At the tail end of the tumultuous summer of 1968, The Byrds, flying high as America’s coolest psychedelic folk-rock band, released Sweetheart of the Rodeo, a radical and visionary homage to classic country music. Next Monday, fifty years later, two of those musicians, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, will team up with Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives at the Ryman Auditorium as part of a tour reprising and memorializing arguably the most influential country rock album of all time.
“Was it the best Byrds album? No. Did it get accolades upon release? No,” said Chris Hillman, calling from the road. He said it just took a little bit of time for the project’s peculiar fusion to sink in. “A couple years later all of a sudden it got the recognition. We didn’t know what we were doing. We were having a good time. We didn’t think anything beyond the next moment. But it did open the gates.”
The Eagles, Poco and Pure Prairie League, plus legions of West coast, Texas and Nashville artists occupied the new sonic and cultural space like Oklahoma land runs and added their voices to a vast new musical landscape that came to be called Americana. Sweetheart influenced Emmylou Harris and the Grateful Dead. It super-charged the short but brilliant career of Gram Parsons.
“Sweetheart did what you can only hope for. It’s not about making a lot of money. It’s about leaving a piece of art, a legacy, leaving a path,” Hillman said.
The sold out show will tell the story in two acts. A first half features Byrds music that anticipated the Sweetheart sessions. “It was never a stretch to do a country album because we all came out of folk music anyway,” Hillman said. The group plays “Satisfied Mind,” borrowed from Porter Wagoner for the Byrds’ second album, as well as a number of Bob Dylan’s bluesier songs with country touches. In Act 2, the crowd will hear the entire Sweetheart project, albeit out of original album order, with short commentary putting it all in context.
In early 1968, The Byrds had split with David Crosby and Michael Clarke and needed new personnel. That led to an audition with Gram Parsons, a little-known singer/songwriter who’d already pushed into country rock hybrid territory with the International Submarine Band. And with this brash new member, McGuinn’s ambitious plan for an album that spanned American roots music from bluegrass to jazz was massaged into a more terse statement, a celebration of country songs and honky tonk timbres.
The band followed Bob Dylan’s lead and arranged to record the album in Nashville with local masters such as Lloyd Green on pedal steel, Junior Huskey on bass and John Hartford on fiddle and banjo. The sessions, entirely enjoyable in Hillman’s recollection, helped galvanize Nashville’s reputation among outsider rock and folk artists as a great place to record. A concurrent appearance on the Grand Ole Opry wasn’t as seamless, due to Parsons changing the song they’d agreed to play on the fly, on stage. “Now in hindsight, that (was) totally disrespectful and rude,” Hillman told me. “Whatever we thought then, people were furious with us. I say that in full honesty now. Never should have ever done that.”
Sweetheart’s smartly chosen material and their finely balanced treatment became a touchstone that helped students of country music look back and the music world look forward. Its eleven songs included the keening gospel of the Louvin Brothers (“The Christian Life”), Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd,” a Merle Haggard prison song and a couple of Dylan numbers. By drawing from soul and blues with William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” The Byrds even prefigured the acknowledgement and inclusion of African American creators in the Americana story. The two Gram Parsons originals, “One Hundred Years From Now” and “Hickory Wind” matched the surrounding material for pathos and timelessness and are now classics.
Marty Stuart grew up loving the album. The influence of the Byrds is clear in the psychedelic overtones of his long-running hard country band. Stuart even plays the very electric guitar Clarence White played on the Sweetheart sessions. “I bought my first copy of the record in 1972,” said Stuart in a statement announcing the tour. “Upon my first listen, I was mesmerized at the effect of the combined power country music, rock and roll, bluegrass, gospel and folk music had on me. From that day forward, I considered Sweetheart of the Rodeo a blueprint as to how I should live my musical life.”
And Hillman said: “Marty and the Superlatives is such a perfect fit. They get the music. They love it. They’re having fun. We’re all having fun.”
Yet with the country as cleaved politically and socially today as it was in 1968, there’s a profundity behind the anniversary as well. Then, California progressive folkies embracing and uplifting country music was a gesture of de-escalation in a culture war, a signal that “we” are listening and that behind the protest there’s a transcendent respect. Today, the fusion is commonplace. It’s a tool no longer in the tool kit, even though the underlying sentiment still may well apply.
Today, listening to Sweetheart and the tour on its behalf, is a musical, not a political, trip, one made even more exciting by the multi-generational personnel and the Byrds’ Ryman Homecoming. It’s a chance to reflect on an accomplishment crystalized by David Fricke’s 1997 notes on the album for its extended Columbia Records CD re-issue: “The Byrds reminded Americana, on both sides of the ideological fence, that rock & roll, at its very core, is country music and that the best country music always rocks.”