn’t come out until spring of ’68, apparently, but the “Luxury Liner” single was out in ’67. Gene Clark’s With the Gosdin Brothers was out in early ’67, same time as Younger Than Yesterday. The reason why I lean towards Dylan is that JWH was such a closely watched and influential record. Clark’s The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark is a great record, btw, and though I don’t put Nesmith in the “founding fathers’ those early records with the First National Band are quite good. The real question, maybe, is how a genre that started out with such promise spawned (the) Eagles. But that strikes me as a theological question more than a musical one, as it gets into issues of good and evil.

  5. Nesmith was doing country-rock as early as The Monkees’ first album, released to coincide with the start of the TV series in the fall of ’66. His originals “Papa Gene’s Blues” and “Sweet Young Thing” (the latter a Goffin-King co-write) are straight-up country songs played by an electric beat combo. As a matter of fact, with its combination of fiddle and feedback, “Sweet Young Thing” might be the first country-psych crossover.

    Add in that he wrote another early country-rock tune that predates Sweetheart of the Rodeo, the Stone Poneys’ “Different Drum” (chart peak December 1967), and Nesmith clearly deserves the title more than Parsons ever did.

  6. misterioso

    Well, the question is who “launched” country rock, not who “started” it. The latter question seems to me to be unanswerable, which is probably why it wasn’t asked. The latter question is debatable, I think, and gets into issues of influence. The reason why I lean towards Dylan is that everyone looked to him after a long (by the standards of the day) absence when JWH was released.

  7. alexmagic

    As far as original, non-cover songs go, Nesmith has “Papa Gene’s Blues”, “You Just May Be The One” to his credit in 1966 and 1967, each appearing on albums that charted at #1 and each featured on a popular, Emmy award winning (Seriously! I had no idea until just now that The Monkees was the Emmy winner for Best Comedy Series in 1967) TV show. He also has “The Girl I Knew Somewhere” in 1967, which was the b-side to a #2 hit that also managed to hit #39 on the charts on its own.

    So in terms of timing, I think Rick Nelson’s the best competition, but I’m not sure how much of Bright Lights & Country Music is original material.

    As to the original Hall of Fame claim, I don’t doubt the hyperbole in the spirit of Rock Town Hall, but I think there’s substance to the idea that few people not included currently can match the rare combination of chart success/popularity (as a member of The Monkees), peer respect as a songwriter (on his own) and “technical innovation” as the guy who sold the idea for music television.

    I’m sure we all have plenty of names we could throw out who we think are “deserving” of Hall of Fame status based on our enjoyment of their material, and I still have a short list of massively successful bands I’m surprised haven’t been included in something as mercenary as the actual Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame itself really is, but if you can think of someone else who tick so many “bankable” boxes across the popular/relatively respected/credited with pushing a specific medium like that, I’d like to read about ’em.

  8. But those Monkees records sold millions: you’re saying you can completely discount any effect they had — along with, as tonyola points out, the Beatles’ Buck Owens cover — on a generation of music fans being able to get their heads around a fusion of country and rock?

  9. alexmagic

    That should be “I don’t deny the hyperbole”. Also, Great 48 made my points more succinctly and faster!

  10. Bronzed Nordic God

    This brings up a broader question that has always bothered me. What is “country rock” other than country music being played by rock musicians, oftentimes badly. I do enjoy Sweethearts at the Rodeo, but much of it just sounds like poorly played country music. Nothing really rocky about it. Listen to Merle’s Life in Prison and compare with the Byrd’s version. It’s no contest. How much of this “country rock” is just country music for people too cool to listen to country music and need rock musicians to give it the appropriate cred?

  11. misterioso

    No, actually I am not saying that at all–I think you make a good point. But I suspect that among musicians more people were swayed towards exploring country by Dylan than by the Monkees. I don’t think Dylan invented “folk rock” either, but for the same reasons I think he was the key figure in “launching” it.

    I have no idea how many people who bought Headquarters bought The Gilded Palace of Sin, but I feel confident that the musicians who made the latter had listened with care to Dylan’s records.

