Today while I was at a record store in Brooklyn, of all places, I managed to buy some great vintage country LPs, including Kris Kristofferson's Me and Bobby McGee. As I listened to and enjoyed it, I was struck at how much it reflected the counterculture of the early 1970s, from "Blame it on the Stones" skewering square attitudes about the new generation to "Sunday Morning Coming Down" getting inside the horror of a hangover better than any song has before or since. Music critics talk a lot about "alternative country," "country rock," and "outlaw country," but I think some of the stuff within these categorical silos, especially back in the seventies, can be grouped into something that I'll call "countercultural country."
Kristofferson acts the country hippie in the ironically titled "Law is For Protection of the People," knocking the capricious power of the police. The sentiment is less Nashville than Woodstock.
Johnny Cash, who in the mid-60s befriended Bob Dylan, the godfather of the counterculture, took Kristofferson's epic "Sunday Morning Coming Down" and made it his own. Not only does Cash sing about "wishing Lord that I was stoned," he breaks with the obligatory piety of country music by describing Sunday morning not as a time of worship, but as a soul-sapping moment of excruciating boredom. "There's nothing short of dying/ That's half as lonely as the sound/ Of a sleeping city sidewalk/ And Sunday morning coming down."
Gram Parsons was the ultimate country hippie, a man who could combine the country soul of Merle Haggard with the drug regimen of Timothy Leary. This song of wandering in search of home holds a very special place in my heart; I listened to it a lot in my car on my move from Texas to here in New Jersey. Call me an old softie, but when Gram and Emmylou sing "Twenty thousand roads I went down, and they all led me straight back home to you," I get a little misty-eyed.
Tompall Glaser hails from my home state of Nebraska, and was one of the more prominent figures in "outlaw country" back in the seventies. In this tune he makes a rather sly feminist statement about the piggishness of a certain breed of "traditional" men, but in a way that always brings a smile to my face.
Most folks remember Mike Nesmith for being the knit-hatted guitarist in the The Monkees, but he also cut some great country music in the seventies that borrowed from the spirit of sixties rock music. His 1972 album, rakishly titled And the Hits Just Keep on Coming is one of the true hidden gems of its time. Using a stripped down sound of just Nesmith's voice, his acoustic guitar, and some fantastic steel guitar playing from Red Rhodes, Papa Nes turns out the kind wistful, California folk and rock inflected country songs the Eagles were known for in this era, with an important difference: his stuff doesn't suck.
Alright, I'm cheating more than a bit with this last song, since Buck Owens is not somebody anyone would think of as countercultural. The man hosted Hee-Haw, fer chrissakes. That being said, he was willing to incorporate ideas from sixties rock and folk music into his sound, and in the process managed to craft what I believe to be one the greatest covers ever of a Bob Dylan song, which is high praise indeed.