Inside the Country Hall of Fame’s California Country-Rock Exhibit: From Gram Parsons to Dwight Yoakam and Lone Justice
California is in the house, and will be for the next three years, at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. A major exhibition, “Western Edge: The Roots and Reverberations of Los Angeles Country-Rock,” has just opened and will run through 2025. The must-see walk-through traces a history of roots music in L.A. rock that expands to include the Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers and Michael Nesmith in the 1960s; the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris in the ’70s; and Dwight Yoakam, Lone Justice and Los Lobos in the ’80s, among many other influential and sometimes commercially impactful figures.
Variety recently visited the museum and spoke with co-curators Michael Gray, the facility’s executive senior director of editorial and interpretation, and Michael McCall, the museum’s senior editor, about why the ’60s through ’80s were a golden age for country-inflected rock in Los Angeles. The two curators also spoke about a number of the artifacts on display, from numerous Nudie’s-tailored jackets that set the visual tone for the era to key musical instruments to handwritten scores and setlists and even band flyers — see the gallery of photos below.
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Interactive displays sit alongside the artifacts, of course. Says Gray, “If you click on the Byrds and then you follow the Chris Hillman thread, we start with (his early ’60s band) the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers and go on through the Golden State Boys to the Byrds to the Flying Burrito Brothers to Manassas, and then get to the Desert Rose Band, which was having mainstream country hits (in the ’80s) about the same time Dwight’s career is taking off. And that’s kind of where we start to exit this story. But we talk about how all this music influenced ’90s country on through to Americana and today’s mainstream country.”
Adds McCall, “It’s complicated, but we really wanted to show those connections where all these bands sort of interchanged members and played on each other’s records and recorded each other’s songs, and how there was this real sort of community aspect of it — until you get into the ‘70s. And then everybody goes their own way, on their own Lear jets,” he laughs. “It became the biggest music in America, along with hard rock and some of the other things that were going on, but it all came out of this small community that was built around the Troubadour at first.”
And after the Lear jets faded, it was back to the vans, as the cowpunk era emerged. Says McCall, “That’s something a few of ’em talk about” in the exhibition’s video installations. The rise of a rowdier roots-rock in the ’80s “wasn’t so much a complete reaction against just country-rock, but against corporatization and glossy music and how slick things had gotten in general. There was a lot of hedonism around (the commercial style), and the whole idea of punk music was taking it back to the streets a little bit and taking off the gloss. Dave Alvin (of the Blasters) talks about it really well: ‘We wanted to bring energy back to it. We thought it’d gotten too careful and too nice.'”
A look at some of the highlights or curiosities included in the “Western Edge” exhibition:
Emmylou Harris stage costume
This dress was purchased from the Nudie’s shop in North Hollywood in the early 1970s and worn as she performed with Gram Parsons and went on to be a solo artist after his death. “It had belonged to an actress named Gail Davis, a cowboy actress who was in Western movies with Gene Autry and had starred as Annie Oakley. She had it made and then never picked it up, so Nudie’s still had it, and Emmylou came across it and bought it from him.”
Michael Nesmith stage costume
An influential outfit if ever there was one in the genre. Nesmith was country-rock when country-rock wasn’t cool, when he was still in the Monkees. This rhinestone-accentuated suit — with chain-stitched peacocks, orchids, musical notes and American flag motifs — also came from Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors, circa 1967. It predates the famous Flying Burrito Brothers suits of a similar nature. Says Gray, “He wore it to the premiere of ‘Head,’ and on the last Monkees television special, ’33 1/3.’ As soon as we decided to do this exhibit, this was one of the first artifacts we thought of, like, ‘Oh, we’ve gotta have that.’ You know, we had a little bit of a relationship with Michael because he was featured in the Bob Dylan/Johnny Cash ‘Nashville Cats’ exhibit that we did, and he came and played an album release party for that, and we got to know him a little and had a relationship going. We asked if we could borrow this, and he made it clear that he absolutely wanted it to come here. And then just with the timing… by circumstance, the same week he passed, we’re getting notices that the shipment is on its way to Nashville. It was just interesting timing.”
Flying Burrito Brothers stage costumes
“This is the first time these suits have all been together, from the ‘Gilded Palace of Sin’ album cover —Chris Hillman’s, Gram Parsons’ and Sneaky Pete’s. We can’t find Chris Ethridge’s — it was stolen from a car and has never been seen since. We’ve had Gram’s suit here since 2001. It’s one of the things that people come here for, just for that. You probably know about Gram’s, with the marijuana leaves and the poppies and pills and a little sugar cube, sort of drug references … and then there’s a big, illuminated cross in the back. We have a two-sided case so you can actually see both sides of the suits. Sneaky Pete’s has dinosaurs, which he chose.” (The latter is usually at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, but the country hall worked with that institution and Sneaky Pete’s daughters to get it on loan for the next three years.) Parsons is also represented by a submarine-laden suit he had made during his stint with the International Submarine Band.
Dave Alvin’s battered Blasters guitar
Gray: “Dave loaned us his Fender Mustang. and he said that in the clubs, he used to have to use it sort of as a shield from people throwing bottles. He said if you pull out a magnifying glass that you can still see shards of glass actually in body of the guitar.” McCall: “In every video of I’ve seen of the Blasters, he’s playing that guitar. (Bluesman) James Harman gave it to him; he said it was a warhorse. He said that at a lot of the shows, when it was the roots crowd or even with X with the L.A. crowd, they were fine. But once they’d go into Orange County and get with the hardcore bands, people started throwing shit at ’em.” The exhibit also has Alvin’s equally weathered leather jacket and oft-worn red scarf.
