Western Edge Concert Cuts Both Ways: Honoring California Country-Rock Roots, Many Shine; But Where Were The Women?

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band performs Oct. 1 in celebration of the opening of the Country MusicHall of Fame and Museum’s exhibition “Western Edge: The Roots and Reverberations of Los Angeles Country-Rock.”

When the Country Music Hall of Fame opened their three-years-in-the-making exhibition “Western Edge: The Roots & Reverberations of Los Angeles Country-Rock,” the cherry on top would be a concert celebrating the groundbreakers who merged country (& Western, as it was then known), folk, bluegrass, jug band and rock music into a sound that would ultimately fill arenas, launch a cross-generational movement that would see Will The Circle Be Unbroken unite the hippies with their sources and ultimately spawn the insurrectionist cow-punk movement of the ‘80s.

Rock & Roll Hall of Famers Richie Furay (Buffalo Springfield, plus Poco) and Chris Hillman (the Byrds, plus the Flying Burrito Brothers and Desert Rose Band) topped a bill designed to bring the evolution of a scene to life. Emceed by longtime Los Angeles Times editor/writer Randy Lewis, the night’s magic saw the music live and breathe not from nostalgia, but through the fire of the genre’s creators.

With an all-star line-up of Alison Brown on banjo, Sara and Sean Watkins on fiddle and guitar, Rob Ickes on dobro and Mark Fain on upright bass, the evening’s multi-instrumental musical director John Jorgenson set the roots firmly with the Kentucky Colonels’ instrumental “Flat Fork” and “If You’re Ever Gonna Love Me.” Yes, the Eagles filled stadiums, but they, too, drew on these storied influences.

What unfolded was a caravan of artists who demonstrated how interconnected the Dilliards, Byrds, Burritos, Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Stills, Nash (& Young) and beyond were. Rodney Dillard, still in sweet voice and Gene Clark – represented by son Kai – sang those early stage-setting songs. Desert Rose Band members Steve Duncan on drums and Jay Dee Maness on steel served in the built-out house band, as all-star vocalist/Desert Rose Bander Herb Pedersen appeared for the first of many times.

To track the movements of players and bands offered a sense of the camaraderie that defined the initial blast of folk-rock turning into what begat Poco, America, even the singer/songwriter movement that emerged from the Troubadour. But more than who knew who needed a musician, there was a true joy at work – and it shimmered onstage.

That joy shone from Jeff Hanna, who talked of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s brief stint as Linda Ronstadt’s back-up band, where they found Michael Nesmith’s “Some of Shelley’s Blues.”

Joined by Jimmie Fadden and John McEuen, who displayed his tremendous comic timing, the trio delivered a winsome “Shelley’s Blues.” The story of a song about a dead dog that broke the band set up “Mr. Bojangles,” which earned the night’s first standing ovation.

Sara Watkins (left), with Mark Fain in the background and Sean Watkins (right)

These moments’ warmth made the show shine. Over and over, the love of that era, these songs and each other permeated the performances. In a one, two punch that tethered to Gram Parsons, Chris Hillman and Pedersen delivered the brisk “Time In Between,” Hillman’s songwriting breakthrough recorded by the Byrds, then pivoted to the Burritos’ “Sin City” with the great Al Perkins, a Burritos/Manassas/ Souther-Hillman-Furay vet, on steel.

From here, the tempos quickened and thickened – and the future of “country rock” emerged. Richie Furay and his brilliant voice toppled the room with Buffalo Springfield’s “Kind Woman.”

Followed by the Watkins Family Hour (Sara and Sean) and James Inveldt returning to the stage, Poco’s “Good Feeling To Know” had the audience singing along.

When Hillman returned for Souther-Hillman-Furay’s “Fallin’ In Love,” he was effusive about Furay. The night’s third standing ovation set-up an intermission. For all the connect-the-dots of the first half, much ground remained to cover. Sadly with the overlap of San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, several key players [Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller, Jim Lauderdale] were unavailable.

Still, the mid-to-late ‘70s and ‘80s were equally dynamic. Add Linda Ronstadt’s inability to sing, a patchy, even misrepresentative reflection of why country-rock became ubiquitous, emerged.

While cooking with what’s on-hand is critical – Sara Watkins’ aching take on Jackson Browne’s “The Late Show” opened new portals to the song’s vulnerability and Vince Gill’s stories about Byron Berline taking a chance on him, then meeting Rodney Crowell who demanded to know how he sang “my song better than I do” expanded the night’s spirit – so much of what populated this massive wave of pop culture and its country/punk response failed to deliver.

While Karla Bonoff and Warren Zevon’s names were mentioned in passing, no context was given… the nexus of X, Los Lobos, and the cited Blasters explored the potency of that wave and era… nor were women given proper representation. Lucinda Williams, Katy Moffat, Nicolette Larson, Valerie Carter, Wendy Waldman, Jann Browne, as well as Carlene Carter and Rosanne Cash also populated this world; Lone Justice’s Maria McKee, a fireball vocalist, exploded hard country music on college radio stations at the dawn of MTV.

Everyone is important, but in an era of white men defining the narrative, losing sight of the impact of Harris’ and Ronstadt’s sisters is egregious.

Rosie Flores and James Intveld

From the Palomino scene of the ‘80s, Intveld and Rosie Flores carried the torch. The rockabilly-tinged Intveld, who lost his brother in Rick Nelson’s plane crash, has been a witness to that era throughout his career; he backed Denny Sarokin on Nelson’s perils of the road “One Night Stand.” Later, he played the Dave Alvin-penned, Dwight Yoakam’s #1 song of fame, loneliness and self-consumption “Long White Cadillac” with a haunted burning.

Rockabilly filly Flores slung her electric guitar lick for lick with the boys, romping on her own “Cryin’ Over You” and the Eagles’ “Already Gone.” A San Diego shredder, she came up in the punk clubs and juke joints making good on the blues/country/rockabilly promise of Southern California country.

Without the genre’s latter era, Western Edge couldn’t shoulder being the dominant exhibition at the Country Music Hall of Fame. Doubly ironic as many regard this as country’s foundation as the 20th Century became the 21 st . Never mentioning the second or third wave of the Dirt Band – “Make A Little Magic” (with Larson) and “Viola! An American Dream” (with Ronstadt) were pop hits that kept the country-rock flame alive in the late 70s, while their “Shot Full of Love” began the Southern California migration to Nashville. The night ended with an all-sing “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” originally on Sweetheart of the Rodeo. No mention was made of the Bob Dylan song being Hillman and Roger McGuinn’s contribution to Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. I1.

Sometimes cooking with what you got is fine. Indeed, a night of well-loved songs performed exquisitely emerged. But to mark a historic event, maybe a trip to the store was in order. Or maybe, this creates the opportunity to lean in down the line.