When I was younger and starting to get into music, I blanket dismissed country music. Part of it was because I lived in the south as a teenager and I didn’t fit in at all. I was bullied endlessly for who I was. Politics, ethnicity, sexual orientation, you name it. I unfairly projected those feelings and experiences onto an innocent music genre. It’s important to question and unlearn these preconceived notions and biases. We all have them.
I unfairly wrote off country music as “redneck stuff” and at the same time, I would preach about equality, calling out racist and homophobic things people around me would say. I was being hypocritical and stupid.
Classist ideologies are ingrained in society. It’s not just rich and middle class against the poor and working class. Even poor and working class people internalise these beliefs.
This attitude is closed minded and doesn’t heal this divided world. We’re all equal and we’re all individuals. Southerners are not a monolith. I want to apologise for my problematic thoughts, and I understand if you don’t forgive me.
Trae Crowder made a video about these educated northern and California liberals who think like this. One quote stuck out in my head “Being prejudiced against poor white people with a twang still counts as prejudiced.”
Admittedly, rock music and the variety of influences and sounds that it’s inspired by changed my mind. The first key moment for me was when I saw Roger Daltrey in concert in 2011. This was my first classic rock concert. He played Tommy in its entirety for the first half of the show and in the second half, he played some of The Who’s other hits and covers of other songs he likes. He sang a medley of Johnny Cash songs and that’s what really opened my mind and made me realise that rock stars have an appreciation for other genres. Mind opened!
Another key moment for me was when I went to a drag show last Halloween and saw Trixie Mattel perform some songs live. I didn’t go to the show for Trixie, interestingly enough (I was there mostly for Sharon Needles, Alaska, and Courtney Act). She impressed me and is someone who makes country music really cool to people who aren’t necessarily into it. I highly recommend her album One Stone.
While writing part 1, I fell in love with the music of Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Gram Parsons. I was really missing out for 24 years because of some childhood trauma.
Enough of my story. It’s time to talk about the musicians in the Country or Southern Rock subgenres and how they shaped rock and roll. I will divide this series into different sections.
First, I’ll talk about country songs that made it mainstream – the “source material”, if you will. Second, I’ll talk about rock’s beginnings in the south and Southern/Country rock’s history. Third, I’ll talk about non-country/southern rock classic rock bands that did country rock songs.
Country’s Mainstream Success and Important Songs
The 1950s was when Rockabilly was at its biggest in America, but it was popular even into the early 60s in the UK with the Teddy Boy subculture. The genre declined by the mid-60s with the British Invasion and Motown taking over the charts. However, like any great music, it didn’t die completely and it had a revival later, in the late 60s and even into the 70s.
The subgenre of rock originated in the Southern US and combined R&B and country music. Rockabilly influenced the rock subgenres that were popular in the 60s and 70s.
Something had to influence it though. What are the roots of country and folk music? Go across the Atlantic to Africa and the British Isles. Like rock and roll, country isn’t a lily-white genre. Many of the first country musicians were black and took influences from West Africa and made something new. In Ireland, there is a big country music following – I’d regularly hear county music on Radio Kerry, so it’s no surprise that traditional folk music of Ireland and Scotland inspired country music.
Musicians like Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Ray Price, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, Wanda Jackson, Hank Snow and Chet Atkins had mainstream success. Below is a playlist of songs by these musicians and more:
The term rockabilly was probably coined in 1956 in a press release about Gene Vincent’s hit song, “Be-Bop-A-Lula”. Not too long after that, the term took off and songs like “Rock a Billy Gal” and “Rock Billy Boogie” were released.
Rockabilly wasn’t always a term that was embraced. Some southern musicians were offended by it, thinking it was another way of calling them “hillbillies.”
The 60s and 70s:
Bobbie Gentry: Born Roberta Lee Streeter in 1944 in Mississippi, she had a crossover hit in 1967 with the song “Ode to Billie Joe”. It topped the Billboard Hot 100 charts and was #4 in the year-end chart. She even won the Grammy for Best New Artist and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance in 1968.
She moved to California when she was 13 to live with her mother. Her stage name came from the movie Ruby Gentry.
Her first single, “Mississippi Delta” was released in 1967, but the b-side “Ode to Billie Joe” received more airplay and therefore commercial success. The reason for it was the controversial lyrics that tell the story of a boy’s suicide from the point of view of a young girl living in the Mississippi Delta. The boy jumped to his death from a bridge and the girl talks about it with her family. The story concludes a year later with the father dying from a viral infection and the mother being sad. The girl remembers Billie Joe by throwing flowers off the bridge he jumped from.
