Phases and Stages: The 1960s

By Jason Jones / February 4, 2018

Last time in Phases and Stages I revisited country albums by Bing Crosby, Ray Charles, and Bobby Darin, as well as the world shaping and music changing events of 1962, which Col. Bruce Hampton declared music’s worst year. This time, however, the focus is the late 1960s, a period of cataclysmic events and transcendent songs that remain impactful even today in America. In a few short years, from 1963 to 1967, America had undergone a slew of major changes: the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “Dream” had deeply impacted American politics and society; JFK was assassinated; LBJ, who ascended to the presidency, signed into law the Civil Rights Acts of 1964; voting rights were a political priority; Republican party influence had shifted from Goldwater’s seminal conservatism back to Nixon’s corrupt moderatism; and Democratic influence had shifted from John to Robert Kennedy via the dissipating conduit of political assassination, the war in Vietnam, and the machinations of LBJ, whose decision (due to health concerns) not to seek reelection set the stage for a climactic 1968 and the long denouement that followed.

Over the same period American music went through its own shocking upheaval and transformation. In one of the most stimulating five year periods in music history, the cornerstone recording artists of the second half of the twentieth century displaced the old guard, forever altering American music and culture. The Allman Brothers Band, The Band, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Bee Gees, Black Sabbath, David Bowie, Buffalo Springfield, The Byrds, Leonard Cohen, Cream, Credence Clearwater Revival, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Neil Diamond, The Doors, Bob Dylan, Brian Eno, Fleetwood Mac, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Genesis, The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, the Jackson 5, Jefferson Airplane, Elton John, Janis Joplin, Judas Priest, The Kinks, Led Zeppelin, Little Feat, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bob Marley and the Wailers, The Meters, Joni Mitchell, The Monkees, Van Morrison, The Mothers of Invention, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, Rush, Simon and Garfunkel, Sly and the Family Stone, The Stooges, The Temptations, Toots and the Maytals, Traffic, The Velvet Underground, The Who, and The Yardbirds all formed, released debuts, or came to prominence during this period. Incredible, to say the least.

Meanwhile, in country music, a similar changing of the guard was taking place, as Lynn Anderson, Glen Campbell, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Loretta Lynn, Gram Parsons, Dolly Parton, Charley Pride, Conway Twitty, Townes Van Zandt, Hank Williams, Jr., and Tammy Wynette were crafting a new brand of straight-shooting country with outsider ethos and huge listener appeal, thus establishing themselves as bona fide legends, if not outright stars, alongside the Nashville veterans who got their start in the 1940s and 1950s.

By 1968 the country stood divided. Impassioned, strictly-opposed stakeholders jockeyed for political power and narrative control—and the newsreels spun out one destabilizing headline after another—as evidenced by the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy; the Tet Offensive and My Lai massacre; widespread antiwar, civil rights, and feminist protests, including at the Miss America pageant and across college campuses, many of which escalated into violence; and then there was the bitterly fought presidential election that saw Richard Nixon defeat Hubert Humphrey.

Despite the fervor of division, music became a beacon of inclusivity during the late 1960s. The Summer of Love brought to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood a diverse migration of people who came in the spirit, even if not always in the practice, of peace and harmony. The Monterey International Pop Festival remains a high watermark in Western music, as an internationally culled lineup properly introduced America to Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Ravi Shankar, and The Who. With other events such as Altamont, the Isle of Wight Festival, and Woodstock, it was undoubtedly the golden age of the music festival, however, despite the best intentions of organizers, these gatherings sometimes deteriorated into violence, hysteria, and chaos among attendees, often echoing society’s deepest fractures. On the other hand, artists such as James Brown and Nina Simone used their voice and popularity to ameliorate racial dysfunction in the aftermath of Dr. King’s assassination, and Gregg Allman penned a timely ballad memorializing the tragedy. Country music also saw some of its brightest luminaries standing up for others less fortunate and less privileged. Johnny Cash recorded his landmark At Folsom Prison concert, the release of which brought America a step closer to the mirror. Meanwhile, our old friend Willie Nelson was also doing his part to expose prejudices and bridge divisions. In his book The Tao of Willie, co-authored by Turk Pipkin, he tells the story of an early Charley Pride performance: “I introduced country singer Charley Pride to a redneck audience that looked like they wanted to lynch him for being black. Before they knew what was what, I’d walked up to Charley and kissed him full on the lips. The crowd was so shocked, they actually quieted down and listened to his music and discovered that he was pretty dang great.” 

