The conventional narrative tells us that country-rock was the invention of Gram Parsons and his pre-Byrds outfit the International Submarine Band, and that their debut LP Safe at Home was the first country-rock album, finished in 1967 but not released until spring 1968 (by which time Parsons had joined the Byrds, featuring on their seminal Sweetheart of the Rodeo, contributing Hickory Wind and One Hundred Years From Now but having a far greater influence on the band’s sound than the songwriting credits and his limited number of lead vocals suggested).
Of course, conventional narratives often leave out thorny little details. Stephen Stills has long argued that the Buffalo Springfield were the true pioneers in the melding of country and rock, and not without some justification. No one seems to speak up for the Lovin’ Spoonful’s efforts in this area, though. From the very beginning of their career in 1965, country music was a recurring strand in the band’s sound. Johnny Cash covered John Sebastian’s Darling Companion (from 1966’s Hums of the Lovin’ Spoonful, which was recorded a few months before the first Buffalo Springfield album) at his performance at San Quentin prison without changing a single note or inflection in the arrangement. Country licks bubbled up constantly in guitarist Zal Yanovsky’s playing, and Sebastian had a grounding in folk, blues and country that made its way into his original songs as well as influencing his choice of material to interpret.
By the release of Never Goin’ Back, Sebastian had left the band and been replaced as lead singer by the group’s drummer Joe Butler. In addition to this, Yanovsky had been exiled for telling the police the name of his dealer after a marijuana bust (Yanovsky was a pariah in the whole music community for this transgression and he split for his native Canada as a result). In fact, the version of the band that cut Never Goin’ Back contained only Butler from the original line-up. If Darling Companion had been a rock and roll band playing a country song and doing it straight, Never Goin’ Back was a more artful combination of country and rock. The stabs of overdriven guitar from the second verse onwards (and the cowbell!) may signify rock music, but the song itself with its straight-outta-Nashville chord sequence, mournful acoustic guitar intro, its pedal steel its and lovelorn lyric is stone country. But it’s not hammy; there’s no theatrics here, and there’s no gimmicks. They’re not shooting for the same thing they did when they cut Darling Companion but the band’s collective love for country music – and their desire to play it straight – remained, and perhaps it’s because of this gimmick- and attitude-free approach to country material that they are still the key overlooked players in the evolution of country-rock.
I’m not suggesting that the Spoonful did anything as fanciful as ‘invent country-rock’. Even if you do think that genre labels like that have validity, it’s always a simplification to lay that kind of achievement at the door of any one artist. Just having a quick think about it, country songs had always been a part of the Beatles’ repertoire, so they’ve got a prior claim, and I’m sure there are umpteen country records from the fifties that had something close to a straight-eights rock beat rather than a shuffle. Then there’s the Everly Brothers’ entire body of work. But credit should go where it’s due, and the guys in the Spoonful never seem to get a mention in this debate. In fact, they’re overdue for a reappraisal more generally.
The Lovin’ Spoonful – unacknowledged country-rockers