What happens when country and rock mix? Often, magic. That's the case with these classic country rock albums from the '60s and '70s.
Listeners were surprised less by Bob Dylan's attempt at country music, than by his singing voice. The snide vocals of Blonde on Blonde were gone -- replaced by a buttery country croon. How come? Dylan said the change came from quitting smoking. True or not, the songs are definitely gems. They include a duet with Johnny Cash on "Girl from North Country," the lusty bedroom track "Lay Lady Lay," and the devastating "I Threw It All Away." Like everything else Dylan did, other musicians soon followed in his tracks.
Michael Nesmith gained fame as one of The Monkees before launching an impressive country-rock run. Magnetic South is Nesmith's first album and a masterpiece. While many of the songs were originally written as material for The Monkees, you'd have to be told it to know. "Little Red Rider" and "Calico Girlfriend" are easily some of the most infectious country-rock tunes ever to hit magnetic tape. Meanwhile, Nesmith's cosmic-cowboy yodeling makes "Mama Nantucket" sounds like a Jimmie Rodgers song from Planet X.
Byrds member Gram Parsons had a profound influence on the sound of this quintessential country-rock record. Timeworn country standards such as "The Christian Life" and "I Am Pilgrim" get a dose of rock-fueled energy. Meanwhile the soul number "You Don't Miss Your Water" and Bob Dylan's surreal "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" sound like they've had an drink at the local honky-tonk.
Gram Parsons formed The Flying Burrito Brothers after quitting The Byrds. The Gilded Palace of Sin is the band's debut album and has all the country-rock hallmarks of Sweetheart of the Rodeo. But, overall, it's a more relaxed and confident effort. "Dark End of the Street" takes on Motown and lives to tell the tale. And the classic "Sin City" offers an apocalyptic take on the record industry that beat "Hotel California" by years.
The Eagles were an able country-rock outfit before they moved into a pop direction. The evidence is their second album Desperado. It may lack the hits of Hotel California, but it's full of down-home charm. The cover art features the band dressed as bandits and playfully suggests the group as a hippie-ish extension of the outlaw country movement. "Tequila Sunrise" has plenty of South of the Border flavor. And the ballad "Desperado," despite being the least country of the album's songs, was later recorded by both Johnny Cash and Clint Black.
Recorded in Nashville, Harvest has some of Neil Young's best songs -- among them "Heart of Gold," "Old Man," and the knockout title track. With its relaxed vibe and ramshackle instrumentation, it became one of Young's most commercially successful albums. Meanwhile his snarling, vitrolic "Alabama" helped inspire Lynyrd Skynrd's "Sweet Home Alabama."
When Buffalo Springfield broke up, Poco rose from the band's ashes. Although the members didn't meet the same kind of success as the previous group, they had plenty more longevity, recording until the '90s. The self-titled Poco is their second album, and full of pulsing organ and funky drums that might make you think you're well out of country territory. But just wait until the steel guitar comes in. More proof is "Honky Tonk Downstairs" -- a kicked-up tear-in-your-beer song about a barmaid who wastes her life while her man's in jail.
What would happen if the Grateful Dead formed a country band? The answer: New Riders of the Purple Sage. This is their first album and clearly the best, and the only record featuring Jerry Garcia on pedal-steel guitar. "Glendale Train" brings out the banjos for an outlaw yarn. The syrupy pedal-steel of "Whatcha Gonna Do" just gets thicker as the song goes along. And "Louisiana Lady" is at first your usual country cut about driving the whole night to get back to your girl -- although the line about doing "too much speed" reminds you who wrote it.
9. Cowboy - 'Reach for the Sky' (1970)
Cowboy served as the unofficial backing band for many artists on Capricorn Records including the Allman Brothers Band. But they're fine songwriters in their own right, and Reach for the Sky proves it. "Livin' in the Country" starts off the album with a low-key acoustic feel before "Everything Here" amps things up -- courtesy of singer Scott Boyer's overstuffed rhymes and Bill Pillmore's seesawing fiddle. "It's Time" offers a torch song that, with its razor-thin falsetto, is more than a little reminiscent of Neil Young.
10. Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen - 'Tales from the Ozone' (1975)
Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen were revered for their energetic live shows in the 1970s. But they never made much of an impact of the charts, despite putting out great records. This is one of the best. In Tales from the Ozone the band rips through Billy Joe Shaver's "I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train," throw a zydeco party in "Cajun Baby," and give a tip-o'-the-hat to their roots with "Honky Tonk Music."