  12. misterioso

    Speaking as someone too cool (or something) to listen to country music I would have to say a fair amount. But, then, I like Gram Parsons a lot and I am not especially interested in Merle Haggard, which I am well aware makes me a certain kind of music fan.

  13. Well, to be fair, Bakersfield folks like Merle and Buck were nearly as in opposition to the prevailing Nashville sound as the L.A. country-rockers were, so that’s not really a fair comparison. The apt comparison is more like Sweetheart of the Rodeo, etc. as compared to the folks making “countrypolitan” Nashville hits filled with strings (not fiddles, strings) and the Anita Kerr Singers and the like, all of which that had more in common with Steve and Eydie than A.P. and Sara.

  14. tonyola

    But how many people were actually listening to Gram Parsons in 1968? International Submarine Band and Sweetheart of the Rodeo were very important in retrospect but were all but invisible to the music-listening public at the time. On the other hand, a B-side by the biggest band in the world (and a supernova-scale cultural phenomenon) was heard by just about everybody. Even if people didn’t listen to Top 40 radio, almost everyone watched Ed Sullivan on Sunday evenings in 1965. Ignoring the Beatles’ possible influence, I say that Dylan’s Nashville Skyline released in April 1969 had a bigger impact on rock than Parsons at the time.

  15. Ah, got it. You mean development of musicians playing the stuff, while I mean fans listening to it. Fair point.

    You can’t discount the importance of the audience, though: people like the Eagles jumped on the country-rock bandwagon because it was selling records, not because all the cool kids were doing it.

  16. hrrundivbakshi

    What BNG said.

  17. Peer respect as a songwriter? I’m having a harding time filling out a list of Mike Nesmith covers.

    But for your reading pleasure – Marc Bolan!

  18. cliff sovinsanity

    I might be on my own, but I always believed The Everly Brothers started country rock. Gram Parson was a country traditionalist to my ears. He was more influence by the rock side, whereas the Everly’s had a sound that was neither rock or country but rather a natural fusion. Especially the Warner Brothers years.
    I appreciate completely what Nesmith and The Byrds brought (pedal steel and twang) to rock and roll, however there was always a lack of authenticity. They more slumming around in the hay.

  19. And I’ll third BNG. As I set up the straw men in the thread I mentally knocked them off. Where’s the rock in Nashville Skyline? Sounds pure country to me. Dylan was using the cream of Nashville session players on Highway 61 and Blonde On Blonde; might as well call them country rock as call Nashville Skyline.

    And if you can listen to Buck’s Truck Drivin’ Man, the ISB version, and Rick Nelson’s version and see some difference in them, you’ve got finer tuned ears than I do.

    By the end of the thread I was deciding there wasn’t any such thing as country rock.

  20. Point taken — but Parsons was not a one-off or doing a stylized album. He embraced country western and its affectations while putting a rock twist on them — down to creating a cool Look — the Nudie suits with with marijuana plants on them (his suit is in the country music hall of fame in Nashville, which I was delighted to see when I visited a few years ago.)

    Dylan is Dylan, Nesmith and Ricky Nelson were pop stars first and foremost, while
    Gram was the first to try to make a career out of country rock, kind of a dangerous and odd personality, and of course a rock n’ roll martyr — and legend. Sometimes conventional rock wisdom is correct — and it is when crediting Gram as the father of country rock.

  21. I could expound on this subject for awhile, but I don’t have time this evening. The lines between country and rock have always been crossed. Examples are Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, The Everly Brothers, Moon Mullican, Buck Owens, and The Beatles. But as far as launching a new sub-genre, I think the credit goes to two people above all others: Clarence White (who–more than any other person–created the sound of country-rock) and Gram Parsons (who’ll I’ll credit with first embodying the ethos of country rock).

  22. Here is Gene Parsons (not related to Gram) explaining how he and Clarence White developed the B-Bender Telecaster, which had a big impact on country rock.


