Considered the most turbulent and politically unforgiving year in America’s modern history, 1968 also weathered the fractious descent of The Byrds, the once-soaring folk-rock superstars who’d by that winter be reduced to just one of their five founding members, and still reeling from the abject failure of their recently-released sixth album.
‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’ was the product of a new band searching for a direction, and whose members wouldn’t last six months together. It was a devoted detour into the depths of country music, which neither The Byrds’ existing fans or country connoisseurs were willing to accompany them into. In the short term, it was a stepping-stone for newbie and chief instigator, Gram Parsons, to validate his country-rock vision – the pinnacle of which he wouldn’t live to see – while leaving his fellow Byrds behind to pick up the pieces, but gradually the album came to find its place as an immeasurably influential landmark recording in the decades that followed, providing a stylistic blueprint for everyone from the Eagles to Ryan Adams and the entire alt. country movement.
A half-century on from its problematic and inauspicious arrival, it’s the perfect time to unravel the intricate story behind the condemned reject that became a seminal masterpiece, with the help of those who made it. Strap yourself to a tree with roots: we’re headed back to the country.
A self-congratulatory milestone usually reserved for bookending a lengthy and distinguished career, it was perhaps a little premature of The Byrds to commission their ‘Greatest Hits’ in 1967 after only two years and four albums’ worth of recordings, but there was no denying the quality of the 11 tracks originally included, nor the impact each had made as an era-defining reflection of sonic and social development.
The classic Byrds line-up had coalesced at the tail end of 1964 when former bluegrass mandolin player Chris Hillman was installed as their bassist, thus completing a quintet built around the vision of Chicago-born Roger McGuinn (then known as Jim), who foresaw the end of his traditional folk career with the exhilarating advent of The Beatles, and henceforth committed himself to crafting a singular, electrified version of folk with some like minds. First to recognise this promising blend were Missouri singer-songwriter Gene Clark and Los Angeles native David Crosby, who were each drawn to McGuinn after witnessing a performance at The Troubadour in LA. As the vocal trio took flight as The Jet Set, they recruited Sunset Strip hipster Michael Clarke as drummer, before adding Hillman and rechristening themselves The Byrds.
Within months they were the darlings of LA, their club residencies acting as a magnet for Hollywood’s glitterati as the Sixties began to swing, and Bob Dylan, who’d earlier gifted the group an acetate of his then-unreleased ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’. In The Byrds’ hands, the song was transformed from a lilting acoustic ballad into a radiant harbinger of the folk-rock revolution. Their version pre-dated Dylan’s own electric rebellion, while its “jingle-jangle” reference would come to define The Byrds’ chiming trademark sound, which came courtesy of McGuinn’s 12-string Rickenbacker.
As documented by their first hits compilation, by 1967 The Byrds had amassed a shimmering body of work, in turn earning themselves the dubious honour of being referred to as America’s answer to The Beatles (a term they’d regularly denounce), but one which also progressed through individual talents and other diverse and innovative genres.
Gene Clark dominated the songwriting efforts, while McGuinn (and, to a lesser extent, Crosby’s) contributions had ensured their earliest albums were not wholly reliant on Dylan covers. Clark’s bruised, bittersweet compositions were a reflection of his troubled soul, while McGuinn would contemplate love and enlightenment. Musically, the band embraced jazz, psychedelia, Indian ragas and country to evolve beyond any self-imposed confines – most notably, the hypnotic amalgamation of Ravi Shankar and John Coltrane influences on the futuristic-sounding 1966 single ‘Eight Miles High’, as developed by Clark, McGuinn and Crosby, established The Byrds as countercultural pioneers.
By the release of ‘Greatest Hits’, Clark was no longer a Byrd. (Disillusioned with band in-fighting and overwhelmed by a fear of flying, he’d quit in early-’66. Occasional appearances with his former bandmates failed to remain permanent, and he’d pursue a credible yet unprofitable solo career until his death in 1991.) Without their lead writer, McGuinn and Crosby’s input would subsequently prosper on third album, ‘Fifth Dimension’, with “late bloomer” Chris Hillman also stepping up to the plate on its February ’67 follow-up, ‘The Notorious Byrd Brothers’. Though they’d previously covered Porter Wagoner’s ‘Satisfied Mind’ and hinted at country influences on McGuinn’s ‘Mr. Spaceman’, it was the flatpicked guitar on Hillman’s ‘Time Between’ that neatly reinforced The Byrds’ – and especially Hillman’s – affinity with the genre.
“I just did what I felt and what was comfortable for me. My background was country music,” Hillman explains now, referring to his formative stints in the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers and The Hillmen – both faithfully bluegrass outfits. “That was just my comfort area that I really liked to do, so I guess I’d gradually bring [country] into the mix.” The song’s evocative lead guitar was the work of fellow bluegrass alumni and in-demand session musician Clarence White – a player who’d later loom large in The Byrds’ story.
The Byrds’ ‘Greatest Hits’ enshrined their peak, a golden period of effusive energy and experimentation that was the product of contrasting yet complementary driving forces, but fate would have it serve as a bookend to the band after all. For, just two months after its release, Crosby was ousted from the band (creative differences were effectively to blame, but his rampant sense of self-worth didn’t help matters), with drummer Michael Clarke dismissed soon after. Midway through the recording of their fifth album, The Byrds had been reduced to a duo. McGuinn and Hillman were left carrying the weight.
“It was a depressing moment after Gene and David had gone,” Roger admits to Clash, considering the depleted resources the pair found themselves with. “We just didn’t have enough musicians to make it sound good.”
“Roger and I finished that album,” Chris asserts resiliently. “We finished the whole record with Gary Usher, our producer, and it was one of the better Byrds albums ever made. And then we weren’t panicking. At the time, after that album, Roger was not ready to give up the ship. It was more like restarting, overhauling, re-assessing our position, redesigning it – not making it radically different, but we just needed a couple more players to round out the Byrds quartet at the time. It wasn’t a sense of, ‘Oh my God, what are we going to do?’ No, we just continued on.”
The rich and inventive sonic landscape of ‘The Notorious Byrd Brothers’ was testament to the enterprising spirit of the remaining two. McGuinn, whose grandfather was a celebrated engineer in Chicago, had fully indulged his affection for applied science in the studio: “We experimented with all kinds,” he recalls, “the Moog synthesizer and all kind of gadgets, and tape effects like backwards tapes like The Beatles had done. We were always listening to The Beatles and seeing what they did. We got into phase shifting.” The results were wondrous – the glistening nostalgia of ‘Goin’ Back’, the cosmic bridge of ‘Wasn’t Born To Follow’, the sublime otherworldliness of ‘Space Odyssey’ – but impossible to recreate on stage without reinforcements.
Heightening the urgency by which The Byrds required enhancement were McGuinn’s grand ambitions for the scope of their next album. “I had this idea to do a chronological album,” he says, “a double album, starting with early music and going through baroque and classical and coming into jazz and rockabilly and hillbilly music and country music and going out into space music.” Pursuing this (or any) concept meant drafting in capable new recruits – quickly.
To fill the vacant drum stool, Hillman didn’t have to look too far from home. “He was just a relative. He was a nice guy,” Chris says of his cousin, Kevin Kelley, formerly of The Rising Sons, who was hired as sticksman in February 1968. “I mean, I wasn’t that close to him. But he was an adequate drummer.”
The Byrds’ former road manager Jimmi Seiter claimed in his 2012 book on the band that around this time, Clarence White had been considered to augment the frontline – he suggested that White was demanding an equal partnership in the group, while McGuinn and Hillman, still feeling the burn of recent personnel conflicts and relishing the comparative compliance of a lesser democracy, had merely offered him a sideman status, which he duly refused – but Hillman denies it ever got that far: “I don’t think we ever gave it a thought about having Clarence join, but it would have saved a lot of trouble having him come in,” he laughs. “He was a phenomenal musician, and he could sing.”
