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Free e-Book of A Brief History of Country

January 17th, 2013 18 comments

I have brought my History of Country series under one roof, with a few edits, in an illustrated eBook (well, a booklet, really) in PDF format, titled A Brief History of Country.

Please feel free to pass it on in good conscience or to link to it on your website: while I assert my copyright for the text, the eBook is completely free. The more people read it and, I hope, gain enough of an understanding of the genre so that they will never call it “Country & Western” again, or say “yee haw, pardner”, the more they will appreciate the wealth of country.

And because everybody likes music, I am also posting a complete recording of the Grand Ole Opry radio show of 28 December 1940. It features Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, Paul Womack and the Gully Jumpers, Ford Rush and somebody called Brother Oswald. I obtained it on a site that had huge amounts of old radio shows; alas, I have lost the link.

Download A Brief History of Country eBook

Download Grand Ole Opry – Dec. 28, 1940 (PW in comments)

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History of Country Vol. 22 – 2007-12

November 15th, 2012 13 comments

 

Alternative country (known in the style of the Internet newsgroups that championed the movement as alt.country), or Americana, combined the genre with its close cousin folk, just as its patron Emmylou Harris had done two decades earlier. Some artists who started off in country’s mainstream found themselves confined to the Americana ghetto, such as Steve Earle, Townes van Zandt, John Prine, Nanci Griffiths, Lucinda Williams and Jim Lauderdale. The birth of alt.country may be pinpointed to the 1990 release of the album No Depression by Uncle Tupelo (featuring Jeff Tweedy, later of Wilco, and Jay Farrar and Mike Heidorn, later of Son Volt). The album’s title itself is symbolic, borrowing from a song by the Carter Family, the immensely influential group of the 1920s and ’30s which mainstream country had long forgotten.

Back then, the genre in which the Carter Family and their contemporaries recorded was known as folk, before the title country began to stick in the late 1940s. Woody Guthrie, the godfather of folk, was part of that tradition. Half a century later, alt.country and Americana drew from both the country and folk traditions, as well as the cowpunk sub-culture of the 1980s, with some acts impossible to define.

Other acts, such as Bright Eyes and Tweedy’s Wilco, move across genres. Other acts still move from other genres into country, sometimes temporarily, such as Ben Kweller, the Texan prodigy who in 2009 released a most exquisite country album after a decade in singer-songwriter pop.

The terms alt-country and Americana have fallen out of favour, even as no alternative names have gained currency. Perhaps it is right to call artists such as Tift Merritt, Shelby Lynn or Allison Moorer just Country; it is singers like them, Krauss, Lambert and Wilson – surely not the likes Taylor Swift –  who help keep the traditions of country music alive.

This concludes the History of Country series.

There is a mix, of course. Download link and PW in the comments section.

TRACKLISTING
1. Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles – Stop & Think It Over
2. Gretchen Wilson – One Of The Boys
3. Brad Paisley – I’m Still A Guy
4. Miranda Lambert – Love Letters
5. Patty Griffin – Long Ride Home
6. Lucinda Williams – Fancy Funeral
7. Wilco – Either Way
8. Tift Merritt – I Know What I’m Looking For Now
9. Jordan Trotter – I Want You
10. Rodney Crowell – Sex And Gasoline
11. Drive-By Truckers – George Jones Talkin’ Cell Phone Blues
12. Shelby Lynne – Old #7
13. Justin Townes Earle – Working For The MTA
14. Dylan LeBlanc – 5th Avenue Bar
15. Willie Nelson – I Am A Pilgrim
16. Gillian Welch – Six White Horses
17. Alison Krauss & Union Station – Miles To Go
18. Lori McKenna – The Luxury Of Knowing
19. Ashton Shepherd – Where Country Grows
20. Gretchen Peters – Hello Cruel World
21. Mary Chapin Carpenter – What To Keep And What To Throw Away

GET IT!  or HERE (PW in comments)

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A History of Country Vol. 21: 2004-07

September 20th, 2012 9 comments


The History of Country series will conclude with the next mix, probably in October. In the meantime here is a mix which includes some or all or none of the songs listed below, which are not in any way at all a tracklisting. The file which might include some or all or none of the songs listed below is PW-protected (see comments section).