  23. machinery

    Here’s a curve to consider: Willie Nelson. Started churning out some fairly successful hits around the 1965s-ish. But by the 70s he was the country/rock guy that our parents would have heard of. He was country, rock and hippie all rolled into one.

    I’m not a huge fan like the way I really dig Gram Parsons. But Parsons never made it huge when he was at his prime. Willie Nelson made it accessible to the masses. Ok, maybe he didn’t invent the rocket or light the fuse. But he might have been there in a launch capacity.

  24. tonyola

    I’ll accept that Parsons was the first hard-core country rocker. Everyone else who came before pretty much dabbled. Parsons was unquestionably a legend, too. But “martyr”? Let’s not get maudlin here. Martyrdom means dying for the sake of a cause. I don’t apply that notion to Gram, Jimi, Janis, Brian Jones, or Jim Morrison. They died because they fucked themselves up.

  25. Like misterioso, as a guy who needed some of these “country rock” artists to help me find ANY interest in “real” country music, I find myself leaning toward Bronzed Nordic God’s point of view. The whole country rock scene strikes me as something akin to those movies in which white people show oppressed black people the path to freedom. I get the love any of us can have for another scene’s music, but thinking of any of these artists as a “launching point” for an inherently second-rate genre (ie, all that led to [the] Eagles, Poco, Alabama, et al) does a disservice to longtime original rockers who always had one foot in country, such as the Everly Brothers, and longtime country artists who naturally “rocked,” such as that Buck Owens and the Buckaroos stuff I found myself liking. Johnny Cash, if you ask me, is another “natural” country rock artist who did more to launch this OK genre than anyone in the Gram Parsons scene. Bob Dylan is an older, established artist who, I believe, naturally brought country into rock before the overt country songs we’re citing.

  26. There’s another good example of a guy who naturally straddled genres and audiences, another “black man” who found his own path to freedom, without the help of a Jessica Tandy or whomever.

  27. bostonhistorian

    I’d add that the big difference among the three versions of Truck Drivin’ Man is that neither Ricky Nelson or the ISB have anyone as talented as Don Rich or Tom Brumley playing with them. Brumley played steel guitar with the Buckaroos before joining up with Ricky Nelson. I suppose country rock for this song means taking out the more “country” (i.e. heavily accented) vocal of Buck Owens and ditching the steel guitar. Buck Owens rocks plenty hard enough to be called country rock for me.

  28. tonyola

    You could also put Elvis in this category without much problem. He had authentic rural roots and he covered a number of country songs even way back with Sun Records. No matter how bad, bloated, and indifferent Elvis got in later years, country music was one style that always seemed to come to him naturally.

  29. bostonhistorian

    Moon Mullican is as close to being the Rosetta Stone as anyone I can think of.

  30. BigSteve

    No one I knew heard Sweetheart of the Rodeo at the time it came out. I think it was a matter of slowly recognizing that some of the things we’d been hearing were in fact country or country rock. I think it was Poco that we would have first identified as country rock, even though one of my favorite Monkees songs was always What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round?

  31. I agree it all hinges on the definition of what “Country Rock” is. NOT Country/Rock & Roll (Elvis) or Country Pop (the Monkees) but Country *Rock*. I am taking a broader view of how Rock fits into the definition. It’s more than just the music. It’s the attitude too.

    Wasn’t there a long ago RTH thread on when did “Rock” start as opposed to Rock and Roll or Pop? Was it Hendrix/Cream/Carnaby St in ’67 or ’68? It’s a change in attitude and the creation of “Rock Stars” (sex, drugs, R&R) that defines when Rock really started as much as a change in music.

    Anyway -assuming Rock didn’t start till ’67/’68 – I could see Graham Parsons being the first person that had the Country Rock star attitude going. More so than his actual fame. And I would say the Eagles were the first country rock star band.