Chris Hillman maintains the line that it was a chance meeting in a Beverly Hills bank that brought him together with Gram Parsons (who’d echo the same story), but while that encounter may have actually happened, the legitimacy of its historic significance is disputed. It’s known that Hillman and Parsons shared a manager, while Jimmi Seiter alleged to Gram’s biographer, David N. Meyer, that The Byrds had previously socialised with Gram on the LA scene. Either way, prior to his auditioning for the band, Hillman and McGuinn were certainly aware of Parsons, and his current circumstances further appealed to them. Legally bound to a preexistent recording contract, Gram reportedly couldn’t be signed up as a full-time partner, and, moreover, because of his own financial security, was not discouraged by a sideman’s salary. All things considered, in The Byrds’ search for a prospective keyboard player, Gram was a convincing candidate.
“When Gram came over to our rehearsals – Chris brought him over – I said, ‘Can you play something like McCoy Tyner?’ because I was interested in John Coltrane and jazz,” Roger remembers, “and he sat down and played some Floyd Kramer-type keyboard. I thought, ‘Well, this guy has got talent. We can work with him.’ I didn’t realise that he was really like Hank Williams or George Jones in a sequin suit.”
His passable jazz piano enough to satisfy Roger, Gram’s next performance – a rendition of Buck Owens’ ‘Under Your Spell Again’ – would immediately win Chris over, and simultaneously insinuate at the course this latest incarnation of The Byrds were set to fly.
Gram Parsons’ background is less of a story and more of a Southern Gothic melodrama. Born into the prestigious Florida-based Snively family, who dominated the state’s citrus industry, he may have grown up surrounded by wealth in neighbouring Georgia, but life was far from rosy. His father committed suicide in 1958, leaving 12-year-old Gram and his little sister at the mercy of their alcoholic mother, who’d later marry again, but succumb to cirrhosis in 1965, passing away on Gram’s graduation day. He escaped the traumas through music, first playing with local rock ‘n’ roll bands, then being swept up in the early-’60s folk revival, before finally embracing country music during his one semester at Harvard University.
While in Boston, Gram formed the International Submarine Band with friends he’d encountered who shared the same passion for a more primitive brand of country music. “The country industry was going through this terrible softening and dumbing down of the Nashville sound, which was big production, orchestras, and violin sections,” ISB bandmate Ian Dunlop told David N. Meyer. “All that 1950s honky-tonk was raw. It wasn’t quite like punk, but it was hot, raw, electric, writhing, bluesy white stuff. All of the early-Fifties people – Hank Williams, Lefty Frizell, Webb Pierce, and Ray Price – they were a lot more hard-edge than people think.”
The International Submarine Band honed their personalised country rock sound in the clubs of New York, issuing an unsuccessful single in the summer of ’66, before Gram convinced them to relocate to Los Angeles. The West Coast was a fertile ground for opportunity and inspiration; in addition to the lure of Hollywood – Peter Fonda was a fan, and arranged for the band to appear in acid romp The Trip (though director Roger Corman refused the use of Gram’s ‘Lazy Days’ for not being psychedelic enough) – there was a vibrant source of country sounds in a handful of clubs around Los Angeles. Gram and friends would contribute to pianist bandleader Earl Poole Ball’s jam nights at The Aces in City Of Industry (once, apparently, alongside David Crosby), and play impromptu sets at redneck joint The Palomino in North Hollywood, where pedal steel player Jay Dee Maness led the Thursday night talent shows. Maness witnessed the longhaired musician bravely withstanding the heavy-drinking locals, and admired his tenacity. “Gram wanted to be a country singer, and he was somewhere in the middle,” Jay Dee tells Clash now. ‘He wasn’t a great singer – he wasn’t the world’s worst – but he put his whole heart into what he was trying to do, and it became country rock.”
Signing to Lee Hazlewood Industries Records, the eponymous label of the infamous producer-svengali behind Nancy Sinatra’s ‘These Boots Are Made For Walkin’’, the group (or what was left of it, after some shake-ups) began work on their debut album in July 1967. To embellish their sound and inject some much-required country authenticity, Gram invited Jay Dee Maness to the sessions, who in turn requested Earl Poole Ball join them. Gram was an assertive commander of the album’s creation, handpicking the choice of cover material (Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Porter Wagoner – ‘A Satisfied Mind’ having also been previously covered by The Byrds), and writing the remainder.
His lyrics had naturally developed country’s standard level of emotional suffering – ‘Luxury Liner’ decries the painful aftermath of heartbreak (“No one in this world / Could change the way I feel”), while the despair and isolation within ‘Do You Know How It Feels To Be Lonesome’ is palpable from the title alone. Musically, Gram was persevering with a sound that was genuinely respectful of country traditions yet innately contemporary within ’60s rock idioms, and though the songs themselves were perhaps a little rudimentary, there was really nothing else like them at the time.
The album, to be called ‘Safe At Home’, was completed in December, and given a tentative release date of February 1968. However, before the band had the pleasure of seeing their last six months’ work coming to fruition, Gram Parsons – having entered The Byrds’ orbit and recognising the career upgrade on offer – abandoned them, relinquishing the rights to royalties and the ISB name, and leaving the fate of the album and its makers up in the air.
“When Gram came in the group,” says Chris Hillman, “he was very full of ambition and had some good songs and he was on his game, so to speak. He was singing well and he was playing pretty well and he was great.”
Content with their fresh configuration, McGuinn and Hillman were eager for The Byrds to take off again, and a route for the new album had to be devised immediately. Given their careering creative flight path over the last few years, the group faced a number of options for their final destination. “We had a lot of fun,” McGuinn says of The Byrds’ prolific experimentation with genres. “And because we didn’t want to get locked in a box it gave us our freedom. And, I must say, Columbia Records were very cool. They never complained about what direction The Byrds went.”
The Byrds, London, May 1968. L-R: Roger McGuinn, Kevin Kelley, Gram Parsons, Chris Hillman (Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo)
Hillman insists that advancing the electronic adventurousness of ‘The Notorious Byrd Brothers’ was not an option, as he didn’t want to pursue it further, and claims even McGuinn’s heart was still in folk music. Roger, meanwhile, was forced to discard his notions of an anthology of American musical history in light of the others’ apathy. A solution was realised in the revived encouragement of Hillman’s first musical love.
“With Gram on board I had an ally; I had somebody who knew about and loved country music,” Hillman says. “He was somebody who understood the music that I understood. And Roger was fine to go along with the idea, so that’s how we started to formulate that plan to do a country album.”
“I think in general a lot of musicians were suffering from psychedelic fatigue,” McGuinn notes. “It was just too much. It was too much input. It was overwhelming, so we wanted to do something more mellow, more pleasing.”
“It wasn’t a big stretch for us,” Hillman says of The Byrds going country, “it was all familiar territory. It wasn’t like having Pete Townshend and The Who do a Nashville album – that would be a stretch.” Hillman’s country credentials were indisputable, and though less obvious, McGuinn’s own affection for the genre – which he calls “a slicked-up version of folk music,” outlining the Appalachian love songs that were evolved by artists like The Carter Family and Earl Scruggs – is evident in his commitment shown on The Byrds’ earlier forays into the style, and justified by country’s endorsement by his Fab Four friends.
“The Beatles did a Buck Owens song, ‘Act Naturally’,” Roger points out, “and I thought, ‘Wow, if The Beatles can do country music within a rock and roll framework then The Byrds can too.’”
Despite the dalliances of The Beatles and The Byrds with country music, it still wasn’t a popular genre. With forceful competition from the British Invasion, Motown, Stax, Bob Dylan, the San Fran psych scene and everything in between, country just couldn’t appeal to the love generation. “Well, if you weren’t from the South, nobody liked it,” Hillman confirms with a laugh.