The late 1960s were plagued with political turmoil and rich with authentic music. The artists mentioned above played counterpoint to hate and division, not to mention a sizeable role in altering the course of popular music and culture; and most of them, surprisingly enough, had at least a rendezvous with country music around this same period. Often at stake in the outpourings of these artists is a conflict between tradition and individuality—i.e. one’s (musical) identity—and country music provided a particularly fertile field in which to see these struggles unfold. While many of these artists, namely The Band, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, The Grateful Dead, and The Rolling Stones, experimented heavily with country music, their albums mixed in equal parts original flavor and other rootsy notes, such as blues, folk, and gospel, and therefore do not fit as neatly in the crossover discussion.

As for the ones that do fit, let’s start with a less well-known artist and album, that is Judy Collins’ Who Knows Where the Time Goes, released in 1968.

Judy Collins

            Who Knows Where the Time Goes (1968)

Judy Collins is a piano prodigy turned folksinger and dedicated social activist, who is perhaps best known for her cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” for which she won a Grammy for Best Vocal Performance in 1968, or for her version of Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” for which Sondheim won a Grammy for Song of the Year in 1976. She also happens to be the subject of the Crosby, Stills, and Nash song “Suite: Judy Blues Eyes,” having been romantically involved with Stephen Stills. During her lengthy career she has established herself as an author, having published two memoirs and a novel; appeared on stage and television; and co-directed Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman in 1974, for which she received an Academy Award nomination. She also started Wildflower Records in 2000 and continues to tour extensively to promote her work, with dates scheduled across the United States in the spring and summer of 2018. Perhaps the greatest credit to Collin’s legacy, however, is the number of artists for whom she helped to win a wider audience and greater exposure, including Eric Andersen, Leonard Cohen, Richard Farina, Joni Mitchell, Fred Neil, Randy Newman, Ian Tyson, and Robin Williamson. Throughout her career, Collins’ songbook, initially consisting of mostly folk standards, has evolved to include many rock, blues, pop, and even country influences, as in the case of Who Knows Where the Time Goes.

“Hello, Hooray,” a Rolf Kempf song, later covered by Alice Cooper; the Leonard Cohen cover “Story of Isaac;” and the original “My Father” are admittedly not country songs by any stretch, however, the rest of the album displays Collins’ diverse musical talents in a distinctive country context, making for a fascinating listen.

Beginning with the Ian Tyson song “Someday Soon” the crossover is on. It features velvety pedal steel and honky tonk piano behind Collins’ soaring vocals. The rich possibilities of showcasing her expansive voice in a country ballad are immediately audible, adding a new emotional and aesthetic appeal to the more restrained original. Have a listen.

Ian Tyson’s songs were covered by Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young among others, but it was Judy Collins who initially provided him greater exposure in America. Who would’ve thought a prodigious folksinger and a Canadian songwriter would come together to make a country classic? Collins repeats the formula many times on the album, however, thus insisting upon a more worldly incarnation of country music. She covered British-born folksinger Sandy Denny, of Fairport Convention notoriety, on the title track; Scottish-born songwriter and founding member of the Incredible String Band, Robin Williamson, on “First Boy I Loved;” and another Canadian, Leonard Cohen, on “Story of Isaac” and “Bird on a Wire.”

The traditional “Pretty Polly” closes the album with a flourish. Collins’ voice, powerful and poised, carries the song through a folk-inclined opening to a discernibly darker, twangier, and subtly psychedelic section featuring Collins’ irresistibly poignant vocals in tandem with Stephen Stills’ unmistakable guitar work, which brings the number to a brilliant close.