  32. Interesting way of breaking things out.

  33. alexmagic

    I will take advantage of the degree of difficulty in refuting facts today provided by the Wiki Blackout to throw this meaningless fact to which I will attribute great importance: The Monkees finished filming 33 1/3rd Revolutions Per Monkee – in which Nesmith wears a full Nudie suit during a segment where he duets with his Season 2 Monkeees Look Self – by December 1968. Gilded Palace of Sin, which had Parsons in his Nudie suit, was not released until February 1969.

    Boom. Case closed.

  34. Lot’s of folks dabbled (I’m not saying that in a “damning with faint praise” way) to a certain degree but I think that the Band has to be considered if we are talking about a distinct vision that actually blends both country and rock. I think Gram Parsons and the Band were the first two who were really committed to a combination of the two, with the former being a little more country and the latter being a little more rock and roll.

  35. Gram and the Byrds played the Grand Ole Opry in March of 68 — in Nudie suits —

    Book excerpt from a Gram biography Grievous Angel —

    “When the Byrds hit the stage for their half hour of preacherman glory, a palpable wave swept through the audience, a mixture of curiosity, bemusement, and a hint of hostility. The Byrds had opted for full regalia, Nudie suits catching the spotlights, colors vibrating, rhinestones glowing, their hair stroking their shoulders, their long-legged hippie-kid ease a spit in the face of Opry tradition and an utterly alien presence on the Ryman stage.”

  36. How about the Paul Butterfield Blues Band — who for some reason were considered extremely cool back then, despite the fact that they sucked balls — covering “Mary Mary”?

  37. misterioso

    Just to clarify: I am not sure I have any interest to speak of in “real” country music. My approach to country is much the same as my approach to reggae/ska: basically, I’m not interested, though willing to make occasional exceptions, and not opposed to some rock music influenced by or incorporating it.

  38. As an aside from the origins of country rock discussion, this record by the Everly Brothers in 1965 seems to have some proto country rock on it. I’ve been listening to this album a bit recently and quite enjoy it. And check out the list of session musicians!!!


    Side one

    “Love Is Strange” (Mickey Baker, Sylvia Robinson, Ellas McDaniel) – 2:53
    “Money” (Janie Bradford, Berry Gordy) – 2:32
    “What Am I Living For?” (Art Harris, Fred Jay) – 3:05
    “Hi-Heel Sneakers” (Higginbotham) – 3:16
    “C.C. Rider” (Gertrude “Ma” Rainey) – 2:12
    “Lonely Avenue” (Doc Pomus) – 2:34

    [edit] Side two

    “Man With Money” (Don Everly, Phil Everly) – 2:20
    “People Get Ready” (Curtis Mayfield) – 2:05
    “My Babe” (Willie Dixon) – 2:40
    “Walking the Dog” (Rufus Thomas) – 2:39
    “I Almost Lost My Mind” (Ivory Joe Hunter) – 2:37
    “The Girl Can’t Help It” (Bobby Troup) – 2:09

    [edit] Personnel

    Don Everly – vocals, guitar
    Phil Everly – vocals guitar
    James Burton – guitar
    Glen Campbell – guitar
    Sonny Curtis – guitar
    Larry Knechtel – bass
    Jim Gordon – drums
    Leon Russell – piano
    Billy Preston – piano

  39. I like that album too. I was playing it last week in the car.

  40. tonyola

    Gene Pitney put out a couple of country albums in the mid-1960s, though his rural drawl on the record is a phony affectation – he was from Connecticut, after all.

  41. BigSteve

    How’d you like to be in the studio with that backing band behind you, trolleyvox?

  42. Michael Nesmith has stated that “Hello Mary Lou” is the first Country Rock song. Rick throughout his career sang Rockabilly which is the forerunner of Country Rock. His albums Bright Lights and Country Music and Country Fever were years before Gram or the Byrds. He headlined at the Shrine Auditorium in June 67 with James Burton and Clarence White in his band. They are the premier Country Rock guitarists so….good enough for me.

  43. Tying this into Nesmith is brilliant. Case closed! Welcome aboard!

  44. Deek Langoustine

    I’d say it’s either Gram Parsons or Dylan-What about The Marshall Tucker Band?

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