“I think the young people didn’t quite get it,” Jay Dee Maness expands. “Country music was kinda square to them, so to speak. They really didn’t understand, because the artists, even at that time, they were older artists. [Young people] didn’t really know about George Jones and Buck Owens that much because it was twangy.”
Undaunted, The Byrds set forth with a determined objective: to be as authentic and respectful in their country transition and presentation as they could. Thus, the decision was made to record the album in country’s spiritual home, Nashville. Bob Dylan had held sessions there for his epic ‘Blonde On Blonde’ two years prior, calling upon the services of local players to back him, but a rock band had not followed suit until The Byrds descended upon Music City. Ahead of their trip, and aware of the cultural differences that lay in store, The Byrds collectively cut their hair (though it was still long by Nashville standards), and made other preparations to get themselves ready for the country: “We started hanging out at the [legendary cowboy tailor] Nudie’s suit store over in the Valley in California, and I bought a Cadillac,” laughs McGuinn. “I brought a black Cadillac and I started riding around Los Angeles listening to country radio just to get into the mood. And I had country boots and a couple of hats – cowboy clothes.”
Work began at Columbia Studios, Nashville, on March 9th 1968. The sessions were being produced by The Byrds’ longtime producer, Gary Usher, and engineered by Roy Halee (best known for his production of Simon & Garfunkel), and Charlie Bragg, who’d previously performed the same duties on Dylan’s ‘John Wesley Harding’. Into this mix arrived veteran studio musicians John Hartford, who’d contribute on fiddle and banjo, Roy Huskey on stand-up bass, and Lloyd Green on steel guitar. These guys were seasoned pros that were used to variety in their jobs, working for a new boss with fresh idiosyncrasies every other week, but nothing had quite prepared them for playing with The Byrds. “Well, it was another day at work for the musicians,” Lloyd Green laughs, “but it was a different day at work.”
Nashville studios were used to operating on a strict timetable. Engineers would prepare the rooms from 9am, with work beginning at 10am. Sessions would last until 1pm before a one-hour break, which could repeat until 1am if required. In-demand musicians could endure four three-hour sessions a day for seven days a week. Each session could easily produce four songs. As required, Lloyd Green entered Studio A that morning at 10am, and it became immediately apparent that The Byrds were not such impeccable timekeepers. “After an hour-and-a-half or so [of waiting on The Byrds], we were sitting around not doing much,” Lloyd recalls, “and I’m kinda thinking, ‘Well, I’m getting paid from the moment the clock started at 10am,’ and I was getting a little nervous because I realised they have their own schedule, and I thought the LA schedule was probably a little looser than Nashville’s was in that era.”
When they finally showed up, The Byrds made a distinctive first impression on those waiting. “When they walked in the studio that morning I was sitting at my steel,” says Lloyd. “When the side door of the studio opened, there was an entourage – I don’t know how many people were with them, but somebody was carrying a case of Lancers Vin Rosé; that Portuguese wine that was in these pottery bottles and probably had all kind of lead contaminations. I drank a little bit the first day with them, but a couple of glasses and I got the world-class headache, so I never touched it again. But I think at the end of the day that 12-bottle case of Lancers Vin Rosé was gone.”
“We were just the same as we’d always been,” McGuinn says of the group’s relaxed methods in the studio. “We’d just hung out and recorded, smoked and everything, and the Nashville guys were quite formal in the way they’d recorded before.”
The first song tackled, in great Byrds tradition, came courtesy of Bob Dylan. ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’ had been included in a selection of demos that Dylan and The Band had been toiling away on in rural Woodstock with the purpose to provide his songs for other artists to use while he himself recuperated in seclusion from his infamous 1966 motorcycle accident. These highly productive sessions took place in the basement of the salmon-coloured home of The Band’s Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and Rick Danko (the hundreds of recordings would collectively become known as ‘The Basement Tapes’, while the house was immortalised in The Band’s debut LP, ‘Music From Big Pink’), where Bob and The Band’s fantastical new originals were created alongside recreational run-throughs of old folk and blues rarities reeled off from Dylan’s encyclopedic memory. Birthed from such rustic and laidback scenes, the songs were infused with a pastoral charm that McGuinn and Hillman clearly identified as suitable for a country conversion. Moreover, beginning proceedings with a Dylan song would serve as a comforting bridge between The Byrds’ folk heritage and the more conventional country choices that would follow.
As the song’s arrangement was being discussed, the session musicians instinctively enquired about instructions on where to come in. “When they started to sing it,” Lloyd explains, “I said, ‘Well, wait a minute, where do you guys want me to fill?’ And almost in unison they said, ‘Everywhere.’ I said, ‘My kinda guys! Turn the machine on!’ So consequently, on that song, you hear steel guitar almost all the way through the song. I was not used to that.”
“He loved that freedom,” Hillman acknowledges. “We were doing a whole free-form method. Everybody was just playing… We’d get the arrangement down and play.”
That same day, they also put down the first of the only two original Byrds songs on the album – both of which, significantly, were written by Gram Parsons. ‘Hickory Wind’ is a hauntingly evocative eulogy to a yearning nostalgia for an idyllic youth before the encumbering burdens of fame and adulthood. It’s all the more poignantly profound when you consider Gram wrote it when he was just 21, collaborating with former ISB bandmate Bob Buchanan on a train ride in late-’67 from Chicago back to Los Angeles, where the pair holed up with guitars in a private compartment, and a conversation that bemoaned LA’s artificiality inspired its conception.
“We had family and locations that were very familiar,” Buchanan would tell David N. Meyer in 2008, “and now we were going back to the City of Angels that was killing all the angels. I think deep down we both had this resentment for that Hollywood thing. Sucks people in and spits them out. He and I were aware of that, so we were both getting very cynical at our young age.”
Two days later, they’d rework ‘Lazy Days’, the song Gram had contributed to Roger Corman’s The Trip the previous summer. It would not make the final cut for the album, The Byrds perhaps feeling its chugging Chuck Berry-like drive was ultimately too out of step alongside its quintessentially country counterparts.
It’s telling that of the first three songs recorded, two would come from and be led by the newest member of the band. “Gram Parsons seemed to be the driving force,” notes Lloyd Green. “My impressions in the studio were he had the dominant personality. When he would start talking or making suggestions, my remembrances are that Roger and Chris would kinda defer to him to some degree.” McGuinn’s authority was undisputed, but in endeavoring to prevail with credibility in the genre, he’d turn to Gram for direction. “Yeah, I was happy with his knowledge of country music,” Roger accedes.
The third session, on March 12th, saw McGuinn revisit his folk roots, bringing to the table Woody Guthrie’s protest song, ‘Pretty Boy Floyd’. Though it details the life of the notorious 1930s bank robber, the intent of Guthrie’s narrative is to take aim at the financial institutions Floyd targeted, who’d ruined many more lives during the Depression era than the outlaw ever did.
The Byrds’ version translates Guthrie’s acoustic accompaniment into a perky bluegrass number, and is a rousing showcase for John Hartford, whose banjo and fiddle lines supply its nimbleness.
Chris Hillman was prominent across the two songs that were captured on March 13th. He and McGuinn had set the arrangement for Roger’s rendition of ‘Pretty Polly’, a traditional English murder ballad that can be traced back to the 18th century. The guitar on this song is remarkable in that it’s undoubtedly country and yet, in all its scintillating glory, it’s unmistakably Roger McGuinn. Nevertheless, ‘Pretty Polly’ would be passed over for inclusion on the record.