I think the track by The Beauty Shop might be my favourite song of the 00s, and the Bright Eyes track is from what might be my favourite album of the decade. And check out George Jones singing one of my favourite Merle Haggard songs.

LIST OF SONGS
Alison Krauss & Union Station – Restless
Phil Vassar – In A Real Love
Montgomery Gentry – If You Ever Stop Loving Me
Brad Paisley – Waitin On A Woman
John Prine – Glory Of True Love
Bright Eyes with Emmylou Harris – We Are Nowhere And It’s Now
The Beauty Shop – A Desperate Cry For Help
Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins – Big Guns
Ryan Adams & The Cardinals – Friends
Trisha Yearwood – Trying To Love You
Dixie Chicks – Bitter End
Lee Roy Parnell – Old Soul
George Jones – Footlights (live)
Kris Kristofferson – This Old Road
Patty Griffin – Heavenly Day
Mindy Smith – Out Loud
Neko Case – Hold On, Hold On
The Wreckers – Tennessee
Rosanne Cash – God is In the Roses
Steve Earle – Tennesssee Blues
Tim McGraw – Kristofferson

(includes front and back covers. PW here)

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A History of Country Vol. 20: 2000-04

August 30th, 2012 6 comments

We are slowly coming to the end of the History of Country series. The history narrative will resume and conclude with the next, 21st volume of compilations; a final mix will then bring the series to an end.

As always, I don’t endorse everything on the mixes, though I have filtered out a lot of material that is representative of the era but not worth hearing, or owning. Having said that, there are only two songs on this collection which I’d not care to hear again, and a lot which I warmly recommend — especially Mindy Smith, Tift Merritt, Dave Alvin and Patty Griffin, and Dolly’s glorious bluegrass version of the Collective Soul song.

As always, the thing includes covers and is timed to fit on a standard CD-R. If you like the song, please buy the artist’s album.

TRACKLISTING:
1. Travis Tritt – It’s A Great Day To Be Alive
2. Soggy Bottom Boys – I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow
3. Dolly Parton – Shine
4. Alison Krauss & Union Station – The Lucky One
5. Brooks and Dunn – The Long Goodbye
6. Alan Jackson – Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)
7. Cyndi Thomson – What I Really Meant To Say
8. George Strait – Living And Living Well
9. Dixie Chicks – Travelin’ Soldier
10. Brad Paisley – Little Moments
11. Buddy Jewell – Sweet Southern Comfort
12. Johnny Cash – The Man Comes Around
13. Mary Chapin Carpenter – The Long Way Home
14. Marty Stuart – Sundown In Nashville
15. Dave Alvin – Rio Grande
16. Mindy Smith – Fighting For It All
17. Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – Walkin’ In The Sunshine
18. Patty Griffin – Cold As It Gets
19. Tift Merritt – Good Hearted Man
20. Tim McGraw – Live Like You Were Dying

(includes front and back covers. PW here)

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A History of Country Vol. 19: 1996-99

August 8th, 2012 3 comments

The invention of country-pop, as spearheaded by the likes of Shania Twain, has proven to be a sustainable commercial, though artistically not harmless, proposition. Bland eye-candy singers, their vocals auto-tuned, guitar strapped on and sold as country. The inarguably talented Taylor Swift reportedly asked to be marketed as a country singer not because her music has its roots embedded firmly in that genre, but because such a claim would deliver an audience. Many teenagers today may describe themselves as country fans, but they don’t mean any of the many Hanks or George Jones, but Swift and Carrie Underwood.

While the wildly successful diluted country with their commercialism, the genre’s integrity was maintained by several strands. Bluegrass had been kept alive since its 1940s heyday with Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs by the likes of Ralph Stanley, Doc Watson, Del McCoury, Jimmy Martin, Ricky Skaggs and in the 1990s by acts like the angel-voiced Alison Krauss and her band, the Union Station, the Soggy Bottom Boys, and Rhonda Vincent. Bluegrass festivals began to spring up in the 1970s, the International Bluegrass Music Association was founded in 1985, and the Grammys instituted a bluegrass award in 1988. Bluegrass crossed over into the public consciousness with the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers’ 2000 film O Brother Where Art Thou, which won a Grammy and was led by Stanley, the Union Station and the Soggy Bottom Boys.

