Book Review – “Western Edge: The Roots and Reverberations of Los Angeles Country-Rock”

Country Music Hall of Fame® & Museum and University of Illinois Press

It’s already looking like 2023 will be a great year for new books on Americana and related subjects, having seen some of the titles that will be published in the next few months, and the year gets underway with something genuinely special. ‘Western Edge’ is the first title to be released under a new partnership between the University of Illinois Press and The Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum. Under this new agreement, the museum and the university press will collaborate to co-publish new works, as well as distribute titles released under the museum’s longstanding publishing arm, CMF Press, including reissuing significant out-of-print historical works. This is a really exciting development that should see some very interesting books published over the coming years and the partnership is certainly off to a very strong start with this debut offering.

‘Western Edge: The Roots and Reverberations of Los Angeles Country-Rock’ is a stunning, large format book that documents the rise of Country-Rock and its huge impact on the music business. It’s fair to say that this is a musical movement that served to alter the course of both country and rock music as well as lay the foundations for what we now call americana. This is also a companion book to The Country Music Hall of Fame’s major multi-year exhibition of the same name and, if this book is anything to go by, that exhibition will be well worth catching, since the book includes a number of photos of items that are featured in the exhibition itself, from Nudie suits to prized instruments that go right back to the earliest days of country rock.

The Flying Burrito Brothers’ stage costumes. Photo by Bob Delevante for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

There’s a terrific introduction from one of the biggest artists of the genre, Linda Ronstadt, where she talks at great length about the various musical influences that shaped her career and how she wanted to bring those influences together- and that LA was the place that made her musical ambitions possible. There’s a main essay, ‘Are You Ready For The Country?’, from Randy Lewis, the former Los Angeles Times music reporter, where he waxes lyrical about the musical revolution on the West Coast that brought us the likes of The Buffalo Springfield, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Poco, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and a host of others. It’s an excellent potted history that runs throughout the book, interspersed with other, shorter articles from various staff members at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum along with contributions from musicians who experienced the whole thing firsthand. One thing from Lewis’ article that is particularly worth noting is something that we’ve been saying, for some time, here at AUK, “If there’s a linchpin figure in the story of country-rock it’s hard to think of anyone more critical than Chris Hillman”. Lewis takes the reader through Chris Hillman’s various contributions to the genre and his larger essay is peppered with these little side excursions that make really interesting reading and bring colour to what is an exceptional piece of writing. In another diversion from his main essay, Lewis tries to identify the very first country-rock record. It’s one more great dive down the rabbit hole, tracking back through The Byrds, Gram Parsons, Steve Stills, and many more before arriving at the decision, largely fueled by a discussion between Hillman and Dwight Yoakam, that the first country-rock record was Rick Nelson’s 1961 hit, ‘Hello Mary Lou’. That ought to put the cat among the pigeons!

Los Lobos bajo sexto. Photo by Bob Delevante for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

Elsewhere in the book we get articles on The Troubadour club and its importance to the rise of Country-Rock, the part that Bluegrass played in the development of that West Coast sound, an insightful contribution on the pedal steel guitar from Steve Fishell (whose own book on the legend, Buddy Emmons, we recently reviewed), and a fantastic take on ‘80s roots rock from Blaster in chief, Dave Alvin, along with other articles from equally knowledgeable writers.

There’s also a really impressive selection of photographs, both from the Hall of Fame archive and new photos from the accompanying exhibition, many of them taken by Bob Delevante. In total there are more than 160 artifact and archival photos, which makes for a richly illustrated book and a lot of shots you’re guaranteed never to have seen before. Though all the photos are eye-catching and impressive it’s the writing that really makes this book special and all the contributors deserve mention. In addition to those already namechecked, there are contributions from Holly George-Warren (author of ‘Janis: Her Life and Music’), Mary Katherine Aldin (from the Folk DJ Hall of Fame), James Austin (Grammy-winning producer of the soundtrack for the film ‘Ray’) and Alison Brown (Grammy winning Banjo player and co-founder of Compass Records). That’s an impressive line-up of contributors by anyone’s reckoning and it really shows in the quality content of this book.

Mike Nesmith Hat. Photo by Bob Delevante for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

As a calling card for this new publishing partnership between the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, and the University of Illinois Press, it’s hard to imagine they could have put out anything more impressive. If you’ve ever had any interest in country-rock you will want to see this book. Country-rock is the jumping-off point that starts the development of what we now call americana. It would pull in more influences as the decades passed but, much like the Bristol sessions are seen as the ‘Big Bang’ of country music, so the coming together of country and rock music, on the west coast of America in the late 60s and early 70s has to be seen as the seminal moment in the development of roots based music into a new genre of its own. This book lays that early development out in no uncertain terms, identifying all the key players along the way, not just the people but the places and artefacts that contributed to so much great music. Probably the book of the year – and we’re not even out of January yet!

‘Western Edge: The Roots and Reverberations of Los Angeles Country-Rock’ is available for purchase from Combined Academic Publishers https://www.combinedacademic.co.uk/9780915608379/western-edge/

 


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About Rick Bayles 297 Articles
Now living the life of a political émigré in rural France and dreaming of the day I'll be able to sing those Cajun lyrics with an authentic accent!

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