An old bluegrass favourite, ‘I Am A Pilgrim’ was chosen by Hillman as an opportunity to take centre stage and was recorded that same day. Stripped down to just banjo, fiddle and acoustic guitar, it’s resolutely old-time, Hillman’s sweet and uncorrupted vocals perfectly manifesting the song’s gospel perseverance.
Columbia Records had insisted that while in Nashville, The Byrds should pay a visit to WSM radio, where Ralph Emery, the most prominent country music DJ in America, would interview them on his show. So, on the night of the 13th, the group – with Lloyd Green, an acquaintance of Emery’s, in tow – duly met the renowned presenter, and were presently shocked when he unleashed on air a scathing attack on what he saw as a pack of intruders intent on dishonouring country music.
“The first thing he did,” Lloyd reports, “he asked them when they sat down on mic: ‘Why would you guys come to Nashville and try to mess with our music?’ That was the opening salvo. They were trying to be, ‘Well, we love country music…’ [But he’d say:] ‘You don’t sing country music. Why are you here?’ He wouldn’t let it go. Then he looked at me and he said, ‘And you, Lloyd; why would you dignify this by giving your talents to these people?’ He did this on mic, and that’s when I said: ‘Ralph, I’m a recording musician, and I cut with who I’m called to record for. I recorded with you. If I hadn’t have been called I wouldn’t have been there.’ I kinda took the steam out of what he was saying to me, but he was not going to have any of it. He was going to do what he did, and it was perfectly acceptable to the country music community in those days – it was like he was some kind of hero, you know? It was embarrassing.”
Armed with a pressing of the freshly cut ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’, the airing of which was the whole point of their promotional appearance, The Byrds were stunned when Emery refused to play it. “We said, ‘Why not?’” McGuinn recounts. “He said, ‘What’s it about?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, it’s a Bob Dylan song, man!’ I mean, even Bob Dylan doesn’t know what his songs are about!”
Bruised by the confrontation, the group nonetheless reconvened the following day for their penultimate Nashville recording session. On the cards on the 14th was ‘You Got A Reputation’, a song by the folk singer Tim Hardin, which had been in Gram’s repertoire for a couple of years. Aside from some rich slide guitar, there are very little country elements to this version – a reaction, maybe, to the previous night’s conflict – which may explain why it too was omitted from the final tracklisting.
March 15th had started positively. During the day, The Byrds completed work on another pick from Dylan’s basement output. The demo for ‘Nothing Was Delivered’ was slow and foreboding, propelled by Richard Manuel’s piano and enriched by Garth Hudson’s swirling organ, but after being interpreted by The Byrds, it became a rippling country shuffle, with McGuinn’s lead vocals a somewhat more comforting counter to Dylan’s scowling tone on the original, despite the song’s disturbing theme.
To whom the decidedly ominous lyrics address is unclear; clearly there is something that remains unfulfilled – one theory has it that the song is Bob’s reaction to a drug dealer who failed to come through, while others suggest it’s a social commentary on the empty promises of politicians. “Now you must provide some answers / For what you sold that’s not been received,” McGuinn cautions, “And the sooner you come up with them / The sooner you can leave.”
In the evening, The Byrds were thrilled to learn that Columbia had arranged for them to perform on the legendary Grand Ole Opry. A country music institution, the weekly show was held in Nashville’s venerable Ryman Auditorium, and broadcast live on WSM. Its stage had welcomed the genre’s greatest stars, including Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, Patsy Cline, Roy Acuff, Johnny Cash and, just once, a young Elvis Presley. It was indeed an honour for The Byrds to be considered for inclusion – they were the very first rock band to receive the honour – and, taking the engagement seriously, decided to dress appropriately for the occasion.
“I asked them, ‘What are you guys gonna wear?’” says Lloyd Green, who was summoned to accompany them for the night. “They said, ‘Oh, we’re gonna dress up.’ Well, it didn’t occur to me at that moment that “dress up” meant a different thing in Los Angeles in 1968 than it did in Nashville! I said, ‘Okay, sure.’ I was used to wearing suits and ties – real nice clothes – if I’m dressing up in those days to go out to dinner or something. So I showed up at the Opry, backstage at the Ryman, walked in the door with my steel guitar, and they were standing at the top of the stairs and every one of them had on blue jeans, a white shirt, a multi coloured bandana tie, and cowboy boots. And I had a suit and tie on! I remember, I think it was Roger who said, ‘Well, gosh Lloyd, we have nice clothes too. We could have dressed up if we had known you were going to.’ I said, ‘No no, I’m the one who misunderstood. So I tried to dress down and I didn’t succeed; I just took my tie off and opened my collar.”
Walking on stage, they faced an icy reaction. “The audience started booing,” says Lloyd, still incredulous at the memory. “I couldn’t believe it. I was dumbfounded. I thought, ‘What is going on?’ I’d never seen that before on the Opry.”
Master of ceremonies that night was Tompall Glaser, an established country star who’d later form part of the outlaw movement alongside Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash. He had been informed that The Byrds were going to perform two Merle Haggard covers – ‘Sing Me Back Home’ and ‘Life In Prison’. After introducing the first, Glaser returned at its conclusion, thanked them, and announced the second. Caught up in the spirit of his surroundings, Gram – a lifelong listener of the Opry – decided he was going to take this moment to fulfill his dream of becoming a country star and, taking to the mic, responded: ‘No, we’re going to do a song for my grandmother,” and counted his oblivious bandmates into ‘Hickory Wind’. Glaser was incensed.
“We were disrespectful,” Hillman accepts. “And we didn’t know that at the time. We didn’t think about how rude that was. You don’t do that. We did not perform and act as guests should act on a show that normally doesn’t hire a rock band to come on. So, after we did that, Tompall was furious with us. I don’t blame him. He said, ‘That was my part of the show and you went against me live on air?’ We were too stupid to understand we did something bad. Now, I understand it.”
It must have been a blow for Hillman and McGuinn, who’d known little over the last three years but exalted success, to suffer such indignation twice in as many days, and as a response to a venture they were sincerely devoted to. But they would persevere, as Roger insists: “We weren’t deterred from continuing with country.”
Still, it was a disheartening end to their stay in Nashville, and signs of doubt surrounding the project were still visible a couple of weeks later when McGuinn suggested to a reporter that only half of the ensuing album would be pure country – his proposed space-rock anthology would complete the flipside, apparently.
While The Byrds were on a short tour of the East Coast, Lee Hazlewood finally released the International Submarine Band’s debut, ‘Safe At Home’. Knowing there was no existing entity to market, Hazlewood invested in little promotion for the album, and though it received some critical acclaim at the time, it died a death on the charts. Even Gram’s association with The Byrds couldn’t save ‘Safe At Home’ – not that he ever publicly reacted to its release – but even a third dissenting blow couldn’t convince him that country was not the way forward as album sessions resumed in Los Angeles.
In the week that ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’ was released as a teaser single (it would only reach 75 on the US charts), The Byrds relocated to the more familiar territory of Columbia Studios in Hollywood, this time bringing along – at Gram’s behest – pedal steel player Jay Dee Maness, who’d in turn invite pianist Earl Poole Ball, both of whom having impressed on their ISB sessions.
They’d open the LA sessions with a take on Merle Haggard’s ‘Life In Prison’ – an incongruous selection on Gram’s part, as his charmed upbringing hardly instilled the requisite pathos to invoke the sheer sense of depravity and penitence when he sang: “With trembling hands I killed my darling wife / Because I loved her more than life.”
Earl Poole Ball, however, could see past any accusations of Gram’s posturing. “For me, he was authentic,” he says of Parsons’ devotion to country music. “He had one of the most soulful, mournful country voices that I’d ever heard. So I totally understood what he was doing.”