“Ode to Billie Joe” was such an international success that Joe Dassin performed a French version. A decade later, Wencke Myhre released a German version of the song.
Her other hit, “Fancy” was released in 1969. It reached #26 on the US Country charts, but #1 on the Canadian Country charts. On the mainstream charts, it peaked at #31 in the US and #26 in Canada.
That same year, she released a few singles with Glen Campbell, “Let It Be Me” (#14 US Country, #36 Hot 100) and “All I Have to Do Is Dream” (#6 US Country, #27 Hot 100) were the most successful.
Bobby Bare: Country singer-songwriter from Ohio. His career began in the 50s and he tried rock and roll, but he was most successful with country music. His first mainstream chart success was “The All American Boy” in 1958. This song combined country with rock and he wrote it before he was drafted into the army. He recorded a demo and gave the song to a friend, Bill Parsons to record. The record label listened to both versions and decided to release Bobby Bare’s demo instead, with it reaching #2 on the Billboard charts. The record label erroneously credited the song to Bill Parsons.
In the 60s, Chet Atkins got him signed to RCA Victor and he started releasing music on that label. His biggest hit, “Detroit City” was a crossover hit, reaching #6 on the Country charts and #16 on the Hot 100 in 1963. The song won a Grammy in 1964 for Best Country and Western Recording.
“500 Miles Away from Home” was his next mainstream hit, #5 on the Country charts and #10 on the Billboard Charts.
Brenda Lee: Rockabilly and country singer who was born Brenda Mae Tarpley in Atlanta in 1944. The tiny 4’9” singer rose to fame as a teenager in the late 50s and early 60s. During the 60s, 47 of her singles were chart hits, only behind Elvis, The Beatles, and Ray Charles.
The musical prodigy grew up in a working-class family. She could whistle songs that she heard on the radio at the age of 2 and by 3 she could sing. By the time she was 10, she was the breadwinner of her family and performing regularly on local radio and television. When she was 12 she was discovered and got a record deal. By the end of the 50s, she had a following in the UK.
In 1959, she had her first US top 10 hit with “Sweet Nothin’s”. From there, she got many more hits.
Her peak success was in the early 60s with hits like “That’s All You Gotta Do” – which was in the top 10 in the US, UK, and Australia; “I’m Sorry” – her first #1 in the US; “I Want to Be Wanted” – #1 US, #31 UK, and #10 Australia); “Emotions” – #7 US, #20 Australia; “Dum Dum” – #4 US and Australia; “Fool No. 1” – #3 US, #23 Australia; “All Alone Am I” – #3 US and #10 Australia; and more.
One of her songs, “Is It True”, released in 1964 was recorded in England and featured Big Jim Sullivan and Jimmy Page on guitars.
Connie Smith: Country and gospel singer born in 1941 in Indiana and raised in Ohio. When she was 22, she entered a talent contest and won five silver dollars. Country artist Bill Anderson heard her and liked her voice. A few months later, they bumped into each other at a concert and he invited her to perform with him on the Midnight Jamboree programme. Later on, she recorded some demos and Chet Atkins, a producer at RCA Victor records heard them and signed her in 1964.
In the summer of 1964, she recorded four songs at her first recording session. Her first single, “Once a Day” was released as a single on 1 August 1964 and reached #1 on the country charts in November of that year. “Once a Day” was the first debut single by a female country artist to top the charts and held the record for most weeks at #1 by a female artist for almost 50 years. The song didn’t have much crossover appeal on the mainstream charts but was #1 on the Bubbling Under Hot 100 charts.
A few other songs of hers like “Then and Only Then” and “I Can’t Remember”, were on the Bubbling Under Hot 100 charts.
Crystal Gayle: Born Brenda Gail Webb in Kentucky in 1951, the youngest of eight siblings. She is Loretta Lynn’s (aka The Coal Miner’s Daughter) younger sister. When she was four, her family moved to Indiana and when she was eight, her father died of black lung disease, common among coal miners.
She liked to sing during her childhood, despite being shy. Her older sister, Loretta Lynn inspired her to play guitar and sing in her brother’s folk band. After she graduated from secondary school, she got signed to Decca Records. Because there was a signer already named Brenda Lee, she was told to adopt a stage name. Her stage name, Crystal Gayle, was inspired by the Krystal fast-food chain and Gayle is a different spelling of her middle name.
She released her first single in 1970, “I’ve Cried (The Blue Right Out of My Eyes)”, which was written by older sister Loretta Lynn. Because Loretta Lynn was a successful country musician, they asked Crystal Gayle to record more songs similar to hers. However, many of these songs were not commercial successes and she was still basically in her sister’s shadow.
