Monday, January 22, 2007

Sweetheart of the Rodeo-The Byrds, 1968

The Byrds
Sweetheart of the Rodeo


After the fractious and harrowing recording sessions for Notorious Byrd Brothers—the Byrds' most challenging and eclectic effort to date—the group was reduced to just two members, father-guitarist Roger McGuinn and his chief-lieutenant, the stalwart mandolin player-cum-bassist, Chris Hillman. The Byrds lineup had been in flux since Gene Clark, their primary songwriter, co-founder and sometimes lead vocalist, left the group in 1966. He was re-enlisted again in 1967, between the unceremonious dumping of guitarist-vocalist David Crosby, and the departure of longtime drummer Michael Clarke.

After a matter of weeks, Gene Clark left the band yet again and in 1968 McGuinn and Hillman were in search of third and fourth members, both still remarkably wedded to the idea of The Byrds. What they ended up with was Hillman’s cousin, drummer Kevin Kelley, and somewhat extraordinarily, a 22-year old Floridian and one-semester Harvard theologian who was equally obsessed with country music and rock and roll named Gram Parsons. Parsons was a country singer-songwriter who had (somewhat illegally) recently bolted the Lee Hazlewood-controlled International Submarine Band. Though he nearly tore The Byrds apart, Parsons helped them to redefine country music, and incredibly, make it relevant again. Sweetheart of the Rodeo was his one and only contribution to The Byrds legacy.

The Byrds began their formation in 1964 in Los Angeles, when the Tipton, Missouri-native and former New Christy Minstrel, Gene Clark enlisted Chicagoan, Roger (nee Jim) McGuinn—a veteran of local folk groups like The Limelighters and grunt worker for Bobby Darin—in a new folk duo. Third vocalist and guitarist, David Crosby, bassist Chris Hillman and drummer Michael Clarke subsequently joined the two, rounding out the original quintet. After a false start, (they released a single entitled "Please Let Me Love You" as the Beefeaters in 1964), they lucked into a demo of a Bob Dylan song called "Mr. Tambourine Man," which after making slight compositional, and earth-shaking musical changes, they promptly recorded it and released their version before Dylan. The iconic "Mr. Tambourine Man," sounding more like The Beatles and The Beach Boys than Bob Dylan, went to #1 on the Billboard Chart and not only launched The Byrds but defined a brand new movement in popular music: folk-rock.

1965 saw the release of The Byrds second single, another Bob Dylan cover, a heavily truncated version of "All I Really Want To Do" which had as a B-side the far stronger Gene Clark original, a bitter and brilliant pop gem titled "I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better." Clark was increasingly becoming the primary songwriter (along with, in a de facto sort of way, Bob Dylan). On the website Byrdwatcher, Tim Connors wrote that of the 23 songs on the first two Byrds albums, “six are Dylan covers, seven are covers of songs by other writers, and eight are written by Clark. Of those eight, two—probably the two weakest—were co-written with McGuinn, who also wrote one other song alone and one with Crosby. Clark was also the primary author of the band's pièce de resistance, 'Eight Miles High.'” Clark was not long for The Byrds though.

In 1966, after a nervous breakdown on a New York to Los Angeles flight in which Clark (who had been increasingly self-medicating in response to his fear of flying) insisted on being let off the airplane, he left the band. Gene Clark knew he would be unable to meet the obligations of touring with The Byrds, but to be sure there were other underlying tensions between Clark and McGuinn. The Byrds would never enjoy the commercial success of their early Gene Clark-era albums, seeing each release sliding further and further down the charts. 1968’s Notorious Byrd Brothers peaked at #47, their worst showing yet; it’s main single, "Goin’ Back," peaked at #89. Their next album, though an instant classic would do precipitously worse.

After the fracturing of The Byrds due to the recording of Notorious Byrd Brothers, they tried to make a go of it as a trio at first: McGuinn, Hillman and Kevin Kelley on drums. They were frustrated though, because they could not get what McGuinn referred to as that “Byrds Sound” without a second guitarist (McGuinn has also intimated that he wanted the fourth member to also double as a jazz pianist). As the story goes, in 1968, after a chance meeting in a bank, Chris Hillman invited the 22-year-old Parsons to “try out” for The Byrds.

The idea now, seems ludicrous—to invite a young, cocksure, and damaged country singer-songwriter to join an already established but commercially sliding band that had made their name from covering Bob Dylan songs so that they sounded like The Beatles, who had been increasingly trying to distance themselves from their hemmed-in formula—but it is exactly what happened. What makes the sequence of events even more incomparable though is the fact that they hired Parsons, who was not a jazz pianist nor a traditional lead guitarist, in hopes of reclaiming their long sought after “Byrds sound.” Gram Parsons though, more than anybody, helped to burn that sound to the ground and in its place he helped to build a semi-traditional Bakersfield-via-Nashville country sound, replete with banjo, steel guitar, mandolin and piano. Sweetheart of the Rodeo is far closer to traditional country than it is to traditional rock. It is, for all intents and purposes, a country album.

