Article

What Is Cosmic American Music? (And a List of Examples)

Cosmic American Music is hard to define, and often easier to define by what it’s not. Michael Grimshaw in his essay “Redneck Religion and Shitkickin’ Saviours? 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.

Further he writes:

“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, an American gospel of popular music in which both (latter-day) ‘Greek and Jew’ could be remade anew. 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.”

Pretty heady stuff. Here’s some of my key points in 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, can’t say “Americana” does not include some Cosmic American Music.)

With those initial thoughts in mind (something tells me more will be added to this organic discussion), here’s a “Top 15” list, somewhat but not absolutely in order, of albums that to me represent the Cosmic American Music genre.

  • Gilded Palace of Sin, Flying Burrito Bros (FBB)

  • Safe at Home, International Submarine Band 

  • GP, Gram Parsons/Emmylou Harris

  • Grevious Angel (inc. session tracks with Emmylou Harris later released inSleepless Nights), Gram Parsons w/ Emmylou (tied or ranked as one)

  • Nevada Fighter, Michael Nesmith & the First National Band (w/ Red Rhodes)

  • Muleskinner (imo only Cosmic Bluegrass album ever)

  • Wrecking Ball, Emmylou Harris and Daniel Lanois

  • Great Speckled Bird, Ian Tyson (not higher due to last track “We Sail”)

  • Aereo Plain, John Hartford

  • Sweetheart of the Rodeo, The Byrds/Gram Parsons

  • Burrito Deluxe, FBB (admit that GP at least in part wrote Wild Horses and I’ll rank it higher)

  • Hums of the Lovin’ Spoonful

  • Trace, Son Volt (not higher as others were the forerunners, groundbreaking)

  • American Beauty, Grateful Dead (included somewhat reluctantly as really more rock synthesis with country overtones, great songwriting)

  • Will the Circle Be Unbroken (only first release, and almost didn’t include as it’s solid traditional country which the Dirt Band presents but doesn’t really change, but it had a part in the in-roads of country into the rock audience, characteristic of CAM)

 

Good to see you stop in, Will!

I read the excerpt from Michael Grimshaw's essay three times.  I'm 57 (but read at a 62 year old level) and I don't understand a word of it.  Not sure your attempts at defining CAM clarified it for me either. Hard to describe smoke. Even so, I think this might be an example of what you are getting at?

 

Good to see you again too! Sorry about Grimshaw's and my failure with you. It happens. I believe Faulkner once said all writers fail, but that he was trying to fail on a grander scale. Or something to that effect. To me, this track, and I believe their work in general, I'd classify as more folk oriented. Gram, Ian, and others on my list did come from that background, but mainly because when they started out it was "hip." It wasn't really who they were. Next time I'll try harder to define smoke, as, frankly, that's all we can do these days.  

I would agree that Grimshaw's paragraph reads more like prose poetry than an informative text. It sounds good but it's hard to really understand what he's saying.

In your list of albums that you feel are examples of this type of music I expected to see Michael Murphy's 1974 album "Cosmic Cowboy." The title, at least, seems to declare his intention of creating in this "genre" and I, for one, love that album. But perhaps it doesn't fit your definition of what that music is.

To be fair to Mr. Grimshaw, I selected these passages from his much longer treatise; as it sells for $30 I believe if you don't have an institutional pass at JSTOR, I would send you to the entire piece if interested. 

Thank you for the mention of Michael Murphy's work. I would certainly add it to the list. There is a close connection between him and Nesmith, whom I would put at the forefront of the movement up there with Gram Parsons, together with their other Texas compadre, the late Boomer Castleman, whom I had the pleasure to meet several years ago at one of my Nashville shows.

As an aside, I understand that the current No Depression may not be the most friendly place for this post, but they are linking this page to another of my more controversial posts, which is currently at 51,095 page views, so I assume there is some interest in my thoughts in this forum. 

I also love that record...glad you mentioned "Cosmic Cowboy" Dennis, as I was pondering writing a post that would have included that record as well...I'd agree with Will there is a symmetry of sorts with Mike Nesmith's work of that time period as well...this was before Murphey became Michael Martin Murphey and had some pop country hits...and eventually recorded 3 great records of  "Cowboy Songs"...saw him perform once with a vocal group called the Sons of the San Joaquin at a museum...excellent concert that mixed great traditional cowboy songs and harmonies with history and cowboy storytelling...Dave Letterman and Paul Shaffer went back and forth on several different shows discussing Murphey's biggest hit "Wildfire" maybe 10-15 years ago...Murphey eventually came on the show and sang it with the band and an orchestra, and told the story of writing it...he dreamed the entire song, start to finish, woke up and wrote it down...Letterman felt the song had tapped into something lyrically...said it had "a palpable sense of ... mysticism, melancholy ... and uplifting well-being."  Maybe that's part of the secret or definition of "Cosmic American Music"...mysticism and melancholy, yet uplifting...?  

Glad you paid a vist Will...I noted you referenced the article with the 51K and counting hits with the comment about "Wild Horses" in this article...nice mention of Boomer Castleman too, who was a fine picker, a one-hit wonder under his own name (Judy Mae), and the inventor of the original "Palm Pedal" for the guitar along with Paul Bigsby...allows simulation of steel guitar bends on a regular guitar, great guitar effect, right there with Gene Parsons and Clarence White's "B-Bender"...Boomer and Murphey were in the Lewis and Clark Expedition before the solo careers...