In the mid 70s, she left Decca and signed with United Artists, changing and establishing her own sound and image, helping her career take off.
In 1977, her most famous song, “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the Country charts. The next single, “Ready for the Times to Get Better” was a minor crossover hit, peaking at #52 on the Hot 100 and #1 on the Country charts.
Crystal Gayle’s biggest hit of 1978 was “Talking in Your Sleep”, which was a top 20 pop hit and #1 on the Country charts.
In 1979, “Half the Way” peaked at #15 on the Hot 100 and #2 on the Country charts.
CW McCall: Born William Dale Fries, he is best known for the 1976 one-hit wonder novelty truck-driving country song, “Convoy”.
Before the hit, he was a creative director for an advertising agency. His albums Wolf Creek Pass and Black Bear Road, released in 1975, did well on the country charts. “Old Home Filler-Up an’ Keep On-a-Truckin’ Cafe” (wow what a long title) and “Wolf Creek Pass” were minor crossover hits, peaking at #54 and #40 on the Hot 100, respectively.
“Convoy” was his biggest hit, peaking at #1 in 1976 for a week. It also reached #1 in Canada and Australia and #2 in the UK and Ireland. At the time, there was a CB radio fad and that’s what the song’s lyrics are inspired by – explains the talking blues style delivery. It tells the story of a cross-country trucker rebellion. Three characters have a conversation: Rubber Duck, Pig Pen, and Sodbuster. Lots of trucker slang here that I don’t understand.
Dickey Lee: This country singer was best known for hit singles “Patches” and “Laurie (Strange Things Happen)”. Both of these songs tell tragic stories.
“Patches” peaked at #6 on the Billboard Charts in 1962 and tells the story of a poor boy who was born and raised in Alabama and got the eponymous nickname of “Patches” because he is so ragged. People in his community and his own father would call him that. The father was a hardworking man with not much formal education who tried his best to provide for the family. One day, he falls ill and he tells his son (the narrator) that he needs to step up and provide for the family. Two days later, the father dies and the boy drops out of school and goes to work.
“Laurie (Strange Things Happen)” peaked at #14 on the Billboard Charts. The song is about a boy who talks about a girl he likes named Laurie. He met her at the school dance and describes her as lovely, warm, and angelic, falling in love with her. He walks her home, gives her his jumper when she says she’s cold, and kissed her goodnight. Later, he realises that she still has his jumper. He knocks on the door and her father answers and says that she’s dead and killed herself on her birthday (the day of the dance). The boy goes to the graveyard and saw his jumper on her grave.
This eerie song is similar to the legend of Resurrection Mary, who was a shy woman with cold hands. According to legend, men saw her at dances and took her to the cemetery, where she asked to be dropped off. One young man said that she asked to be taken home and the next day, her mother said she died a while ago.
Dolly Parton: Dolly Parton was born into a large family Tennessee, fourth of a dozen children. Her family were dirt poor, her father gave a bag of cornmeal to the doctor who helped deliver Dolly Parton because he had nothing else. Her family went to church and that is where she started singing. Her first guitar was a homemade guitar. When she was 8, her uncle got her a real guitar.
As a teenager, she appeared at the Grand Ole Opry and met Johnny Cash, who told her to follow her dreams. After secondary school, she went full time into music, starting off as a songwriter and then recording her own music.
Her first country hit was “Dumb Blonde”, which charted at #24 on the Country charts in 1966. Her next single, “Something Fishy”, released in 1967 fared better, reaching #17 on the Country charts.
“Joshua”, released in 1970 was the first hit to make the Billboard charts, but it didn’t crack the top 100, only making it to #108, but it went to #3 on the Country charts.
A few years later, her most covered song, “Jolene” topped the Country charts and peaked at #60 on the Hot 100. While it didn’t do well on the American charts, it got recognition after the fact. The song charted better in the UK, where it made the top 10 there.
In the late 70s, her sound turned more country pop and it did better on the pop charts. “Here You Come Again” (#3 US), “Two Doors Down” (#19), “Heartbreaker” (#37), and “Baby I’m Burning” (#25) all made the top 40.
Duane Eddy: Guitarist Duane Eddy was known for his trademark twangy sound. He started playing guitar when he was 5 years old. When he was 16, he got a Chet Atkins model Gretsch guitar and formed a duo and started playing at radio stations. One day, when at a radio station, he met the DJ Lee Hazlewood and so began their working relationship, with Hazlewood producing his music. He released his first single in 1955, at the age of 17, “I Want Some Lovin’” b/w “Soda Fountain Girl”.
