Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The rock music that developed in the Great Plains is derived from many sources, notably, the blues, country, and various ethnic folk styles. Many of the artists who were born and raised in the Great Plains have exerted a great influence on the direction that rock music has taken since the late 1950s. Many others have had a more local influence, for every Plains town of any size has its own pulsating rock scene.

The earliest and most influential of the Great Plains musicians are from Texas. Lubbock's Buddy Holly (1936-59), with his band, the Crickets, had several major hits in the late 1950s, beginning with "That'll Be the Day" (1957). Though strongly influenced by rock styles from Memphis and Chicago, the Crickets developed their own rock sound, which incorporated a West Texas feel, that affected the next generation of rockers, including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Grateful Dead. Other Texas artists associated with Holly include the Big Bopper, J. P. Richardson (1931-59) from Sabine Pass, who was killed in the same plane crash as Holly, and Waylon Jennings (1937-2002) of Littlefield, the bassist for the Crickets who relinquished his airplane seat to Richardson. Jennings emerged in the 1970s as an important figure in outlaw music (country music with a strong rock foundation), in which he was joined by fellow Texan Willie Nelson, who was born in Abbot in 1933. Jennings and Nelson are crossover artists, equally popular with rock and country fans. Also fatefully associated with Holly is Bobby Vee, who was born in Fargo, North Dakota, in 1943. Vee's band was brought in as a replacement act for the February 3, 1959, concert in Moorhead, Minnesota, that Holly had been scheduled to play. Vee later had several Top 10 hits in the 1960s, including "Take Good Care of My Baby" (1961) and "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes" (1962).

Roy Orbison (1936-1988), from Vernon and Wink, began his career in Texas but eventually moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where he recorded several songs at Sun Studio, the birthplace of rockabilly. Orbison had two number one hit singles, "Running Scared" (1961) and "Oh, Pretty Woman" (1964). Despite several personal tragedies in the late 1960s, Orbison continued to perform in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1988 he joined George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, and Tom Petty for a triumphant return to the spotlight in The Traveling Wilburys, but he died of a heart attack shortly after the release of their first album.

Texas remains the most fertile ground for rock music on the Plains. Lubbock produced Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock, Amarillo Joe Ely, and Fort Worth Townes Van Zandt. Gilmore, Hancock, and Ely played together in the acoustic band the Flatlanders in the early 1970s, a suitable name for musicians from the Staked Plains of Texas.

Several artists from Oklahoma significantly contributed to the development of rock as songwriters and performers. Among these are Hoyt Axton, who was born in 1938 in Duncan. Among his many songs are "The Pusher" (recorded by Steppenwolf in 1964) and "Joy to the World" (a hit for Three Dog Night in 1971). Jimmy Webb, born in Elk City in 1946 (and a millionaire by age twenty-one) is another prolific Oklahoma songwriter whose hits include "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" (Glen Campbell, 1967), "Up, Up, and Away" (the Fifth Dimension, 1967), and "MacArthur Park" (Richard Harris, 1968). J. J. Cale (born in Oklahoma City in 1938) was yet another talented Oklahoma musician, composing "After Midnight" (1970) and "Cocaine" (1977) for Eric Clapton and "Call Me the Breeze" for Lynyrd Skynyrd (1974) among many others. Cale became a popular recording artist in the 1970s, offering his own slower, emotional renditions of these songs.

Leon Russell (born in 1941), from Lawton, became a session instrumentalist in Los Angeles in 1958, playing guitar, bass, keyboards, and trumpet. By the 1960s he had established himself as an important writer and producer, working with artists like Glen Campbell, the Byrds, and Gary Lewis and the Playboys. In 1970 Russell was the charismatic musical director for Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, and he later helped organize the band for George Harrison's benefit concert for Bangladesh. Russell composed many memorable songs that were featured on his own down-home albums and recorded by others; for example, "Delta Lady" was a hit for Joe Cocker in 1969, and "Superstar" was a major success for the Carpenters in 1971. Russell is a consummate session man who has recorded with artists as different as Frank Sinatra, Herb Albert, and Bob Dylan.

Judy Collins, born in Seattle in 1939 but raised in Denver, and John Denver (1943-97), born in Roswell, New Mexico, came out of the western Plains. Collins, who developed her art in Denver's coffeehouses, had hits with pop ballads like "Both Sides Now" (1967) and "Send in the Clowns" (1975). Denver's music is more folk-oriented country rock, praising the virtues of country living, particularly in the Rocky Mountains. Denver's most memorable hits include "Rocky Mountain High" (1972) and "Annie's Song" (1975). After enjoying a great deal of success in the 1970s, Denver's career stalled in the 1980s. He was beginning a comeback in the late 1990s when he was killed in an airplane accident.

Several musicians who were born or raised in the Prairie Provinces have also been influential in the development of rock. Joni Mitchell was born in 1943 in Fort Macleod, Alberta, and studied art in Calgary. She worked the folk scene in Toronto and had her first hit with "Big Yellow Taxi" (1970). A durable and talented artist, Mitchell has incorporated jazz elements in her music, particularly, her album Mingus (1979). Neil Young, one of the major figures in American rock music, spent his formative years in Winnipeg before moving back to Toronto (his birthplace, in 1945) and then on to Los Angeles. Influenced by 1950s rock and roll styles, Young came into prominence in the late 1960s as the lead guitarist for Buffalo Springfield. After the demise of the band, Young recorded two albums before joining the supergroup Crosby, Stills and Nash. They recorded the album Déjà vu in 1970, but personality conflicts led to Young leaving the group. He recorded several albums in the 1970s, notably, the critically acclaimed Harvest (1971), and has continued to record prolifically. Because of his minimalist approach to guitar soloing, Young is also considered to be the "godfather" of alternative rock, as his eulogy to Kurt Cobain (Sleeps with Angels, 1994) and his collaborations with Pearl Jam (Mirror Ball, 1995) prove.

All members of the Guess Who also came out of Winnipeg. Their numerous hits include "These Eyes" (1969) and "American Woman" (1970). At the height of their popularity, lead guitarist Randy Bachman left the band for personal reasons, and the group disbanded in 1975. Bachman joined his brothers Robbie and Tim and friend Fred Turner to create Bachman- Turner Overdrive. BTO had several hit songs in the 1970s, including "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet" and "Taking Care of Business" (both 1974), before disbanding in 1977.

Many more Great Plains musicians have contributed to the development of rock music. With few exceptions, these artists are rooted in varying combinations of folk, country, and blues styles. Again, with few exceptions, they were obliged to leave the region, generally for the coasts, to make their names in the business. But Plains Texans often went only as far as Austin, and others like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell still refer to the Plains as home.

Stephen Valdez University of Georgia

Clifford, Mike. The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock. New York: Harmony Books, 1992.

DeCurtis, Anthony, James Henke, and Holly George-Warren, eds. The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll. New York: Random House, 1992.

Valdez, Stephen. A History of Rock Music. Dubuque IA: Kendall-Hunt Publishers, 1999.

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