At last, there’s an easy way to introduce new listeners to the elusive roots of this musical genre called Americana thanks to an exhaustive collection from Bear Family Records.

By Buck Quigley

Truckers, Kickers, Cowboy Angels: The Blissed-Out Birth of Country Rock is a seven-volume treasure chest packed with many rare nuggets mined from the rich vein of music that formed during the psychedelic period and ran through the Watergate era.

The collection has actually been around for a few years, but it’s from Bear Family, the obsessively completist German company. That means it can be a bit pricy and a little hard to find (although you can buy the volumes separately through online vendors). But there isn’t anything else quite like it.

Now down to business: The ideal way to listen to this collection might be on 8-track tape, sitting in the cabin of an 18-wheel rig criss-crossing  the country and watching the American landscape rush by the windshield — past mountains and valleys, rivers and deserts, cities and towns, truck stops and weigh stations — and letting the songs be your soundtrack from a now-distant time.

If you don’t have a semi-truck handy, you can settle for earbuds like I did.

Either way, the timid are sure to find enough music from familiar artists like the Byrds, the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers and The Band to give them a sense of security before slipping in cuts from the Corvettes, the Youngbloods, and the Goose Creek Symphony.

Part of the appeal of this great collection is that it doesn’t focus on hits. Many of the songs are from obscure acts. But this serves to highlight some similarities. Much of what gets termed country-rock blossomed around the time that California hitmakers in Laurel Canyon were layering dreamy harmonies to their songs. It’s evident in several of these hippie visions of moving out to the country to escape the hassles of city life. “Living in the Country” by Cowboy, and “The Farm” by Jefferson Airplane are two examples.

If you contrast the innocent, laid back sentiments of country life depicted in the lyrics to these songs from 50 years ago with the controversy generated today by the paranoid threats and divisive warnings spewed out in Jason Aldean’s “Try That In A Small Town” — you’ll think we’re living in a different country now. But of course, we are. You don’t find many communes in the country today, but you will find compounds armed to the teeth.

Gram Parsons, with the International Submarine Band and later with the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and a brief solo career, is generally pointed to as the “inventor” of country-rock — but of course he was no more an inventor than Elvis Presley was for rock ‘n’ roll or Bob Marley was for reggae. Individual artists can’t create genres single handedly. There has to be a movement of sorts.

Roger McGuinn of the Byrds said this of the era: “It was something in the air, almost like the earth was passing through a cloud. I think this music was the direct result of psychedelia, the chaotic noisiness of it. People wanted to return to the simplicity that country music represented. Three-chord songs, melodies, and stories.”

The first song on the collection is a 1966 cover of Terry Fell’s minor 1954 hit “Truck Driving Man” by the International Submarine Band. By dusting off a 12-year-old country song, Parsons, just 20 at the time, was a long-haired kid wearing his influences on his sleeve. He would be dead just six years later, never achieving much popular success in the fields of rock nor country during his lifetime.

After this obligatory nod to Parsons, the collection opens up with cuts from ’50s heartthrob Rick Nelson, who lays down “You Just Can’t Quit” with enough twang in the guitars to make him sound like a Bakersfield original.

A few cuts later, a stark acoustic guitar riff kicks off the iconic Southern Gothic staple “Ode to Billie Joe” by Bobbie Gentry — but if you want to be immersed in a world of Cajun linguistics you’ll want to listen to her cover of “Niki Hoeky” a few tracks later.

Let me be clear. There are about 270 songs included in this collection so you would need to drive your semi-truck on a 14-hour non-stop run in order to hear each song just once. So it’s less like a greatest hits collection and more like the Smithsonian Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music — which has more the gravitas of a textbook than a comic book.

You’ll find examples of established early rock acts like the Everly Brothers offering up a version of Hank Snow’s country hit “Moving On” played over a slick, Bo Diddley beat. Songwriters like Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt, Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, Johnny Cash, Chip Taylor, Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, Kinky Friedman, Billy Joe Shaver, Doug Sahm and Guy Clark all have a tune or two included here.

As someone who’s been a fan of what I call “fringe” country for decades I’m grateful to this collection for introducing me to a song by Mickey Newbury called “The Future’s Not What It Used To Be.” It replaces George Jones’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today” as the saddest song I’ve ever heard in my life. That’s saying a lot.

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