One important takeaway from Who Knows Where the Time Goes is Collins’ willingness and ability to act as a medium, who, in this case, used her musical taste and talent to infuse contemporary country music with a heavy dose of its source material, namely the English, Scottish, and traditional folk ballads associated with the crossing of the Atlantic and the founding of America. It is no accident that the album features works by musicians typically regarded as poets, namely Cohen and Bob Dylan, as there is a deep-seated connection between country music and storytelling. This move to connect the traditional roots of song and story, championed by blues players and folksingers, with the technological advances of sound amplification championed by rockers, is indeed the most significant trend in country music during this era, so much so that most of the period’s preeminent blues, folk, rock, and country artists often found themselves composing along similar lines.

Who Knows Where the Time Goes is a solid country album as well as a harmonium of diverse influences.  Though bringing together a bunch of outsiders in the name of making country music was not always without its hang-ups and blowback, as the Byrds found out when they appeared on the Grand Ole Opry following the release of Sweetheart of the Rodeo.

The Byrds

            Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968)

One evening at the Ryman the folk-rockers fielded outrage from the audience and Opry producers. First, their rock n’ roll pedigree and long hair incensed fans in attendance, who doubted the band’s country chops without having heard them play. Then, once on stage, they ignited controversy among producers when Gram Parsons steered the band off-script. Legend has it that they were expected to play two Merle Haggard songs, “Sing Me Back Home” and “Life in Prison,” but, after playing the first song, Parsons called an audible and played the original “Hickory Wind” for a devoted listener at home—his grandmother—which infuriated Opry management. In a article published May 27, 2010, Ron Wynn recounts Roger McGuinn’s retelling of the infamous performance: “There were indeed some folks attending The Byrds’ appearance at the Grand Ole Opry who didn’t seem to appreciate how sincere we were in doing country music. You have to remember, it was during the Vietnam War and we were perceived as hippies. But backstage was different. Skeeter Davis took us under her wing, and she was very kind…We had a great time in Nashville recording Sweetheart of the Rodeo. I’ve made many lifelong friends there and I consider it to be right up there with Los Angeles as one of the great music centers in the country, probably the best place anywhere for songwriters.”

Sweetheart of the Rodeo opens with a new arrangement of Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” which he first recorded with The Band during The Basement Tapes sessions. This version, however, stands out as the first proper entry in the country-rock songbook. With a time change and the addition of pedal steel guitar, The Byrds infuse what was originally a rustic string-band lullaby with a rocking groove and distinctive country twang.

The song drew the ire of Ralph Emery, the legendary radio DJ, television personality, and self-appointed protector of the Nashville sound (against the evils of rock n’ roll), who denounced The Byrds as imposters. It’s safe to say that The Byrds got the last laugh though. In response to the incident, Parsons wrote the retaliatory single “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man” to smear Emery; and for further evidence of The Byrd s’ lasting impact on country music, see the most recent Saturday Night Live performance by Chris Stapleton, featuring Sturgill Simpson. Fifty years following the release of Sweetheart country-rock, not Emery’s “Nashville Sound,” has survived to represent country on the big stage.

While much of the story behind Sweetheart focuses on the band’s icy reception in Nashville, it’s the music that keeps the story alive. The Byrds are a band defined by transformation, beginning as a folk trio, they then added a drummer and became a folk-rock outfit before morphing into one of the earliest psychedelic-rock bands, then, by adding more jazz, raga, and country influences, they became a true fusion experiment, but only to undergo lineup changes, including the departures of Gene Clark, Michael Clarke, and David Crosby, and the additions of Kevin Kelley, Gram Parsons, Clarence White, and others. So the leap into country was not completely out of the blue for The Byrds. After all, original member Chris Hillman had deep country roots, as did on-and-off contributor Clarence White, plus the The Notorious Byrd Brothers album featured pedal-steel guitar; but it was the addition of Parsons, who led the band in fully realizing his pioneering country-rock vision on Sweetheart.

