The Byrds’ Top 25 Songs: #13, “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”

Fasten your seatbelts, friends, because with song #13 on our The Byrds’ Top 25 Songs countdown, we’re about to go deeper into country music than many of you have ever gone before.

“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” (2:33)
Written by Bob Dylan
Produced by Gary Usher
From “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” Columbia Records, August 30, 1968

At the start of 1968, the Byrds were in a quandary. With the firing of David Crosby during “The Notorious Byrd Brothers” sessions, the band was down to only two members, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman. An acquaintance of Hillman’s, Gram Parsons, was invited to audition and was subsequently hired.

For the band’s next project, McGuinn envisioned a double-album sampling the entire spectrum of American music, from early Appalachian jug tunes to the electronic Moog synthesizer. But Parsons had an agenda of his own and also had an enthusiastic ally in Hillman, who had brought some country-flavored compositions to the band’s previous album. Parsons convinced McGuinn that the band should fly to Nashville to record an entire album of straight-ahead, hardcore, country music tunes.

“We’d hired a pianist, but we got George Jones in a rhinestone suit!” – Roger McGuinn

It was both a courageous and foolhardy move. The youth culture hated redneck country music and country music fans hated rock ‘n’ roll “hippies.” But Parsons had an “evangelistic zeal” to “convert” rock audiences to country music.

Columbia Records had sent the Byrds some unreleased Dylan demos from his “Woodstock sessions,” and the Byrds opted to cover “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” adding a decidedly country twist. Don’t bother trying to figure out the obtuse, nonsensical lyrics, but the song has an infectious melody and chorus. McGuinn sings a good lead, but it’s Nashville session player, Lloyd Green, on pedal steel guitar, who makes this recording as country as anything they were playing down at the Grand Ole Oprey.

Newcomer Parsons dominated the Nashville sessions to the point that he argued the band should change its name to “Gram Parsons and the Byrds.” Cooler heads prevailed and Parsons’ lead vocals were later expunged on three songs and replaced with McGuinn’s. Parsons, in essence, fired himself from the band two months prior to the release of “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” by refusing to tour apartheid-divided South Africa with the other Byrds.

“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” was released as an early single on April 2, 1968, but rock ‘n’ roll AM Top 40 radio listeners weren’t ready for it. The song peaked at only #74 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. However, some folks definitely did take notice. “Sweetheart” is now revered as a historic, pioneering, seminal album that ushered in country-rock just as Parsons had envisioned. The LP was released a full seven months ahead of Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline.” Despite its initial cool reception, “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” easily deserves the #13 spot in our countdown of the Byrds’ Top 25 Songs.

Following “Sweetheart,” the Byrds pulled back from hardcore country and settled into a country-rock compromise.

Trivia: Dylan released his own version of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” three years later in 1971 in which he annoyedly name-checked McGuinn for transposing the lyric, “Pick up your money, pack up your tent” to “Pack up your money, pick up your tent.”

15 thoughts on “The Byrds’ Top 25 Songs: #13, “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”

  1. Another excellent song and review on your part, Tom. Of course when you said the lyrics couldn’t be made sense of, I called them up and followed along during the song. You’re right. However, I thought the lyrics were fun, and enjoyed them.

    I also like the background on Gram Parsons. Hmm, sounds like there were some ego issues there. Glad Roger took control of the situation and righted the ship.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, David! I became a big Byrds fan while in high school, a few years after the band had disbanded. I started buying up their back-catalog, but when I got to the über-country, “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” I was like, “Yech! What is this?” However, the album grew on me after multiple listenings.

      Parsons was such an interesting character, so driven to introduce country music to the young masses and to become a big “star,” but he also defined excess. Parsons died five years after “Sweetheart” at the age of 26 while on a drug and alcohol binge.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Today I listened to the song first before I read your post and I first thought “It sound Bob Dylan-ish” and no wonder! Fascinating to see the attempt at fusion of country and Rock and Roll! Wow this hate of having the two mix isn’t just with my generation! Glad I read this!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for listening and glad you nailed it as a Dylan composition. 🎯💯
      Country-rock actually did catch on and became very popular in the 70s. Then country-rock disappeared from mainstream pop radio. But what they play on country radio stations these days is rocked-up country.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah it’s so much like rock these days with what’s passed as country!! It took being in the Marines those Southern guys playing old school country that I heard the difference since before I never listen to country music before…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yeah, I think a lot of rock fans “converted” to country when rock music morphed into urban/rap, and country music accommodated them by becoming more rock-ish.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Thanks! I become a Byrds fan while in high school, a couple of years after the band disbanded, and began buying up their back catalog. I remember being really disappointed when I first listened to “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” and the hardcore country twang. It took many, many listens before I started liking it.


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