The Roots of Country Rock on the Shoulders of Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons

by Amos White

Emmylou Harris moved to New York in the mid sixties and began singing folk music on a local circuit to mild fanfare. Gram Parsons, the undisputed father of country rock, had just finished his masterful debut with The Byrds: Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Gram did all the vocals of the original recording, and had a huge influence on their sound, making it their most country album to date. But with its electric guitars, experimentation, progressive writing, and psychedelia left over from the Byrds traditional sounds, it was not received well in 1968. But it was received well enough that people started to know the name Gram Parsons. Parsons had already joined a band before The Byrds called The Shilohs where he wanted to do more country influenced tunes, but the rest of the band wanted more of a garage rock sound. Parsons knew the only solution to making the music he wanted was to create his own solo work and he needed a gifted singer and player to back him up. This is where Emmylou Comes into play. He saw her live and despite her not playing his favorite style of music, he knew she would fit. Then Parsons Started his own project: the flying burrito brothers and their first album became what is possibly the quintessential country rock album with The Gilded Palace of Sin which found the ears of many country music fans. Now, the marriage of country music and rock had a rocky history. Rock fans thought country music was simple and boring, and country music fans thought rock music too culturally different with their topics and lifestyles. But Parsons, with the angelic voice of Harris, and a crew he personally assembled, released an album that was full of electric guitars and rocking parts, but the songs were beautiful and inarguably part of history. Duets like Dark End of the Street and Do Right Woman will still give goosebumps to anyone this day, and it comes from 1969 and remains a masterpiece. Emmylou and Parsons would become close, and she helped and stood by his side when he made his timeless and flawless solo albums GP and my personal favorite Grievous Angel, the last album he made in 1973 before Keith Richards introduced him to heroin causing him to enter the 27 club. But after they met Parsons, the rolling stones wrote possibly the greatest country album by a band that isn’t country: Exile on Main Street. There are rumors that uncredited background chorale singers included Parsons and Emmylou on Exile. Then without the country music proteges present, the Stones wrote their second and final country music album anyway. It was called Some Girls, and many stones fans consider this, a country album, to be their absolute best album. This experimental world of country paved the way for the likes of Steve Earle, John Prine, Vic Chesnutt, essentially the entire world of alternative country, and many see Emmylou as a singer of Americana and Gospel, but that was in her later years and Parsons had been gone a LONG time. Despite this, the first 4 four years of Emmylou’s country career was dedicated to creating that merge between the edgy world of rock and the classic world of Country. She’s an amazing musician on all she does, but Gilded Palace of Sin, GP, and Grievous angel (and possibly Exile on mainstreet, which is beautiful either way) really should be common knowledge to any lover of country music and the roots of its variations. This is such a fun corner of country to explore. Good Listening!


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