Los Angeles

Cosmic American Music: Iconic Images of California's Country Music Tradition

Johnny Cash © Leigh Wiener

California cotton fields, Where labor camps were filled with weary men with broken dreams. California cotton fields, As close to wealth as Daddy ever came.

- "California Cotton Fields," by Merle Haggard

A young Emmylou Harris, her long, straight hair falling over a fringed leather jacket, strums a guitar on the darkened stage of North Hollywood's legendary Palomino Club. She is joined by Linda Ronstadt, fabulously arrayed in a boy-scout uniform, who clenches the neck of the guitar as if she is holding Emmylou's hand. They are both laughing, caught in a communal moment of song by one of their own, the folk musician and photographer Henry Diltz.

This is one of the iconic images now on view at the Annenberg Space for Photography's exhibit, "Country: Portraits of an American Sound" (running now through Sept. 28). A free retrospective that spans the history of modern country music, the show features a short documentary and iconic prints of country stars like Mother Maybelle Carter, Hank Williams and Dolly Parton. More importantly, it helps reveal Southern California's often forgotten country music history. Featured photographers include Los Angeles-based Leigh Wiener, whose portraits of Johnny Cash in his L.A. studio defined country's rebellious spirit. There is also a series by the whimsical Henry Diltz, whose images of the California country rock troubadours of the late '60s and early '70s helped immortalize a generation.

Johnny Cash © Leigh Wiener

Other events this summer enhance the revelation. On July 19th, KCRW, inspired by the show at the Annenberg, will kick off Country in the City, three free, family friendly concerts in Century Park, featuring country legends including Greg Allman, and modern masters like Shelby Lynne and Sturgill Simpson. At the Grammy Museum, "California Dreamin': The Sound of Laurel Canyon 1965-1977" explores the music and style of artists heavily influenced by country, such as the Byrds, Eagles and Crosby, Stills and Nash. All these shows should come as no surprise to those schooled in the history of country music. California, the wild west of dreamers and desperadoes, has a strong and important country tradition that sprang out of the desire of the newly displaced to form communities.

The story of country in California begins in the San Joachin Valley, in the dusty, working class town of Bakersfield. Depression-era migrants, fleeing the despair of 1930s Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas, arrived in the fertile Central Valley in droves. Lured by the promise of jobs in agriculture and oil, they brought with them country-bluegrass traditions that stretched back decades. Local musician Tommy Collins recalled; "There's quite a history to the camaraderie that developed between those Dust Bowl people. They weren't apt to go for fancy music."

Willie Nelson © Walden S. Fabry

In smoky, tough honky tonks across the Central Valley and Los Angeles, this camaraderie produced "The Bakersfield Sound." Unvarnished, rough and rowdy musicians blended electric guitars, Norento music, and swing beats with traditional country narratives of drinkin', lovin' and leavin' to create a sound that rocked more than it crooned. Buck Owens (later of Hee Haw fame) and his Buckaroos rose to national prominence in the '60s using a Fender Telecaster, drum beat and steel guitar on songs like "Act Naturally." Bakersfield's crown-prince was a handsome, ex-con named Merle Haggard, whose powerful anthems like "Oakie from Muskogee" spoke for the often voiceless California working class population. In "Country: Portraits of an American Sound's" complementary documentary, Haggard recalls Johnny Cash once told him; "Merle, you're everything people think I am."

The next genesis of country music in California would take place in the kingdom of the "rock and roll hippies." In the late '60s and early '70s, legends like Linda Ronstadt, Graham Nash, David Crosby, Joni Mitchell, John Phillips, Emmylou Harris and Don Henley migrated to Los Angeles. Inspired by Dylan, the Beatles, folk music, and blues, these "singer songwriters" came from disparate parts of the world, bringing with them their own musical influences, including that of country.

"The Everly Brothers were a huge influence. I grew up listening to lots of country music," Henry Diltz says. "I remember hearing Hank Williams on the radio, you know 'Honky Tonk Angel,' when I was a little boy. I remember lots of country songs, one was called 'My Daddy is Only a Picture that Hangs on the Wall'. My boyhood hero was Roy Rogers."

