Cosmic American Music

What Is Cosmic American Country Music?

Cosmic American Music is hard to define, and often easier to define by what it’s not. Michael Grimshaw in his essay “Gram Parsons, Theology and Country Music” writes: “Parsons’ mission was the creation of a new way forward, a way to musically heal the separation and increasing divisiveness of late modern life. His term for what he attempted was Cosmic American Music.

“The narrative focus of country became superimposed on the more urban concerns of rock so instead of statements of desire or anger followed by exclamatory choruses (as one could characterize much of rock), this new form takes the listener on often both a psychological and physical journey – short stories in three-minute forms. The aim was to bring together the past with the present and provide a musical and cultural point of epiphany.

To do so, Parsons reused the language and rhythms of country, played them through the language and rhythms of rock, and in himself attempted the incarnated embodiment of a musical and cultural reconciliation. To speak theologically he was both prophet and messiah: both pointing the way to a new beginning and attempting to live out the struggles of just what that new beginning involved.”

Featured Cosmic Band

Here are some of my key points in the definition of the genre.

  • Its evolution is roots-based but it’s not really roots, therefore not most Americana, especially if not heavily country-based*.

  • It’s not usually singer/songwriter, though it requires solid songwriting, and is usually band-oriented (inc. in-studio if not officially a “band”).

  • It’s not pure country in the sense of it being solely traditional or “trad.” It’s usually more closely aligned with Bakersfield than Appalachian, though incorporates diverse background elements, including rock, soul, and jazz.

  • It’s not pseudo “country-rock,” which is typically a market-driven synthetic synthesis, which may hint at why most in this list did not sell well at the time. (True “country rock” was epitomized by Jerry Lee Lewis.)

  • It’s often southern in origin but usually not “southern rock,” which is an identifiable and distinctive niche of rock music.

  • It is not usually “Outlaw” as epitomized by those who have recently co-opted that label; having said that, in some ways, it followed Hank and Cash as the original outlaws of country music.

  • There is a large West Coast/Californian aspect to it, both migratory and per the Bakersfield sound, as well as in regard to the evolution of the genre itself.

  • It’s not soul music per se, though Gram once described it as “white soul,” and it is usually soulful in some way.

  • Above all Cosmic American Music is inventive in songwriting and delivery, cosmic in the sense of being cutting edge, but built upon the tried and true (e.g., Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Louvin Brothers, Elvis).

(*As Americana is a relatively new genre and by its own definition literally includes everything, you can’t say “Americana” does not include some Cosmic American Music.)

McGuinn Clark & Hillman

McGuinn, Clark & Hillman (later McGuinn-Hillman) came about in 1977, when three former members of the original Byrds -- Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, and Chris Hillman -- decided to try and update their sound in a new context. The impetus for the reunion took shape in stages over the course of that year. McGuinn and Hillman had played together longer than any of the other original members, with six albums (and innumerable concerts) across four years during the 1960s, and as late as 1967 they'd tried without success to reintegrate Gene Clark -- the best songwriter among them and a superb singer, but also the first to leave -- back into the band. Then, in early 1977, with each fronting his own band, they planned a joint tour of Europe promoting their own respective new releases. The Byrds were still idolized across Europe, even more so than in the United States, and ticket sales were brisk and press coverage enthusiastic.

The actual tour didn't go off exactly as planned, owing to Clark's ever-present personal (and psychological) demons on one end and Hillman's business disputes with the promoter on the other. But the experience of singing together on-stage for the first time in more than ten years, as they did at two successive shows at London's Hammersmith Odeon, was so satisfying to all three that McGuinn and Clark ended up touring the United States together as a duo; they were joined at some performances by Hillman (and even fellow original Byrd David Crosby occasionally showed up at their performances, most notably at the Boarding House in San Francisco, the latter becoming an unofficial Byrds reunion, captured in a radio broadcast and later released as the bootleg Doin' All Right for Old People). Those mostly West Coast "reunion" shows happened to be witnessed by representatives of various record labels, including Rupert Perry, then the president of Capitol Records. The latter company signed McGuinn and Clark up as a duo in late 1977, with Hillman -- newly released from his contract with Asylum Records -- coming aboard soon after.

