The Four Most Country Albums by Non-Country Artists
These albums aren’t considered country albums. You won’t find them in the country section of a record store.
by Cayetano Garza Jr.
Arguably, the 70’s was a hotbed for what would eventually be labeled Country Rock by the 80’s and morph into what we now define as Americana. This genre designation is surprisingly vague as much as it is descriptive because it allowed enough leeway for aging 60’s rock and rollers and protest folkies to jump a musical bandwagon melding rhythm and blues, rock and roll, country western and folk into a potpourri greater than the sum of its parts. This cultural mélange would by decade’s end spawn the rise of the Eagles and the “rhinestone cowboy” as it developed parallel to the “outlaw country” movement that had erupted in the genre’s own ranks. These musical developments would have a profound effect on all the genres it mixes together as the new century arrived and Americana was developed.
Sweetheart of the Rodeo by The Byrds (1968) – It could be said that Gram Parsons is the father of country rock. Born in Winter Haven, Florida, Gram was the son of a Southern citrus magnate who discovered country music while attending Harvard in the mid-60’s.
Parsons lead a tumultuous and colorful life which can be explored more fully in the documentary film titled Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel which was released in 2003.
It was through serendipitous circumstances that a young Gram Parsons found himself recruited into the psychedelic rock outfit The Byrds and the result of his heavily western influenced writing would produce an album like Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The Byrds had experimented with country music and folk in their previous five albums, but Sweetheart of the Rodeo was the first major country rock album by an established act and would have a heavy influence on the music that came after it.
The Byrds’ move away from rock and pop towards country music elicited a great deal of resistance and hostility from the ultra-conservative Nashville country music establishment. They viewed The Byrds as a group of long-haired hippies attempting to subvert country music.
Despite being the most commercially unsuccessful Byrds album to date upon its initial release, Sweetheart of the Rodeo is a seminal and highly influential country rock album.
The Gilded Palace of Sin by The Flying Burrito Brothers (1969) – Shortly after recording Sweetheart of the Rodeo with the Byrds, Gram Parsons fell out with the band when he refused to accompany them on a tour of South Africa in 1968. Two months later bassist Chris Hillman left as well and joined Parsons to form The Flying Burrito Brothers, arguably the first “country-rock” band.
This first Burrito Brothers album continued Parson’s experimental fusing of folk and country with other forms of popular music like gospel, soul, and rock & roll was not a commercial success and was supported by a sloppy cross-country tour that saw the band give up a chance to play Woodstock to instead ride cross country by railroad.
Parsons would only record one more album with The Flying Burrito Brothers before being fired from the band as a result of his extreme alcoholism and drug abuse.
Despite Parson’s self destructive downward spiral, he would manage to record again as a solo artist and help facilitate the discovery of a young female country singer that would go on to become a chart-topping country artist herself – Emmylou Harris.
Nashville Skyline by Bob Dylan (1969) – During the tumultuous end of the 60’s Bob Dylan, who had already lost favor with the folk community when he went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in ‘65, was dabbling with country western music.
Broadening the scope of the rustic style he experimented with on John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline displayed Dylan’s complete immersion into country western music. Along with the more basic lyrical themes and simple songwriting structures, it introduced audiences to a radically new singing voice from Dylan—a soft, affected country croon.
Recruiting Nashville musicians for the recordings, the album opens on a high note with Dylan singing a duet with Johnny Cash on “The Girl from the North Country”. The opening song almost serves as a stamp of approval from the country music legend, or a passing of the torch, as the album launches into an exploration of truly “american” music.
Warmly received by the critics and commercially successful, Dylan’s Nashville Skyline helped usher in a new decade of country rock exploration.
Harvest by Neil Young (1972) – Canadian musician Neil Young had not had too much success with his first two solo albums after leaving Buffalo Springfield at the end of the 60’s. It wasn’t until his country experimentation on After the Gold Rush and especially it’s follow-up Harvest that Young would solidify his prominence as a country rock legend.
Near the end of his tour for After the Gold Rush, Young would perform a new song on Johnny Cash’s television program, “The Needle and the Damage Done”. The song is a somber lament on the pain caused by heroin addiction inspired in part by Crazy Horse (Young’s band) member Danny Whitten, who eventually died while battling his drug problems.
While in Nashville for the show taping, he would head into the studio with a group of hastily put together Nashville session musicians to record. Against the advice of his producer, he scrapped plans for an immediate release of this live acoustic recording in favor of a studio album consisting of the Nashville sessions, electric-guitar oriented sessions recorded later in his barn, and two recordings made with the London Symphony Orchestra.
The result was Young’s fourth album, Harvest, which would prove to be a massive success.