Respectful of their allegiance to country, Earl was, however, disappointed at first by The Byrds’ “rough-edged” methods: “They had a lot of trouble getting in tune,” he laments, “because they were kinda stoned, you know? I don’t think the drummer was stoned – I think Roger, Gram and Chris might have been, but I wouldn’t know how to judge them because still I had not smoked any marijuana, so I didn’t know actually what state they were in; it was just altered.”
It was over a week later when they’d reassemble (with Clarence White providing additional guitars) to record ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’, accentuating the country components to William Bell’s 1961 Southern soul hit. Written with a longing for home and his girlfriend back in Memphis while on tour in New York, Bell’s ballad is tangibly plaintive – four years later, Bell’s Stax labelmate Otis Redding would further expose its potently expressive core on his classic LP, ‘Otis Blue’.
Though seemingly two quite disparate musical genres, country and soul – especially in the South – were indelibly intertwined, as they evolved from a shared set of circumstances that united races. “The South is America’s rural underside, and what bonds black and white below the Mason-Dixie line is that they have worked the land together,” wrote Barney Hoskyns in Say It One Time For The Brokenhearted, an essential study of country soul. “God and the land: this is what Southern life always comes back to. Nowhere else in America have religion and agriculture so dominated peoples’ lives, and nowhere else, ironically have the black and white experiences of life been so similar.”
“Gram certainly understood the Southern synergy between soul and country ballads, which invariably shared 6/8 gospel time signatures,” the author would tell Clash directly, signifying his reworks of James Carr’s ‘Dark End Of The Street’ and Aretha Franklin’s ‘Do Right Woman, Do Right Man’ that would follow in later years as evidence of his continued appreciation of the stimulating hybrid genre.
Both ‘Life In Prison’ and ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’ received lead vocal tracks by Gram and Roger, ostensibly to offer varied sonic options when mixing the final album, but producer Gary Usher got the impression it was Roger anticipating an imminent power struggle. “McGuinn was edgy that Parsons was getting too much out of this thing,” he told Byrds biographer Johnny Rogan. “McGuinn wanted to keep The Byrds in The Byrds’ pocket, which at that point in time was him and Chris. McGuinn didn’t want ‘Sweetheart…’ to turn into a Gram Parsons album. You don’t take a hit group and inject a new singer for no reason.”
If there was any rivalry within the ranks, it certainly wasn’t apparent to Jay Dee Maness: “I don’t remember there being tension,” he says, “or if there was, they hid it very well, or I don’t remember. I don’t remember that happening because Gram was pretty much the boss, so to speak. Roger was another person that we listened to, but Gram, he wanted it his way, and it seemed that Roger went along with that.”
On April 17th, they met again to cut ‘You’re Still On My Mind’, a song by cult rockabilly singer Luke McDaniel. An associate of both Hank Williams and Elvis Presley, McDaniel’s career was short-lived, gaining more fame from the covers of his songs than his own recordings, and later giving up music entirely in favour of the more dependable trucking business. Once again featuring twin takes for lead vocals from Gram and Roger, the instrumental track itself, Jay Dee claims, proved problematic.
“We did 60 takes,” he groans. “We just kept going over and over, because in those days there was nothing like ProTools where you could just punch in and fix. We just said, ‘Hold it. I messed up. Let’s do it again,’ and we just kept on doing that until we got what we wanted.”
Bearing all the expected trademarks of a typical country song – heartbreak, hard drinking, and hopelessness – ‘You’re Still On My Mind’ is wonderfully despondent yet – due largely to Jay Dee’s spirited steel and Earl’s twinkling honky-tonk piano – contrarily buoyant.
Another relatively productive day, on April 24th The Byrds managed to record two songs within their studio visit. ‘The Christian Life’ came from the songbook of The Louvin Brothers, a fervently old-time duo whose close harmonies surely appealed to McGuinn’s fondness for entwined vocals. Their songs were permeated by the gospel darkness of the Baptist church – titles such as ‘Satan Is Real’, ‘Are You Afraid To Die’ and ‘Are You Washed In The Blood?’ attesting to their devout faith.
Gram and Roger again provided individual lead takes on ‘The Christian Life’, a requiem for the virtues of religiosity and the salvation it offers. “My buddies shun me since I turned to Jesus,” starts the final verse, “They say I’m missing a whole world of fun / I live without them and walk in the light / I like the Christian life.”
Chris Hillman helmed ‘Blue Canadian Rockies’, succeeding Gene Autry, who made Cindy Walker’s song famous in a film of the same name. “I always loved that song in its simplicity and beauty,” he told JamBands.com earlier this year. Indeed, his sweet and contemplative voice lends itself perfectly here to the forlorn hankering for a faraway love.
Nearing the end of their recording obligations, The Byrds made the curious decision on May 1st to develop an original contribution from drummer Kevin Kelley. Both musically and lyrically, ‘All I Have Is Memories’ is comparatively lightweight; a pleasant country shuffle beat carries an airy tale of desolation, and while Kelley’s voice is capable and likeable enough, it has little of the rural substance that Hillman, McGuinn and especially Parsons could effortlessly imbue a song with. All of which is likely the reason it would ultimately be left off the album.
It was a change of scene the next day, as The Byrds touched down in Europe for a select handful of dates. Parsons had harangued McGuinn to bring a pedal steel player for these shows, but he refused, instead acquiescing to invite banjoist/guitarist Doug Dillard, who’d recently been playing with ex-Byrd Gene Clark.
Of the 10 songs they played at The Piper Club in Rome that night (and upon their return five days later), four would be drawn from the new album’s shortlist of recordings, while only two would feature Gram as the lead singer – McGuinn’s prevailing assertion of leadership manifest on stage. Naturally, the crowds were more receptive to the older, familiar numbers such as ‘I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better’, although they may have been unprepared for the rather jarring banjo that somewhat mitigated that song’s usually radiant jangliness.
Present at their gig in London’s Middle Earth club that week were two members of British rock royalty The Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had come to lend their support to old friends McGuinn and Hillman, and though they knew nothing of the newest members, after the show they spontaneously suggested that everyone should bundle into their limousine for an impromptu visit to Stonehenge. Joining them on the three-hour ride were the Stones’ respective girlfriends, Marianne Faithfull and Anita Pallenberg, and photographer Michael Cooper – not to mention copious amounts of Johnnie Walker Red and other such necessities to take their minds off the long journey.
During the trip, Mick and Keith were derisive of The Byrds’ acceptance to play South Africa that coming July. McGuinn had been friends with South African singer and apartheid activist Miriam Makeba, and she’d appealed to him that if The Byrds ever had the chance to play in the country, they should take it. Curious as to how his group might help the cause as cultural missionaries, when the offer came in, he approved it. The group were unaware that the British Musicians Union were threatening a ban on any overseas musicians that played South Africa, and while the Stones cautioned against the tour, McGuinn seemed intent on fulfilling his promise. Gram, meanwhile, appeared to listen attentively to their every word – his bandmates since commenting on his being conspicuously starstruck throughout the excursion.
In their first constructive instance of real collaboration, McGuinn and Parsons wrote a new song together in London. ‘Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man’ was a caustic and satirical swipe at a redneck radio DJ, plainly inspired by their contemptuous treatment from Ralph Emery in Nashville and the evidently still-fresh wounds. It’s at once harshly critical of Emery (“He’s a fireman’s friend, he’s an all-night DJ / But he sure does think different from the records he plays”) while defensive of The Byrds’ motives (“I’m an all-night musician in a rock ‘n’ roll band / And why he don’t like me I can’t understand”).
Though it wouldn’t make ‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’, Roger would include it on the follow-up, ‘Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde’, while Gram would often perform it live. Emery naturally wasn’t best pleased at the dubious honour, and threatened legal action against the band. Though he’d remain prickly on the issue throughout the years, he and McGuinn did seem to be on better terms by the Eighties, when Roger was interviewed on Ralph’s TV show.
