It’s the first day of the month, which means it’s time once again to take a break from theological discussions (somewhat) and return to our monthly review of albums by the Byrds and the band’s sixth release.
In perhaps one of the most unusual chapters in rock-and-roll history, a fading but still-influential rock band totally immersed itself in country music in…
Sweetheart of the Radio
Produced by Gary Usher, Columbia Records, Released August 30, 1968, Length: 32:35
After David Crosby (rhythm guitar) and Michael Clarke (drums) were dismissed during the recording of “The Notorious Byrd Brothers,” the Byrds were down to the duo of Roger McGuinn (lead guitar) and Chris Hillman (bass). Kevin Kelley, Hillman’s cousin, was subsequently hired as the band’s new drummer and Gram Parsons was added as a keyboard player. McGuinn originally envisioned the Byrd’s next recording project as a concept double-album spanning the history of American music, from Appalachian folk to electronica, but Parsons, former leader of the pioneering country-rock group, the International Submarine Band, was interested only in recording a country album and found a willing ally in bluegrass and Buck Owens/Bakersfield enthusiast, Hillman. The Byrds had dabbled in country music in their previous four albums, mostly thanks to Hillman, but “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” would be a complete immersion.
“We hired a piano player and he turned out to be Parsons . . . a monster in sheep’s clothing. And he exploded out of this sheep’s clothing. It’s George Jones!” – Roger McGuinn in 1969
The Byrds and producer, Gary Usher, worked on “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” from March 9-15, 1968 in Columbia’s Nashville studios. Several notable session musicians participated in the recordings including John Hartford (fiddle, banjo), Lloyd Green (pedal steel guitar), JayDee Maness (pedal steel guitar), Earl P. Ball (piano), and Clarence White (guitar), who had also guested on the group’s two previous albums. Following their recording sessions, the Byrds made appearances in Nashville at the Grand Ole Opry and on DJ Ralph Emery’s popular WSM radio show where the “hippie” musicians received rather cold receptions. Remember, folks, this was 1968 and “hippies” and “rednecks” did not mix.
The Byrds continued working on “Sweetheart” back in Columbia’s Hollywood studios from April 4 to May 27. Parson’s lead vocals were replaced on three songs by McGuinn and Hillman with the explanation that problems involving Parsons’ contract with his former record label forced the changes. However, Usher later revealed Parsons’s contractual problems had already been satisfactorily resolved and the decision to alter the vocals was made in order to rein in newcomer Parson’s disproportionate presence on the record.
Parsons left the band in July and would team with Hillman a few months later to form the influential country-rock band, The Flying Burrito Brothers. Following Parsons’ and Hillman’s departures, McGuinn would carry on the Byrds franchise with the help of hired hands until 1973, producing five more albums of uneven quality.
“Sweetheart of the Rodeo” was released on August 30, 1968 and reached #77 on the album charts. “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”/”Artificial Energy” was released as a single on April 2 and peaked at #75 followed by “I Am a Pilgrim”/”Pretty Boy Floyd,” which was released September 2 and failed to chart.
“Sweetheart of the Rodeo” is considered to be one of the very first country-rock albums, blazing the trail for a flurry of succeeding bands. For a major rock band to have taken such a monumental turn in 1968 was seen as both foolhardy and stunningly courageous. Both rock and country audiences rejected the pioneering album at the time, but it remains a seminal influence to this day. That a newcomer was able to exert so much influence on an established band is a testament to Parson’s determination to popularize country music as well as to McGuinn’s puzzling willingness to relinquish control of the Byrds. McGuinn’s chiming twelve-string Rickenbacker guitar, featured so prominently in the first five albums and the unmistakable signature of the Byrds’ sound, is almost entirely missing from “Sweetheart.”
Rolling Stone magazine selected “Sweetheart” as #117 on its “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list released in 2003. Personally, I was not a fan of country music when I first listened to “Sweetheart” in the early seventies and it took many listens before I learned to appreciate Parsons’ “Cosmic American Music.”
