Classic Americana Albums: The Byrds “Ballad Of Easy Rider”

Columbia, 1969

The Byrds’ place in the pantheon of rock greats is assured given their influence on folk rock, psychedelic rock and with ‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’ country rock and subsequently americana. However, this very brief summary ignores completely the Roger McGuinn incarnation of the Byrds which he convened after ‘Sweetheart’ and Chris Hillman’s and Gram Parson’s subsequent departure to form the Flying Burrito Brothers leaving McGuinn as the last original member. The success of the original Byrds was due to the varied influences and talents of the original members Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Gene Clark, Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke and McGuinn wanted to rebuild the Byrds as an instrumentally proficient unit with his signature guitar sound and the country-influenced sounds of emerging guitar hero Clarence White, who had already changed the course of bluegrass with his acoustic guitar playing and was now beginning to do the same for country and rock music with his innovative electric guitar playing. In one of his final acts with the Byrds, Chris Hillman was key to Clarence White joining as a full-time member after playing on various earlier Byrd’s albums when he recommended that White should be asked to join the band. His logic was that White’s technical skills meant he could continue the new country rock direction and also play the more psychedelic older material and McGuinn was in full and eager agreement. Once he was a member of the Byrds, White lobbied for his old Nashville West friend and drummer Gene Parsons to replace ‘Sweetheart’ drummer Kevin Kelley and when Hillman himself jumped ship, McGuinn recruited session musician John York on bass who was replaced in 1970 by Skip Battin.

McGuinn may have got himself a new version of the Byrds, but life was not going to be easy particularly with the late ‘60s practice of record companies requiring bands to deliver a new album every 6 months or so. Furthermore, despite its now legendary status, ‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’ was not particularly successful when it was released and Roger McGuinn was not fully supportive of the move to country rock having originally planned for the album to be a history of 20th century American music, with country being simply only part of this narrative. ‘Sweetheart’ was followed by ‘Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde’ and the music reflected the implied schizophrenia in its title and included country rock, psychedelia and folk rock which was, while eclectic, a typical Byrds mix. It is the only Byrds album that features Roger McGuinn on lead vocals on every track  which was a deliberate attempt to forge a link with the Byrds’ legacy. Despite positive reviews, ‘Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde’ was even less successful than ‘Sweetheart’ with the band blaming Columbia and Bob Dylan producer Bob Johnson’s production of the album. The record has one other claim to fame, being the first time Clarence White used his and Gene Parson’s B-Bender device, which allowed electric guitarists to simulate the sound of a pedal steel guitar, on a Byrds’ record and it subsequently became a key part of their latter-day sound. McGuinn was so enamoured with White’s guitar  playing that during live performances he would sometimes hold back on his own playing to give White the guitar  spotlight.

‘Dr. Byrds And Mr. Hyde’ was released in March 1969 and the Byrds were back in the studio in June to record a follow-up and unfortunately lead Byrd Roger McGuinn’s song cupboard was bare. McGuinn, despite his trademark sound and arranging abilities, was never a prolific songwriter and he was at the time also writing songs with future Dylan collaborator, Jacques Levy, for a country-rock stage production of Henrik Ibsen’s ‘Peer Gynt’ called ‘Gene Tryp’. What could have been a real problem for what was still ostensibly a new band, the lack of McGuinn originals allowed the new record to more fully reflect all the band members, not just McGuinn and the historical Byrds’ sound.  While at the time the Byrds were struggling with their album sales, they were making strides as a live attraction fulfilling Chris Hillman’s original idea of having a band who could play the old and new Byrds material featuring Clarence White’s virtuoso guitar.

As is often the case, fate also played a hand in the Byrds’ 1969 fortunes when Roger McGuinn recorded a solo version of his song ‘Ballad Of Easy Rider’, based on an original idea by Bob Dylan, that was included on the soundtrack of the era defining film ‘Easy Rider’ which was released in July 1969. The Byrds were well represented on the film soundtrack with a solo McGuinn version of Dylan’s ‘It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’ and the band track ‘Wasn’t Born To Follow’ from 1967’s ‘The Notorious Byrd Brothers’ also being included. The subsequent success of the film aided the commercial renaissance of the Byrds and this was pushed further when the new record was released in November 1969 with the title ‘Ballad Of Easy Rider’ in an attempt to cash in on the film’s popularity.

