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California Earthquake: Country-Rock At The Hall Of Fame

Western Edge
Tyler Wyatt for Getty Images

The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum has devoted its largest rotating exhibit space to three experiences in a row centered on different American places covering roughly the same period - the 1960s and 70s. Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats (2015-2018) looked at Music Row here in the capital of country music. Outlaws And Armadillos (2018-2022) touched on Nashville but was chiefly about the burgeoning scene in Austin, Texas. Now, the Hall’s curators have turned their attention to Los Angeles and the astonishing confluence of talent and cultural upheaval that gave us country-rock. It wasn’t designed as a trilogy, but now it feels like one.

Western Edge, The Roots and Reverberations of Los Angeles Country-Rock opened on Sept. 29 and is scheduled to run until 2025. On a tour before Christmas, I felt the exhibit filling in gaps in a story I already cared a lot about, illustrating the history with exceptional video interviews, and clarifying the connections in a complex network of renowned artists, songwriters, and side musicians. It was a time and place unlike any other in American music - one that sparked the breakout of Linda Ronstadt, The Eagles, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Jackson Browne, The Byrds, Poco, Buffalo Springfield, Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers, Emmylou Harris, and the supergroup that united David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young. It’s mind-boggling to think about it, but these young superstars were all friends and enthusiastic collaborators.

“One of the things we saw is that they all played together,” said Senior Museum Writer and Editor Michael McCall, who co-curated the exhibit. “They were all on each other’s records. They did each other’s songs. They showed up and sang harmonies with each other. At least through the 60s. It was such a community. They just changed partners.” 

Western Edge
Jim McCrary/Getty Images
Michael Ochs Archives
The Flying Burrito Brothers in 1968: (L-R) Bassist Chris Ethridge, singer Gram Parsons, guitarist Chris Hillman, pedal steel player "Sneaky" Pete Kleinow, and drummer Michael Clarke. (Photo by Jim McCrary/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

A great example is Chris Hillman, one of the rare native Los Angelinos in this ensemble cast, and one who may have touched more groups and fostered more connections than anybody else. Step up to one of the large touch screen catalogs and you can trace his journey, starting with the folky Scottsville Squirrel Barkers with future Eagle co-founder Bernie Leadon. Then he took his mandolin to the Golden State Boys, a leading string band, when he was still too young to legally play bars. He was drafted into The Byrds, which became the first great country-rock breakout band. Next, it was on to the Flying Burrito Brothers with Gram Parsons, Manassas with Stephen Stills, and the Desert Rose Band. It sounds like he couldn’t keep a job, but in fact Hillman was writing and producing a stunning body of work. Because of his role in the Byrds especially, the exhibit includes a letter from Tom Petty to Hillman crediting him as “the father of country-rock.” 

Before arriving at the multimedia deep dives, visitors to Western Edge begin with a small display that acknowledges the story of country music in California thus far, with a dress from 1940s pioneer Rose Maddox and notes about the burgeoning Bakersfield scene with Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Turn the corner though, and you’ll find that the Western Edge story plays out in a more revolutionary context than Buck or Merle would have understood. The exhibit’s introductory plaque says that young transplants from around the US in the 1960s “found connection through a love of the string harmonies, instrumental virtuosity, and the honest storytelling of folk, bluegrass, and country music - despite country music’s association with the conservative politics that the youthful counterculture rejected.”

Two venues - the Ash Grove and the Troubadour - acted as the scene’s focal points. Doug Weston’s Troubadour (which is how its sign on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood reads to this day) opened in 1957 and became the most influential showcase venue for breaking singer-songwriters on the west coast, notably Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, Elton John and James Taylor. The Ash Grove was a pure folk music club launched in 1958 and run as a political hot spot by leftist activist Ed Pearl. Here young folkies came to listen to their elders and heroes, such as Mississippi John Hurt, Elizabeth Cotten, Bill Monroe, Muddy Waters and Doc Watson - along with some select youngsters, notably Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal as the rootsy blues band The Rising Sons.