The traditional “I Am a Pilgrim,” Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd,” and the original “Hickory Wind” feature John Hartford and employ more bluegrass instrumentation, pointing to the seriousness with which the band took the pursuit. Additionally, the accompaniment provided by Lloyd Green and JayDee Maness on pedal-steel, Earl P. Ball and Barry Goldberg on piano, and Roy Husky on double-bass allowed the Byrds to make a proper Nashville record, but on their own terms. While McGuinn’s lead vocals exude California cool and Hillman’s voice embodies the hill country, it’s Parsons’ iconic singing that defines the classic country-rock sound. It’s on the first song featuring Parsons on lead vocals that the country-blues / psychedelic-rock coalescence is fully understood. “You’re Still on My Mind,” penned by Luke McDaniels, is honky-tonk gold in the hands of The Byrds, it’s Hank Williams for a country gone crazy cavortin’ in Vietnam and too far gone to turn back and play along.

It’s funny how the establishment works. The Byrds, a relatively tame Los Angeles rock band, on the back of a couple of Merle Haggard songs they had recorded, were invited into the Nashville fold, only to be soundly rejected. Meanwhile, Merle Haggard, a convicted felon from Bakersfield, who was discovered by Lefty Frizzell and inspired by Johnny Cash’s San Quentin concert, for which he was in attendance, had gone from outlaw to insider to Okie from Muskogee in short order. So it’s only fitting that Parsons decision to play “Hickory Wind” for his grandmother instead of Haggard’s “Life in Prison” stands out as the ironic climax of The Byrds’ journey into country. Here’s a link to both songs, because sometimes it’s hard to know where the establishment ends and prohibition begins. 

As promised, and much like Judy Collins and The Byrds, this article will cover Bob Dylan, who, among his many other accomplishments, has made some incredible contributions to country music.

Bob Dylan

            Nashville Skyline (1969)

All of the albums discussed so far in Phases and Stages represent legitimate crossovers into country music, however, none of them so far has presented the listener with a full immersion into country music, at least not in the manner Dylan does on Nashville Skyline. While Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds and the Byrds’ Sweetheart are monumental country albums, providing new contexts for country music, but even those albums are heavily dependent on traditionals, country standards, and cover songs, whereas Dylan writes all of his own material on Skyline, and in the process transfigures himself as a recording artist while simultaneously delivering a masterful country production. There is no irony in Dylan’s process, and no intention of bending country music to his will. Instead he himself contorts as an artist, even softening his singing voice to create a placid croon perfectly suited for the new material. It is perhaps the most ordinary and shocking of all of his albums.

Dylan had toyed with country in the past. John Wesley Harding certainly has its country elements, as does Blonde on Blonde, which was recorded in Nashville. Skyline, however, represents another major departure for the song and dance man, who had begun his career as a folksinger, then shattered fanboy hearts in becoming a poet-rocker, then disappeared from public view altogether following a motorcycle crash. Even still, a full onslaught of straightforward love-and-loss country numbers and the smokeless, carefree nonchalance of his vocals was the last thing in the world listeners expected from Dylan in 1969. The socially outspoken singer had indeed turned his focus away from philosophizing and political discord in favor of crooning about domestic bliss.

It’s hard to say what triggered Dylan’s turn. Maybe hearing Judy Collins sing Dylan lines like “feels his mouth with laughing” or Roger McGuinn singing about “Genghis Khan” in a country context inspired him to write “real” country songs with traditional subjects and lyrics befitting the music; or maybe it had something to do with The Basement Tapes sessions he did with The Band in Woodstock, New York; or perhaps he just wanted to walk in the footsteps of revered predecessors like Johnny Cash, Don Gibson, and Hank Williams. Whatever the impetus, the final product is a thing of beauty.

The record’s opening trifecta “Girl from the North Country,” featuring Johnny Cash and his band, “Nashville Skyline Rag,” and “To Be Alone with You” was rightly described, by Paul Nelson, in his album review published May 31, 1969 in Rolling Stone, as “a jewel of construction with three distinct beginnings.” Nelson’s Ulyssean reading of the mock-opening indicates that the duet with Cash is essentially a bonus track; that the rag is mostly a band introduction; and that “To Be Alone with You,” is the true beginning. I agree with Nelson’s analysis here, though Cash’s appearance was more than just a bonus, as it gave Dylan the nod of Nashville approval that The Byrds never received. Watch Dylan and Cash perform it together on The Johnny Cash Show in 1969.

