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Taking It Easy in the Sunbelt: The Eagles and Country Rock’s Regionalism
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In 1976, the Eagles released a greatest-hits collection that quickly became the first RIAA-certified platinum album and eventually one of the bestselling albums ever in the United States. Beginning with their first release in 1972, the band dominated the pop charts through the rest of the decade and popularized the style of country rock. Much of their music may be classified as rock ‘n’ roll, soft rock, or pop, but they were the most successful of all the country rock bands while primarily marketing themselves to rock listeners. Though not accepted by mainstream country audiences at the time, the Eagles made some elements of country hip, likely contributing to the rising popularity of country music in the seventies. The term “country rock” is typically reserved for music featuring country lyrics and vocal style over a rock band that also includes traditional country instruments like the fiddle, dobro, mandolin, banjo, or pedal steel guitar. In 1967 and 1968, Bob Dylan and the Byrds recorded country albums in Nashville and thus spurred a host of musicians to experiment with country. Artists such as Gram Parsons, Linda Ronstadt, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Poco, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, Michael Nesmith, and the Grateful Dead all covered traditional country songs, wrote country-inspired songs, or added traditional country instruments to their lineups. These bands sold few records, and it was not until the Eagles’ first release that the style found broad listenership. These musicians tended to be outsiders to country music both musically and demographically; few had previous experience performing country and most were middle-class countercultural non-southerners working in Los Angeles.

Shifts in regional dynamics during the late sixties and early seventies formed the backdrop for this pro-country movement led by country outsiders. Even though the Eagles did not bill themselves as southerners, their sound nevertheless relied upon an economic and cultural revival of the South. The South’s rise reimagined as the chic, trans-regional Sunbelt provided a context for the easygoing lifestyle the band portrayed through music. This easygoing sound correlated with the media’s representations of the South more broadly in the early seventies. As the Eagles adapted country, folk, and bluegrass to rock, they reflected the changing conceptions of the South and the West, coinciding with a “southernization” of other forms of American popular culture. The mythical West, rich with metaphors of personal freedom, allowed country rock to present itself as the counterculture’s version of country while simultaneously non-southern and therefore less conservative. The West mitigated the direct southern influence at a time when embracing the South openly (as southern rock would do) was to engage in regional identity politics non-southerners wanted to avoid. Understanding the Sunbelt’s rise (and its incorporation of both southern and western cultural values) in the seventies is crucial to understanding country rock’s popularity, because it increased the prestige of country music. “Take It Easy” and other select country rock songs capitalized on this moment. Analysis of the musical style of “Take It Easy,” the band’s first hit, shows how the Eagles achieved a laid-back quality by plucking particular elements from country rock and combining them with pop arrangement techniques. Arrangement is perhaps the most instructive aspect of the song, for it is the main way the song embodies tensions between freedom and entrapment, country and pop styles, and the South and the nation.

Critical reception has most often highlighted the Eagles’ pop elements as a point of weakness. For Reebee Garofalo, the Eagles were “certainly talented enough to replicate the sound of country music, but they brought it out of the backwoods and into the big city,” with a “slicker, more polished” sound. For Robert Christgau, the Eagles embodied the “culmination of rock’s country strain” but their calculated success deemed the music inauthentic: “The music, the lyrics, and the distribution machine are all suave and synthetic. Brilliant stuff—but false.” Not all country rockers took the Eagles’ music seriously either; as Gram Parsons said in a 1973 interview, “The Eagles and some others I would call bubblegum…. It’s got too much sugar in it. Life is tougher than they...

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