Bernie Leadon’s Eagles B-bender guitar
Gray: “We’ve got Bernie Leadon’s Tele, where they installed the B-Bender device in the back, which you hear on songs like ‘Take It Easy.’ When Bernie loaned it to us, he said his one caveat was, ‘You gotta display it so that people can see the back of the guitar and see the B-bender.'” McCall: “Bernie wanted that kind of guitar where he could make it sound like a steel guitar, playing it on stage.”
Louis Perez’s Los Lobos bajo sexto and Cesar Rosas’ sunglasses
Gray: “We have an instrument for each member of Los Lobos — and we have Cesar Rosas’ RayBans here! We have really great, candid photos of Los Lobos and the Blasters hanging out and playing together and just showing each other their instruments. David Hidalgo loaned us one of his first accordions; Steve Berlin loaned us a saxophone. From Louie Pérez we have a jarana. That has kind of an interesting story behind it, and a Nashville tie: The person who made Los Lobos’ instruments back in the day, in the ‘70s (Candelario “Candelas” Delgado), his son Manuel now has a music instrument shop here in East Nashville (Delgado Guitars) and has carried on the tradition and still makes their instruments. And he was the one that first introduced us to Los Lobos and got the whole thing started. We have a small horano that Louis used to play on stage when they were doing the Mexican folk songs. And the bajo sexto that Cesar played, but it turned into a quinto, because they took the 12 strings off and turned it into a 10 string, which changes what it’s called.”
Dwight Yoakam’s stage costume
Yoakam, an enthusiastic cheerleader for the exhibition and participant in its making, filmed an opening video as well as sitting for interviews for the other filmed installations. He has on display a Tex-Mex jacket with fringe, conchos and cowhide yoke overlay, as seen above, worn in the music video for his 1986 debut single, “Honky Tonk Man.” If you don’t know from the jacket the outfit is Yoakam’s, laughs McCall, “You can tell by the jeans” (not pictured).
Lone Justice early flyer
McCall: “This was the first Lone Justice flyer that they ever made — the original cutouts are still there, of the Sons of the Pioneers, made by their first drummer, Don Willens. When there was a Blasters show at the Universal Amphitheater, Rank and File were opening and they invited Maria to come on stage. And while Maria was on stage, the rest of the guys had taken Xeroxes of this one and were out papering the cars, advertising their very first show as a band, opening for Rank and File at this West L.A. club.” The curators also traveled to L.A. to sit with McKee for a lengthy interview about her Lone Justice days, part of the 40 hours of interviews with 23 subjects they conducted that contributed to the video installations for the museum exhibit.
Dan Dugmore’s steel guitar
Gray: “This is the steel you hear on ‘Blue Bayou’ by Linda Ronstadt, which of course features steel prominently, and is on a couple big James Taylor hits, like ‘Carolina on My Mind.’ Dan Dugmore moved here in ’91; it was on Deana Carter’s ‘Strawberry Wine’ and on some Tim McGraw and Martina McBride hits. He still uses it to this day, and we weren’t sure he was gonna loan it to us; he said that some producers specifically ask him to play that exact steel guitar.” Laughs McCall, “It’s under agreement that if he needs it for a session, he can come get it, and we’ll put up a little sign saying ‘Being used in a session this week. Be back next week.'”
Other artifacts in the exhibition range from Jim Ed Norman’s original score for the orchestral accompaniment to the Eagles’ “Desperado” to Jeff Hanna’s washboard from the early days of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, when the group was still a jug band, to Rick Nelson’s handwritten draft of the lyrics for “Garden Party.”
The Hall hopes visitors will come away with some season about how the country-rock of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s — distinct as those eras largely were — has influenced both the commercial and non-commercial sides of music today, in the separate country and Americana fields.
Says McCall, “One of the themes (of the exhibition), at least until you get to Emmylou, is that nobody was really trying to make country hits. They were trying to make rock ‘n’ roll, but they wanted to have a country influence on it and give it a different flavor. And then Emmylou broke through, and she and Linda Ronstadt had a hit or two on country radio, and the Eagles had some minor hits in country radio — but it was really not what they were aiming at. The same thing with the ‘80s, other than Dwight and the Desert Rose Band — and Rosie (Flores)’s Reprise record was sort of aimed at country radio — Rank and File, who were pretty country, and Lone Justice, who had a lot of country influence, weren’t trying to get on country radio.
“Yet the Dirt Band was having No. 1 singles (later) in the ’80s, and Alabama and Restless Heart were obviously influenced by a lot of this music on the one hand, and on the other, so were Ricky Skaggs and Patty Loveless and Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash, in a different way, you know? And somebody like Marty Stuart, who is so hardcore into traditional country, also talks about how the Byrds were a big influence on him. I mean, he’s still playing Clarence White’s B-bender — that’s why we don’t have it in the exhibition! So I think the harmonies and the themes and some of the attitude were carried into Nashville — and then Americana, of course, has drawn so much off this music too. We feel like it’s an important story to tell.”
A companion book, largely written by former L.A. Times music writer Randy Lewis, goes into significant written detail about the era and includes vintage photography both included in and separate from the exhibition. It includes a forward by Linda Ronstadt and additional essays by Alvin, Mary Katherine Aldin, James Austin, Alison Brown, Steve Fishell and Holly George-Warren.
Amazon Music also has a 97-song playlist created to augment the exhibit, featuring artists as varied as the Buffalo Springfield, Monkees, Dillards, Taj Mahal, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Poco, Neil Young, Jackson Browne, the Eagles, JD Souther, X, the Long Ryders, Lucinda Williams and Maria McKee.
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