Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, both former members The Byrds, are hitting the road together this year in honor the 50th anniversary the 1960s heroes’ country-rock classic, Sweetheart the Rodeo; the pair will perform the album in its entirety and tell stories from its recording back in 1968.
The Byrds first made their mark in 1965 by reinventing folk songs by Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie along with ten-brilliant originals. The key was the 12-string Rickenbacker guitar, a long-necked, futuristic-looking instrument sought out for its radiant, unique clang. With enduring tracks like “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, that jingle-jangle formula would be more than enough to hang a career on.
But a few years later, McGuinn would start to strain at their sound. Introduced to the world as Jim McGuinn before he renamed himself after a signaling protocol term (as in, “Roger that!”), he had an absorption in both the future and the distant past. He ate up the American folk tradition, sure, but also modern-day ation, cutting-edge gadgets and extraterrestrial life. When it came time to follow up the band’s ambitious The Notorious Byrd Brothers, he was going to bring his Janus-like curiosities into full relief: a tour all the 20th century musical styles, from primitive blues to electronic music. But a scrappy young songwriter outside their camp had different ideas.
A Harvard dropout with few real-world prospects, Gram Parsons didn’t give much thought to country music until being turned on to Merle Haggard around his 20th birthday. Feeling called to action, he briefly fronted a group with some his fellow folkies called The International Submarine Band, who split around the time The Byrds lost their founding members David Crosby and Michael Clarke. Needing a fourth member, Parsons was recruited by the Byrds’ business manager Larry Spector as the band’s pianist. But this was a Trojan Horse move. Once he was within their ranks, the adrift Byrds were putty in his hands.
Parsons convinced McGuinn to ditch all the styles in his album tour American music: they were only going to do Nashville country. And they were going to play the role to the hilt by heading to Nashville and getting real-deal session players on it; pedal steel player Lloyd Green, fiddler John Hartford, guitarist Clarence White.
And that was it: mostly standards, a couple Parsons tunes, a Dylan or two for good measure. The results sold poorly, confused Byrds fans and polarized Nashville purists, and the group would never try such a radical genre experiment again. But the hypnotizing, hard-luck sound resonates to this day. If you dig Drive-By Truckers, Old ‘97s or Two Cow Garage, this early marriage rock attitude and twangy woe reads less like a failed experiment and more like the Book Genesis.
In honor Hillman and McGuinn bringing Sweetheart the Rodeo on the road for its 50th anniversary, here’s a track-by-track breakdown the original album.
“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”
In true Byrds tradition, the set kicks f with some Dylan. The record company had sent the boys some demos from Dylan’s recent sessions in Woodstock, and “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” was one two tracks they chose. It’s a natural fit, even though McGuinn made a minor lyrical flub on the recording. This was to Dylan’s playful chagrin. When Dylan re-recorded "Nowhere" in 1971, he’d added a sly little dig: “Pack up your money, put up your tent, McGuinn.”
“I Am a Pilgrim”
Hillman takes the lead on this gospel standard, written way back in 1898 by an uncredited author. His honeyed tone was perfect for this sweet Christian devotional, in which a bunch party-animal L.A. kids plead to bathe in the river Jordan and reach the opposite shore.
“The Christian Life”
“The Christian Life” was originally a cut from The Louvin Brothers’ evangelical classic Satan Is Real, an album whose frequently mocked cover art depicted the country duo recoiling from a googly-eyed plywood devil in a field incinerating tires. It also proves to be right in The Byrds’ wheelhouse. Gram Parsons drawling this ode to abstinence and chastity like he has a head cold is pure joy.
“You Don’t Miss Your Water”
Not a country song per se but an R&B hit by William Bell, “You Don’t Miss Your Water” transcends genre lines and fits like a glove. It's a testament to how country, soul and R&B were never quite mutually exclusive concepts, with artists from each sphere having plenty to teach the others. The Byrds are fully willing to participate: McGuinn draws out every syllable for miles with that low, sandy voice.
"You're Still On My Mind"
Talk about a standard: any country singer worth his or her salt should know "You're Still On My Mind" upside down and backwards. Originally written by the less-famous-than-influential rockabilly singer Luke McDaniel and popularized by George Jones, it also finds a home on Sweetheart. Call it the Byrds paying their dues.
“Pretty Boy Floyd”
Like The Beach Boys pulling out the Bahamian folk song “Sloop John B” or The Beatles doing the schoolyard chant “Maggie Mae,” the inclusion Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd” is a cracked door to the past. McGuinn performed the song ten as a youth, singing folk songs in cfee shops. With no country originals to bring to the sessions, this outlaw standard was clearly right in McGuinn’s DNA.
This is Parsons’ bittersweet ode to Greenville, South Carolina, where he lived as a teenager and first picked up a guitar. Hillman loved the song so much that he called it Parsons’ greatest work, saying this in the liner notes to Parsons’ CD compilation Sacred Hearts and Fallen Angels: “It’s very descriptive, with vivid imagery. Gram was shuffled f to a prep school, lots money. He was a lonely kid.”
“One Hundred Years From Now”
The most traditionally Byrdsy track on Sweetheart ponders life, the universe and everything in the year 2068. “Would anybody change their minds / And find out one thing or two about life?” ponder McGuinn and Hillman. Sounds like they even pulled the Rickenbacker out from under the bed; it burbles low in the mix.
“Blue Canadian Rockies”
The brilliant country songwriter Cindy Walker was responsible for about five decades Top 10 hits, including ones by Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb and Hank Snow. The Byrds tip their hat with this reading her “Blue Canadian Rockies,” though they may have had more cumulative experience at Keith Richards’ mansion parties than seeing the poppies bloom around Lake Louise.
“Life in Prison”
It’s not all springtime and churchgoing in country music’s lyric bank -- quite the opposite! Parsons is covering his old hero Merle Haggard here, specifically this ode to uxoricide from his 1967 album I’m a Lonesome Fugitive. It mostly reminds the world how many taboo subjects slipped to the airways by the benefit gleaming Nashville production.
“Nothing is Delivered”
Though it was received as an aberration at the time, it’s arguable that Sweetheart the Rodeo was the Byrds’ final great album. If this is so, then let it finish f with another tune by the band’s spiritual father, Bob Dylan. Another cut from Dylan’s upstate New York sessions that would culminate in The Basement Tapes, delivering some his most sphinxlike lyrics: “Nothing is better, nothing is best / Take care yourself, get plenty rest.” And with that question mark a lyric, The Byrds send us on our way. But those big, lonely, gleaming sounds they achieved on Sweetheart resonate, even if it took 50 years for McGuinn and Hillman to reap the deserved applause.