I love all that music you listed as CAM...I felt a connection between Son Volt's record and the older ones when I heard it too...I love "Trace"...it's a great record...

 

Hey Jim, good to see you and old friends here too. Thanks for filling out the rest of that history re: those three Texas CAM amigos. I totally agree with the "mysticism and melancholy" CAM observation; I do believe that is directly connected to Grimshaw's essay in which he centers on Parsons' music as an attempt to unite "past with the present and provide a musical and cultural point of epiphany." 

 

Whatever one wants to call the genre, your list of 15 albums is certainly an impressive list and I have and love most of them. It was interesting to see Lovin' Spoonful on the list and John Hartford's "Areo Plain" is a favorite. You list "Muleskinner" as the only cosmic bluegrass album. Since David Grisman and Peter Rowan from that band were also in Old And In The Way I'm curious why they don't fit the CAM genre--perhaps too bluegrass? But what about Seatrain with Muleskinner members Richard Greene and Peter Rowan whose two albums I like very much? Richard Greene's electric fiddle is pretty cosmic in iteself.

I wasn't aware of Gram Parson's earlier band International Submarine Band so thanks for that connection. And Boomer Castleman I'd never heard of so thanks Jim for the added information.

Yes! Seatrain, thank you. (I saw them at my only visit to the Fillmore West 1971 I believe, long story.) As for Old And... see my comment in answer above unless I thinking of my WordPress blog where I'm also responding... Yes I suppose too "Appalachian" or yes bluegrass for my distinction. Seatrain was huge re: CAM, loved that gatefold album. Thanks for reminding. Yes, Hums is seminal. So to Aereo Plain, a masterpiece. I can't recommend Gram's ISB album enough.   

I believe  Grimshaw's major accomplishments were developing the concepts of diffusion, folkways, and ethnocentrism. This seminal work led him to conclude,perhaps, that attempts at government-mandated reform (the FCC) were useless. Country-rock emerged from the post/pre-industrial and folk and rock scenes of the late 1950s and can be seen as both an extension of and reaction against those trends. Musically diverse and  seen as much as  romanticized hillbilly fashion as a musical subgenre, and the definitive important development was 4-track recording. The advent of this improved system gave recording engineers and musicians vastly greater flexibility for recording and overdubbing, and 4-track was the studio standard for most of the later 1960s. Many of the most famous recordings by  The Rolling Stones including Wild Horses were recorded on 4-track.

Did you consult M. Duchamp on that Mr. Mutt...?   Aren't the concepts of diffusion and and Dada related...or alliterative...?

"romaniticized hillbilly fashion as a musical subgenre"?

R., you out did yourself and Grimshaw there...

 

 

 

Hmmmmmmmmmmmmm.... Mr. Clown, are you trying to out-Grimshaw Mr. Grimshaw?

As you can see I ignored Mr. Clown's little 4-track ramble. (And I obviously thought Michael Grimshaw's piece was excellent, the entire article not just the excerpts I borrowed.)  

Ah, dear Sir you have not ignored it but read it and now, perhaps maybe, and definitely possibly, you have violated the non-disclosure form neither of us signed.

Non-disclosure agreements are rather useless these days Mr. Mutt..no harm, no foul...

Speaking of non-disclosure agreements, I assume you watched 60 Minutes Mr. Hunter. And I ask you, would you trust that lying bleached blonde  with large breasts or Stormy Daniels?

I'm going with Stormy...the lying bleached blonde was the one that got the spanking, so I'm playing the percentages there...

You guys! 

Sorry Will...can't help myself sometimes, especially when Mr. Mutt is setting me up...I appreciate the grace...

Nor can I especially when Mr. Hunter blatantly encourages me with either his silence or comments. Yes, Will thanks for your tolerance-past, present and future.

So this is what's been going on since I've been gone...

Blatant encouragment is my specialty...you are welcome...thanks for the setups...

Will, all bs aside, I’ve read through this whole piece a few times now (couldn’t help it, what with the email notifications coming in apace). I just don’t see a distinction between Cosmic American Music and anything else mixing country, blues, and rock. I read up on the term on line a bit hoping this would all make more sense to me, but I’m still not sure how CAM is different in spirit or sound from other music blending these kinds of sounds. Sounds like an interesting phrase that fans of Gram would use but not necessarily others.  Not trying to give you a hard time here, perhaps succeeding anyway.

I may be in Buffalo June 8-10 for a high school reunion. Hopefully the Sportsman has something interesting that fits in around the reunion.

It's all ultimately academic. But I do think Gram was onto something distinctive when he suddenly came up with the phrase after a reporter just gave him a blank look when he was describing the kind of music he plays. It was different then, and it's different now. That's one of the reasons you don't find me around these parts much. I just don't feel that the genres and styles represented here are what Gram had in mind. Certainly not that they need to be! To each his own. I love many styles of music, but I do find that I'm most drawn to CAM as I defined it here. 

Sounds like a great idea! I may be heading out to Wisconsin around then do let's see! 

I do think pretty much every record you mentioned here is great...plus the ones that were mentioned after that fit...

If you drop in once in a while, it's welcome...I can get to you on FB if need be...but we do have a little dialogue going here now and then...if the mood strikes stop in...