“To Be Alone With You” certainly sets the stage for the rest of the record. With a joyous refrain, cheerful playing, and satisfied lyrics like “To be alone with you / At the close of day / With only you in view / While evening slips away” exemplifies Dylan’s transformation from brooding, apocalyptic prophet to chipper, romantic warbler.

“I Threw It All Away,” a song about losing love rather than making love, follows. Even here though Dylan’s speaker never wallows or agonizes over lost love; his spirit remains unbroken, he’s winsome, accepting of his fate, and aware of his actions. He’s paying tribute, but moving right along, and offering up advice on the way. Here’s Dylan performing the tune on The Johnny Cash Show.

“One More Night” and “Tell Me That It Isn’t True” are heartbreak songs that follow along similar lines as “I Threw It All Away;” while “Peggy Day” and “Country Pie” are grinning, mischievous numbers, played with the upbeat esteem of “To Be Alone With You;” while the two iconic love songs “Lay Lady Lay” and “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” bookend side two.

“Lay Lady Lay” climbed all the way to number seven on the Billboard Hot 100 charts in 1969 and has become one of Dylan’s most recognized songs over the years, but “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” is arguably the best song on the record. In reversing the direction of the prototypical train metaphor, Dylan reminds listeners that his poetic genius is very much at work. Usually in country and blues the train whistle signifies heartbreak and sadness: either the train comes and one of the lovers gets on it and is gone, or the train comes and one of the lovers discovers at the station that their love ain’t coming home. When Dylan sings “I hear that whistle blowin’ / I see that stationmaster, too / If there’s a poor boy on the street / Let him have my seat / ‘Cause tonight I’ll be staying here with you,” the whistle is signaling contentment with his present affaire d’amour, and that there’s no reason whatsoever to go down to the station. 

Dylan’s sunny, pleasant, understated country release is one of his best and has inspired many others to follow in his footsteps. Apparently Dylan had a major effect on the Nashville elite as well, as not only did Johnny Cash support his effort, but his backing band consisted of acclaimed Nashville cats, including Norman Blake, Kenny Buttrey, Fred Carter, Jr., Charlie Daniels, Pete Drake, Charlie McCoy, and Bob Wilson, so that it sounds like, and indeed is, a proper country record. In Max Bell’s interview with Kris Kristofferson, published August 2010 in Classic Rock, the Highwaymen singer says, “Our generation owes him our artistic lives, because he opened all the doors in Nashville when he did Blonde on Blonde and Nashville Skyline. The country scene was so conservative until he arrived. He brought in a whole new audience. He changed the way people thought about it—even the Grand Ole Opry was never the same again.”

The 1960s are a period defined as much by its politics as by its music, which is to say that the two paradigms are inextricably linked, one does not exist in a vacuum sans the other, and sometimes, as in the 1960s, when powerful nations engage in illegal wars, when institutional prejudice runs amok, and when peaceful protest is taken hostage by violent actors, artists become the final system of checks and balances on all that we hold dear. Sometimes, however, in the case of Collins, The Byrds, and Dylan, all of who began as folk musicians, moved into rock n’ roll, then landed in country music, the only political statement left to make is one of harmony, to find and cultivate happiness and let its idyllic chords ring out in all their simple, rustic glory. Going forward The Byrds’ and Dylan’s country albums become the templates for the country crossover. The Byrds gave license to every band to make country music as a unit, not, as Nashville formulated it, in back of a bankable star; and Dylan challenged a whole generation of diverse songwriters to take their talents to Nashville.

Join us next time in Phases and Stages to hear about Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, Monkees’ frontman Michael Nesmith, and Louis Armstrong, all of who released or contributed to country records in 1970. 

About the author

Jason Jones

Jason Jones lives in St. Louis, Missouri. He holds an MFA in creative writing from Florida International University. Previous and forthcoming poems can be found in Cumberland River Review, The Ilanot Review, J Journal, Saw Palm, Wraparound South, and others.