Serving as an antidote to the smooth pop puppetry, some female singers made an impression with a “don’t-fuck-with-with-me-mister” attitude. Though Gretchen Wilson had a hit with Redneck Woman, these barroom chicks aren’t going to threaten the autotuned country-pop brigade, but singers like Wilson and Miranda Lambert help ensure that their genre will survive the inevitable collapse of corporate country and help rebuild it — much as the Outlaws did in the 1970s and Strait and Skragg in the 1980s.

Another antidote to the bland commercialism was administered by Johnny Cash and erstwhile rap svengali Rick Rubin. Cash had sunk into musical irrelevance in the 1970s and did not emerge from it until Rubin approached him to record an album of acoustic country. Backed only by his guitar, Cash recorded a few demo songs in his lounge. It sounded so soulfully raw that Rubin used that approach for a series of critically acclaimed albums, still releasing material after Cash’s death in 2004.

TRACKLISTING:
1. David Lee Murphy – Dust On The Bottle
2. Garth Brooks – The Beaches of Cheyenne
3. Jo Dee Messina – Heads Carolina, Tails California
4. George Strait – Blue Clear Sky
5. Wilco – Forget The Flowers
6. Townes Van Zandt – For The Sake Of The Song
7. Alison Krauss & Union Station – So Long, So Wrong
8. Anita Cochran & Steve Wariner – What If I Said
9. Martina McBride – A Broken Wing
10. Kathy Mattea – 455 Rocket
11. Alan Jackson – Gone Crazy
12. Dixie Chicks – Wide Open Spaces
13. Randy Travis – Spirit Of A Boy, Wisdom Of A Man
14. Lyle Lovett – Step Inside This House
15. Ralph Stanley & Patty Loveless – Pretty Polly
16. Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band – I’m Still In Love With You
17. John Prine – So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad)
18. Mary Chapin Carpenter – Almost Home
19. Chely Wright – Single White Female
20. Mickey Gilley – Make The World Go Away
21. Tim McGraw – Please Remember Me

(includes front and back covers. PW here)

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A History of Country Vol. 18: 1990-95

May 31st, 2012 13 comments

Country music enjoyed a commercial boom in the 1900s, in particular that strand spearheaded by George Strait and Ricky Skaggs. Superstars such Alan Jackson and Vince Gill would give them credit for their success, as would the biggest star of them all: Garth Brooks. Clean cut and black cowboy-hatted, the Oklahoma native sold 12 million copies of his first three albums and more than 100 million up to his semi-retirement in 2001. He was the first country star to enter the Billboard album charts at #1, with 1991’s Ropin’ The Wind. His extravagant concerts filled stadiums. Country had had superstars before, but Brooks arguably was the genre’s first megastar.

Brooks’ crossover appeal helped many other invariably stetsoned honky tonk performers — Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Vince Gill, Travis Tritt, Toby Keith, Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, (Kix) Brooks & (Ronnie) Dunn — expand their commercial appeal. It wasn’t just the behatted dudes who attained superstar status in the 1990s; women like Trisha Yearwood (later Garth Brooks wife), Faith Hill (later McGraw’s wife), Martina McBride and the Dixie Chicks crossed over, while ’80s stalwarts Wynonna Judd and Reba McIntyre continued to enjoy success.

Artists such as these might have traced their influence back to country’s traditions, to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, fiddle and pedal steel, but their commercial lucrativity set mainstream country on a course of selling out. The worst excess of that came early with Billy Ray Cyrus 1991 novelty hit Achy Breaky Heart (a cover of The Marcy Brothers’ original), with its choreographed line dance and Miley’s dad chest-hair revealing vest. Country singers rightly feared that Cyrus’ hit would undermine country’s integrity and credibility, much as ubiquity and novelty cash-ins had damaged disco.

