Classic Americana Albums: The Byrds “Sweetheart Of The Rodeo”

Columbia, 1968

Following hot on the heel of the detailed work a few weeks ago by my esteemed colleague Martin Johnson with his excellent piece on ‘Ballad of Easy Rider’, it seemed like an ideal opportunity to follow up with The Byrds effort from a year earlier, ‘Sweetheart of The Rodeo’.  Rarely has an album managed to disappoint, and in many cases actually alienate, almost everyone who heard it and it would be much later before it was recognised as the iconic piece of work that it is.  ‘Sweetheart of The Rodeo’ is widely regarded as the album that defined country-rock, but in reality the rock part is almost silent and the whole thing is almost out and out country, with huge dollops of pedal steel, banjo, fiddle and almost everything other kind of instrument you would expect to hear in the mainstream twangy country that existed at that time.

This is where The Byrds pulled off that magic trick of alienating both the country and the “pop” audience.  Being released as it was in 1968, at a time of great political divide in the US (sound familiar?), the mostly right-wing country music fraternity hated it as it was created by, what most saw, as nothing more than a bunch of long-haired communist hippies.  At the same time they managed to disaffect their core fanbase who couldn’t fathom why their erstwhile heroes were now singing songs such as Charles and Ira Louvin’s  ‘The Christian Life’ and the traditional folk air ‘I Am a Pilgrim’.  Was it a clever tongue-in-cheek pastiche or were they serious?  They were sure of one thing though, they almost universally disliked it and the resultant sales were the lowest of any Byrds album to that point.

So how did it come to this?  A year earlier, having reached their tolerance level with his various transgressions, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman drove to David Crosby’s home and fired him on the spot (and subsequently having to reach a substantial financial settlement).  Shortly after, Gene Clark joined the band but his involvement lasted a mere three weeks, his departure hastened after he reputedly refused to get on a flight while on tour with the band, leaving McGuinn and Hillman as the only two members.   Hillman’s cousin Kevin Kelley was quickly recruited for drumming duties and playing as The Notorious Byrd Brothers, the threesome undertook a short tour of US colleges but it soon became clear that this trio couldn’t come close to recreating their studio sound and more support was needed.  In what was to become something of a strange twist of fate, Gram Parsons was recruited, ostensibly to play piano, but who was to go on to irrevocably change the direction of the band.

As McGuinn explained “I was interested in pursuing the direction we’d started with ‘Eight Miles High’, which was kind-of a Coltrane jazz kind-of thing, and I asked Gram if he could play any McCoy Tyner-type piano. And he sat down at the piano and played a little sort-of Floyd Cramer-ish style piano. And I thought well this guy’s got talent, he can play, so we can work with him, we’ll figure it out. And I didn’t know he was gonna turn into, I’ve said this before, like George Jones with a sequin suit.“.  Coming from a bluegrass background in his pre Byrds days, Chris Hillman was enthralled by Parsons love for country music and before they knew it, instead of the concept album that would have explored the history of American popular music they were seduced into recoding a full-on, old-time country album that took the feel they had dabbled with in ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ and went full-on kitsch Nashville, even hiring session luminaries such as Lloyd Green, Earl Ball and Roy Husky to help create that authentic sound.

In typical Byrds fashion though, it all started to unravel pretty quickly.  Tensions between Parsons and McGuinn had been simmering for some time and following a concert at The Royal Albert Hall, Parsons announced that he was refusing to join their tour to South Africa in protest at the apartheid policies. McGuinn though didn’t believe him and saw it simply as a convenient excuse to stay in the UK with his newfound friends Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.  By the time ‘Sweetheart of The Rodeo’ was released in August 1968, Parsons had been gone for almost two months.  It’s widely accepted though that Parsons had simply used The Byrds to further his own career and with the exposure he had already gained was simply moving on to the next step in his personal plan, that theory given further credence when Hillman joined him in The Flying Burrito Brothers.

With only two original songs among the 11 on the album, the Parsons penned classics ‘Hickory Wind’ and ‘One Hundred Years From Now’, ‘Sweetheart of The Rodeo’ is consists of brilliant covers from greats such as Merle Haggard (‘Life In Prison’), Bob Dylan (‘Nothing Was Delivered‘ and ‘You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere’) and Woody Guthrie (‘Pretty Boy Floyd‘), but it’s not simply a fantastic album of covers, it’s far more than that.  It clearly created a template for what was to come later through The Flying Burrito Brothers.  Some would also argue that The album was also influential on the creation of the alt/outlaw country that followed some after.  One thing though is certain, it was the last influential Byrds album and it shouldn’t be viewed as The Byrds “doing country” but as an outstanding country release in its own right.

About Jim Finnie 75 Articles
Resident of the frozen NE of Scotland, with a penchant for climbing high mountains and exploring crazy countries that others avoid. I also sorta like music.

6 Comments

  1. A great piece that shows the real history behind what is without doubt a founding album for not only americana, and as you say outlaw country, but also mainstream country from the ’80s onwards. If only Rog knew then what he knows now………

    • In researching this album in a bit more depth, it was fascinating to see the politics at play, Parsons using The Byrds to further his own ambitions, McGuinn falling out with almost everyone. Another nugget that didn’t make it into the piece is that it was (I believe), the first Byrds album to be released exclusively in stereo. Previous albums had been in mono and stereo versions. Yes, it was that long ago!

  2. I’ll probably be banned for this but I reckon a bit overrated prefer original songs and don’t get me started on the bad boy GP.

    • I guess this all depends on your interpretation of “classic”. I can’t really argue with your view that the originals are better (that’s purely subjective of course) and ultimately the album is the sum of its parts, but it’s certainly classic in terms of the change of musical direction that resulted from its release.

  3. I’ve always thought “Sweetheart” is a great record. There’s no question GP hijacked the band for his own purposes (to wonderful effect on 100 years From This Time and Hickory Wind) but then again why not? He had the vision and the others followed it, which seems fair enough to me. It was more traditional than the later Byrds records but definitely shaped their LA country-rock sound for the rest of the time they stayed together. Looking back it’s not surprising it didn’t sell at the time – nothing GP was involved with did – but its influence was on other musicians was huge and continues to this day. I’m not sure it’s the best Byrds album and it’s certainly not my personal favourite but it’s a massively important record and I’m glad it’s been recognised as such.

    • Well done, you’ve pretty much summarised why I picked it for the classic albums feature in the first place! Given its influence on those that followed it definitely falls into the classic category. Personally, it was good to go back and revisit it after many, many years of not having revisited it. My tastes have moved on since then and it was interesting to listen to it, if only from a nostalgia perspective. It wouldn’t make my Top 10 desert island albums (and likely not my top 50 either), but good to hear it again, that’s for sure.

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