By Bill Ramsey
Often maligned and closely associated with soft rock and the so-called “yacht rock” of such artists as Michael McDonald, the popular Southern California country rock movement arose during the early ’70s and became most typified in the early recordings of the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, and Jackson Browne. But the genre has its roots in the folk of Bob Dylan and the introduction of a country sound into rock in the late ’60s by the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield — a hybrid further explored and broadened by such artists as Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. The “SoCal country rock” scene involved a nucleus of singer-songwriters all drawn to the coast in search of fame, fortune and laid-back vistas and attitudes distilled into songs that at once extolled that lifestyle while observing its downside. In effect, its pioneers recast its raw edges and applied a soft-pop sound around lyrics that spoke to a generation still rebounding from the tumult of the 1960s and the upheaval of the early ’70s.
Few artists who are aligned with the movement are actually from SoCal, but most arrived early. Glenn Frey and Don Henley hailed from Michigan and Texas, respectively; Browne settled in L.A. at the tender age of 3; and Ronstadt, from Tuscon, Ariz., arrived as a young adult. Nowhere else but Los Angeles — specifically the hills of Laurel Canyon and the proving grounds of West Hollywood — and perhaps at no other time before or since could this nexus of talent have developed as organically as it did. The genre is almost biblical in its “begats,” with many of its most famous bands evolving via a rotating roster of talent moving among groups as featured performers or in-demand session musicians and backup singers. Forerunners such as Parsons and Buffalo Springfield begat Poco, who in turn begat the Eagles, whose members also backed Ronstadt early on, etc. And although many critics reacted to the genre’s commercial success with derision and chagrin — adhering to the sentiment that anything that achieves mass popularity has to be artistically vapid — the quality of the musicianship is, objectively, unassailable. So is the fact that, love it or loathe it, SoCal country rock provided the soundtrack of millions of peoples’ lives in the ’70s, and its influence still looms large over today’s Americana music movement. Following are 11 albums (greatest hits collections included) that defined the era.
Eagles, Their Greatest Hits: 1971-1975 (1976)
A little on the nose, yes, but essential is essential. The entire Eagles catalog is comprised of only seven albums, and the best of the first four are contained in this blockbuster compilation, the best-selling (alternating with Michael Jackson’s Thriller) album of all time in the U.S. As of 2006, their first Greatest Hits has been certified 29-times platinum, with more than 42 million copies sold worldwide to date. While each of the band’s original albums contains choice cuts worthy of a second inhale, this package distills the classic SoCal sound to its essence, and captures the Frey-Henley alchemy at its peak in 10 songs that define, and even overshadow, country rock as a genre. It also has the distinction of standing at the forefront of the Classic Rock era and remains the dividing line in a decades-long division between its legion of fans and rock critics and purists. Had the Eagles predicted their own coming dissolution in 1980, they could have waited and capped the decade with a bigger, longer package adding hits from later albums like Hotel California and The Long Run, but that compilation would have tarnished the high.
Jackson Browne, Jackson Browne (1972)
Besides penning “Take it Easy,” a song finished by the Eagles’ Glenn Frey, Jackson Browne’s contributions to SoCal country rock represent the angst-driven arm of the genre. Browne allowed the Eagles to co-opt “Take it Easy,” a song originally slated for his own 1972 debut, and instead turned to the less-breezy, piano-driven “Doctor My Eyes” — and that fared favorably with fans and critics alike and hung the halo of reflective romantic around Browne before he entered the realm of social activist/satirist in the 1980s. Browne was SoCal’s answer to James Taylor and his debut, while light on Top 40 hits (“Rock Me on the Water” was the only other familiar single from this collection), firmly cemented the singer-songwriter as a generational voice, a subtle yet powerful expression of contemplation that almost singlehandedly gave birth to the poet troubadours who would haunt coffeehouses for decades to come.
