50 Years Later: Revisiting The Eagles’s Country-Rooted Self-Titled Debut

No one hearing the first Eagles album five decades ago might’ve imagined this would be a band conducting high-priced sold-out tours with just one original member of the band in the lineup. Yet in retrospect, a rotation of personnel was a fact of life for this group:  guitarist Don Felder had been drafted during the later recordings for On The Border (after frustrating early sessions with original producer Glyn Johns). Then, two years later, by the time the massively popular Hotel California LP was released, guitarist/vocalist/songwriter (and one-time Flying Burrito Brother) Bernie Leadon would be gone, in his stead appeared Joe Walsh, the former leader of American power trio the James Gang. He would remain in the band to witness an instance of consummate irony, i.e., the departure of Randy Meisner, whose place would be taken by the same man who assumed the roles of bassist/vocalist/songwriter when the latter left seminal country-rockers Poco:  Timothy B. Schmit (the author of “I Can’t Tell You Why”). 

At the risk of placing undue importance on personality over creativity, it’s well to note two of the earliest Eagles hits featured significant contributions from songwriters outside the group. Jackson Browne co-wrote “Take It Easy” with the late Glenn Frey and the tune carries more import in the context of the former’s For Everyman album: here it seems little more than an ode to hedonism. Meanwhile, “Peaceful Easy Feeling” was composed in its entirety by Jack Tempchin, who would not only chip in on more Eagles songs in years to come—as well as multiple tunes during Glenn Frey’s early solo career–but also compose “Slow Dancing,” a hit in mawkish form later on for Johnny Rivers, but originally by the short-lived group Funky Kings (of which he and Jules Shear were members before both went on to their respective solo careers).

The other hit from the Eagles’ eponymous debut album was drummer/vocalist/songwriter Don Henley’s only writing contribution to the album “Witchy Woman.” With its trite guitar motif and misogynist lyrics, (an attitude that reappears on “Chug All Night”), it’s a forced attempt at harder rock the likes of which the aforementioned producer Johns was skeptical; having previously worked with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and The Who, among others, the British engineer chose to nurture the country-roots in the band’s sound in tandem their vocal blend (by all reports, just one point of contention amid ongoing difficulties collaborating in the studio).

Those high-harmonies to which Meisner added an eerie wail (and which, unlike some high-profile peers, retained virtually all their sonority in live performance)  are actually the most consistently distinctive factor in all those songs. Along with two other somewhat unsung highlights of this record (“Tryin’” and “Take The Devil”), Randy’s forthrightly emotional number, “Most of Us Are Sad,” foreshadowed his immensely popular “Take It To The Limit” (the spotlighted performance of which placed a self-imposed pressure that in part led to his departure from the group). Such a blend of voices takes a softer turn on “Train Leaves Here This Morning,” which Leadon co-wrote with Gene Clark after the latter’s unceremonious exit from the Byrds: reminiscent of the Gram Parson’s-led band’s sophomore work, Burrito Deluxe, it suggests the Eagles were lesser innovators than stylists. 

That very musical persona became more overt on One of These Nights. Co-opting of disco music strains on the title tune may have begun what became more than a little skepticism about the unit’s innate artistic legitimacy, even as it was juxtaposed on the charts with the softer country-rock of “Lyin’ Eyes,” their forte with their largest demographic. The disparaging attitude—at which Henley for one publicly bristled– may well have its roots in the follow-up Desperado: it was a major commercial disappointment, despite (because of?) its artful but sometimes over-obvious interweaving of Old West imagery and thematic metaphors (was “Doolin-Dalton” really an allegory for Henley and Frey?). 

Yet that very ambition fired the musicianship and, at least in part through the songwriting assistance of J.D. Souther and, again, Jackson Browne (both of whom appear in the back cover photo in cowboy garb) also precluded more of the puerile material that blemished the preceding record. Further elevating both the concept and execution, besides significant elements of acoustic instrumentation, the country/bluegrass influence was an integral component of the record, much so more than the borderline stylistic contrivance of “Earlybird” off the prior long-player. What so often came off as afterthoughts on the debut sounded natural on the sophomore effort. 

One of the two tracks Johns produced off the next LP–“Best of My Love”–became a Number One and thus lifted the Eagles back to a plateau of popularity upon which they then continued to build up through their defining work of 1976. At that point, a quintet with some additional instrumental versatility (before a phalanx of additional players began to populate the stage beginning with the much-ballyhooed 1994 reunion), its ultra-polished audio, overseen by long-time engineer/producer Bill Szymczyk, along with the now immediately recognizable singing voices, were really the sole assets congruent with the debut. Otherwise, as both a song and a unified statement, Hotel California was a remarkably articulate expression of cynicism about the very work these artists did, one-hundred eighty degrees removed from the ingenuous persona on display four albums prior.

There’s little question the progressively mainstream popularity of the Eagles’ music opened the door for what’s now termed contemporary country. As such, the group’s inexorable penetration into the mainstream effectively usurped the potential influence of The Byrds’ country leanings, most directly displayed on 1968’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo, not to mention the subsequent solo work of the late Gram Parsons (with Emmylou Harris) after he left the seminal American band. 

That’s no small achievement in and of itself considering that, with a half-century of hindsight, Eagles is, for all intents and purposes, the work of a fledgling band early in the honing of its vision. 

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