In 1958, a long string of hits began with the hit, “Rebel Rouser”. From there, he got mainstream chart success with “Cannonball” and “The Lonely One” reaching the top 20 in the Cashbox charts and “Forty Miles of Bad Road” peaking at #9 on the Billboard charts and #10 on the Cashbox charts.
His success continued into the early 60s with songs like “Shazam!” (peaked at #4 in the UK), “Bonnie Came Back”, “Because They’re Young” (his biggest hit – #4 Billboard and #2 in the UK), “Kommotion”, and “Pepe” doing well on the US and UK charts in 1960 and 1961.
With the British Invasion about to hit the US, 1962 and 1963 were the last commercially successful years for Duane Eddy. “(Dance With The) Guitar Man” was a top 20 hit in the US and #4 in the UK. “The Ballad of Paladin” peaked at #10 in the UK. and “Boss Guitar” and “Lonely Boy, Lonely Guitar” were minor hits in the UK.
Elvis Presley: After two years of service in the Army, Elvis started recording again. In March 1960, he recorded his first hit of the decade, “Stuck on You”. This song has some country influences in it and it was well-received, topping the charts in late April 1960. On the country charts, it hit #27 and on the R&B charts it hit #6.
That same year, “Are You Lonesome Tonight” was his third #1 hit of the decade and reached #22 on the Country charts and #3 on the R&B charts.
For most of the decade, Elvis’s songs were not on the county charts (generally his success declined too), but in 1968, “U.S. Male” and “Your Time Hasn’t Come Yet Baby” were #55 and #50 on the Country charts, respectively. The former peaked at #28 on the Hot 100.
At the end of the decade, Elvis got big hits with “In The Ghetto” (#3 on the Billboard charts, #60 on the Country charts), “Suspicious Minds” (#1 on the Billboard Charts), and “Don’t Cry Daddy” (#6 on the Billboard charts, #13 on the Country charts).
Emmylou Harris: Country and folk singer-songwriter. She was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1947 to a military family. Her father was a prisoner of war in Korea in 1952. Her family moved around a lot and she spent her childhood in multiple states, North Carolina and Virginia particularly.
She studied music in university, but later dropped out and moved to NYC to pursue her dreams. Before she was famous, she worked as a waitress to support herself while she was gigging in Greenwich Village coffeehouses.
She released her first album, Gliding Bird, in 1969 but it was not a commercial success. In between her first and second album, she collaborated with Gram Parsons, touring with him and contributing vocals on the albums GP and his posthumously released album, Grievous Angel. My favourite tracks on GP are “Still Feeling Blue”, “Streets of Baltimore”, “Cry One More Time”, and “Big Mouth Blues”. My favourites on Grievous Angel are “I Can’t Dance”, “Medley Live From Northern Quebec”, “Love Hurts”, and “Ooh Las Vegas”.
Six years later, she released her sophomore album, Pieces of the Sky. My favourite tracks on the album are “Bluebird Wine”, “Queen of the Silver Dollar”, “Hank and Lefty”, and “California Cotton Fields”. “If I Could Only Win Your Love” was a minor crossover hit, making the top 60 in the US. This album was #45 on the albums charts and #7 on the country albums charts.
She released another album in 1975, Elite Hotel. “Together Again” was a crossover hit in the Netherlands, making it to #15. This album was #25 on the albums charts and #1 on the country albums charts. I like the songs “Feelin’ Single”, “Till I Gain Control Again”, her cover of “Here, There, and Everywhere”, her remake of “Ooh Las Vegas”, “Jambalaya”, “Wheels”.
In 1977, she released the album, Luxury Liner. Chuck Berry cover “C’est La Vie” reached #4 in the Netherlands. This album was #21 on the albums charts and #1 on the country albums charts. I like the songs “Luxury Liner”, “Pancho & Lefty”, “You’re Supposed To Be Feeling Good”, and “C’est La Vie”.
In 1978, Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town was released, reaching #3 on the country albums charts and #29 on the albums charts.
In 1979, Emmylou Harris released Blue Kentucky Girl, reaching #3 on the country albums charts and #43 on the albums charts.
The Everly Brothers: This duo of two brothers, Don and Phil Everly were successful in the late 50s and early 60s. They were raised in Shenandoah, Iowa. Their father had a radio show and he would bring his sons to the station, where they would sing on air. When they were teenagers, they moved to Tennessee. After graduating from secondary school, they focussed on their recording career.
Chet Atkins was a family friend and he noticed the Everly Brothers talent and got them signed to a competing record label, Columbia, despite him working for RCA Victor.
They released their first single in 1956, “Keep A-Lovin’ Me”. The single flopped, but their subsequent releases were much more successful.