Linda Ronstadt, Linda Ronstadt (1972)
The year 1972 marked the touchstone for SoCal country rock. The Eagles, Browne and Ronstadt all issued seminal albums that year, but Ronstadt was that triad’s only true veteran, having segued from vocalist to star on the strength of “Different Drum” with the Stone Poneys in the 1960s. This self-titled re-debut reasserts Ronstadt’s SoCal country-rock bonafides and ushers her transition into FM-rock superstardom less than a year before issuing her No. 1 breakthrough, Heart Like a Wheel — a transition that rests, like her early work, on the strength of songs written by others. Here, Ronstadt deftly puts her own trademark vocal stamp on songs by Browne (“Rock Me on the Water”) and her linear musical godmother Patsy Cline’s well-known hits. The long roster of backing musicians is a who’s who of SoCal country-rock, including all of the original Eagles, her then-boyfriend, J.D. Souther, and a very young Moon Martin. The album also contains three live tracks recorded at The Troubadour in Los Angeles, ground zero for the SoCal country-rock scene where Frey, Henley, Ronstadt and Souther all collided.
Poco, Legend (1978)
Poco’s direct lineage with Buffalo Springfield (the band was formed by ex-Springfield members Jim Messina and Richie Furay) plants them at the head of the class of the first wave of SoCal country-rock; they were a direct influence on the Eagles and their 1969 debut Pickin’ Up the Pieces is seminal. But it would take nine more albums, two record labels and numerous different lineups (with only pedal steel guitarist Rusty Young along for the whole ride) before the band finally hit pay dirt with 1978’s classic Legend. The album, which featured Young and Paul Cotton trading songwriting credits and vocals, spawned the hits “Crazy Love” and “Heart of the Night.” None of the band’s earlier or future efforts came close to this record’s No. 14 chart position. While never again repeating the success of Legend, the Cotton-Young incarnation of Poco endured with the band recording its last effort in 2013 and continuing to tour. Trivia: The album’s artwork was created by future Saturday Night Live/News Radio star and graphic artist Phil Hartman.
Eagles, Hotel California (1976)
Following its chart-topping greatest hits compilation, the Eagles’ fifth studio album marked a turning point with the departure of original member Bernie Leadon and the addition of guitarist Joe Walsh. With the edgier, more adult tone of the album, the Eagles broke out of pure easy rocking into a new landscape, encapsulated by Henley’s own characterization of the mysterious title track as a “journey from innocence to experience.” Indeed, the album’s other hit tracks — “New Kid in Town,” “Life in the Fast Lane” — reflect a more mature if fully engaged Eagles, ascending the final peak of their 1970s fame. But the (pre-reunion) end was nigh: Bassist/vocalist Randy Meisner departed soon after the album, and the rest of the band followed suit following the release of 1979’s The Long Run.
Linda Ronstadt, Heart Like a Wheel (1974)
Emerging in full form as the siren of California soft rock we know her as today, Ronstadt finds pure gold with her fifth studio effort in five years. In her soulful reworking of the Everly Brothers’ “When Will I Be Loved” and in the full-throttle heartache of “You’re No Good,” the album scores with Ronstadt still rediscovering and refashioning country standards alongside contemporary compositions by the likes of Paul Anka and Lowell George. A standout, landmark country-rock album, Heart Like a Wheel marks the beginning of Ronstadt’s winning collaboration with producer Peter Asher and a gallery of studio musicians in top form.
Pure Prairie League, Bustin’ Out (1972)
Far from the sun-drenched coast of California, country-rock had already busted open, so to speak, nationwide and again 1972 shone as a pivotal year as Ohio-based Pure Prairie League released its second and blockbuster breakout album. Recorded and released only five months after their eponymous debut, Bustin’ Out would, however take two more years before Craig Fuller’s ode to an on-again, off-again relationship, “Aime,” penetrated to hit status as a result of the band’s nonstop touring schedule. When the single, often played with the intro-segue “Falling In and Out of Love,” was rereleased in April 1975, it climbed to No. 27 on the Billboard charts, and became an instant country rock classic. Yet another band that was to feature multiple lineups, PPL went on to adopt a distinct bluegrass edge with the addition of future country star Vince Gill. But it was the classic original lineup, distinguished by dueling guitars and the vocals and songwriting of frontman Craig Fuller, that propelled Bustin’ Out to be regarded critically as an album “unequalled in country rock,” according to allmusic.com.
