Country rock is a genre of music that was developed in America in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s by American rock musicians adopting country flavourings and as a genre lasted until the end of the’70s. That’s a fairly standard definition of country rock but this list looks chronologically at 10 country rock tracks by UK artists just to show that it wasn’t just happening in the States. All the artists at the time were viewed as significant rock or new wave artists or at the very least acts with commercial potential so at the time were part of the then-current mainstream. It is interesting to see how UK musicians picked up on this trend and how in some cases sold it back to America helping develop the country and alt-country of the ‘80s and’90s.
‘Country Honk’ (1969) by the Rolling Stones is a country version of Honky Tonk Woman from their ‘Let It Bleed’ album. Keith Richards has said ‘Country Honk’ was how he originally envisaged the song. It is based on Hank William’s ‘Honky Tonk Blues’ and was recorded at Olympic Studios, London. At Gram Parson’s suggestion Byron Berline’s fiddle was overdubbed in LA .
‘Country Boy’(1971) is a self-penned track from Heads Hands & Feet’s debut album and is a masterclass in country-rock guitar and made Albert Lee’s reputation as one of the greatest country rock guitarists. In 1970 Heads Hands & Feet secured what was at the time the biggest record advance ever paid by a US record label for a UK band of a then massive half a million dollars.
‘Tupelo Honey’(1971) by Van Morrison from his album ‘Tupelo Honey‘ shows him building the foundations of his whole career by adding country rock to his mix of soul, jazz R&B and Celtic folk with the support of John McFee’s pedal steel guitar. It is a song that Bob Dylan has said “has always existed and that Morrison was merely the vessel and earthly vehicle for it”.
‘Muswell Hillbilly’ (1971) by The Kinks considers the links between working-class Londoners and the mountain communities of West Virginia. The Kinks always had a difficult relationship with America. They were banned from touring there in the sixties and while they were as influenced by Americana as their contemporaries, they also managed to retain their Englishness. The 1971 album ‘Muswell Hillbillies’ used country and bluegrass to illustrate the decline and change in English values.
‘I’ll Fly Away’ (1972) is a beautiful version of the old gospel tune from ‘The Return Of Amelia Earhart’ the debut album by Plainsong. Ian, later Iain, Matthews, an original member of Fairport Convention, was their prime songwriter. Their debut is a classic album of country/folk rock. Plainsong were included in ‘Forever Changing: The Golden Age Of Electra 1963-1973’ the compilation album celebrating the best of that legendary record label.
‘The Poacher’(1974) from Ronnie Lane’s ‘Anymore For Anymore’ album is a superb song about the joys of fishing and putting the cares of the world aside. Ronnie Lane was one of the great UK songwriters of the second half of the 20th century and some of his greatest work was with his group Slim Chance where he developed a very English style of country rock.
‘Stranger In The House’ (1977) is a country song by Elvis Costello featuring Clover’s John McFee’s pedal steel guitar and was recorded at the sessions for his debut album ‘My Aim Is True’. 1977 was a seismic year in music with the explosion of punk and new wave and this track was buried by the record company as a b-side but it is evidence that country was at the heart of new wave music. George Jones recorded a version as a duet with Elvis Costello.
‘Tulsa Time’ (1978) from Eric Clapton’s ‘Backless’ album is a cover of a Don Williams song. Don Williams was very popular in the UK in the ‘70s even with rock musicians. The song fit right in with Clapton’s fixation with J J Cale and his own backing band was made up of Okie musicians. The song proved to be a live fan favourite with its Oklahoma boogie beat.
‘Endless Grey Ribbon‘ (1979) is a straight truck driving song by Nick Lowe and is extremely atmospheric. Nick Lowe always had a good dollop of country in his musical mix and he included this track on his most successful solo album ‘Labour Of Lust’. This is really a Rockpile album and Rockpile had a major influence on the development of alt-country in the ‘80s as the DIY ethos of punk and new wave was applied to American roots music.
‘Queen of Hearts’ (1979) is a song written by Hank DeVito, Emmylou Harris’s pedal steel player, from Dave Edmunds’ ‘Repeat When Necessary’ album which was the twin Rockpile album to Nick Lowes ‘Labour Of Lust’. While Dave’s version was reasonably successful, Juice Newton turned it into a smash country hit in 1981 using Dave’s arrangement.
There we have it, a view of the UK’s contribution to country rock and its influence on American roots music from the ’80s to the present day. All the artists above continued to mine their love of country music to varying degrees in their songwriting and performing careers.