Back in LA, one final song was conceived for inclusion on the album. Another Parsons composition, ‘One Hundred Years From Now’, is an enduring and thoughtful consideration of the transience of social judgement, one that posits a bleak future if people don’t learn to adjust their attitudes.
Before anyone could celebrate the completion of recording, a huge and unavoidable problem arose that would, in the short-term, prove polemical and cruel, and in the long-term form the basis of distrust and animosity that would linger for years to come.
Finally wreaking retribution for the investment he’d squandered on the International Submarine Band, Lee Hazlewood had opened legal proceedings on Columbia Records, pronouncing Gram Parsons to still be under contract to him, and therefore was not permitted to appear on recordings for anyone else. It is said that Columbia decreed to The Byrds that Gram’s vocals would have to be removed from the latest batch of recordings.
With a McGuinn vocal option for almost every track, they duly swapped the leads on three songs – ‘The Christian Life’, ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’ and ‘One Hundred Years From Now’ – to ensure his presence was minimalised. Gram was understandably hurt and angry – his resentment would fester as late as 1973, when he slammed Roger in an interview, saying he’d “fucked it up” – but there was nothing he could do. Today, Roger is regretful of the decisions made: “I have to say his vocals were better than mine,” he says, “so I was sorry about that.”
Whether the contractual issues were valid, or whether, as rumours persist, this act was a final power play by McGuinn, who felt his leadership threatened by the coercive rookie, either way the fact remained that Gram had been humiliated; his role diminished, his contributions discredited. By consequence, however, in erasing the only genuine Southerner from the discerning and indigenous cuts he’d brought to the table, the modified songs were deprived of some of that country authenticity that The Byrds had so adherently strived for. Discussing Roger’s take of ‘The Christian Life’ in 2008, for example, Chris Hillman told Uncut he found the replaced vocals affected and implausible: “I found the song on the borderline of being offensive,” he said. “Gram’s vocal is more sincere. He was very religious, underneath it all. Even with his excesses. There’s an undercurrent, I guess because of his Southern upbringing. He was like a little Christian boy who went backsliding.”
To The Byrds’ credit, all the original masters were restored and released in 1990, once all label issues were resolved, and Gram’s vocals now appear as bonus tracks on revised editions of ‘Sweetheart On The Rodeo’. “We honoured that. That’s a responsibility,” Hillman reasons. “We got the go-ahead, and we went back and put Gram back on the songs and took off what we had done. Rather than leave our voices on and make a stand. That wouldn’t have worked. It wasn’t fair. Once we got the green light, we put him back on the record. That’s pretty damn fair.”
Breaking up the long haul from LA to South Africa, The Byrds made a scheduled stopover in London in the first week of July 1968. They co-headlined (with The Move) a charity gig at the eminent Royal Albert Hall on the 7th to an elated and responsive audience that included Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, George Harrison, Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, and Keith Richards. The Stones would once again hook up with The Byrds after their show, where the burning topic of South Africa was quick to surface. The controversy would play on Gram’s mind that night, as he wrestled with other grievances that had rankled over the last few weeks.
Having his vocals removed from the album had been a real knock for Gram, who felt the encouragement shown by the band towards his artistic input during its making was in stark contrast to the short shrift he faced from them in the aftermath, when he was advised to be grateful for the credits he did receive. It didn’t help matters that Gram felt his musical contributions merited an equal say in the group’s affairs, and his vocal demands were beginning to grate on the others. “To clear it up, he was on a salary,” Hillman says. “He was not a member of The Byrds. He was a hired sideman. But, yeah, he got a little cocky. That’s what happened.”
“There was one point when Gram said that they should fire me and get a steel guitar player,” McGuinn scoffs, “and I thought that was going too far.”
An inflated ego was surely to blame. Gram’s rise to pop’s upper echelons had been accelerated, and his unbridled charisma was barely contained in the confines of the outfit he was supposed to be wholly committed to. He felt he was owed more. It’s reported that Gram had once suggested separate billing (i.e. The Byrds featuring Gram Parsons), and that he had pressed for a higher wage, although McGuinn refutes the latter.
“It was never about money,” Roger avows. “Gram had money – he didn’t need more money, he was rich. I remember riding around LA and I bumped into Gram and he had a new Mercedes. I said, ‘Where’d you get that?’ He said, ‘Oh, I just bought it.’ (Laughs) He was a rich kid. That gave him the kind of independence that most of us musicians couldn’t have, because we were kinda working musicians and we made money by playing music. He didn’t care about that. That wasn’t his agenda.”
His agenda, The Byrds learned, was to maintain the ascent he had put in motion, but while his – in his eyes – obstinate bandmates ensured his attempts at dominance would be kept in check (their priority was the future and welfare of the group, not the individual), there wasn’t much room for him to maneuver. The Byrds, Gram felt, did not appreciate him – the fact his name was misspelled as ‘Grahm’ in the Royal Albert Hall programme could only have exacerbated his displeasure.
Gram felt an affinity with Keith Richards, the pair bonding instantly over country music and the sound of the South, while the Byrd was undoubtedly enraptured by the Stone, bewitched by his power and prestige. Waking the morning after the London show with the words of warning on South Africa reverberating around his head, Gram was convinced he had the perfect excuse with which to drop a bombshell on his group. As The Byrds packed their luggage into the waiting transport outside the hotel that was to take them to the airport, Gram informed them that due to his conscience and the political climate in South Africa, he would not be accompanying them on this tour.
“He bailed on us,” sneers Hillman, still incredulous. “Can you imagine that? He turned his back on us and didn’t stand with us on that.”
The Byrds – Gram included – were duty bound to fulfill the dates, and the group had little belief in his newfound morals. “He said: ‘I’m not gonna go. I grew up in the South with segregation and all that…’ It wasn’t that at all,” Hillman reports. “It was that he wanted to stay and hang out with Mick and Keith – or, rather, Keith. That was what it was. They were filling his head with ‘Don’t go to South Africa’. Well, they were right, but he was a paid member of The Byrds and had a commitment.”
Enraged and embittered, The Byrds had little choice but to fire Gram for letting them down, leaving his bags on the roadside as they left. For Hillman, it was simply a matter of complacency. “Roger McGuinn was a very professional guy,” he says. “He understood what it was to make a commitment and keep your word. For that he gets a lot of credit. He was The Byrds’ leader – he led the band. But there were people I worked with that didn’t have that sense of responsibility, and Gram was one of them. There he is: a trust fund boy that… You know, he had talent, but he didn’t nurture it. So that’s the sad part. I’m not ragging on Gram – I liked Gram a lot, loved him – and he had the talent, but what was sad was he never worked at it. We all worked at it. If he’d have put work into that, he probably would have been a big country star.”
Though only a Byrd for five months, Gram Parsons’ impact on the group was substantial and abiding. Left to their own devices, they may have travelled a country path without him, but his guidance and insight were unquestionably integral to their total allegiance to a complete country overhaul, and their realism therein. To this end, Hillman is categorically in agreement: “He was a great guy and he was instrumental in making ‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’ happen,” he concedes. “He was very, very important in that project getting done. That’s where he gets a lot of credit, and should get credit – he should get the credit; he helped make this project happen.”
Faced with depleted ranks and an outstanding engagement, The Byrds valiantly persevered with their journey to South Africa, promoting road manager Carlos Bernal to interim rhythm guitarist for the dates, and roadtesting him on the flight over. Once there, however, it very quickly transpired that the promises and assurances made to them ahead of the tour were groundless. “In the offer it said we would play to mixed audiences, not just white audiences,” says McGuinn. “They lied to us.”
