Born on the Bayou: The Genesis of Roots Rock & Americana

Back to basics with CCR, Dylan, the Byrds and more.

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John Fogerty onstage at the 2019 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Credit: Tim Mosenfelder/WireImage.

When rock ’n’ roll emerged in the 1950s, no one used the term Americana because all rock ’n’ roll was American: songs about freedom or heartache, cars or girls, played in a steady 4/4 beat. Then the music started to get intricate and experimental, resulting in long jams, complex time signatures not conducive to dancing, backwards guitar solos and a whole mess of sitar.

In 1967, the Beatles released their psychedelic opus, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, leading the charge into complexity. That same year, the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix and the Doors released spectacular debuts that competed with other momentous albums, including Cream’s Disraeli Gears, Love’s Forever Changes and Mellow Yellow by Donovan. The concept album had arrived, and records made with orchestras weren’t uncommon. Psychedelic rock was peaking, and progressive rock was emerging. Rock had become sophisticated, ambitious and very European.

But music progresses in trends and countertrends, and it was only a matter of time before artists wanted to return to basics. It started with Bob Dylan, whose turn from folk music to electric rock on Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde had enraged his earliest fans and certified his status as the voice of a generation — a status Dylan hated and was determined to relinquish. In October 1967, he began recording John Wesley Harding, which became known as “the album that killed psychedelia.” (It didn’t kill psychedelia, but it did make it sound a little silly.)

Stark and almost homely, John Wesley Harding was a reaction to rock’s expanding ambitions. Dylan asked his record company “to release it with no publicity and no hype, because this was the season of hype,” he said. Previously he’d made folk music a trend, and then did the same for abstruse, imagistic lyrics. Now he was starting a new trend: simplicity. There’s a direct line from Dylan to the Byrds, who recorded lots of his songs; the Band, who backed him up on tour; Little Feat; and Creedence Clearwater Revival (whose mastermind, John Fogerty, turned 75 on May 28).

Rock never fully went back to its original form — the horse was out of the barn — but it has returned to its foundations persistently in different decades and cities, from NRBQ in Kentucky to Los Lobos in L.A. to Wilco in Chicago. That retro style of music — humble, rootsy, unfancy, no orchestras allowed — is now classified as Americana, and as of 2010, it even has its own Grammy category. In the first year of the award, Bob Dylan was nominated but lost to Levon Helm, formerly of the Band. Some circles remain unbroken.

Bob Dylan
John Wesley Harding (1967)

Bob Dylan heard Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and, unlike almost everyone else in the world, didn’t like it. He thought the elaborate arrangements and production were self-indulgent and superfluous. In October 1967, he went down to Nashville and recorded most of John Wesley Harding with only a bassist and a drummer to back him. (Pete Drake played pedal steel on the last two songs.) In contrast to the dizzying electric music he’d been making, Dylan’s eighth album is austere — as simple and solid as a Shaker chair. But he didn’t kill psychedelia, he fed it: Soon after, Jimi Hendrix recorded his rampaging cover of this album’s “All Along the Watchtower.”

The Band
Music From Big Pink (1968)

When Eric Clapton heard the Band’s debut album, which concisely combines blues, country and soul music, he felt embarrassed by the psychedelic jams he was making with Cream and broke up the band. “It shook me to the core,” he said. The Band had backed Dylan when he moved into rock, and shortly after he recorded John Wesley Harding, they started on their own record, a showcase for the group’s three fantastic singers. The Band sang forcefully about the history and mythos of the rural South, even though only one member was a Southerner and the other four (including main songwriter Robbie Robertson) were from north of the border. Yes, one of Americana’s greatest groups was mostly Canadian.

The Byrds
Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968)

The Byrds had been recording Bob Dylan songs since they began in 1965 as a folk-rock band, and when Gram Parsons joined and steered them toward a radical, encompassing vision of country-rock, they kept right on recording Dylan tunes. The arrangements on Sweetheart of the Rodeo rely on banjo, fiddle, mandolin and steel guitar, not for small touches but for the core of the music. Since its release in the summer of 1968, Sweetheart has been a gateway album into country for successive generations, from the Eagles to Elvis Costello to Wilco. Like many albums that changed music history, it was unpopular in its time, and reached no higher than No. 77 on the Billboard albums charts.

Creedence Clearwater Revival
Bayou Country (1969)

The second Creedence album, released in 1969, is where John Fogerty began to unfurl his songwriting genius. Although CCR is considered one of the most “authentic” of bands, the music is rooted in pretense: Fogerty, a married father who lived near San Francisco, wrote about the joys and difficulties of working people in Mississippi (“Proud Mary”) and Louisiana (“Born on the Bayou”), despite having never been to either state, and he affected the drawl of a New Orleanian. Years later, Fogerty said these early songs came from “almost a mythical world” he’d imagined. And fitting the spirit of the day, Creedence added two lengthy jams, “Graveyard Train” and “Keep on Chooglin’,” punctuated by Fogerty’s snaking guitar licks and the band’s single-minded rhythmic attack.

Little Feat
Little Feat (1971)

“I get off by playing sleazy guitar,” Little Feat singer, songwriter and guitarist Lowell George said. After he was fired from Frank Zappa’s band for smoking too much pot, George founded Little Feat with keyboard player Bill Payne; they got a record deal thanks to “Willin’,” George’s ballad about the life of a long-haul trucker. On their 1971 debut, Little Feat are somewhere between a freakier version of the Band and a sloppier, funnier version of the Rolling Stones. George was a gifted slide guitar player, and when he duels with bottleneck guitar ace Ry Cooder on a medley of two Howlin’ Wolf songs, they tip over into greatness.

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