On its face, the idea seemed brilliant, getting three of the original group's four principal singer/songwriters together. But there were also serious flaws in the plan from the start -- in announcing the existence of the trio to the world, McGuinn and company stated that they were not planning to rehash the Byrds sound, but to make records that were contemporary and forward-looking -- this reunion was about the here-and-now and the future, not the past. But putting those three musicians together inevitably raised expectations among the most likely record-buyers and concertgoers, of something akin to a Byrds reprise. As though to dash those hopes and establish themselves as a new performing unit, the resulting debut album, McGuinn, Clark & Hillman, made heavy use of additional singers and musicians, and McGuinn's trademark 12-string Rickenbacker guitar was nowhere in evidence. The music was pleasant, reminiscent at times of the Eagles and Firefall (the latter, ironically, the home of ex-Byrds drummer Michael Clarke), but also a bit stiff.

What's more, the occasional presence of a disco beat on some of the songs didn't seem to please any part of the audience, while the group's avoiding any semblance of the Byrds' sound, vocally or instrumentally, seemed like an insult to peoples' tastes and expectations. And none of that would have seemed quite so bad, if only they had replaced their expected sound with something musically viable and justified -- but warmed-over Eagles with a disco beat was barely that. Matters weren't helped at all by the subsequent tour, on which the trio did, indeed, acknowledge and utilize its classic Byrds sound, even performing parts of that old repertory. The most loyal part of their audience could, understandably, feel some confusion and frustration over the fact that the performing version of McGuinn, Clark & Hillman seemed to embrace a difference sound from the record they'd made -- which made purchasers of that record feel frustrated and disappointed, even with a modest hit single, "Don't You Write Her Off," which charted at number 33. And then Gene Clark's health began deteriorating, forcing his exit from the tour.

This event created a rift between the ex-bandmates that was never fully healed, and may well have been responsible for Clark's not having been asked to participate in the "reunion" tracks recorded for the Byrds box set in the early '90s. McGuinn and Hillman soldiered on to finish the tour and do a second album, entitled City. Released in 1980, and created to McGuinn & Hillman "featuring Gene Clark," it had more of a recognizable connection to the Byrds, and was as strong a record as -- and some would say even stronger than -- its predecessor. But even here, there were some serious weaknesses, as Clark's two songs, one of them ironically called "Don't Let You Down," were the two best tracks on the album. Additionally, although this record did sound a bit more in keeping with the history of the musicians involved, some of the material seemed inappropriate, even silly -- "Skate Date" was catchy enough, but hardly worthy of (or appropriate) for two singer/songwriters associated with such songs as "Eight Miles High," "The Girl with No Name," "Have You Seen Her Face," etc.

City was successful enough to justify a third release, simply called McGuinn/Hillman, but that record proved a group-breaker -- the producers, Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett, were renowned R&B specialists who evidently just didn't embrace the Byrds' sound or its modern permutations, and neither musician was comfortable with the results. It wasn't that the Byrds had never touched on aspects of '50s R&B -- they'd successfully applied a 12-string-driven Bo Diddley beat to "Don't Doubt Yourself, Babe" in 1965 -- but the record, despite a few distinctive moments, mostly in the songs written by McGuinn and Hillman, just didn't feel like it represented the people or the talents on it.

In the wake of the group's folding in 1981, Chris Hillman returned to bluegrass, where he had started his career, and later won several country music awards and cut a string of successful albums with the Desert Rose Band. Meanwhile, Roger McGuinn resumed his solo career, playing the occasional concert and eventually cutting a fairly successful album, Back from Rio. Gene Clark toured nationally with a band called the Firebyrds and cut one album (with another left unfinished) for Allegiance Records in the early '80s, and subsequently recorded with Carla Olson, but he never really resumed a full-time career. He died in 1991, just a few months after taking the stage with McGuinn, Hillman, and David Crosby at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony honoring the Byrds.

Clark's Story

(From home page)

The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Nancy Parsons. The antics that went on with all of us in the green room before, during, and after the Flying Burrito reunion concert at the Maintenance Shop, 1979. Utimatly affecting where I am today.

The Flying Burrito Brothers and Nancy Parsons

I initially met the band back in 1979 in the green room of the Maintenance Shop in Ames, Iowa. I just moseyed in and started mingling with the backstage crowd. Everyone was pounding down drinks including Nancy Parsons. We all got fecked up pretty good. The band played two sets with a long break in between. Skip Battin and Nancy Parsons took a liking to me and we hit it off pretty well. Skip was funny and witty. After I met him I always called him Kane. Just like in his song. When it was time for them to split, Nancy slipped and sprained her ankle. The next thing I knew was with Skip, Pete, Gene, and I was carrying Nancy out of the bar, through a crowd, and into a limousine.