Gram Parsons (standing), adopting the rhinestone look of his country music heroes, in a personalized suit designed by Nashville's favorite tailor, Nudie Cohn (seated), at Nudie's Rodeo Tailors shop, Los Angeles, 1968 © Raeanne Rubenstein

Many in this tight-knit scene hung out and collaborated at the folk heavy Troubadour in West Hollywood and the rough and tumble Palomino. They lived in rural Topanga and Laurel Canyons, partying at Frank Zappa's infamous Log Cabin, having barbeques and jamming at the home of den mother Mama Cass. Diltz recalled that the friendship among his fellow musicians inspired what became a long and fruitful career:

"We were on the road a lot touring colleges because folk music was huge at colleges. One time we were in a motor home and we stopped at a junk store in Michigan. We all went in and bought cameras for really no reason. You remember this was the '60s and we were hippies so we were smoking God's herb, so there were cameras sitting there and we thought 'Well, what the hell, yeah I'll get that." So we got some film, and started shooting up a storm, and photographing each other, and came back to L.A. and developed and it was slide film. So we had a slide show. And when I saw the first slide on the wall I just [thought], 'that's what I gotta do. I gotta take more of these, to have more slide shows.' But that's the only part I cared about. I didn't care about pictures or magazines or prints. I wanted slides because all my friends were there, enjoying the slide show. And that was it for me. So I would carefully take pictures during the week and try to make it real surprising. I loved it when my friends didn't know I photographed them. So they'd say 'Oh my God, I didn't even know you took that.' So that became great fun for me. And I kept photographing all my friends -- who were Mama Cass, David Crosby, Steven Stills, and Neil Young."

Dolly Parton, Symphony Hall, Boston, MA, 1972 © Henry Horenstein Earl Scruggs and June Carter on the set of the Flatt & Scruggs Grand Ole Opry Show, 1961. Paul Warren (in background), fiddler, Foggy Mountain Boys. © Les Leverett

Flitting among these legends, creating one modern country masterpiece after another, was the mythical Gram Parsons. A wealthy Southern boy who strove to make "cosmic American music," Parsons was heavily involved in country rock masterpieces, including The Byrds seminal "Sweetheart of the Rodeo," and the Flying Burrito Brothers "The Gilded Palace of Sin." At the Laurel Canyon show visitors can peruse a digitized version of his notebook -- where classic songs and musing are interspersed with cartoonish drawings and snippets of southern drawl that show the inner-workings of a brilliant-at times tortured-mind.

California-cultivated country rock reached its pinnacle with the massive success of Linda Ronstadt, and that of her former backing band, the Eagles. Included in the Annenberg show is a photo by Diltz of the swaggering band, who adopted a country outlaw image and persona on mega-albums throughout the 1970s. In the photo they stare down the lens, loners who have chosen to be on the same team.

California continues to be flooded with newly forming communities of dreaming desperadoes, eager to create universal stories that connect us all. And that longing is what country music is all about.

Johnny Cash appears on the Grand Ole Opry, 1971 © Les Leverett Brenda Lee in 1957, at age 12, in her first Nashville performance. Centennial Park. Every Sunday/Nashville Tennessean sponsored a free concert. © Elmer Williams
Willie Nelson, Texas, c. 1974 © Raeanne Rubenstein Loretta Lynn responds to Grand Ole Opry manager Ott Devine's invitation to join the Opry cast, 1962 © Les Leverett Merle Haggard performing on the Grand Ole Opry, 1967 © Les Leverett Ramblin' Jack Elliott, California, 1973 © Henry Diltz

Read more about the Palomino Club from KCET Departures:

The Palomino Club: North Hollywood's Grand Ole Opry West

The Valley hotspot was once the premier club on the West Coast for cowboys, truckers, and country music.

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About the Author

Hadley Meares is a writer, historian, and singer who traded one Southland (her home state of North Carolina) for another. She is a frequent contributor to Curbed and Atlas Obscura, and leads historical tours all around Los Angeles for Obscura Society LA.
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