The Byrds had made overtly political statements about apartheid before their arrival in South Africa, being not fully informed of the situation there, and so found both audiences and officials alike baying for their blood. Local newspapers stirred up trouble, insinuating that the band were racist and critical of the country, and as a result, they were heckled at every turn and even received death threats. “It was one of the worst, most frightening tours that I had ever been on,” Hillman shudders. “It was like being in Germany in 1939 and not being German.”
Furthermore, for the duration of the tour McGuinn was battling the flu, and a fever that was inflamed by the pressure and aggravation they were being tormented by. “I was wearing two pairs of blue jeans and T-shirts to keep warm. I was shaking all over,” he remembers. “It was a horrible feeling.”
To add insult to injury, at the culmination of this unmitigated disaster, the promoter robbed The Byrds of their fee. Beaten and worn out, they retreated to Los Angeles, where imminent dates required a more proficient and permanent guitarist in the ranks.
Enter, once again, Clarence White. A longstanding presence in The Byrds’ inner circle, he was the natural choice to fill the position, and his respected musicality was a shot in the arm to the wavering group. “That changed everything,” McGuinn enthuses. “We went from being a mediocre live band to being an excellent live band. Having Clarence in the band was like having a loaded machine gun. I have to tell you, when we got to certain venues like the Filmore East, the audience came and it’d be a full house and everything, but they expected to hear what they had been hearing from The Byrds, which wasn’t all that great on stage – it was good on records, but not on stage – and then Clarence came out, and the audience went nuts! We used to get like three or four encores. It was just an incredible change from the live performance band that it had been to what it became when Clarence came along.”
On August 30th 1968, the product of the previous six months’ work arrived on sale in the form of ‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’. Its cover – a detail from artist Jo Mora’s 1933 print, The Evolution Of The Cowboy – hinted at the contents within, but few Byrds fans could have guessed just how drastically country the group had turned.
That the song selection spanned bluegrass, folk, gospel, soul, country and Bob Dylan was in part a realisation of McGuinn’s original concept of a musical anthology, and as Hillman and Parsons gleefully indulged themselves in their most beloved of genres, it was, to some degree, a success in the eyes of their creators. Yet to the public, it was an incredibly divisive release, representing a stylistic shift that nobody had quite been prepared for.
“It was a disappointment to many of our rock and roll fans, and country people didn’t accept it because we’d come from a rock and roll background,” McGuinn explains. “I was disappointed, and a bit surprised, because we loved the music so much we wanted to honour the music, and it got flak from both the country people and the rock and roll people at the same time – nobody liked it!” he laughs, bittersweetly.
Lloyd Green reviewed the reaction as an outsider. “Among the fans of The Byrds, I think it was such a radical departure,” he notes. “They had cut kinda country music stuff, but it was ragged country music. This was pretty polished for the era. I think it was just too slick. They weren’t used to that. So I think the fans did feel a certain betrayal – they didn’t want these guys to become hillbilly country artists; they wanted the American Beatles, and I think this album didn’t do that for them, as was demonstrated by the lack of sales. There was a definite negative backlash when they cut it. I remember reading about it. I was interested, since I had been a part of it. They got slammed pretty severely by the media and everybody. As I recall, I think Rolling Stone was pretty cruel about it too, which was the bible in the era.”
‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’ became the lowest-selling Byrds album to date, stalling at number 75 in the US Billboard charts, and 45 in the UK. The group had followed an outlandish muse, trusted their instincts, and devoted themselves entirely to the cause, and while it had been a brave and risky experiment, it just failed to be accepted by an audience expectant of something completely different. The collective that had conceived it were no longer intact, and further changes were afoot as the fallout from ‘Sweetheart…’ worsened.
Kevin Kelley, Clarence White complained, was not a capable enough drummer to complement his advanced style of playing, and the guitarist campaigned for him to be replaced by Gene Parsons (no relation to Gram), who’d played with White in their own outfit, Nashville West. Having auditioned Parsons and compared his musicianship to Kelley’s, McGuinn and Hillman agreed to hire him. It’s interesting to note that within a couple of months Clarence White had succeeded in ameliorating The Byrds with his own recommendations, whereas Gram Parsons had consistently been met with refusals and arguments when attempting the same.
Chris Hillman was tasked with firing his cousin that September. It was the last notable achievement Kelley would have in the industry; he withdrew from session work in the early-’70s and appeared to leave the music scene for good. He died in 2002 of natural causes.
Within weeks of Kelley’s dismissal, Hillman himself would reach the end of his tether. Mounting frustrations with The Byrds’ management and their power of attorney, which entitled them to interfere with the group’s income, had tested his patience, while a festering discontent with The Byrds’ dwindling unity rankled. “I knew it was time to leave and do something else,” he says. “I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew it was getting to the end.”
The manner of Hillman’s resignation is disputed – McGuinn remembers Hillman throwing his bass to the floor in a fit of desperate frustration at a rehearsal, and subsequently walking out, but Hillman remembers it differently. “We played this show in California and I said, ‘Let’s let Gram sing one,’” he begins, adding that he’d recently buried the hatchet with his former bandmate. “[But McGuinn said:] ‘No, I don’t want him up here.’ I don’t blame Roger. Now, I look back and say I don’t blame him, but I got so angry and I had been so frustrated so I said, ‘Well, I’m done,’ and I just left the band in a huff.”
As the last man standing, McGuinn was the sole remnant of the creative team who’d forged ‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’. The Byrds’ captain was left in control of the ship, which had entered decidedly deep and murky waters, and the only way to navigate out of it was to take total control and sail full steam ahead. “I just tried to start looking around again at other people to fill in, because I felt The Byrds was a good brand,” he reasons. “Also, we were under contract to Columbia Records for more albums, and I wanted to continue with it.”
As 1968 turned into 1969, the splintered architects of ‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’ began to pick up the pieces and start afresh, though each would develop and evolve the basic tenets that had been explored during the making of the album that broke them.
Since his departure from The Byrds, Gram had, as expected, spent the summer in London with Keith Richards, returning to LA with the Stones who’d mix ‘Beggars Banquet’ there. Renewing his friendship with Chris Hillman, who’d recently emerged from a broken marriage, the pair were keen to move on together with something new that cultivated the seeds that were sown on ‘Sweetheart…’ The purpose of their new group, the Flying Burrito Brothers, was to progress and define this groundbreaking notion of country rock. “Yeah, it was a continuation of ‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’, only we did it with a little more authenticity,” Hillman says. “Meaning we wrote our own songs, and Gram and I had a good duet sound going for a while. And we wrote good songs.”
The Burritos, which also featured ex-Byrd Michael Clarke on drums – recorded two albums in their first formation, ‘The Gilded Palace Of Sin’ in 1969 and ‘Burrito Deluxe’ in 1970. Though not commercial successes in their time, those albums – alongside ‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’ – have become the embryonic foundations upon which country rock was built. The songs that Gram and Chris crafted together fused perfectly the disparate elements of country, rock and soul, and reflected the rebellious spirit of late-’60s LA in its attitudes. Songs like ‘Sin City’, ‘Hot Burrito #1’, ‘Hot Burrito #2’, and ‘Older Guys’ were evocative and resonant snapshots by a group flowering in a nascent sense of innovation.
Gram Parsons’ increasingly unreliable behavior, inflamed by an ongoing drink and drug problem and his rock star delusions, came to a head in May 1970 when Hillman finally lost his patience and fired him. “I had one and a half years after ‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’ with Gram Parsons that were pretty good,” Chris says, “and then he got impossible and I said, ‘Bye, you’re done.’ I kept the Burrito Brothers together for another year, turned it into a really good band, and then I went off and did something else.”
After the Burritos, Gram Parsons ventured forth as a solo artist, releasing two albums under his own name that realigned with a more traditional country sound. His debut, ‘GP’, came out in January 1973, and introduced the stunning vocal sounds of Emmylou Harris, a singer Chris Hillman had discovered and recommended to Gram as a duettist. Its follow-up was completed in September 1973, and to celebrate the end of its production, Gram took a trip to the Joshua Tree in the Californian desert. On the evening of September 18th, Gram died from an accidental overdose of liquid morphine. He was 26.