The line-up of the band back then was, Gib Guilbeau (violin and vocals), Skip Battin (Bass and vocals), Pete Kleinow (pedal steel), and Gene Parsons (drums.)

Granger & Williams and Nancy Parsons

Then, a few months later, it happened again, but differently.

Dave and I, (Granger & Williams,)were playing at an exotic dance club on Duff Ave. called, I think, “The Fox Lounge”. The Fox didn’t have dancers on Mondays, but instead, opted for acoustic bands.

Well, sometime during the first set, I couldn’t believe who walked in. It was Nancy Parsons and her boyfriend Steve. If you haven’t made the connection by now, Nancy is Gram Parsons widow. Her boyfriend was the owner of A and R studios just northwest of Ames.

Both of them sat up in front of the stage. After a few songs, Nancy asked us if we knew Hot Burrito #1.

Clark Williams (Left)

Dave Granger (Right)

Dave Granger &

Clark Williams

Of course, we knew it, so we played it. She liked it and she liked how Dave and me sounded.

She had connections to help us record (A and R Studio), a road manager (Excelsior Entertainment), and a friend of hers, Judy Collins.

Later on that year the Burrito Brothers were doing the mid-west leg of their tour that included Kansas City, Ames, Moline Illinois, Minneapolis, and Soux City S.D. Nancy, along with Excelsior hooked us up.

After that, Dave and I got sick of each other so we split up. I ended up floating from one group to another then hooked up with the Old Triangle, helped found a very successful seafood restaurant, co-owned a sushi restaurant, and ended up promoting Irish Music concerts along with freelancing as an assistant Chef for entertainers that headline Wells Fargo Arena, (Miranda Lambert, Jon Pardi, Ashley McBride, Carrie Underwood, Dwight Yoakum, and get this...WWE Raw, that was quite different).

Right Now

I just accepted another entertainment company to do work with, ATN Event Staffing. This company produces top-end rock concerts. My first gig with them will be at the Jack White concert.

Of course, I do have my own production company, King Baby Productions, that does all kinds of cool stuff. Art, writing, Chef(ing), and music and am still a member of the Celtic Music Association that promote only the top, best Celtic music in the state of Iowa.

And to think; All of this was just a chance happening.

Granger & Williams

Often Breaks

More About

Cosmic American Music

With those initial thoughts in mind, here’s a “Top 16” list, (but not absolutely in order), of albums that represent the Cosmic American Music genre.

Essentially, Country-Rock is rock bands playing country music. It is country music informed by rock's counterculture ideals, as well as its reliance on loud amplification, prominent backbeat, and pop melodies. The first country-rock bands -- the Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons, the Byrds, Neil Young -- played straight country, as inspired by the Bakersfield sound of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, as well as honky tonkers like Hank Williams. As the genre moved into the '70s, the rougher edges were smoothed out as the Eagles, Poco, Pure Prairie League, and Linda Ronstadt made music that was smoother and more laid-back. This became the predominant sound of country-rock in the '70s. In the late '80s, a small group of alternative rock bands began to revive the spartan sound of the original sound of Parsons and Young.

A Song For You

Gram Parsons' daughter, Poly, wrote the words down on these two pieces of paper for me on Christmas Eve, 2020. These are the words to her father's song. "A Song For You". If you'd like to hear the song, scroll back up to the top of this page and click the abstract portrait of Gram. I will always cherish her gift.

"A Song For You"

[Verse 1]

Oh, my land is like a wild goose

Wanders all around, everywhere

Trembles and it shakes 'til every tree is loose It rolls the meadows, and it rolls the nails


So take me down to your dance floor

And I won't mind people when they stare

Paint a different color on your front door

And tomorrow, we will still be there

[Verse 2]

Jesus built a ship to sing a song to

It sails the river, and it sails the tide

Some of my friends don't know who they belong to

Some can't get a single thing to work inside


So take me down to your dance floor

And I won't mind the people when they stare

Paint a different color on your front door

And tomorrow, we will still be there

[Fiddle Solo]

[Verse 3]

I've loved you every day, and now I'm leaving

And I can see the sorrow in your eyes

I hope you know a lot more than you're believing

Just so the sun don't hurt you when you cry


Oh, take me down to your dance floor

I won´t mind the people when they stare

Paint a different color on your front door

And tomorrow, we may still be there

And tomorrow, we may still be there