Late 1960s - Early 1970s
At the same time that the Stones were "rediscovering" the blues in 1968, they were also starting a new exploration into country territory (Factory Girl, Dear Doctor, Country Honk, Wild Horses). The Stones were influenced by older and contemporary country artists (Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Merle Haggard), but also by contemporary rockers who were pioneering a new country rock marriage, such as most notably Gram Parsons.
The Stones themselves can be considered pioneers of this new genre,
which was developed further in the 1970s by artists like Poco, the Eagles
and Neil Young.
THE EVERLY BROTHERS (1954-1973)
After their initial career as rock and rollers was more or less over, in 1968 the Everly Brothers released an incredible (in my opinion) album called Roots (seek it out, it's in print), which mixed current pop with current country covers (Merle Haggard, especially) and their country influences, a near concept-like album where they showcased even more strongly their original Appalachian background.
Now, in the same era, Keith met Gram Parsons and Parsons, now revered as the father of country rock, showed Keith a lot of music in the following years (1968-72), including a new appreciation for the Everly Brothers. Though they never recorded together, Keith and Gram often played and sang harmony together, and Gram taught or re-taught Keith a lot of country music they could appreciate together: late Jerry Lee Lewis, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, George Jones, etc., including the Everly Brothers. That kind of influence is particularly evident on albums like Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street (Torn and Frayed).
Later, as documented for example in Barbara Charone's
biography of Keith Richards (Life as a Rolling Stone), the album
a favorite of Keith's and he listened to it and sang from it throughout
GRAM PARSONS (1946-1973)
Gram Parsons is now revered by country and rock fans alike as the unqualified father of country rock. Parsons' association with the Stones, and particularly with Keith, was an important one.
Born in Florida and growing up in a disturbed family environment, guitarist and vocalist Parsons began forming rock bands in his teens before enrolling at Harvard University to study theology. He quit, though, to form the International Submarine Band in 1966, which recorded one album before splitting up. The ISB was already working on a synthesis of rock and country music.
In early 1968, Parsons joined the Byrds, who were already past their first glory years as folk-rockers of the first degree. With them, however, he recorded the classic Sweetheart of the Rodeo album, which is today appreciated as the first true country rock album, and perhaps also the finest. The influence was largely due to Parsons. In the fall of 1968, however, the Byrds were set to tour South Africa, and Parsons refused on the grounds of apartheid and quit the band. That's when he hooked up with Keith and went to live with him for a few months at Keith's home Redlands in the English countryside.
Gram blew into town with the Byrds, who were playing Blasés. Gram came back to Mick's Chester Square flat with Roger McGuinn. Their next gig was to be in South Africa, and we told Gram English bands never even went there. So he threw in his lot with the Stones and hung around London.
Over the next few months, and on a recurrent basis for the next several years, Gram hung out with Keith and the Stones. Gram enabled Keith to resume and deepen his original love for country music. In the same year that Keith had already been discovering open tunings and delving deeper into the blues, he was doing the same now with country. (It's also quite possible that Gram and Keith also influenced each other in regards to heroin use, since Keith started experimenting with the drug at this time.)
The reason Gram and I were together more than other musicians is because I really wanted to learn what Gram had to offer. Gram was really intrigued by me and the band. Although we came from England, Gram and I shared this instinctive affinity for the real South.
In early 1969, Parsons formed the Flying Burrito Brothers, the first full-fledged country rock outfit, who recorded two albums that year. Before the Stones' own release, the Burritos recorded and released the Jagger/Richards-penned country rock classic Wild Horses. Though he never contributed to the Stones' records, his influence is undoubtedly important in the country and country rock paths that the Stones started exploring during this period (from 1969's Let It Bleed to 1972's Exile on Main Street). (Keith and Mick wrote Honky Tonk Women or Country Honk on a trip to Brazil in December 1968, just after Keith had been spending time with Parsons.)
By the end of 1969, however, Parsons had quit the Burritos and spent most of the next years doing drugs and alcohol and not recording. He hung out with the Stones frequently, on tour and during recording sessions. Probably the most important of these periods was the summer of 1971, when Parsons lived at Keith's home in the South of France during the recording of Exile on Main Street. When not recording, Keith and Gram would spend many evenings and nights learning songs together (Everly Brothers, Merle Haggard, etc.) and singing harmony together.
I used to spend days at the piano with Gram, you know, just singing. I did more singing with Gram than I've done with the Stones. He taught me all the Everly Brothers stuff and the cross harmonies and shit like that. We lived together when we cut Exile On Main Street. He was living with us then for 2 or 3 months. He wrote SONGS, man! He kept going; he would go all day without ever repeating himself.
Afterwards, Parsons recorded two solo albums in 1972 and 1973 that have since become country rock classics. He died of a drug and alcohol overdose in the fall of 1973.
His music not only influenced the Stones, but many rock and country artists, including Emmylou Harris, Elvis Costello and REM. In the 1990s, an alternative country movement emerged (sometimes nicknamed No Depression), which has revered Parsons as one of its gods. Bands like the Jayhawks, Son Volt and Uncle Topelo are characteristic of this movement and of its appreciation for Parsons' work and influence.
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