By John Ruberry
Next week the fiftieth anniversary arrives of the release of the groundbreaking Sweetheart of the Rodeo album by the Byrds..
At the time, however, the collection was a commercial flop and it received mixed reviews.
Byrds leader and lead guitarist Roger McGuinn envisioned the band’s sixth album as an overview of the history of American music. McGuinn was not originally a rocker, he began his preforming career after graduating from Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music. But a new member, who was soon to depart, Gram Parsons, urged the band to record a country album. The result was arguably the first country rock album, at least by a major artist, one that also served as an inspiration for the alt-country and Americana genres.
“Eleven trips to the country” is how a radio ad described the work. And Sweetheart’s eleven songs are dominated by banjo, country fiddle, and pedal steel guitar. This was not your older sibling’s Byrds.
The album begins typically for the Byrds, with a Bob Dylan cover, “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.” Dylan’s primary career inspiration was Woody Guthrie and Sweetheart includes a version of his “Pretty Boy Floyd.”
Parsons’ two Sweetheart compositions–one was co-written by a former bandmate–“Hickory Wind” and “One Hundred Years from Now,” offer a contrast to listeners. The first is a traditional country tune. The second ironically is the Byrdsiest–sounding track on the album.
Sweetheart was recorded in the spring of 1968 in Nashville–after which things got interesting. The Byrds managed to score an appearance at the Grand Ole Opry, where these hippies were booed by the straight-laced audience. A deejay covering their concert mocked the band, which inspired McGuinn and Parsons to write a song, “Drug Store Truck Driving Man,” that appeared on the Byrds’ next album.
By that summer Parsons, who some say was not actually full-fledged member of the band but a contract player, quit the act. There are two versions of his departure. One was that he preferred to hang out in London with the Rolling Stones, or that Parsons left to protest the Byrds’ decision to perform in South Africa.
Parsons’ lead vocals on “The Christian Life”, “You Don’t Miss Your Water”, and “One Hundred Years from Now,” were replaced by McGuinn’s on the first two and with Chris Hillman’s along with McGuinn on the latter.
Since 2003 the Parsons leads have been available, but on Spotify only the original release versions play first–you have to scroll down to find Parsons voice up front on those tracks. McGuinn’s take on “The Christian Life” is a sardonic take of this Louvin Brothers song, found on the now infamous, because of its outlandish album artwork, Satan Is Real collection.
Recently McGuinn had this to say about Parsons vocals on that cut. “I was doing almost a satire on it. I was not a Christian at the time,” he remarked. “Back then, it was kind of tongue-in-cheek. I know the Louvin Brothers meant it when they wrote it and sang it. And Gram meant it. He was a little Baptist boy.”
After Sweetheart Hillman bailed on the Byrds and with Parsons formed the highly-influential Flying Burrito Brothers. After two brilliant country rock albums that sold even worse than Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Parsons was booted from the band because of his excessive drug use and overall unreliability. Parsons’ two seminal solo works, also poor sellers, showcased the talents of the then-virtually unknown Emmylou Harris.
Parsons died in 1973 from a drug overdose. The theft of his body and the makeshift cremation of his remains at what is now Joshua Tree National Park is one of the most bizarre tales you will ever hear.
McGuinn and Hillman, two of the three surviving original Byrds members, David Crosby is the third, are currently on a 50th anniversary tour celebrating the release of Sweetheart, which has already included a performance at the Grand Ole Opry.
As Aesop wrote in the Tortoise and the Hare, ‘Slow and steady wins the race.” As that is the case with Gram Parsons and Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.