Jon Corneal may not be the best drummer in rock music, or the best drummer in country music, but he does carry the distinction of being -- down to a virtual certainty -- the first drummer in country-rock, in addition to being a songwriter and occasional singer. He was part of the very first wave of the postwar baby boom, born in Auburndale, FL, in the summer of 1946, and was just old enough to get swept into the second wave of rock & roll fandom, hitting his teens just as the 1950s were drawing to a close. In 1960, at age 14, he was part of a rock & roll band that Carl Chambers and his cousin Gerald Chambers put together for a school show; out of that one-off linkup came the Dynamics, organized by Carl Chambers. Despite the band's members all being in their mid-teens, they were good enough to play across central Florida, and even made it onto local television in Tampa. Out of the Dynamics came a successor group, the Legends, made up of Corneal, the two Chambers cousins, Jim Stafford, and Gram Parsons, who was then a surf music and rock & roll enthusiast.
Corneal and Stafford later headed to Nashville, where they managed to mingle with a brace of country music legends backstage at the Opry and even bluffed their way into a recording session for Chet Atkins. After some frustrating attempts at starting a career, Stafford eventually parted company with Corneal, and the latter's perseverance paid off in 1964 when he was hired to play drums in the band backing Hal Willis. That marked his entry into the fraternity of working Nashville musicians, and he was subsequently employed within the orbit of the Acuff-Rose management team, playing in the backing bands behind various artists on tour internationally and also in the movie Music City USA, a showcase for a multitude of Nashville stars. Coming off of work on the movie, he was hired by the Wilburn Brothers. By the end of 1966, he'd also played behind Loretta Lynn, and early the following year toured with Kitty Wells and Connie Smith. Amid all of this activity, he'd begun writing songs and got to record a handful of them.
Corneal chanced to cross paths once more with Gram Parsons, who was in the process of putting together a band and an album in Los Angeles. That project became the International Submarine Band, as much country as it was rock & roll. Released under the auspices of Lee Hazlewood Productions, the record was destined for initial obscurity, even as it became a favorite among rock musicians in L.A. who nursed a love for country music. Alas, the group didn't last long past the late-1967 completion of the LP, as Parsons was grabbed up by Chris Hillman and shoehorned into the lineup of the Byrds, which he and Hillman promptly took down the country music path. Corneal soldiered on in Los Angeles for a year, and even rejoined Parsons -- who had exited the Byrds after just a few months -- as a member of his new group, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and played on their debut album, The Gilded Palace of Sin. The rest of the band, however, felt that Corneal's sound was too country-styled for what they were trying to do, and wanted a heavier, more rock-focused sound on the drums.
He was replaced by ex-Byrd Michael Clarke, and as there were no gigs forthcoming, he returned to the seemingly more hospitable surroundings of Nashville at the end of 1969, only to discover that if he was too "country" for the L.A. music scene in 1968, he was now too much of a rock musician for his former professional home. At the time, amid the burgeoning strife over the Vietnam War and the development of an anti-establishment "counterculture," the country music mecca (which had never been entirely at ease with rock & roll, much less its more sophisticated incarnation as "rock") had hardened its resistance to longhairs, hippies, and other denizens of youth culture, and he was reportedly fired from one gig solely on the basis of his hair length.
Corneal went back to California and played on Warren Zevon's Wanted Dead or Alive album, but his real success -- or so it seemed -- was in meeting up with one well-established kindred spirit in the guise of ex-Byrd Gene Clark. Clark, a magnificent singer, prodigiously gifted songwriter, and good guitar player -- but a somewhat unsteady bandleader and bandmember at times, owing to various personal demons -- was then working with banjo virtuoso Doug Dillard in Dillard & Clark, who already had one album under their belts and seemed to be have a major future ahead of them. Clark brought him into the lineup long enough to appear on their second LP, Through the Morning, Through the Night, before the group split up over personal and musical differences between the two leaders.
His next major gig was with the Glaser Brothers, who also recorded one of Corneal's compositions, "Phoney World," during their two years together. Following a string of tours and a pair of LPs with them, Corneal had enough confidence to try going out on his own. He put together a band and recorded Jon Corneal & the Orange Blossom Special, financing it all himself, in 1974. Since his marriage in 1981, he has pursued a solo career and has performed locally in Florida under the group name Limousine Cowboys and the Jon & Debbie Corneal Show -- the couple were good enough to play the Lone Star Cafe in New York in the early '80s, and for years also had a regular gig on television in Tampa. He has also participated in attempts to revive the International Submarine Band.