Like many, I found my way to early country music through rock n' roll music of the 60s. Bands like The Stones, the Dead, The Byrds, The Lovin' Spoonful and many of the classic garage bands like The 13th Floor Elevators, The Seeds, and Sam the Sham served as a guide, inspiring me to dig deeper into the recordings of America’s past. It was clear to me that if these guys were finding inspiration from early blues and country music, there must be something there that I needed to discover. Following down that path quickly led to a deep affection for folks like Jimmie Rodgers, Blind Blake, the Skillet Lickers — the list goes on and on — which inevitably shaped the music I make with my band Bill and the Belles. It might surprise some people to see what music led me down this path. Here are some songs that were greatly influential to me as an eager teenager trying to find my musical identity, which would inevitably lead to an appreciation of country and blues records of the 1920s and 30s. The Dead would certainly approve.
Bo Diddley, “Mona” — I will forever preach the Bo Diddley gospel. If he’s not already, Bo Diddley needs to be in your ears. This specific song I find inspiring from a songwriting perspective. So simple yet so illustrative. Who can write a love song about a little kid’s infatuation with a seemingly unattainable girl AND deliver it with serious edge? Nobody. Bo Diddley is king.
The Rolling Stones, “Not Fade Away” — Their loose and rowdy rendition of the Buddy Holly classic off of their debut record England’s Newest Hit Makers. This record changed my life and made me want to be a musician. And of course the Bo Diddley beat is glue to this rock n' roll masterpiece.
Grateful Dead, “Katie Mae” — I first heard this tune from a live cut of PigPen singing it stripped down on acoustic guitar. This led to my discovery of one the most badass, charming musicians the state of Texas ever produced, Lightnin' Hopkins. Watch the video of Lightnin’ singing “Pull a Party” to Joan Baez and you’ll see what I mean.
The Seeds, “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine” — This is one of my favorite songs that will forever be stuck in my head. And not to mention some of the best moaning and wailing from legendary lead oddball Sky Saxon. For me, this garage rock classic brings to mind blues greats of the past like Howlin' Wolf, Blind Willie Johnson and others albeit tripped out AF.
Ricky Nelson, “Lonesome Town” — This is kind of an outlier, but it was the first song I ever sang on stage. It turned out to be a Christmas concert and well, this song isn’t too cheery as the title notes. This song has underlying country roots that helped me appreciate folks like Hank Williams, Lefty and Ernest Tubb. I followed this song with The Animals' rendition of "House of the Rising Sun" to a very confused audience. Some things never change.
The Lovin' Spoonful, “What A Day For A Daydream” — For me, this is quintessential pop. This band's ethereal, dreamy soundscape mixed with a touch of twang was a gateway drug for me and country music. Soon after getting into these guys, I found myself buying Tammy Wynette and Merle Haggard records... way before country music was ‘cool.’
The 13th Floor Elevators, “You’re Gonna Miss Me” — Jug band music meets rock n' roll? And it works... kinda. Admittedly I’m not as fond of it song as I used to be, but still an important record in blurring the lines of genre and Roky Erickson got some pipes alright. This song made my head spin when I first heard it. Soon there after I found out about Gus Cannon and never looked back.
? and the Mysterians, "96 Tears" — One of the best live shows I ever attended was at the Empty Bottle in Chicago with “?". By then, well into his 60's, Question Mark was strutting on the stage like a panther and crooning and belting as good as when he first recorded this tune in 1966. Of course "96 Tears" is one of the most celebrated garage rock anthems of all time and deservedly so.
Sir Douglas Quintet, “Mendocino” — The brilliance of Doug Sahm shines on this one. Border music meets the British Invasion deep in the heart of a Texas dance hall. Listening closely to Doug Sahm opened up my ears to appreciate the diversity of cultures that make up real country music. I’ll bet Doug got it from day one.
Velvet Underground, “White Light/White Heat” — Taking the "I don’t give a f---" attitude of The Stones and making it high art. Everybody knows this song and for good reason. It’s an American masterpiece.