Neither of Gram’s solo albums made much of a commercial impact (‘Grievous Angel’ was released posthumously in January 1974), but his critical appraisals endured, and as the mystique surrounding his early death and the cult around it grew, more interest would develop in him and all the music he created in his lifetime in years to come. Now regarded as a seminal visionary of country rock – or ‘Cosmic American Music,’ as he called it – his legacy is crystallized and remains a reference point for many; Emmylou Harris, especially, sustains her role as a torchbearer for her mentor’s gifts to the world.
After leaving the Flying Burrito Brothers in late-1971, Chris Hillman first joined Stephen Stills’ eclectic and brilliant band, Manassas, staying for two years and contributing songs to both their albums. A very short-lived reunion of The Byrds’ original line-up produced just one album before Hillman teamed up with ex-Buffalo Springfield guitarist Richie Furay and J.D. Souther, a noted country rock songwriter, to form the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band, who also dissolved after a couple of albums.
In the mid-’80s, after two solo albums and a brief collaboration with Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark, Hillman founded the Desert Rose Band after re-embracing his bluegrass roots. “I think that was the best thing he ever did,” McGuinn says of his friend’s group, who released five albums and still occasionally perform today.
Roger McGuinn preserved his position as leader of The Byrds after being reduced to the only original member of the group. He also, despite the pounding that ‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’ received, maintained a deep affection for country music, which would flow through the lifeblood of the albums that followed it. “We kept on playing the same kinda music that we loved, and that was it,” he says. “We didn’t really change our minds because of the audience.”
From 1969 to 1972, The Byrds prospered as a proficient and profitable live act, their unit consolidated with sharper musicianship. Releases during that time were somewhat less successful; ‘Dr. Byrds And Mr. Hyde’ actually sold less than ‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’, while 1971’s ‘Byrdmaniax’ suffered under the extraneous overdubs of producer Terry Melcher, and its hastily-recorded follow-up, ‘Farther Along’, justly sounded rushed. Only ‘(Untitled)’, the 1970 live album, sought to capture the natural essence of the stage-hardened group in that time. McGuinn chose to disband this line-up at the close of 1972. Sadly, Clarence White died in July 1973, the victim of a drunk driver. Following the ill-fated Byrds reunion that year, McGuinn stepped out as a solo artist, a role he has thrived in to this day.
What is most significant about the post-‘Sweetheart…’ output of all involved is that country music remained at the heart of it all. That The Byrds made such a radical stylistic change at the peak of their powers is only to be admired – and though it didn’t pay off immediately, its after-effects were to be monumental. Looking back on the album that determined the fortunes for better or worse of its four authors, Chris Hillman is decidedly ambivalent about its merits. “It wasn’t my favourite album,” he offers. “There were some good moments on it, but I thought there were some other Byrds albums that were far better… It wasn’t received well. Maybe it wasn’t that good of a record. Maybe. It wasn’t really looked upon as being good until five or 10 years after.”
‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’ was a casualty of innovation; The Byrds may have opened the door to country rock, but it was those who followed in their footsteps that truly triumphed in the genre. Just as The Byrds, Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons persisted in that direction, so too did a wave of artists and bands who’d used ‘Sweetheart…’ as a blueprint. Gram’s impact on Keith Richards was felt in The Rolling Stones’ louche country on ‘Exile On Main Street’, while acts like Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Poco, and The Dillards progressed the burgeoning genre. Conversely, it also drew the rock elements further out of established country stars – Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson headed up the outlaw country movement, endearing themselves to a younger, more rebellious audience.
The paragons of country rock, The Eagles, picked up the baton that was passed by The Byrds, and distilled their country rock sound to a smoother, more palatable soft rock that catapulted them to a success that far outstripped their forebears. “It opened up the floodgates,” Hillman says. “[The Eagles] were excellent. They watched all the other groups fall over themselves and they did everything right. But they started out as a country rock band… But that’s what ‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’ did. And no one could second guess and say, ‘Well, gee, are people gonna like this?’ We didn’t think about that. We just went down to Nashville and had a good time… We didn’t know it at the time, we just did…”
“It validated our position,” says McGuinn of the country rock movement that swelled in the immediate wake of ‘Sweetheart…’ As it developed and permeated the mainstream in subsequent decades, the worlds of country and rock music would constantly be integrated. The pastoral leanings of Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp in the ’80s gave way to the alt. country movement of the ’90s, which redefined Americana to a new generation. It was spearheaded by Uncle Tupelo, who’d eventually splinter into Son Volt and Wilco, and counted among its devotees The Jayhawks, The Bottle Rockets, Calexico, Lambchop, My Morning Jacket, and Whiskeytown, which spawned the solo career of lead singer Ryan Adams, who’d go so far as inviting Emmylou Harris to sing with him on his first solo album.
In its golden anniversary year, ‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’ is more celebrated than ever, and is enjoying a revitalised interest due to the tributes being paid from those who made it. This June, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman announced that they were reuniting (fortified by Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives) to tour together, presenting ‘Sweetheart…’ in its entirety, alongside songs that inspired The Byrds’ postcard from Nashville. The dates have so far yielded fantastic and glorious acclaim, and are set to continue through to 2019.
Meanwhile, those whose DNA flowed through the album’s grooves still find it permeating their present, 50 years later. Earl Poole Ball now lives and performs in Austin, Texas, regularly fielding requests for the songs he famously provided piano for, and signing copies of the album. “When I first moved here the buzz around town, people told me, was not that I had played with Johnny Cash for 20 years, but that I had recorded on ‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’,” he laughs.
Jay Dee Maness and Lloyd Green have teamed up to create a new album, ‘Journey To The Beginning: A Steel Guitar Tribute To The Byrds’. The lovingly crafted homage finds the pair translating the whole of ‘Sweetheart…’ as an instrumental showcase of their respective steel guitar talents, as well as the timeless musicality of the album itself, which understandably figures large in their affections.
“I’m grateful to have been a part of something like that,” Lloyd says of ‘Sweetheart…’ “I’m just grateful it happened, because there are pivotal moments in commercial music that one can say, ‘That’s the point where everything sort of evolved from and started tangentially moving about in different directions,’ and certainly if that’s not a seminal album then it’s one of two or three of the era that did bridge that community of rock and country.”
“Nothing’s sacred now, musically,” he adds, “everybody can mix anything they want to without fear of retribution.”
In this age of cultural homogeneity where monopolies of producers operate a factory line of hits and careers are mercilessly cut short for taking a wrong turn, it may be difficult to appreciate the obliviousness and optimism of the four Byrds who sought simply to step outside of expectations and try something a little different, the widespread disapproval they caused, and the ignominy they experienced as a result, but it’s clear to see that the music world owes a debt of gratitude to their endeavors.
The curse of ‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’ may have fragmented its makers and in turn tainted its virtues for all involved, but without their defeat and implosion we may never have enjoyed the noble and joyous missteps that many bold artists have made since. Misaligned and misunderstood for being ahead of its time, as the resplendent gem reaches a half-century, it finally stands as a fearless measure of audacity, integrity and ingenuity – which, really, is exactly what The Byrds set out to achieve.
Words: Simon Harper
The 50th Anniversary Tour of ‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’ with Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman, Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives is playing US dates until March 2019. For more information, see Roger’s Facebook, or Chris’ website.
‘Journey To The Beginning: A Steel Guitar Tribute To The Byrds’ by Lloyd Green and Jay Dee Maness is available to stream and download now on iTunes.
Earl Poole Ball plays the Continental Club in Austin, Texas, most Sundays, and performs regularly. See his website for full performance listings.