Music genres attempt to be definitive but are still typically full of a good spectrum of divergent styles. In order to pigeon hole artists we have over time developed other genres, sub and sub sub genres. Country music has over two dozen including; Classic Country, Country Pop, Blues Country and even Country rap.
Most Artists can be placed in more than one category but we tend to want to associate them most closely with a specific one. I've read that Country Rock came from Rock bands doing more Country flavored music not Country artists doing rock music. But I've found there are many early examples of Country music sounding pretty rock-like and I have included some examples below. We don't always tend to identify music and genres in the early stages of development and in many cases it's done quite retroactively. I've talked about a few artists thought to be 'Rock' that started to record with a more Country music feel, back as early as the 1950's and 60's. This is before it really took off with the proliferation of the electric guitar which changed most all genres of popular music.
As an example, while we may think of Dylan as a Folk artist which much of his early material is, at the heart he was a diverse musician, evidenced when he first went 'electric' recording "Like a Rolling Stone". Note in is this live recording from 1966, it starts with a cry from someone in the audience shouting "Judas". At his performance during the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, much to the dismay of his die-hard folk fans (as he drew some booing from the crowd) he and his band used electric guitars which showed he was unabashedly moving away from traditional Folk. If you think Dylan was 'Folk Rock' you can dismiss that notion, as he arrived in Nashville in 1967 and started using country artists on his recordings. He was pioneering what we now officially call Country Rock. Having said that much of Dylan's later material can't be classified as such I don't think.
Most musical trends do not happen in isolation and there were many bands we can identify as playing some 'Country Rock', but the lines get blurry on many of them. CCR (who started out in 1967) for example recorded many songs as did John Fogerty later on his own that one can fairly say are 'Country Rock'. However I'm going to place CCR (Creedence Clearwater Revival-among others) in a future blog on 'Southern Rock'. These artist can also find themselves categorized in the 'Outlaw Country' and 'Alt-Country' sub genres. And most of the artists in those sub-genres also have some 'Country Rock' in their repertoire. So there is much unintended cross-pollination in this category.
So now I will give some examples of what I think were early 'Country Rock' songs though (they were not originally categorized in that way) I don't think the artists worried about where they were 'classified' from a genre standpoint as I've found most artists don't seem to care.
Johnny Cash, with a song I've already blogged about as my favorite Cash song was clearly for 1954 at least, 'rocking out' on Big River as seen in his typical style of performance for this song from this short live clip from 1959. Johnny headlined with Elvis on more than one occasion, touring with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and other big names who were mostly from the 'Country' genre at the time. Remembering that Rock & Roll was in it's infancy at the time.
Jerry Lee Lewis with "Crazy Arms" (written by Ralph Mooney and Chuck Seals) with a cover of a huge #1 Country music hit by Ray Price (who himself covered it from Kenny Brown and Marilyn Kaye and The Arkansas Ramblers) gives a rock flair to the song in this live recording, especially noticeable when compared to the very 'Country' sounding earlier recordings, all from 1956.
"Wake Up Little Susie" written by the remarkable husband and wife team of Felice Bryant and Boudleaux Bryant was an uptempo song from the country rooted Everly Brothers in 1957.
There are more early examples but at some point you got a split into the more Blues oriented Rock & Roll versus Country Music influences and the more formal development of the sub genres of Country Rock and Rockabilly. I talk about early R&R in my series of blogs starting with Rock and Roll Part 1.
Moving on to the mid-sixties and early seventies, in a somewhat chronological order, here are some artists that I have researched and found to be placed largely in the 'Country Rock' category. Some of the early records were not very commercially successful but were of a very high quality music that influenced the next generation of musicians in this and many other genres.
Gram Parsons was a key figure in the development of Country Rock and is worthy of a blog on his own. Here is one of his first recordings with the one-off album from his group the 'International Submarine Band' and a cover of a Johnny Cash song, "I Still Miss Someone" recorded in 1967 and released in March of 1968.
The Byrds with a now added Gram Parson's in 1968 went Country Rock with their album 'Sweetheart of the Rodeo'. Here is their cover of Bob Dylan's "You A'int Going Nowhere".
Once again in one of his many incarnations is Gram Parsons with his band 'The Flying Burrito Brothers' with "Christine's Tune" from February of 1969 (written by Parsons and band mate Chris Hillman). Or this one "Do Right Woman" with slightly altered lyrics from the original Aretha Franklin song, "Do Right Woman - Do Right Man" written by Chips Moman and Dan Penn.
Linda Ronstadt is another pioneer of the genre with her first solo album (March 1969) containing songs like this cover of "Bet No One Ever Hurt This Bad" written by Randy Newman. A departure from the more folk oriented stuff she was doing with the 'Stone Poneys' like this cover of a Micheal Nesmith written song "Different Drum".
Poco was another early band firmly in the genre with songs like "Pickin' Up the Pieces" from 1969, written by band member Richie Furay.
New Riders of the Purple Sage including a guy name Gerry Garcia playing the steel guitar "I Don't Know You" (1971).
The ubiquitous Neil Young was doing some Country Rock in 1972, "Are You Ready For The Country".
Next we have the quintessential Country Rock band, the Eagles. They changed much and are still selling records, last year their Greatest Hits (1971-75) surpassed 'Thriller' to become the best selling album of all time at over 38 million sold. I posted a blog on the Eagles already so I won't go into too much detail here but their first single was "Take It Easy" written by Jackson Browne and Glenn Frey, released May 1, 1972. It was included on their debut Album, 'Eagles' which was produced by the very talented Glyn Johns. He is responsible for wrangling the band into what was to become their signature Country Rock sound. Also included on that Album is the song Tryin', which is a great rocking tune written by Randy Meisner.
While I can't list all the artists that fall into this, I have to say very blurry category, here are some more examples from over the years.
Uncle Tupelo, "Graveyard Shift", Blue Rodeo, "Trust Yourself", Jason Aldean was pretty rocking on his debut album in 2005 with "Hicktown", Steve Earle, "Copperhead Road", Gretchen Wilson "All Jacked Up", Maria McKee "Absolutely Barking Stars", Alannah Myles "Black Velvet".
References: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page, Secondhandsongs.com
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