America, History: America’s Greatest Hits (1975)
Even farther afield — across the pond, as the British say — Air Force brats abroad Gerry Beckley, Dewey Bunnell, and Dan Peak were also tapping into country rock with America’s 1971 self-titled debut album, spawning the hits “A Horse With No Name” (included on re-releases of the original album after it became a hit single on its own) and “I Need You.” Quickly decamping England for the sunny shores of L.A., America wasted no time unleashing its own brand of breezy soft-rock highlighted by the trio’s plaintive lyrics and sweet harmonies. This greatest package virtually opens and closes the door on America’s abundantly creative and finest years from 1971-75. Prefixed “History” to maintain the band’s tradition of beginning all album titles since 1972’s Homecoming with the letter H, this compilation covers all of the appropriate high points. The only non Beckley-Bunnell-Peak composition on the collection is Texas songwriter Willis Alan Ramsey’s “Muskrat Love,” and only “Sandman,” “Only in Your Heart,” and “Woman Tonight” rank among the package’s less familiar chestnuts. From the breakthrough “A Horse with No Name” to “Daisy Jane,” History is a master class is the SoCal soft-rock sub-genre of which America were clear leaders.
Dan Fogelberg, Souvenirs (1974)
Dan Fogelberg, melancholy master or the relationship saga, mined pop, folk, and bluegrass influences to create his own blend of soft rock that can easily be grouped with the sound of SoCal country-rock, specifically on the Joe Walsh-produced Souvenirs. Closer to Jackson Browne than the Eagles and company, Fogelberg’s gentle rhythms and reflective, introspective lyrics are on display for full effect here. “Part of the Plan,” “Changing Horses,” and “There’s a Place in the World for a Gambler” all echo Fogelberg’s West Coast sensibility. In addition to producer/guitarist Walsh, three other Eagles are featured on the album — Don Henley, Glenn Frey and Randy Meisner — as is guitarist Gerry Buckley from America.
Gram Parsons, Grievous Angel (1974)
Maverick country-rock iconoclast Gram Parsons didn’t have kind words for genre giants the Eagles (he famously referred to their music as “a plastic dry-fuck”), but any list of country rockers emanating or emulating the SoCal sound popularized by Parsons’ least-favorite band deserves to include the mercurial Southerner. As a member of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, Parsons’s credibility as a front-line champion of what he dubbed “Cosmic American Music” has never been disputed. Grievous Angel, released four months after his Sept. 19, 1973 death at age 26 of a heroin and alcohol overdose, achieved much more critical than commercial success, and has since been regarded as a high point in the synthesis of country and rock. In addition to “Love Hurts” — later a huge hit for Nazareth — the album features Parsons’ signature song, “Hickory Wind,” a poignant reflection on his own short but tumultuous life. Emmylou Harris is featured prominently on the album (though her name was removed from the cover by Parsons’ widow), and key members of Elvis Presley’s crack ’70s touring and recording band (James Burton, Glen Hardin and Ronnie Tutt) — along with Ronstadt and Bernie Leadon — all lend their talents.
J.D. Souther, You’re Only Lonely (1979)
A well-known writer who also possessed a beautiful, haunting voice, J.D. Souther was another Detroit native who migrated to SoCal early, along with his life-long friend and co-writer, Glenn Frey. As a de facto Eagle, Souther co-wrote such hits as “Best of My Love,” “New Kid in Town,” and “Heartache Tonight.” He also dated, wrote and produced for Ronstadt. As a solo artist, however, Souther scored only one huge hit with 1979’s “You’re Only Lonely” from the album of the same name. To bolster “Lonely,” a gently swaying country rock ballad of the finest order, Souther recruited Frey, Henley and Phil Everly to fill out harmonies, added the guitar prowess of Danny Kortchmar, and the smooth-sax of ace David Sanborn. The song peaked at No. 7, and while Souther was unable to duplicate that success, he continues to issue standout recordings, some featuring his own versions of his Eagles hits that take on new meaning with his lilting, spellbinding vocals.