Cosmic American Country Rock

Featured Cosmic Artist

Updated 10/07/2021

(Credit: Buddy Squires)

Few artists have had as big an impact on country music as Emmylou Harris. The daughter of a career Marine Corps officer, Emmylou grew up in the American South and was a straight-A student, saxophonist in the marching band, cheerleader, and the valedictorian of her high school. In 1967, she dropped out of college and moved to New York with her guitar. After a brief time there – and a brief marriage – she and her newborn daughter moved in with her parents, outside Washington, D.C. After hearing her performing at a club, a member of the Flying Burrito Brothers told country-rocker Gram Parsons about her remarkable voice. Parsons had been searching for a female vocalist to work with on a new album; he found that in Harris. In turn, he introduced her to the roots of country music, shifting her musical identity and changing the course of country music. “I had finally discovered who I was as a singer,” Harris remembers. “I was a singer who was coming through the country music door.”

After Parson’s sudden and tragic death, Harris released two solo albums. She filled them with an eclectic gathering of songs reflecting the classic country sounds she’d learned to appreciate from Gram. Her remake of an old Louvin Brothers song, “If I Could Only Win Your Love,” rose to No. 4 on the country charts; then her renditions of Buck Owens’s “Together Again” and Patsy Cline’s “Sweet Dreams” both reached No. 1. One reviewer, noting her background in folk music and that she was based in Los Angeles, nevertheless declared that her music was “more country than Nashville.” Subsequent albums featured songs that tied her to country’s heritage – from Carter Family and bluegrass standards to classics like Patti Page’s “Tennessee Waltz” – but also incorporated songwriting from beyond Nashville, with work by Townes Van Zandt, Rodney Crowell, Bruce Springsteen, and James Taylor. She has become widely recognized as a leader of the new traditionalist and Americana movements and her bands have helped launch the careers of Crowell, Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, Sam Bush, and others. In 1992, her recording of a live album at the Ryman Auditorium, closed since the 1970s and slated for demolition, reminded people of the hall’s incomparable acoustics as well as its place in music history – and helped the campaign to save it from destruction.


"It seems to me that country music follows us through our lives. You have to get a job, you fall in love – probably unsuccessfully a few times before it finally happens. And then you face losing your job, losing a loved one – the devastating things that can happen to all of us in our lives. Country music has always told that story.

Whatever age we are, we’re all going to experience loss. We’re all going to experience joy. And I think country music has, over the generations, been the place that we’ve told those stories to each other and about each other. And, hopefully, that will continue."

Harris has received nearly every industry honor in existence, including multiple CMA, ACM, GRAMMY, International Bluegrass Music Association, and Americana awards. In 2008, she was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. In 2011, she was awarded the ACM Cliffie Stone Pioneer Award and, in 2018, a GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award.

Born: April 2, 1947, Birmingham, Alabama

Emmylou's Website:

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.”

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.)

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

Contact Me: N17