August 30 – Country Byrds

The Byrds – Sweetheart of the Rodeo

The winds of change in the music world were really picking up speed by the second half of 1968, and nowhere was it any more evident than with the Byrds on their second release from that year and sixth overall, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, released 50 years ago today.

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The shift had already begun with January’s The Notorious Byrd Brothers and its mellower, more pastoral sound.  More significantly, David Crosby had been fired from the group during its recording, and original drummer Michael Clarke was gone as well and replaced by Hillman’s cousin, Kevin Kelley.  Interested in taking their sound a little more toward country they hired Gram Parsons, whom Chris Hillman happened to meet while standing in line in a Beverly Hills bank.  They auditioned Parsons, fresh out of the International Submarine Band, on piano, but he quickly showed that his place was up front with a guitar.  What Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman didn’t realize was that Parsons had an agenda of sorts:  to bring country and western music into the rock ‘n’ roll world, to make it hip.

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L-R:  Kelley, Parsons, McGuinn, Hillman

The album was originally intended by McGuinn to be a review of American music featuring bluegrass, Appalachian, country, jazz, R&B, rock, and even futuristic/electronic sounds.  With guitarist Clarence White on board for the sessions they were already leaning in a country/bluegrass direction, but Gram Parsons was obsessed with country music, and his enthusiasm for it rubbed off on the others enough that Sweetheart became a purely country record – the first major country rock album by an established band.  Much of the album, including the two Dylan songs, was recorded in Nashville.  The band was in for a rude awakening as the Nashville establishment, including disc jockeys and the Grand Ole Opry audience, was not kind to a “hippie band” supposedly undermining true country music.

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The Byrds performing at the Grand Ole Opry

It was all over with Gram Parsons about as quickly as it came together.  Tensions arose over Parsons stepping on toes regarding the band’s direction, including genre and personnel recruitment, as well as demanding more money.  Further adding to the strain was the concern that Parsons was still under contract from his ISB days.  This resulted in Roger McGuinn recording his own vocals over Parsons’ on a few songs in order to avoid legal issues.  However, since he didn’t do this with all of Gram’s songs, it’s been suggested McGuinn was also also trying to lessen the newcomer’s stamp on the group.  Gram had joined the group in February, and he had moved on by the time the album was released with an eye toward his next project, the Flying Burrito Brothers.

Sweetheart of the Rodeo was a commercial failure upon its release and was seen as a betrayal by much of the Byrds’ fan base.  Little did rock fans know that this was part of a larger shift away from the psychedelic sounds of the previous couple of years.  Dylan had already released John Wesley Harding and was then currently hidden away in upstate New York recording some rather strange-sounding music with the Band.  Bob would also return to Nashville for the following year’s Nashville Skyline, another highly influential country album by a Nashville outsider.  And, of course, the aforementioned Band had just released Music from Big Pink.  All of these releases, including Sweetheart, became very influential on groups right around the bend including Poco and the Eagles.

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Thankfully, subsequent re-releases of the album have included the tracks with Gram Parsons’ original vocals.  McGuinn’s attempt to sound country on the Louvin Bros. The Christian Life is almost embarrassing.  However, despite Gram’s sincere love for the genre, his status as a countrified avatar sent to Earth to enlighten the music world is, in my mind, rather dubious.

He was a trust fund Harvard dropout – albeit a very talented one – and had only come into country around this same time having been more interested in folk music before.  And his labeling of his brand of country as “Cosmic American Music” was just that:  marketing his brand.  I’ve yet to understand what is “cosmic” about it, other than the fact it was performed by country music outsiders who were folk and rock musicians by trade and had experimented with psychedelic drugs.

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Pre-country Gram Parsons

I do like this album a lot, with Parsons’ Hickory Wind and Dylan’s You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere among my favorite tracks.  The Christian Life with Parsons on vocals, too.  But it’s not my favorite country rock album from the era.  Dylan’s Nashville Skyline the following year is better in my mind, but there was also one more:  Recorded at about the same time as Sweetheart, ex-Byrd (and co-founding member) Gene Clark’s to-this-day-underappreciated album with Doug Dillard tops them all (I’ll be sharing more on it in a couple months).

As for Roger McGuinn’s original idea for the album – a review of multiple genres of American music – it’s interesting to me that Stephen Stills’ band Manassas, which included Chris Hillman, did something quite similar on their 1972 eponymous debut.  Whatever one’s preference, it’s safe to say that any artist in what we refer to today as the Americana genre owes a debt to Sweetheart of the Rodeo.

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Postscript:  Fifty years after the Byrds were heckled and jeered during their performance at the Grand Ole Opry, McGuinn and Hillman have joined forces with Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives on a Sweetheart of the Rodeo 50th anniversary celebration tour which will take them to none other than the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.  McGuinn has been careful to mention that it’s not the Byrds, and there are no plans for a reunion with Crosby.

Tracklist:

Side One:

  1. You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere
  2. I Am a Pilgrim
  3. The Christian Life
  4. You Don’t Miss Your Water
  5. You’re Still on My Mind
  6. Pretty Boy Floyd

Side Two:

  1. Hickory Wind
  2. One Hundred Years from Now
  3. Blue Canadian Rockies
  4. Life in Prison
  5. Nothing was Delivered

On my reading list but yet to obtain:

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-Stephen

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sweetheart_of_the_Rodeo

https://www.allmusic.com/album/sweetheart-of-the-rodeo-mw0000653106

https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/byrds-co-founders-plan-sweetheart-of-the-rodeo-50th-anniversary-tour-629457/

https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/roger-mcguinn-talks-sweetheart-of-the-rodeo-gigs-rules-out-byrds-reunion-704131/