Few things as bad as Achy Breaky Heart would taint country music’s name (though Toby Keith’s post-9/11 song did so on another level), but the record companies would now push singers who were more pop than country, such as Shania Twain and the teenage LeAnn Rimes. Slowly, country format radio purged all but the commercially successful from their playlists. This reached bizarre proportions when one programme director demanded that Patty Loveless’ 1997 song You Don’t Seem To Miss Me be remixed to remove George Jones’ harmonies. Loveless refused to allow this, and the single stalled.

As always, the mix is timed to fit on a standard CD-R; homespun covers are included

TRACKLISTING:
1. George Jones & Randy Travis – A Few Ole Country Boys
2. Garth Brooks – Friends In Low Places
3. Randy Travis – Heroes and Friends
4. Patty Loveless – Chains
5. Alan Jackson – Here In The Real World
6. Travis Tritt – Help Me Hold On
7. Dolly Parton & Ricky Van Shelton – Rockin’ Years
8. Tanya Tucker – If Your Heart Ain’t Busy Tonight
9. Collin Raye – Love, Me
10. John Prine – All The Best
11. Emmylou Harris – If I Could Be There
12. Alison Krauss & Union Station – Every Time You Say Goodbye
13. Wynonna Judd – I Saw The Light In Your Window Tonight
14. Marty Stuart – Now That’s Country
15. John Michael Montgomery – I Love The Way You Love
16. Dwight Yoakam – Ain’t That Lonely Yet
17. Reba McEntire – The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter
18. Mary Chapin Carpenter – I Take My Chances
19. Lyle Lovett – Just The Morning
20. Son Volt – Mystifies Me
21. Johnny Cash – The Beast In Me
22. The Highwaymen – Songs That Made A Difference

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(PW in comments)

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A History of Country Vol. 17: 1984-89

April 19th, 2012 5 comments

The 1980s were the MTV years; as radio once helped spread country beyond its natural habitat, so did TV channels dedicated to broadcasting country music disseminate the new crop of stars. As importantly, for the first time since Jennings and Nelson attracted the attention of rock fans, some country singers, such as Earle and Yoakam, were acknowledged by the rock press. County, or at least some strands of it, was hip again. The rock press also rediscovered legends such as George Jones and Dolly Parton. So Parton’s collaboration with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt was celebrated as a music event well outside country circles.

At the same time, some acts were reviled for what was seen as their insipidity — most of all country-rockers Alabama, who nonetheless have continued to shift huge amounts of records to the present day, more than three decades since the demise of The Eagles and The Marshall Tucker Band, whose blueprints Alabama predicated their career on. And just as Strait and Skaggs shaped the rise of the cowboy-hatted superstars, and Earle, Lovett and Yoakam inspired alt.country, so did Alabama and Restless Heart give rise to a cluster of country-rock bands, such as Atlanta (by then naming a band after a city should have been declared illegal in some form of anti-cliché law), Highway 101 and Shenandoah.

Fans of the Originals will appreciate Whitey Shafer’s incipient version of the George Strait hit All My Ex’s Live In Texas (an earworm if ever there was one). As always, the mix is timed to fit on a standard CD-R, and homebaked front and back covers are included.

TRACKLISTING
1. Ricky Skaggs – Country Boy
2. The Judds – Girls Night Out
3. The Highwaymen – The Last Cowboy Song
4. Reba McEntire – Somebody Should Leave
5. John Prine – Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness
6. Lyle Lovett – Closing Time
7. Randy Travis – 1982
8. Lionel Richie with Alabama – Deep River Woman
9. Emmylou Harris – Who Will Sing For Me
10. Ricky Van Shelton – Life Turned Her That Way
11. Whitey Shafer – All My Ex’s Live In Texas
12. Hank Williams Jr. – Born To Boogie
13. Dwight Yoakam – I Sang Dixie
14. Steve Earle – Copperhead Road
15. Rodney Crowell – I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried
16. Earl Thomas Conley – What I’d Say
17. Keith Whitley – I’m No Stranger To The Rain
18. Merle Haggard – Wouldn’t That Be Something
19. Shenandoah – The Church On Cumberland Road
20. Patty Loveless – Chains
21. Clint Black – A Better Man
22. Steve Wariner – Where Did I Go Wrong
23. Travis Tritt – Country Club