Following their dissatisfaction with Bob Johnston’s production on their previous album, original Byrds’ producer Terry Melcher was drafted in for the new record.  McGuinn decided to re-record his ‘Ballad Of Easy Rider’ in a full band version and this more up tempo version also includes strings added by Melcher in an attempt to emulate the success of Glen Campbell with ‘Gentle On My Mind’.  The song is a genuine McGuinn classic and the Byrds did the song full justice ensuring the album got off to an excellent start. However, this is the only original McGuinn song on the record as his songwriting efforts were focused on material for ‘Gene Tryp’, though he did arrange the version of the sea-shanty ‘Jack Tar The Sailor’. The remaining tracks are mainly covers and traditional songs with bassist John York’s ‘Fido’ being the only other original. ‘Fido’ was a slight song that is notable for including the only drum solo on a Byrds’ studio album reflecting John York’s idea to bring a bit of R&B and blues to the Byrds’ sound.   Drummer Gene Parsons brought the traditional song ‘Oil In My Lamp’ to the sessions and the Byrds recorded a mournful version with another first, this time it was the first recorded Clarence White lead vocal since his time with the Kentucky Colonels. Producer Terry Melcher owned the copyright to ‘Tulsa County Blue’ which was a country hit for Anita Carter in 1970 and was written by Pam Pollard and it was John York who suggested the band cover the song.  York sang lead on the song when it was played live at the time but it was McGuinn’s vocals that were recorded in the studio. The track featured Clarence Whites b-bender and he suggested that Byron Berline play fiddle and showed what this version of the Byrds could do with a good country song. Side 1 of the original vinyl album ended with their version of ‘Jack Tar The Sailor’ sung by McGuinn in his best folk voice and reflects his long-held fascination with sea shanties.

Vinyl side 2 opens with Art Reynolds’ gospel number ‘Jesus Is Just Alright’ brought to the Byrds by Gene Parsons who was at the original recording of the song by the Art Reynolds Singers with his ex-musical partner Gib Guilbeau. The song was popular live and the recorded version had echoes of the ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ Byrds and while not a hit for the Byrds themselves, it was for the Doobie Brothers in 1972 with a version based on the Byrds arrangement. The Dylan cover on ‘Ballad Of Easy Rider’ was ‘It Is All Over Now, Baby Blue’ first attempted by the Byrds in 1965 and in a slowed-down arrangement here. White and Parsons brought the Gosdin Brothers’ ‘There Must Be Someone’ to the sessions and they had played on the original version in 1966. Interestingly, Roger McGuinn does not appear on this track and it is the most un-Byrd-like track on the record. Gene Parsons’ ‘Gunga Din’ is now considered a minor Byrds’ classic and was barely two weeks old when it was recorded. Cricket and future TBC Band and Hot Band member Glen D Hardin is rumoured to have played piano on the track.  McGuinn looked to his own past for Woody Guthrie’s ‘Deportee (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos)’ which had been covered by Judy Collins in 1963 with McGuinn’s arrangement. The album closes with a very short McGuinn space-rock track ‘Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins’ written by Zeke Manners, a radio host and comedy songwriter, included as a homage to earlier Byrds albums which had also  finished on a jokey note.

The album reversed the recent commercial decline of the Byrds, no doubt helped by the success of the ‘Easy Rider’ film and Peter Fonda wrote the sleeve notes for the record. The album cover did feature a photograph of a Harley Davidson, but it was a picture of Gene Parson’s father on a 1928 model. The Byrds commercial success was consolidated with 1970’s ‘Untitled’ which included the first official live recordings by the Byrds and McGuinn songs originally intend for the now aborted musical ‘Gene Tryp’. However, despite the lack of original material, ‘Ballad Of Easy Rider’ is the best representation of the Clarence White Byrds and its sound is unequivocally country rock thanks to Gene Parsons’ country influenced drumming and the electric guitar playing of Clarence White. White’s electric guitar has influenced country and country rock guitarist who came after him, just ask Marty Stuart or our own Albert Lee, he has also influenced rock guitarists including Jimmy Page and Keith Richards, and his technical skills were much appreciated by one Jimi Hendrix. It was probably Roger McGuinn’s lack of new original material and the demands of his work on ‘Gene Tryp’ that meant the ‘Ballad Of Easy Rider’ was a more democratic Byrds’ album that consolidates the country influences of White and Parsons. While it was a commercial success it got a mixed response from critics at the time of its release with most critics bemoaning the lack of original material and the lack of variation and perceived lack of typical Byrds’ musical innovation.  The critics were back on board with ‘Untitled’ but that is a more rock-orientated album and while Clarence White’s guitar is heavily featured, McGuinn is much more of a presence. Whatever listeners views of the Eagles are, it is inconceivable that their music would have existed without the clear country rock template of ‘Ballad Of Easy Rider’ and if the album seems familiar to modern ears it is due to the fact it is the template for much of the music that subsequently followed it.

