Californian country-rock from the 60s to 80s in the spotlight at the Nashville museum

Attention, LA country music fans: it might be time to rent a bus.

On September 30, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville will open a new exhibit, “Western Edge: The Roots and Reverberations of Los Angeles Country-Rock,” in a newly renovated 5,000 square foot gallery filled with artifacts, annotations and videos largely collected from the Cali crime scene. It spans three distinct decades in SoCal music history: the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Los Angeles scenes who fondly remember any of these eras can see their lives flash before their eyes, and they will only have to book a ticket to Tennessee to do so.

There is no great rush to get there; “Western Edge” will be on display in the Hall of Fame for three years. But for those who have dreamed for decades of seeing this kind of historic homage come together, the opening can’t come fast enough.

“Everyone has dealt with the first incarnation of sound, from Depression to Buck and Merle,” said Dwight Yoakam, at a media event held at the Troubadour to spur West Coast interest in the exhibit. “but few have dealt with the things that came after – the things that inspired me as a teenager and in college and drew me to the West Coast. It was a beacon, that sort of thing He added, “It’s an honor to be part of this exhibit that has to do with this next step in the Tom Joad road that led to California’s version of country music… They’re doing research at the level by Ken Burns.

Sitting at the Troubadour bar, in a seat he no doubt sat on nearly 60 years ago, country-rock pioneer Chris Hillman shared his excitement for the exhibit with Variety. He sat in the same location in early 2020, just before the pandemic hit, to do a lengthy interview that will be excerpted at video stations and on the museum’s website. He also donated the 1958 Martin D28 guitar he learned to play on, and “I think one of my costumes (from Nudie) is on there,” he said.

“I can’t wait to see it in its entirety when it’s finished,” said Hillman, who made country and rock history as a member of the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Desert Rose Band. “Honestly, I had no idea it was going to be that big or what event it had become and would become. Now I’m taking it seriously. It’s going to be really interesting because you start thinking about it and getting into the concept of all these different players filtering through this bar, where everyone interacted with each other, not competitively – sharing ideas or writing songs together. At the time, you took a lot of that for granted.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about “Western Edge” is that it doesn’t stop with the country-rock framing of the 60s and 70s, from the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers to Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles, but continues in the country – the punk era – an era that may seem far too recent, to those who were part of it, to be celebrated in a museum. (Do the math, cowpunks.)

Let Michael McCall, a former music journalist who is now Hall of Fame editor, explain some of the topics he made multiple trips from Nashville to LA to work on, including dozens of hours of video interviews:

“The people of the 80s were all great. Dwight is doing the opening narration for an introduction to the exhibit, and we did over two hours of interviews with him,” McCall explains. “Los Lobos was exceptional; Louis Perez was the interview, but we got instruments from all of them – and Cesar’s Ray-Bans (Rosas)! Dave Alvin was one of my best interviews; he’s so articulate, the way he talked about the whole scene. Lucinda Williams, even after her stroke, Lucinda came and spoke for about an hour, and was great; his album Rough Trade is the only one that somehow falls into this period (80s). Rosie Flores was great. Alejandro (Escovedo), we’re still going to talk about Rank & File.

That’s not all, Palomino heads.

“With Lone Justice, we met Ryan Hedgecock and Marvin Etzioni, and Ryan in particular had like 20 manuscripts and 20 or 30 setlists that they’ve handwritten since the early days…and the first flyer, when they were opening for Rank and File and they toured the Universal Amphitheater at a Blasters show and put them on everyone’s car windshields. And Maria McKee was an outstanding, outstanding interview — one of my favorites, really colorful. She dressed in what she called her “Loretta Lynn dress” – a multi-colored southern ballgown. She looked more like Scarlet O’Hara, almost. She was so passionate and gave so many great stories. I didn’t know she was a street performer with her brother (Bryan MacLean of Love) singing gospel songs at 16, for example, and that’s part of why she learned to project.

That’s not to overlook the even more pioneering types who invented country-rock over the previous two decades. Among those interviewed and donors to the hybrid’s first blooms were Emmylou Harris and Jeff Hannah of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, who performed together at an event in Nashville to announce the exhibit, as did Hillman and Yoakam did the same at LA Bernie. Leadon of the Eagles was one of McCall’s first interviews for the project, which will also cover artists as disparate but equally groundbreaking as the Dillards, Poco, the International Submarine Band, the LA bluegrass band of the early 60s, the Kentucky Colonels, and, of course, two of the true pioneers of pop and twang marriage, Ricky Nelson and Michael Nesmith of the Monkees.

