The Byrds’ Top 25 Songs: #10, “Chestnut Mare”

Oh, boy! Here we go! We’ve reviewed songs #25 through #11 in our Byrds’ Top 25 Songs countdown, and they were all excellent tunes, but now we’re finally getting to the Top Ten “cream of the crop” of the Byrds’ recordings. Four of the upcoming Top Ten were Billboard Top 40 commercial successes, plus a near-miss, while the other five were exceptional songs in their own right.

“Chestnut Mare” (5:08)
Written by Roger McGuinn and Jacques Levy
Produced by Terry Melcher
From “Untitled,” Columbia Records, September 14, 1970, also released as a single, October 23, 1970

The Byrds’ leader and guitarist, Roger McGuinn, and Broadway impresario, Jacques Levy, met in 1967 and teamed up to write 26 songs intended for a musical that never materialized. Four of those songs were recorded for the Byrds’ ninth album, “Untitled,” including song #10 in our Byrds’ Top 25 Songs countdown, “Chestnut Mare.”

“Chestnut Mare” tells the whimsical story of the aforementioned musical’s protagonist, Gene Tryp, who sought to capture and tame a wild horse. It was distinct among Byrds songs in its narrative approach, with much of the vocals being spoken rather than sung. “Chestnut Mare” was clearly the best song on “Untitled.” Columbia rightly released the tune as a single a month after the album’s debut, but it inexplicably stalled at #121 on the Billboard singles chart (in contrast, the song reached #19 in the U.K.). Nevertheless, the song was a favorite of concert audiences and received extensive airplay on Top 40-indifferent FM radio. In addition to its entertaining, lyrical story, “Chestnut Mare” features some wonderful guitar interplay between McGuinn on his twelve-string Rickenbacker and Clarence White on both his Telecaster and Martin D-28 acoustic guitar.

The five albums by the 1969-1971 McGuinn-White Byrds were of uneven quality, but “Chestnut Mare” compares with the very best songs from the original, 1965-1968, McGuinn-Clark-Crosby-Hillman line-up.

It’s my pleasure to present song #10 in our Byrds’ Top 25 Songs countdown, “Chestnut Mare.”

13 thoughts on “The Byrds’ Top 25 Songs: #10, “Chestnut Mare”

  1. Not sure what to make of this one, Tom. I don’t think the tune is all that great. The lyrics, however, were really engrossing. (I always listen to the songs you post while reading the lyrics.)

    I admit I was captivated by the story, especially the part as they were falling. I was wondering if both were going to fall to their death, and the singer was telling the story from “the other side.” However, it appears that both landed safely, got up, and went on their way.

    Anticlimactic?

    Then I looked up the song on Wikipedia and got more background in addition to what you provided. Perhaps if the play was produced, I saw it, and understood the context of the song, it would have more impact.

    So, though I don’t agree with it’s Top 10 placement, I will say that this entry was thought-provoking and had me doing some research. All of which to say, “Great post, Tom!”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, David! I definitely get it that things like this boil down to personal preference. I know some Byrds fans would be appalled by some of my Top 25 choices. I on the other hand have seen lists of Byrds top songs that I considered unknowledgeable and ridiculous. That said, I think the consensus among most Byrds fans is that “Chestnut Mare” would score pretty well, but from the Billboard stats the song obviously didn’t resonate with the general audience…unless you lived in the U.K.!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I wonder, too, regarding radio stations that played the hits, if the song’s length was somewhat bulky for the time. FM stations thrived on long songs, but not so much AM radio “hit” stations.

        Do you think that may have played into it?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I think you hit the nail on the head. The Wiki article states the U.S. single version was the full-length 5 minutes while the UK version was edited down to 3 minutes.

        Like

    1. Thanks for listening! The play was about this guy who smuggled guns for the Confederacy during the Civil War and ended up wandering across the Southwest. Yeah, others have speculated if there’s a deeper meaning to the song. The play was based on Henrik Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt” in which the wandering protagonist tries to capture a reindeer.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Crissy! I always enjoyed the lyrics and exaggerated imagery (falling a mile, a pool of water 6 feet wide and 1 foot deep) of this song.

      Jacques Levy based this proposed musical on Henrik Ibsen’s play, Peer Gynt, which was made into a movie in 1941, featuring Charleton Heston in his film debut. In Ibsen’s play the protagonist was trying to catch a reindeer rather than a horse.

      Liked by 1 person

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