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.”