(This will all come together not just in the Nashville museum space, but via a companion book that Angelenos won’t even necessarily have to travel 2,000 miles to pick up. The companion volume was written by Randy Lewis, who covered LA music scene for decades before retiring from the Los Angeles Times.)

Yoakam is perfectly happy the exhibit landed in Nashville, given his high regard for the host museum. “The Country Hall of Fame is the best thing about Nashville,” he said. “Hame’s Country Music Hall is what should be the model for any musical hall of fame, anywhere,” the singer added, perhaps throwing some shade elsewhere, for “the amount of respect they show towards the founding creators of the genre and all those who followed.

Said Hillman, “This Troubadour bar, more music came through this door into this room – Joni Mitchell and Elton John, and the Byrds played here one night when we started, and the Flying Burrito Brothers played here. It was so interconnected, and as (Yoakam) has said so well for many years, the edge of the continent. This has been the Tom Joad road, and everybody comes out, whether it’s musicians, actors, writers, or artists, and you stop there at the Pacific Ocean and that’s it. … Do it or swim!

Although Yoakam never adopted Hillman’s or Gram Parsons’ level of flashy Western clothing, he said it was inspirational for him as a child to see, and the sounds penetrated deep into his soul.

“The Burrito Brothers were the most famous band that a lot of people never heard of the records of,” Yoakam said, “but I knew…those long-haired hippie cowboys from the Sunset Strip who wore Nudie’s costumes. And it fascinated me when I was in middle school and high school, (as) a mountain kid from Kentucky who moved to Ohio and kinda felt like a fish out of water in the music I was listening to .

Hillman did his interview for the show at the Troubadour bar long enough now — two and a half years — that asking him is a bit like asking for a memory of a memory. But “I have a good memory, I must say,” says Hillman (who published a memoir a few years ago, “Time Between,” named after a Byrds song that Yoakam considers one of the first true country-rock tunes).

“And I never go into dark areas or negative things. There’s no need to do that. I remember everything, and I remember all the good things. It was exciting, and it’s was so artistically free – and the music industry, as you know, was a whole different animal then. You really got signed to a label, but they’ll stay with you. If you didn’t sell music platinum on the first version, they weren’t throwing you out on the street, they’d be staying with you and feeding you, in those days, early and mid 60s.”

The exhibition’s opening weekend will include two concerts at the CMA Theatre. On September 30, the all-star lineup for the first show will include Hillman, Dave Alvin, Alison Brown (paying homage to California bluegrass), Rodney Dillard, Rosie Flores, Richie Furay, Jeff Hanna, Bernie Leadon, John McEuen, Wendy Moten (paying tribute to Ronstadt) and Herb Pedersen.

This weekend’s other show, on October 2, will consist entirely of a reunion performance by the Desert Rose Band, the group Hillman, Pedersen and John Jourgensen formed in 1988 that achieved mainstream country success. Almost all of the original lineup will be on board, with the exception of the late bassist Bill Bryson.

Hillman tells Variety that, even if he looks forward to it, this October 2 will be a unique reunion for the Desert Rose Band.

“It’ll be good because we’ve all remained friends — you know, an oddity in the music business,” Hillman said. “Usually bands break up and never talk to each other, and we all stayed friends past the band’s heyday, and we all worked together past the band’s heyday. So getting back together is really nice. We did a huge festival in Norway, about 10 years ago, and that was it. And after that October 2 show, that’s it. I’m done. Basically I’m at the retired, I don’t tour anymore.

No more solo exhibitions either? ” Nope. Well, he admits, you never know that. But the Desert Rose Band is about to retire. I rarely look back, and I’ve had it for this band a few times. But they were a great band – great players, and our live performances were in the 90th percentile for professionalism. So I always remember it fondly. But the other bands, I never backed down with them. And sometimes it’s impossible because you’ve lost people over the years.

Hillman was not entirely doctrinaire about resistance to meetings; there was that brilliant “Sweethearts of the Rodeo” tour in 2018, though it may have helped that it wasn’t billed as the Byrds. “I enjoyed it so much,” Hillman concedes, calling it “one of the best, if not the best, tour I’ve ever done. Marty Stuart and the Superlatives (the backing band) were just wonderful, and working with Roger McGuinn again after 25 years felt like time hadn’t passed. That first night we played downtown LA at the Ace, when Roger hit that first note on “My Back Pages” it fell into place. Tremendous round.”

Once you fire it up, even as a non-retrospective as Hillman has to admit: “Sin City” is one hell of a place to revisit.

Toya J. Bell