Western Edge Exhibit coverage by Brian DeSpain
The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville kicked off a new exhibit spotlighting the origins and development of the country-rock music movement.
Kyle Young, CEO of the Hall of Fame and Museum, introduced Western Edge: The Roots and Reverberations of Los Angeles Country-Rock before a private reception of several hundred. Americana Highways covered the reception, previewed the new exhibition, and reviewed the Western Edge concert of country-rock luminaries, and panel discussions during the introductory weekend program.
“This exhibition is a rich, multilayered story. It’s a story about community and creativity, friendships and competition, the impetuousness of youth and the value of tradition. Above all, it’s a story about a place that made it all happen,” Young said in his introductory remarks.
Moreover, with a countercultural movement developing in the United States in the early 1960s, California is a magnet for socially conscious music and audiences.
Consequently, a long tradition of country music in Los Angeles, with a combination of open-minded rock musicians and stages where they could experiment, has brought about a musical result that is part evolution and part revolution.
Therefore, local clubs like The Ash Grove, The Troubadour and Palomino Club (and to the south in Huntington Beach, Golden Bear) became “flashpoints” for blending styles and sensibilities.
“Many newcomers and locals had a love of folk, bluegrass and country music in common. Musical communities formed,” Young reflected.
“The catalyst which sparked the country-rock explosion was the arrival of The Beatles and [Bob] Dylan. Suddenly the musicians who loved traditional music heard and understood the power of going electric. So they plugged in, turned on and tuned in. And some of them turned up the volume.”
Young’s remarks provided a punch for Americana music followers. A love of folk, bluegrass and country music reshaping pop and rock music “would transform mainstream country music and pave the way for Americana music in due time.”
Some twenty years later, the Lonesome Strangers, Long Ryders and the Paisley Underground movement in Los Angeles become some of the transition points to that path Young spoke about. These transition points overlapped with the emergence of roots rock in the forms of Mexican folk, cowpunk, hard-edged honky tonk and rockabilly represented by the Blasters, Rosie Flores, Los Lobos, Lone Justice, Dwight Yoakam and others. These second-wave artists are represented in the exhibition.
Young highlighted Emmylou Harris. He pointed to Gram Parsons having sparked her love of the Louvin Brothers. Appropriately, this cemented her bond with the Museum. “Emmy had and has an effortless way of making rock and country music seem like kissing cousins. Of course they are. Elvis showed us that.”
Then Young recounted hearing a Johnny Horton classic: “Honky Tonk Man.” The singing was from a different voice with a bigger sound. It was Dwight Yoakam, and he stars in the introductory film at the exhibit. “Dwight reveres the past but he’s never been tied to it,” Young remarked.
More than forty hours of video interviews inform the exhibit. The exhibit collection contains rare artifacts, including instruments, stage consumes, photographs and personal items.
“You just can’t ignore the big enchilada, or more appropriately, shall we say, the burrito supremo,” Young said with elation. “We have assembled for display, for the first time since it was seen on stage in 1969, the original Nudie suits of Chris Hillman, Gram Parsons and Sneaky Pete Kleinow worn on the cover of The Flying Burrito Brothers’ The Gilded Palace of Sin.” Chris Ethridge’s suit has yet to be found.
Accordingly, this is represented from its origins to the present moment with the Watkins Family Hour and Chris Hillman hitting the stage for one song each. Chris Hillman is regarded as the “lynchpin” of country-rock and the Watkins are among the current torchbearers of the Western Edge legacy. Afterward the audience descended from the sixth floor down to the exhibit floor.
Watkins Family Hour performed “Different Drum” a song made popular by the Stone Poneys featuring Linda Ronstadt and written by Michael Nesmith. If you’ve heard Sarah Watkins’ voice, you know she is the ideal candidate from southern California to cover the song.
Chris Hillman introduced a song by sharing a story about Gram Parsons. They shared a house together in 1969.
One day, Parsons drove up in a new, yellow BSA motorcycle. He took off, spilled the bike and Hillman saw him walking the bike back with his legs skinned up. After patching him up, Hillman and Parsons penned the song “Wheels.” Hillman called Watkins Family Hour
to the stage to play on this song with him popularized by The Flying Burrito Brothers.
City National Bank major underwriting developed the Western Edge exhibition, and is the presenting sponsor. The exhibit is scheduled to run through May 2025. Amazon Music is the official music partner with Western Edge Playlist, filled with the music of the artists represented in the exhibit.
Linda Ronstadt wrote the forward to the official exhibit book. Several essays represent perspectives on the history of country-rock along with detailed illustrations and photos from the exhibit.
In following installments from the Western Edge opening weekend, Americana Highways will provide an overview of the groundbreaking country-rock exhibit, will present an interview with one of the music luminaries, John McEuen, on stage and in discussion during the weekend program, and review the Western Edge in concert show at the CMA Theater. That’s just for starters.
Start making plans to visit Nashville for the Western Edge exhibit to experience living music history.