- You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere (Dylan) – The Byrds reclaim their place as Dylan’s ablest interpreters as they borrow this unreleased song from his “Basement Tapes” recordings. A great leadoff song. McGuinn does a nice vocal with Lloyd Green playing some fine pedal steel and with Parsons on the organ. A Byrds classic. Listen below.
- I Am a Pilgrim (Traditional) – It’s ironic that Hillman sings this plaintive Christian tune as he’ll profess to becoming a born-again Christian years later. That’s McGuinn on the banjo and John Hartford doing a nice job on the fiddle. Listen here.
- The Christian Life (Louvin, Louvin) – Chicago-native McGuinn’s imitation of a Southern accent is the album’s low point. JayDee Maness shines on pedal steel and Clarence White delivers some tasty licks on guitar. One of the three tunes in which Parson’s lead vocals were erased. Listen here. It’s ironic that, while this song was done tongue-in-cheek, McGuinn would eventually accept Jesus Christ as his Savior nine years later in 1977. I remember both “I Am a Pilgrim” and “The Christian Life” making an unsettling impression on my long journey to Jesus.
- You Don’t Miss Your Water (Bell) – The second song in which Parson’s vocals were erased in favor of McGuinn. Earl P. Ball handles the ivories while JayDee masterfully supplies the pedal steel licks.
- You’re Still on My Mind (McDaniel) – Parsons sings lead with Ball playing some honky tonk piano and JayDee on pedal steel. Parsons later claimed that this recording and “Life in Prison” were strictly warm-up versions and should not have been included on the album.
- Pretty Boy Floyd (Guthrie) – McGuinn takes a Woody Guthrie folk tune to Nashville. That’s Hartford on banjo and fiddle.
- Hickory Wind (Parsons, Buchanan) – Parsons’ wistful tribute to his Southern roots is considered by many to be one of his best songs. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame included “Hickory Wind” on it’s list of “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.”
- One Hundred Years From Now (Parsons) – McGuinn and Hillman replaced Parsons’ lead vocals. Lloyd Green handles the pedal steel while White adds some tasty guitar licks. The song is one of the few on the album that sounds like the pre-Sweetheart Byrds.
- Blue Canadian Rockies (Walker) – Hillman sings a nice lead vocal with Parsons on piano.
- Life in Prison (Haggard, Sanders) – Parsons sings lead accompanied by Ball’s honky tonk piano and JayDee’s pedal steel. Hillman later remarked that pampered rich kid, Parsons, was a “fish out of water” singing this prison song.
- Nothing Was Delivered (Dylan) – The second Dylan tune on the album also came from the unreleased Basement Tapes. Very catchy chorus. Green provides some sweet steel. That’s Parsons on piano.
2003 Legacy Edition CD bonus tracks:
- All I Have Are Memories (Kelley) – Outtake. Stick with the drums, Kevin.
- You Got A Reputation (Hardin) – Outtake. Parsons sings lead on this rocking number. This song and “Lazy Days” had more of a rock feel and did not mesh with the traditional country material on the album.
- Pretty Polly (Traditional) – Outtake. McGuinn’s arrangement of a traditional folk tune.
- Lazy Days (Parsons) – Outtake. A version of this rocker will appear on the Flying Burrito Brother’s Burrito Deluxe.
- The Christian Life (Louvin, Louvin) – This version includes the original Parsons vocals.
- You Don’t Miss Your Water (Bell) – This version includes the original Parsons vocals.
- One Hundred Years From Now (Parsons) – This version includes the original Parsons vocals.
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Also included in the 2003 Legacy Edition are six International Submarine Band tunes from their album, “Safe at Home,” considered to be the very first country-rock album, followed by fourteen rehearsal versions from the Sweetheart sessions. The material is somewhat interesting, but will appeal to only the most ardent Byrds fans.
Postscript: It was recently announced that McGuinn and Hillman were going to commemorate the 50th anniversary of “Sweetheart” by performing the complete album on stage at The Egg, Center for the Performing Arts, Empire State Plaza, in Albany, New York in September with Marty Stuart, but the performance was subsequently cancelled.