In late 1967 The Byrds were at a crossroads, doubly so. With David Crosby’s exit they needed additional personnel, and as their last records, singles, and album had not sold very well they were also in a creative quandary.
Remaining members Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman initially had a rather grandiose idea for a new record that would have encompassed a distillation of all genres of American music. But a chance encounter Hillman had with Gram Parsons just hours before he and McGuinn were to meet to work on the new project changed everything. Parsons was invited to that meeting and, while Hillman and McGuinn thought they had found a new band member, Parsons’ musical passion did even more: It enabled McGuinn and Hillman to home in on a single genre: country. It also resulted, as we now know, in a seismic shift in popular music.
As with many rock and roll artists of the day, country was not unknown to Hillman and McGuinn. Hillman had been in a couple of bluegrass bands and McGuinn in some folk bands. But what they were unprepared for was Parsons’ deep love for country and his forceful personality. The former gave them a direction, while the latter caused some internal issues, including a power struggle for band leadership.
Sweetheart of the Rodeo, The Album
While John Wesley Harding and the demos out of Woodstock indicated a new direction from Bob Dylan, The Byrds plunged head-first into making a “country” record. While it contained country covers and a pedal steel, there were also two new Dylan songs, two by Parsons, and one each by Woody Guthrie and the soul artist William Bell. Call it country music for rock and roll fans, but with its selection of songs it was perhaps a bit closer to the the mix of genres McGuinn and Hillman initially were aiming for.
Dylan’s influence in 1968 was considerable. Following the psychedelia of 1967 that saw Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour, and Their Satanic Majesty’s Request, both The Beatles and the Stones later in 1968 released “back to basics” albums. But months before that, and way before Nashville Skyline, The Byrds had gone even further back. When Sweetheart of the Rodeo was released in August 1968, rock music was in the thrall of Hendrix, Joplin, the Doors, Cream, and the like. Few fans, let alone the public at large, were prepared for Sweetheart‘s pedal steel-driven opening track, certainly not The Louvin Brothers and Merle Haggard.
The album was only modestly received, topping out at number 77 on the Billboard chart, and it did not chart at all in England. Parsons left the band before Sweetheart‘s release.
Sweetheart of the Rodeo at the Ryman
What was viewed by many as a miscalculation in 1968 has only only grown in stature as time has gone by. So, it was not without an air of irony, and perhaps a sense of ultimate triumph, that the Sweetheart of the Rodeo album would be performed on the Ryman stage. It’s the same venue where 50 years earlier, as guests of the Grand Ole Opry, The Byrds were loudly booed by the audience, and then, after a song switch (“Hickory Wind”), summarily and angrily dismissed by the Opry itself.
When Hillman and McGuinn began putting together the 50th anniversary tour, it was evident they did not want it to be simply a stroll down memory lane. Rather, I think, they wanted to make a statement. First and foremost they had to put a band together, as McGuinn had been performing as a solo artist and Hillman mainly as part of a duo. They intuitively knew that they wanted a band, not backing musicians. Backing musicians, no matter how well accomplished, would have turned it into a nostalgia act, a brief resurrection of music that had long ago died.
I knew they were serious when they enlisted Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives to tour with them. Stuart, Kenny Vaughan, Chris Scruggs, and Harry Stinson are not only the best working band in Nashville, they are also well steeped in the country music tradition. Moreover, a band of this distinction was not going to stay in the shadows during performances. While Hillman and McGuinn did the song intros and recounted the stories behind them, Stuart and Vaughan adroitly moved around the stage as if they owned it. In many ways, it seemed to me, Stuart was filling Parsons’ role, and Vaughan’s magnetic versatility gave the songs the vitality they deserved. They began the second set doing a couple of their own numbers.
The first set was comprised of earlier Byrds songs that demonstrated their range, including their country leanings, and the Merle Haggard song (“Sing Me Back Home”) that they were to do on the infamous Opry show. They also did a later song, “Drugstore Truck Drivin’ Man,” about Ralph Emery, an influential Nashville DJ who during an interview sarcastically derided both the band and “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” the single they were there to promote.
McGuinn and Hillman waited until the second set to perform the album, in its entirety of course. As with the album, they began the set with “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” and, fittingly enough, it was also the closer. Despite the popularity of the two Parsons songs on Sweetheart, that song is the most enduring and also is the most universally accepted of encore songs, defying genre.
Being Nashville, one would have expected some local gentry to make guest appearances. Fortunately that was not the case, as the night belonged to the album, and to McGuinn, Hillman, and the music that continues to endure, to resonate and be part of our lives. Can anyone really think of a more resilient, a more appropriate collection of songs than on Sweetheart of the Rodeo to have served as the first blow against that Nashville wall?
Time Heals All Wounds
Despite the one-time animosity between the two, throughout the evening McGuinn (almost always at stage center, smiling, fedora tilted to one side) spoke highly of Parsons. Hindsight has shown the album not only to be the most loved Byrds album, but more significantly one which was instrumental in tearing down the wall between rock and country. Without it, there would have been no Gilded Palace of Sin, and perhaps not even Emmylou Harris as we have known her.
The night was full of other highlights as well. Stuart played Clarence White’s electric guitar and White received several shoutouts for both playing on the album and later becoming a member of the band. Before the show began I ran into several AmericanaFest friends as well as Phillip Rupp of Knoxville’s Pioneer House. My highlight was spotting Clarence’s brother Roland as he was taking his seat. I made a beeline over and paid my respects to the bluegrass legend.
A Final Word
As part of November’s Record Store Day, a 4-LP set of Sweetheart of the Rodeo will be released, containing 28 bonus tracks, including demos, outtakes, rehearsal versions, and tracks by Parsons’ International Submarine Band.
For another take on the Sweetheart tour, please read Lyndon Bolton’s ND review of the Albany, NY, performance here.
In case you were wondering, yes, I still have the original LP.
Now onto those photos taken at the Mother Church, plus the set list.