The Music of Gene Clark

Gene Clark

Today throughout American Pastimes we’ll feature the music of Gene Clark. Clark was an original member of the Byrds and one of the first musicians to integrate country music with rock and roll  --  his musical melding even preceded Gram Parson’s efforts by a few years.

Clark left the Byrds due in part to resentment over his prolific song writing (he wrote more and so was paid more) and his fear of flying. As a kid he had witnessed a fatal airplane crash and could never comfortably get on a plane. To be a Byrd he had to fly, but he couldn’t.  And in another touch of irony, before his departure he wrote the Byrds’ last hit song, “Eight Miles High,” a song about flying.

After the Byrds and a baroque pop record with the country singing Gosdin Brothers, he joined bluegrass banjoist Doug Dillard to form the Dillard & Clark Expedition. This band created music that transcended genres and influenced innumerable musicians who became country rock and soft rock superstars, but they didn’t last: Clark wanted to take the music into rock, while Dillard was pulling towards traditional bluegrass and country.  Clark’s fear of flying had also prevented the band from extensive touring in support of their two albums.

He made numerous albums, and a high point in Clark’s solo career was the recording of “No Other” in 1974, an album that layered country, folk, gospel, soul and rock into a dense amalgam of sound. It was an American “Sgt. Pepper,” except that at the time of its release it didn’t sell very well. 

Carla Olson and Gene Clark

Before and after “No Other” Clark formed or joined numerous country and rock oriented bands (including the Roadmasters and the Flying Burrito Brothers) and also performed and recorded in duos and trios (some with former Byrd band mates) that spotlighted his folk singer-songwriter side.  Just before his death in 1991 he recorded and toured with Carla Olson, an endeavor that seemed to bring all of his capabilities together and showcased just how compelling a performer he could be.  

It’s been suggested that if Clark had moved from Missouri to Nashville instead of Los Angeles, he would’ve been a country superstar. Unlikely. His legacy of course is his songs. Intricate and variegated, they move beyond ‘she broke my heart’ and enter into mystical realms of self-exploration and country existentialism.  They’ve been recorded by the Eagles, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, the Flaming Groovies, Chris Robinson (of Black Crowes), and Robert Plant & Allison Krauss, among others.  They are not typical Nashville fare.

Lately, there has been a resurgence of interest in Clark’s music and life:

John Einarson’s biography Mr. Tambourine Man: The Life and Legacy of the Byrds' Gene Clark. (San Francisco: Backbeat Books) was published in 2005.

A video documentary about Gene, "The Byrd Who Flew Alone" was released in 2013.

In January 2014, an all-star indie-band has recreated “No Other” and has taken it on the road.  Follow this link for that story:

And here’s a link to Rolling Stone Magazine’s “Gene Clark’s 21 Best Songs:”

On American Pastimes: Gene Clark along with the Byrds, the Dillard & Clark Expedition, the Roadmasters, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and Carla Olson.

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