(includes front and back covers. PW here)

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A History of Country Vol. 16: 1980-84

February 22nd, 2012 8 comments

At a Country Music Association awards show in the late 1970s, Ray Benson of Asleep At The Wheel showed up wearing a stetsons. He and the similarly behatted and long-haired Charlie Daniels and John Anderson were politely asked to remove their headgear. But as the rhinestones faded, the Stetson would become an obligatory sartorial item in the country fraternity. We might credit the mercifully brief Urban Cowboy movement — spearheaded by John Tavolta’s Honky Tonk Night Fever movie — for popularising the cowboy hat, which had been sported by many people over the years but never was standard apparel in country.

Ironically, the Urban Cowboy soundtrack featured mostly AOR artists, such as Boz Scaggs, The Eagles, Bob Seger, Bonnie Raitt and Linda Ronstadt (who was yet to revisit her country roots). Country, the genre portrayed in the movie, was marginalised, reduced to the presence of The Charlie Daniels Band, Jerry Lee Lewis’ cousin Mickey Gilley and Johnny Lee (whose Looking For Love from the soundtrack became a million-seller). The movement the film described moved country away from its roots, crossing over into middle-of-the-road rock, adult pop and easy listening with the likes of Kenny Rogers, Juice Newton, Crystal Gayle. Even Dolly Parton got in on the act, as did Willie Nelson, who contributed to the mush of MOR by duetting with  Spanish housewives’ favourite and übersmoothie Julio Iglesias.

The Urban Cowboy hype didn’t last long. While the faithful Outlaws — Jennings, Kristofferson et al — were falling out of the charts, there was a vacuum. It was partially filled by credible artists such as John Conlee, but it took the breakthrough in the early 1980s of George Strait and Ricky Skaggs to lend country a new identity.

Strait, Skaggs and others, like the less successful John Anderson, were spearheads of a wider movement driven by innovative new producers and executives (perhaps taking to heart Waylon Jennings’ 1975 call to country revolution in You Sure Hank Done It This Way). Their influence was profound: with their initial success they returned country music to its traditional foundations — the honky tonk of Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb  and the bluegrass of Flatt & Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers — while maintaining a commercial sound which could sustain such a renaissance. Had their formula flopped, who knows where country would have gone.  Skaggs, who went on to become the biggest selling country artist of the 1980s, was an alumni of Emmylou Harris’ backing band; the stetsoned Texan George Strait went on to score a record number of country charts toppers.

In their wake artists who had battled along for years — Rosanne Cash, Hank Williams Jr, Reba McIntryre, Rodney Crowell — began to flourish, and important new blood emerged in numbers unseen since the 1950s: Naomi and Wynonna  Judd, Randy Travis, Keith Whitley, Holly Dunn, Patty Loveless, Dwight Yoakam, Lyle Lovett, k.d. lang, Pam Tillis, Ricky van Shelton, Steve Earle, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Vern Gosdin and so on. Not a few of these were songwriters who would help inspire the alt.country movement of the 1990s and 2000s.

So it was all the more strange when the New York Times in a front-page article (on what must have been a morbidly dull news day) by the critic Robert Palmer declared country music dead. The mainstream country music of the 1970s was indeed fading, but the evidently poorly premised and slothfully researched article exaggerated the demise of the genre. To his credit, Palmer later embraced some of the acts who would prove him wrong. Two years later, the New York Times covered how country “had turned itself around”.

As always, this mix is timed to fit on a standard CD-R and includes homebrewed cover artwork. Be warned that the final track is lacking in anything that is defensible. Let the musical assault that is God Bless The U.S.A. be representative of all that gives country music such a bad name.