The fundamental problems facing the Byrds may have been mitigated by ‘Ballad Of Easy Rider’ and ‘Untitled’, but they returned with a vengeance on the overproduced ‘Byrdmaniax’ and the under-produced ‘Further Along’ with both albums suffering from a paucity of good quality material. While they were one of the leading live attractions on the circuit 1971’s ‘Further Along’ only made 152 on the Billboard Album Chart, just one place higher than 1969’s problematic ‘Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde’. McGuinn subsequently disbanded this version of the Byrds to enable the original line-up’s reunion album to be recorded in 1972 but it failed to reinvigorate the Byrds’ artistic and commercial standing. Clarence White was the one musician whose reputation was significantly enhanced by his time with the Byrds with his ground breaking use of the fender telecaster. After the Byrds disbanded White returned to bluegrass reactivating the Kentucky Colonels as the New Kentucky Colonels and playing with bluegrass supergroup Muleskinner which included Peter Rowan, Bill Keith, David Grisman, Richard Greene, John Guerin and John Kahn. Muleskinner’s sole studio album had a similar impact on 70’s bluegrass as Jerry Garcia’s Old And In The Way, which also included Grisman, Rowan and Kahn. White was working on his first solo album for Warner Brothers when he was killed by a drunken driver as he was loading equipment into his car with his brother Roland after a New Kentucky Colonels’ gig. The fact that Clarence White died at the age of 29 without recording any solo albums means that his work with the Byrds is key to his legacy and on ‘Ballad Of Easy Rider’ Clarence White was at the peak of his powers which is why it should be treasured by americana fans..

About Martin Johnson 415 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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Nigel Michaelson

An interesting piece, focusing on an under-appreciated part of the Byrds’ history. With the exception of ‘Untitled’, the post-‘Sweetheart..’ albums are generally glossed over as being of lesser quality. Whilst I would regard the run from ‘Younger than…’ to ‘Sweetheart…’ as their absolute peak I nevertheless rate both ‘Dr.Byrds…’ and ‘….Easy Rider’ very highly too. Even the over-produced ‘Byrdmaniax’ and then ‘Farther Along’ are not without their merits although I’d have to agree that the material is not as strong – too many Battin/Fowley compositions, some of which were strange choices for a Byrds album.
As you state their live shows were very good in this era and despite the mighty Chris Hillman’s absence this was probably the strongest line-up in terms of playing ability. Sorry to say that Clarence’s voice has never been my favourite but his playing was stellar and I think genuinely unique, although some tried to emulate it later, and as a whole the band gelled superbly.
For me all of the above-mentioned albums out shone the very disappointing reunion album that was to follow.

Nigel Michaelson

Hi again Martin,
I agree with all that you say in your reply. Your point about Skip’s age/different musIcal upbringing is interesting and valid. I saw the Byrds line-up in question twice (Rainbow & RAH) and they were very strong with Skip more than keeping his end up.
I have the first solo Battin album, ‘Skip’,and it definitely has it’s moments, some very catchy. ‘St.Louis Browns’ and ‘Four legs are better than two’ both stick in my head from way back then. Don’t misunderstand me about the Battin/Fowley compositions on the Byrds albums either – some, such as ‘Absolute Happiness’, ‘Precious Kate’, ‘Hungry Planet’ and ‘Well Come Back Home’ (the last written without Fowley) are good songs but perhaps not really fitting the Byrds’ canon.
Of course Skip went on to play with both the latter day Flying Burrito Bros and NRPS. Not a bad country-rock track record !