Styles & Forms | Country Rock | Country

In terms of influences and origins, country and rock’n’roll draw so closely from the same antecedents that they are practically musical first cousins: branches from the same tree that share the same basic instrumentation of guitar, bass and drums.

Two of country music’s greatest practitioners, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, launched their careers in the mid-1950s as part of the rock’n’roll/rockabilly explosion that took place at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios in Memphis. Even Elvis Presley, the star of the Sun Studio stable, was billed as a country singer and was a regular performer on Louisiana Hayride, a live country music radio extravaganza, broadcast from Shreveport.

Dylan Hits Nashville

An early harbinger of the modern country rock movement was Bob Dylan, who journeyed to Nashville in the mid- and late-1960s to record a trio of albums – Blonde On Blonde, John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline. For these projects, Dylan utilized ‘A Team’ Music Row session musicians to underpin his dense and surreal lyrics with austere guitar- and steel guitar-driven country arrangements. Dylan’s country rock explorations gave added impetus to a vital country rock movement that, by the late-1960s, was underway in southern California, spearheaded by pioneering bands like The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers and Poco. These bands and a handful of others like them imaginatively re-conjoined the two musical styles, which had drifted far apart since the mid-1950s.

The California Country Rock Explosion

These southern California bands grew out of a generation of young musicians who had been raised on rock’n’roll, but were just as influenced and enthralled by the bedrock country sounds of honky-tonkers like Hank Williams, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens and the vintage bluegrass and western swing of artists like Bill Monroe and Bob Wills. In various ways, these California bands, like almost none before, melded the 1960s spirit of counter-cultural rebelliousness and the youthful hubris of rock’n’roll with the more down-home attitudes, arrangements and repertoires of country music.

Gram Parsons, The Grievous Angel

A central figure in the California country rock scene was Gram Parsons, a Florida-born, Harvard University dropout and former teenage rock’n’roller. By the time Parsons joined The Byrds in late 1967, he was already resolutely pursuing a musical vision that sought a seamless fusion of acoustic rock- and blues-tinged country honky-tonk into an elusive sound that he described as ‘cosmic American music’. What Parsons strived for with The Byrds, then with The Flying Burrito Brothers, and later still as a solo artist, was, in the words of Byrds bandmate Roger McGuinn, ‘to blend the Beatles and country; to really do something revolutionary’.

Parsons found a country music-loving kindred spirit in California-born singer and multi-instrumentalist Chris Hillman, who was The Byrdsbass player at the time. Under Parsons’ and Hillman’s influence, the band, best remembered today for rock hits like ‘Turn Turn Turn’, immersed itself in a...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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