Roger McGuinn’s original vision as a follow up to Notorious Byrd Brothers was an ambitious but cumbersome-sounding attempt at a concept album that “would...canvass the history of American popular music, beginning with early string band music and moving into bluegrass, country music, jazz, rock, and electronic music.” Hillman, the lapsed bluegrass mandolin player and Parsons the young hot shot country-rocker persuaded McGuinn to ditch the “trajectory-of-popular-music” idea and focus on country and western music. The result of which was Sweetheart of the Rodeo, produced by the former hotrod/surf songwriter and The Byrds’ favorite knob-twiddler, Gary Usher, in Nashville, Tennessee.

The Byrds however, were unable to give up on Dylan’s prolific stream of songs, opening and closing the album with obscure covers, both from Side 4 of The Basement Tapes, ("You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere" and "Nothing was Delivered"), both of which were sung by McGuinn in which he improved upon the rather sanguine, yet messy Dylan versions. Aside from two dazzling originals (both by Parsons)—the classic "One Hundred Years from Now," the only song to vaguely traverse rock territory on the album, and the bittersweet ode to a lost childhood that most likely never existed, "Hickory Wind"—Sweetheart is chock full of traditional country and folk covers.

The one major misstep on the album is Roger McGuinn’s cruel and disrespectful faux-twang on the Charles and Ira Louvin-penned gospel-country classic "The Christian Life." Chris Hillman’s stab at "I am a Pilgrim" is a much more forthright attempt at respecting the material they chose to use. McGuinn makes up for his crassness with a pitch-perfect version of the idealized, depression-era gem, "Pretty Boy Floyd," about the famous Okie outlaw, written by Woody Guthrie, the most famous idolater of Okies east of Steinbeck. The latter two songs evoke the traditionalism of their eras, as they are fleshed out with banjos, mandolins, violins and an upright bass.

Not surprisingly, Sweetheart of the Rodeo garnered The Byrds their worst chart showing—#77 in the U.S. and it was the first Byrds album that failed to chart in the UK. In April of 1968, The Byrds toured England and were hosted by The Rolling Stones who knew The Byrds (in this case Hillman and McGuinn) through tours in the past. Guitarist Keith Richards famously took in Gram Parsons, and the two irascible and troublemaking songwriters bonded over country music (and probably intravenous drugs as well).

The Byrds had scheduled a tour of Apartheid-era South Africa, and as the story goes, Parsons consulted his new friend Richards on the ethical nature of touring the officially racist nation. Richards said flatly that he would never embark on a tour of that region. On the eve of The Byrds tour of South Africa, Parsons pulled out, citing an aversion to the country’s racist policies; McGuinn and Hillman promptly fired Parsons. Almost no one believes that deep-held anti-racist beliefs played a part in his decision. Gram Parsons would become the Stones' country-guide, helping them to navigate the vast history of country music.

Parsons famously arranged the country version of the Stones’ single "Honky Tonk Women," entitled "Country Honk" (on the album, Let it Bleed) and inspired the bulk of their country-tinged output. The Rolling Stones, more than the Byrds (and I know this will inspire argument) were responsible for country-rock—listen to Beggars Banquet, and every album after that through Some Girls. Parsons inspired the bulk of that.

Sweetheart of the Rodeo is famous for being Parsons’ first major foray into the whole milieu of Country Rock; the segment of rock history that he gets the lions share of credit for. It is not as if he does not deserve it, because he took it by force, almost like a con artist he faked his way in to the Byrds, hijacked the band and recreated them in his image. Quickly bored, he abandoned the group and put his own together and became an icon. Once free from the Jim McGuinn-created restraints and insistence on covering Dylan tunes, Parsons embraced Stax-style soul, coupled it with his traditional country and formed a band that is the most influential of all country-rock bands—The Flying Burrito Brothers (with Hillman on Bass).

After the shenanigans of Hillman and Parsons, Roger McGuinn put a chokehold on The Byrds and put them on a path of commercial relevancy again, especially with the fantastic Ballad of Easy Rider album. McGuinn forever kept within a hairsbreadth of country but never embraced it with the Parsonsesque fervor that helped to create Sweetheart of the Rodeo.

The Rootless Parsons recorded two classic albums with The Flying Burrito Brothers, and two albums on his own before dying from an overdose of morphine on September 19, 1973.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Speaking of Woody, I recommend you check out some newly published lyrics by Woody Guthrie on "Wonder Wheel" by The Klezmatics. Its a 2007 Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary World Music Album and has terrific insight on Woody finding his spirituality and also, of course, opposition to war. These songs will resonate forever.

8:29 AM  

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