Out West

Remembering Nicolette Larson

Nicolette Larson, an influential rising music star in the 1970s had two albums considered true country-rock classics that are worth a listen.

This influential rising star in country-rock of the 1970s left us too soon.

Charm is deceitful, and beauty empty,
the woman who is wise is the one to praise.
Give her a share in what her hands have worked for,
and let her works tell her praises at the city gates.

Proverbs 31:30

The late 1960s and early ’70s were both revolutionary and evolutionary for rock music, but the era also created huge changes in country music and allowed artists to weave their way around both genres — think Linda Ronstadt, Neil Young and Emmylou Harris. And don’t forget Ingram Cecil Connor III. Not ring a bell?

Nicolette Larson, an influential rising music star in the 1970s had two albums considered true country-rock classics that are worth a listen.
Nicolette Larson PR Image. Photo courtesy Bill Reynolds

Connor was known professionally as Gram Parsons, who joined the Byrds after the departure of David Crosby and who was pivotal in creating what would be known as country-rock, or later, the alternative country genre, with the 1968 release of the Byrds’ album “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.” The album carried the iconic image of a cowgirl from a large rodeo poster, originally painted by artist Joe Mora. The album affected both rock and country music from then on, much to the initial chagrin of the conservative country music establishment.

Parsons would leave the Byrds with fellow Byrd Chris Hillman and form The Flying Burrito Brothers. It was Hillman who introduced Parsons to Emmylou Harris in 1972, and it is Harris who is credited for helping Parsons create his first acclaimed solo album, “GP.” The music scene in Los Angeles exploded in the early ’70s, and the influences of Harris, Parsons, Ronstadt and others kept the growth of country rock pumped up. Ronstadt had been part of the group The Stone Poneys when they released the Michael Nesmith (of Monkees fame) heavy radio-play hit, “Different Drum” in 1967.

Ten years later, Harris would be working on her 1977 album release, “Luxury Liner,” when she was introduced to an up-and-coming singer doing a lot of backup work, Nicolette Larson. Larson could blend instantly with other singers’ voices, and she was featured prominently on “Luxury Liner,” especially on the tune “Hello Stranger.” The work led Larson to meet Harris’ pal and fellow artist Ronstadt.

Larson was born in Helena, Montana, in 1952 and dreamed of a music career since singing along to the radio as a child. She eventually settled in San Francisco, where she worked in a record store and volunteered as support staff for the Golden Gate Country Bluegrass Festival, which brought encouragement for her vocal ambitions and began performing in Bay Area showcases.

In 1975, Larson auditioned for Hoyt Axton, who was producing Commander Cody, with the result that Larson also performed with “Hoyt Axton and The Banana Band” during their gig opening for Joan Baez on the 1975 Diamonds and Rust tour. Larson would also provide background vocals for Commander Cody’s albums in 1977 and 1978.

Other early session singing credits for Larson were for Axton and Guy Clark in 1976 and, in 1977, for Mary Kay Place, Rodney Crowell, Billy Joe Shaver, Jesse Colin Young, Jesse Winchester and Gary Stewart. After working on Harris’ “Luxury Liner,” her meeting Harris’ friend Ronstadt would take her to another level. In the spring of 1977, Larson was at Ronstadt’s Malibu home when neighbor Neil Young phoned to ask Ronstadt if she could recommend a female vocal backup, and Ronstadt suggested Larson, apparently becoming the fifth person that day to put Larson’s name in front of Young.

The following week, Ronstadt and Larson cut their vocals for Young’s “American Stars ‘n Bars” album at Young’s La Honda, California ranch. (The two women were billed on the album as the Saddlebags.) In November 1977, Young invited Larson to Nashville, Tennessee, to sing on the sessions for his “Comes a Time” album, an assignment which led to Larson signing on to Warner Brothers, an affiliate of Young’s home label “Reprise.” In Young’s 800-word 2002 biography, “Shakey,” writer Jimmy McDonough asked Larson about working with Young — who she nicknamed “Changeable Charlie” due to his mercurial nature.

“Neil and I had a brief relationship,” she told McDonough. “Probably no more than in a movie where a leading man and leading lady get a crush on each other. We sang together very well. He wasn’t much involved, and I was in a relationship that was falling apart. It was pretty much over — whatever it was — by Christmas.”

Larson continued her session singing career into 1978, accruing credit on recordings by Marcia Ball, Rodney Crowell, Harris’ “Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town” and Norton Buffalo. Larson also contributed vocals to the Doobie Brothers’ “Minute by Minute,” whose producer Ted Templeman would be responsible for Larson’s long-awaited debut album “Nicolette.”

Nicolette Larson, an influential rising music star in the 1970s had two albums considered true country-rock classics that are worth a listen.
Nicolette Larson PR Image —Warner Bros. Photo courtesy Bill Reynolds

The album epitomized the happy and hopeful era of the late 1970s, from the upbeat song list to the joyful album cover art that featured Larson mugging in some unsuspecting hotel lobby near the beach. She was at once a joyful noise as well as part of the times that took so many, including Gram Parsons in 1973 at the age of 26.

Nicolette Larson died at the age of 45 in 1997, the result of complications arising from a cerebral edema triggered by liver failure. Her singing career brought her work with the most stellar musicians of her time with her unique gift of contributing her “rough-edged, down-home tone.” Her two big albums, the self-titled “Nicolette” and her sophomore release, “In the Nick of Time,” are considered true country-rock classics and are worth a listen today. Most likely, she will be best remembered for the stellar backup she gave Neil Young on his 1978 release of his acoustic classic, “Comes A Time” (which featured Young’s take on Ian Tyson’s “Four Strong Winds”) and her breakout single, “Lotta Love.”

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