TRACKLISTING
1. Charlie Daniels Band – The Devil Went Down To Georgia
2. Johnny Lee – Lookin’ For Love
3. Ronnie Milsap – Smoky Mountain Rain
4. George Jones – He Stopped Loving Her Today
5. Willie Nelson – On The Road Again (live)
6. Hank Williams Jr. – Kaw-Liga
7. Alabama – Old Flame
8. Merle Haggard – Big City
9. David Allan Coe – The Ride
10. The Oak Ridge Boys – Elvira
11. Barbara Mandrell & George Jones – I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool
12. Roseanne Cash – Seven Year Ache
13. Dolly Parton – Do I Ever Cross Your Mind
14. Skeeter Davis – Crying Time
15. Larry Gatlin & the Gatlin Brothers – Houston (Means I’m One Day Closer To You)
16. John Conlee – Common Man
17. Ricky Skaggs – Don’t Cheat In Our Hometown
18. George Strait – Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind
19. Earl Thomas Conley – Holding Her And Loving You
20. Don Williams – That’s The Thing About Love
21. The Judds – Mama He’s Crazy
22. John Prine – People Puttin’ People Down
23. Waylon Jennings – America
24. Lee Greenwood – God Bless The U.S.A.

(includes front and back covers. PW here)

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A History of Country Vol. 15: 1976-79

January 19th, 2012 14 comments

This compilation is not accompanied by an instalment in the country history, because the next chapter goes with the next mix. And, in some ways, it makes sense that this mix has no history (of course, the timeframe is covered by past articles in the series) because the late 1970s was a time of hiatus.

Many of the stalwarts of just a few years earlier ceased having strings of hits, and those artists who had grown out of the Outlaw movement now had their day. In this mix, the likes of Guy Clark, John Anderson, Larry Jon Wilson and Moe Bandy owed something to the Outlaws. Even Tom T Hall, who wrote so many mainstream numbers without ever being mainstream himself, is calling for the Outlaw guys to stick to their country roots and return to Nashville (while one of the leading Outlaws, Kris Kristofferson, sang the praises of Hank Williams).

A few bluegrass musicians kept the flame of that genre alive: here we have veterans Jim & Jesse and, with a view to the future, Boone Creek, which included Ricky Skaggs, one of the country superstars of the 1980s who would later return to bluegrass.

As always, the mix is timed to fit on a standard CD-R and includes home-baked front and back covers.

TRACKLISTING
1. Kris Kristofferson – If You Don’t Like Hank Williams
2. Jerry Jeff Walker – Standing At The Big Hotel
3. John Anderson – Country Comfort
4. Funky Kings – Slow Dancing
5. Guy Clark – Anyhow I Love You
6. Mickey Gilley – Bring It On Home To Me
7. Herb Pederson – Can’t You Hear Me Calling
8. Jim & Jesse – Ashes Of Love
9. Johnny Cash – One Piece At A Time
10. Skeeter Davis – Homebreaker
11. Razzy Bailey – She’s Anybody’s Darling
12. The Statler Brothers – Your Picture In The Paper
13. Emmylou Harris – Pancho & Lefty
14. Larry Jon Wilson – In My Song
15. Merle Haggard – Ramblin’ Fever
16. Charlie Rich – Rolling With The Flow
17. Bellamy Brothers – Crossfire
18. O.B. McClinton – Talk To My Childrens’ Mama
19. Johnny Paycheck – Take This Job And Shove It
20. Crystal Gayle – Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue
21. Boone Creek – Dark Is The Night
22. Tom T. Hall – Come On Back To Nashville (Ode To The Outlaws)
23. John Prine – Sabu Visits The Twin Cities Alone
24. Billie Jo Spears – It Should Have Been Easy
25. Moe Bandy – I Cheated Me Right Out Of You

(includes front and back covers. PW here)

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A History of Country Vol. 14: 1974-75

November 30th, 2011 11 comments

Thanks in large part to country-influenced acts like The Byrds, The Grateful Dead and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, rock fans were starting to dig the country scene — not Nashville’s crooners or John Denver, of course, but the Outlaws, Gram Parsons and some of the old pioneers.  Some of California rock’s great names had their roots in playing bluegrass; people like Eagles co-founder and Flying Burrito Brother Bernie Leadon, the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and the singer-songwriter J.D. Souther, who wrote for the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt, the Texan “Queen of Rock” who made her start as a country performer before going the folk-rock route (she would later return to country, particularly in her collaborations with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton). Read more…

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