In 1957, they released their second single, “Bye Bye Love”, which peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 Charts and #1 on the Country Charts. It was also a success on the R&B charts and charts in Australia, the UK, and Canada.
“Wake Up Little Susie” was another hit that same year and it was #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, Country, and R&B Charts and #1 in Canada.
Some of their other hits from the late 50s are “All I Have to Do Is Dream” (#1 on Country and Hot 100), “Bird Dog” (#2 Hot 100, #1 Country), “Problems” (#2 Hot 100, #17 Country), and “(Till) I Kissed You” (#4 Hot 100, #8 Country).
The Everly Brothers’ success continued in the early 60s with a string of Top 10 hits like “Let It Be Me”, “Cathy’s Clown”, “When Will I Be Loved”, “So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad)”, “Walk Right Back”, and “Crying in the Rain”. During this time, their sound took a poppier turn.
Floyd Cramer: This pianist was influential in the Nashville sound and was one of the busiest session musicians, working with Elvis, Brenda Lee, Patsy Cline, Roy Orbison, and The Everly Brothers. Floyd Cramer even got a few hits himself with songs like “Last Date” from 1960 (#2 US – had crossover appeal on the R&B charts), “On the Rebound” from 1961 (#4 US, #1 UK – not on the country charts though), “San Antonio Rose” from 1961 (#8 US).
Flying Burrito Brothers: It was difficult to decide whether to mention them in this section or in the country rock section, but ultimately I chose the country section because they had more of a country sound. The band were formed in LA in 1968 and had multiple lineups in reunions in the late 70s, 80s, and so on. Chris Hillman described the band in an interview with American Songwriter as “the alternative country band” and “outlaw country band” because they wouldn’t get airplay on neither country radio nor rock radio.
The most famous members of the band were Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman of The Byrds and Bernie Leadon of The Eagles. Gram Parsons left The Byrds in 1968 when they were planning to tour South Africa. Parsons disagreed with that because he felt touring there would support the country’s apartheid government. The Byrds’ tour of South Africa turned out to be a disaster with their roadie, Carlos Bernal, being a last minute replacement for Gram Parsons; audiences being segregated even though promoters promised them the audiences would be integrated; audiences were unimpressed because of the last minute replacement and their politics; and racists were sending them death threats. Playing in South Africa was a lose-lose situation with American and British media upset with them for playing there in the first place and South African media upset with them for being rebellious and protesting against apartheid.
Hillman later left the band and the two formed The Flying Burrito Brothers with bassist Chris Ethridge and pedal steel guitar player Sneaky Pete Kleinow.
The Flying Burrito Brothers released their first album, The Gilded Palace of Sin, in 1969. At the time, it was not a commercial success – only reaching #164 on the Billboard 200 albums charts, but after the fact it got its well-deserved appreciation, being ranked #192 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time and country musicians like Alan Jackson and Randy Travis calling it influential. Even non-country musicians like Elvis Costello and Wilco like the album. The album is heavily country, but does borrow some elements from gospel, soul, and psychedelic rock. It’s a country album for people who don’t like country music. My favourite songs on the album are “Christine’s Tune”, “Dark End of the Street”, “My Uncle”, “Juanita”, “Hot Burrito #2”, and “Hippie Boy”. Most of the songs were written by Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman.
In 1970, they released Burrito Deluxe. Critics panned this album as less inspired than their debut because a lot of the songs were written in a hurry in the studio, but I think it has its good moments. I find this album to be a bit more rock-inspired than their debut. On the album, there’s a good country cover of Bob Dylan’s “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” and a long cover of The Rolling Stones’ country inspired “Wild Horses”. This was Gram Parsons’ last album with the band. I like the songs “Lazy Days”, “High Fashion Queen”, “Older Guys”, and “Cody, Cody”.
In 1971, they released The Flying Burrito Bros, which managed to make it on the Billboard 200 albums charts. This album is more country than its predecessor, but has some good moments. Still, it’s no Gilded Palace of Sin. There’s a cover of Bob Dylan’s “To Ramona”.
Gale Garnett: Folk and country singer born in Auckland, New Zealand. She moved to Canada with her family when she was 11. She began her music career in 1960 while trying to break into acting. She is best known for her 1964 song “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine” which topped the Adult Contemporary charts and did well in the country charts. The song won the Grammy for Best Folk Recording in 1965.
George Hamilton IV: This country singer began his music career in the 50s as a teen idol and then in the 60s changed his sound to country. His biggest crossover hit was “Abilene in 1963”, which went to #1 on the Country charts and #15 on the Hot 100.
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