It was a recipe for commercial disaster. In early 1968, as psychedelic rock was still at its peak, and rock music became more adventurous, more surreal, and much darker, The Byrds had other ideas. A few months earlier, Bob Dylan, recuperating after a career-threatening motorcycle crash, abandoned the scorching rock ‘n’ roll of such albums as Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, opting to return to roots music, and his album John Wesley Harding, released in December 1967, was well-received. It was never out of place for popular rock artists in the Sixties to dabble in country music; The Beatles had done it a few times (most notably, Ringo Starr’s memorable vocal turn on their cover of Buck Owens’ “Act Naturally”), and other notable bands like The Rolling Stones and The Grateful Dead incorporated country influences in several of their songs. However, country music was easily the most uncool style of music in 1968, and no famous rock group had ever dared to try to release an album of entirely country material, but that’s what The Byrds had in mind.
By the end of 1967, The Byrds had released four great albums and one classic greatest hits compilation in just under three years, but by 1968, the band was in a shambles. Singer Gene Clark, who, along with guitarist/singer Roger McGuinn, was the main songwriter in the band, had long since left the band, and during the recording of their fifth album, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, singer/guitarist David Crosby took off on his own, followed by drummer Michael Clark. That left only McGuinn and bassist Chris Hillman to keep The Byrds going, and they decided to soldier on, hiring Hillman’s cousin Mike Kelley on drums, and a relatively unknown, 21-year-old kid named Gram Parsons on guitar and piano. That lineup would only last less than six months, but the music they created during that time was not only The Byrds’ last great moment, but also yielded one of the most influential albums of the last 35 years.
Parsons, born Cecil Ingram Connor, had grown up in a wealthy family in Georgia and attended college at Harvard, and fronted a group called the International Submarine Band, who put out a single (released by Columbia, which flopped), and an album for Lee Hazlewood’s LHI label in 1967, called Safe at Home. Many regard that album as the very first country rock album, and when Parsons was hired to be a sideman in The Byrds, his influence was so strong on McGuinn, that by the time they were ready to record Sweetheart of the Rodeo, they were abandoning McGuinn’s idea of a double album chronicling the history of American music, in favor of traditional, sincere, completely unironic country music. Despite the fact that Parsons wrote two classic songs for the album, and initially sang on five tracks, contractual hassles with Hazlewood forced McGuinn to replace Parsons’s vocals with his own on all but two of the songs. Now, with this new expanded, double CD edition of the album, Columbia tries to give Parsons his due.
Recorded in Nashville, Sweetheart of the Rodeo was indeed a huge bust for the once-massively popular band, peaking at a dismal Number 77 on the album charts, and yielding not one hit single. A classic example of a timeless album that nobody appreciated at first, the record is a real treasure. Every track, save for Parsons’s two compositions, is a cover of either a contemporary song or an arrangement of a traditional country piece. The Byrds had always been known by some as Bob Dylan’s unofficial cover band (they recorded 12 Dylan songs between 1965 and 1968), and although Dylan was holed up in Woodstock, New York, recording his now-legendary Basement Tapes with The Band, he made two demos from those sessions available to McGuinn and Hillman, and they rank as some of the greatest covers of Dylan’s material ever recorded. Featuring some incredible pedal steel guitar by session musician Lloyd Green, “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” has a deceptively sunny feel, as it masks some of Dylan’s most foreboding lyrics to date: “Strap yourself/To the tree with roots/You ain’t goin’ nowhere.” Meanwhile, the equally dark “Nothing was Delivered” features a tiny hint of rock in its stirring, 4/4 chorus, as it bursts to life with those vocal harmonies The Byrds were known for.
The cover of The Louvin Brothers’ “The Christian Life” is beautifully done, its lyrics incredibly square for a Sixties rock star to sing, but it’s delivered with full sincerity (“Others find pleasure in things I despise/I like the Christian life”). McGuinn goes on to sing terrific renditions of “You Don’t Miss Your Water”, Merle Haggard’s “Life in Prison”, and Woody Guthrie’s ballad “Pretty Boy Floyd”, while Hillman sings on “Blue Canadian Rockies” and the traditional hymn “I Am a Pilgrim”, but it’s Parsons who steals the show. As great as McGuinn sounds, he simply sounds amateurish compared to Parsons’s smooth country croon, injecting a heaping dose of heartbreak into “You’re Still on My Mind”. However, it’s his own songs, “One Hundred Years From Now” (sung by McGuinn and Hillman), and especially the gorgeous “Hickory Wind”, that stand out the most, the latter a stunningly beautiful look back at his own childhood in the South.
Of course, with this edition, it’s all about the bonus tracks, and this album is loaded with them. Aside from the McGuinn/Hillman arrangement of the traditional folk song “Pretty Polly” and some previously unreleased takes of “All I Have are Memories” and “Blue Canadian Rockies”, the focus of the tracks for the most of the set is on Parsons. On the first disc, after the album portion, it’s rounded out by a helping of non-album tracks that were originally unearthed on the 1991 Byrds box set: the more rock-oriented J.T. Hardin song “Reputation”, which Parsons had been performing solo since 1966, as well as Parsons’s original vocal takes of the propulsive “Lazy Days” (a Parsons original that didn’t make the album), a terrific version of “The Christian Life”, “You Don’t Miss Your Water”, and “One Hundred Years From Now”.
Disc Two starts off with selections from Parsons’s International Submarine Band, including the straight-ahead rock songs “Sum Up Broke” and “One Day Week”, from their 1966 debut single for Columbia, and the country road song “Truck Drivin’ Man”, released the same year by Ascot records, which artfully swipes the melody from “Act Naturally”. Three of Parsons’s best songs from the ISB’s 1967 album Safe at Home are included: the sprightly country tunes “Blue Eyes” and “Strong Boy”, as well as the stupendous “Luxury Liner”, a flawless blend of rock and country that was years ahead of its time. The rest of the tracks on the second disc are all previously unreleased demos and outtakes, and while it gets a bit repetitive, as several takes of the same songs are included, there are some real revelations, the best of them all being an alternate take of “Hickory Wind”, which features just Parsons’s voice, and no harmony vocals, making it all the more spare and emotional.
By the time Sweetheart of the Rodeo came out in August 1968, Parsons had already left The Byrds, angry about a scheduled tour of South Africa, not to mention his bitterness at having most of his lead vocals taken off the album. By the end of that year, Hillman would leave the band as well, going on to form the Flying Burrito Brothers with Parsons. In 1973, after two classic albums with the Flying Burrito Brothers and two more phenomenal solo albums, Parsons overdosed on morphine and Tequila, passing away at the age of 26. He might have only been in the Byrds for an incredibly short time, but the importance of what Gram Parsons accomplished with that band is still felt today, as Sweetheart of the Rodeo had a direct influence on countless artists, including The Eagles, R.E.M., and Wilco, not to mention the entire alt-country community from the past decade. It’s never too late for new listeners to discover Parsons’s work for themselves, and this exhaustive edition of the classic album gives both longtime fans and curious newcomers a detailed, rewarding look at one of the most important albums in rock history.