Bluegrass played an outsized role in the origin story of country-rock. The White family moved from Maine to Los Angeles in the 1950s, where sons Roland, Clarence and Eric Jr. formed the Country Boys and then the Kentucky Colonels, future bluegrass hall of famers. But nobody came away with a better California dreaming story than The Dillards from Salem, MO. The four-piece, including brothers Rodney and Doug, arrived in LA in 1962, poor and unknown. As McCall told the story, they basically set up as buskers in the lobby of the Ash Grove without permission on their first day in town. Pearl was nonplussed, but he found them irresistible and booked them for shows. In about a week, they landed a record deal and they successfully auditioned for the Andy Griffith Show, where they’d wind up reaching a national audience as the old-time band The Darlings. Their influence was large, especially on the young John McEuen, who thought Rodney’s banjo playing and the whole vibe of the band was about the greatest thing he ever saw. He studied Rodney’s licks from the audience and worked them into his banjo playing for the nascent Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. 

Things turn from the acoustic to the electric with a case devoted to The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and Clarence White. As White evolved from the most innovative young bluegrass guitar picker around into a dazzling electric country musician, he was brought into the Byrds as they morphed from a psychedelic rock and roll band to one that integrated country influences. White had special impact on Sweetheart of the Rodeo of 1968, the landmark country-rock album made in both Nashville and LA. White’s Fender Telecaster and leather stage outfit next to JayDee Maness’s pedal steel guitar make for an especially emotional stretch of the exhibit for roots music fans. 

Western Edge
David Redfern/Redferns
Linda Ronstadt at the New Victoria Theatre in the early 1970s.

From  there, a complex tapestry unfolds, and it helps to realize that only a super genius could memorize who played in what band with whom and when. Buffalo Springfield, over just about two years, gave the world three albums and the indelible anthem of the era “For What It’s Worth” before breaking up. Stephen Stills and Neil Young founded the most successful vocal folk rock quartet of all time with Crosby and Nash. Richie Furay and Jim Messina formed Poco after a fateful studio encounter with steel guitarist and all-around talent Rusty Young. Much of the band that helped Linda Ronstadt rise to stardom formed The Eagles with a clear agenda to fuse the harmonies and spirit of California rock with radio-ready polish and savvy songwriting (you’ll see hand written manuscripts for “New Kid In Town” and “Heartache Tonight” in the exhibit). Gram Parsons forged his historic bond with Emmylou Harris, producing some iconic country duets before his untimely demise. Harris, curiously, became the only star of the Western Edge scene to move to Nashville and have hits in country music.

Dave Alvin's Fender Mustang guitar
Bob Delevante
Dave Alvin's Fender Mustang guitar

The story extends into the 1980s as California country-rock gets edgier and more eclectic. Easy to spot in its case at 100 paces is a ruggedly distressed leather jacket and red neck bandanna that could only belong to Dave Alvin. With his brother Phil, the Alvins formed the magnificently loud Blasters, a band that blended punk, rockabilly, folk and blues as effortlessly as anyone ever did. They share a museum case with Los Lobos, which launched playing traditional Mexican music for weddings. Inspired by other folk-rock scenes, they revved up their energy and became possibly the most Americana of all bands, one that’s still going strong 50 years later. From posters and other artifacts, visitors to Western Edge see how those bands shared stages and media attention with X, Lone Justice and the young Lucinda Williams. Dwight Yoakam sought out the LA magic and wound up opening shows for most of them at the beginning of his rise to retro-country fame. And it’s Yoakam who greets visitors in the exhibit’s opening film with a sermon about the allure of California and its remarkable creative output.

The Americana idea is a broad one, but one could argue that most of the format’s core history can be found in the Western Edge story. It’s where traditional roots music met creative, free bohemians who were more inclined to look to the horizon than back over ground already covered. It's a story of deep artistic achievement but also one of massive commercial success. Of all the exhibits at the Country Music Hall of Fame so far, this one seems like the most likely to shake up the attention of visitors who come in fixated chiefly on today’s commercial scene - possibly inspiring a few country-rockers of tomorrow.

Western Edge
Terry Wyatt/Getty Images for Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum
Getty Images North America
Artifacts on display for the opening of Western Edge: The Roots and Reverberations of Los Angeles Country-Rock at Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on September 29, 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org