Spanning the end of the ‘60s and the beginning of the 70s was a style that pointed back to one of the roots of rock ‘n’ roll: country-rock. Most musical historians point to a single musician, Gram Parsons, and a single album, the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo as being the starting point of the movement.
Parsons joined the Byrds in 1968 after David Crosby’s departure to help form CSN&Y. The Byrd’s first album with Parsons in the lineup, Sweethearts, shows his influence as songwriter on two of the songs as well as on vocals and instrumentals on the others. The shift from the folk-rock sound of the mid-’60s was subtle, yet the beginning of the country-rock movement.
The country-rock style, with a more laid-back beat, occasional steel guitar, banjo and heavily strummed acoustic guitar, and vocal harmonies reminiscent of Bill Monroe’s “high lonesome” sound began to appear in other groups as well. Parsons left the Byrds (he refused to tour South Africa with them because of his opposition to apartheid) after only three months and formed the Flying Burrito Brothers with ex-Byrd Chris Hillman. Other country-rock groups like Poco, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Creedence Clearwater Revival appeared. For a short time Grateful Dead members Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh created a side project country band called Riders of the Purple Sage. Country lyrics, steel guitar and banjo can also be heard on the Grateful Dead’s 1970 albums Working Man’s Dead, and American Beauty.
The Byrds’ “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” 1968 performance on “Playboy After Dark”
Bob Dylan’s backup group through much of the sixties, a mostly Canadian ensemble called The Band, were influenced by the blues and country and produced two albums on their own distinctive vocal and instrumental country-rock sound. Working with Dylan and on their own, they performed and recorded for eight years, finally disbanding with a musical party called “The Last Waltz” which was filmed by Martin Scorsese and included musical performances by Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell and Neil Diamond.
No band, however, epitomizes the essence of country-rock as much as The Eagles. The band members came together originally in 1971 as a studio group for singer Linda Ronstadt, a crossover country artist. Following the project, the group stayed together to form The Eagles, one of the most commercially successful bands in rock ‘n’ roll history.
Intending at first to push country-rock towards a harder edge, their debut album Eagles in 1972 gave them instant chart credibility with two Top Ten hits “Take It Easy” and “Witchy Woman”. For the next eight years the Eagles would continue the pattern of chart appearances with “Desperado” and “Tequila Sunrise” (’73), “Best of My Love,” “Lyin’ Eyes” and “Take It to the Limit” all in ’75. Their next album in 1976 included two #1 hits including “Hotel California” (which melded rock with elements of reggae with country), one of their best known.
The sound of the Eagles is built around the two main vocalists (Don Henley and Glen Frey) with other singers providing a tight, close high harmony, steady drums and electric bass, and honky tonk piano, electric guitars fused with acoustic guitars and banjo providing strumming harmonies and twanging melodic licks.
In 1979 the group released The Long Run, which was supposed to be their farewell album. The band members had decided to pursue solo careers and resolutely announced that they would reunite when and if “hell freezes over”. During the next fifteen years most of the group proved themselves as solo artists, with the most recognition going to Glen Frey (“The Heat is On” from Beverly Hills Cop and acting roles in movies such as Jerry Maguire) and Don Henley (two Grammys, several MTV videos and Top 20 hits).
1994 saw the band come back together to tour and release “Hell Freezes Over” which had 4 singles on the Adult Contemporary charts. Within months it had sold over 10 million copies and gone to #1 on the pop charts.
Perhaps no band in rock history, apart from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, has had the commercial success of the Eagles. Their 1976 release Greatest Hits of the Eagles, Vol. I is the largest selling album in music history, selling close to 30 million copies and outdistancing Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Total album count for the group now exceeds 100 million sold with many more as solo artists. Their sound was an influence on many of the contemporary country artists of the post ‘90s including Garth Brooks and Travis Tritt. At their 1998 induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame all seven members (originals and replacements) performed together for the first time. Their Farewell I Tour began in Melbourne, Australia in November 2004 and continues into the fall of 2005, with DVDs of the inaugural three-hour concert selling briskly throughout the world. Like the Rolling Stones, the Eagles have found the fountain of eternal rock ‘n’ roll youth is in performing live for the fans.
CBS 60 Minutes feature: “History of The Eagles”:
An important distinction should be made between the country-rock sound of groups like the Eagles and the hard-edged southern-rock sound of groups like Lynrd Skynrd and the Allman Brothers.
During the 70s the Allman Brothers, the Marshall Tucker Band, Z.Z. Top, the Charlie Daniels Band and Hank Williams, Jr. established themselves as major acts in the driving southern-rock style. Many of these bands incorporated the twin lead guitar and twin drummer concept first pioneered by the Allman Brothers in the late ‘‘60s.
While the Eagles country-rock sound hinted at country’s honky-tonk past, Lynrd Skynrd, the best known of the southern-rock groups, drew from strong country, soul and rhythm & blues-rock backgrounds. This can be heard particularly in the dense instrumental textures (frequently using two or three lead guitars, electronic organ keyboards and two or more drummers/percussionists), the hard-edged vocals with harmonies in the upper ranges, similar to the early hillbilly style of singing. Lyrics centered on southern life, often bragging about geographical locations, and reflected the dichotomy of hedonistic and conservative philosophies which first appeared in the honky-tonk songs of Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell.
CBS Sunday Morning – “ZZ Top is Goin’ 50“:
No proponent of the southern-rock style had the critical and commercial success of the Florida band, Lynrd Skynrd. Named as a parody of a despised gym teacher (Leonard Skinner) who criticized them for their long hair, the band achieved success in the mid 70s with songs like “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Gimme Three Steps” and “Freebird” (written as a tribute to Duane Allman, killed in a motorcycle accident). Tragedy struck the band in 1977 when a plane crash took the lives of Ronnie Van Zant, their lead singer and two other band members and injuring several others. Their final album together, released three days before the crash, contained several eerie premonitions including the cover picture of the band standing in flames, an inserted order form for a “Lynrd Skynrd Survival Kit” and a Van Zant song about death entitled “That Smell”. The band broke up after the crash and remained apart for ten years.
Various combinations of band members continued with the Lynrd Skynrd name from ’87 on, touring and recording in the traditional southern-rock sound. In their peak years, their three lead guitars, keyboard, bass and drums with edgy vocals fit the thick textured, well-grooved and boisterous sound the Allman Brothers had initiated beginning in ’68.
The Allman Brothers were inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, ZZ Top in 2004, and Lynrd Skynrd in 2006.
Lynrd Skynrd, “Simple Man” and “That Smell“, Nashville, Tenn, 2003: