My Byrds kick continued last week…
At first, the idea was a concept album – a double album, no less – charting the history of American music, beginning with bluegrass and jazz, taking in folk, country, rock ‘n’ roll and rock, and going forward into the world of electronic, Moog-based music. The problem was that after the dismissals of David Crosby and Michael Clarke, the Byrds were down to a two-piece: guitarist/vocalist Roger McGuinn and bassist/vocalist Chris Hillman. They needed reinforcements, and since they were going to attempt to play jazz, they needed a quality drummer and preferably a pianist, as McGuinn’s 12-string arpeggios didn’t exactly speak the language of Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk.
The man who got the nod was Gram Parsons, a songwriter, guitarist and pianist of Chris Hillman’s acquaintance. I’m not quite sure what Parsons played that convinced McGuinn he was a proficient jazz piano player (what solo piano work I’ve heard by him suggests a decent country player with some gospel licks, but not McCoy Tyner), but that turned out to be irrelevant. Once in the Byrds fold, Parsons immediately began selling Hillman and latterly McGuinn on the idea of an entire album of country rock, along the lines of the work he’d done with the International Submarine Band.
McGuinn took some persuading (producer Gary Usher interceded on Parsons’ and Hillman’s behalf), but eventually consented to follow Parsons’ vision for the album.
Sweetheart of the Rodeo‘s influence, in a hard-headed analysis, does outstrip its quality; it’s credited as being the first country-rock album, but that isn’t quite right, as mostly the band plays country as country, and drummer Kevin Kelley plays rock beats only on One Hundred Years from Now and the choruses of Nothing Was Delivered. But nonetheless, this was a famous rock band diving headfirst into country music (making a whole record of it, and appearing at the Grand Ole Opry to promote it), whereas for the Beatles, Buffalo Springfield and Lovin’ Spoonful, country was just one flavour of what they did.
It’s not hard to pick the weak points of the original album – they’re the songs where Parsons’ recorded vocals were covered over by Roger McGuinn doing a southern accent rather badly (The Christian Life and You Don’t Miss Your Water). But thanks to the inclusion of perfectly good Parsons-sung outtakes on the expanded addition of the album and sundry box sets, that defect is remedied quite easily. The version of One Hundred Years from Now sung by Hillman and McGuinn in harmony is different in feel from the Parsons-fronted outtake, but it’s still pretty good and I don’t think Parsons’ vocal improves it hugely.
There are plenty of strong moments, too. Hickory Wind, obviously, even if Gram Parsons possibly plagiarised it*. Chris Hillman sings I Am a Pilgrim with a winning sincerity, his vocal abetted by John Hartford’s excellent fiddle playing. Parsons romps his way through Luke McDaniel’s You’re Still on My Mind, supported by Earl P Ball on piano and JayDee Maness on steel, and McGuinn’s two Dylan covers – You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere and Nothing Was Delivered are typically excellent.
Contemporary country music at the poppier end of things does not come from the same branch of the family tree as Sweetheart of the Rodeo. No matter how much pop and rock it contains, it’s a product of the Nashville industry, not of interlopers, like the Byrds were in 1968. As I said when writing about Younger than Yesterday, I hear no Byrds influence in much indie music right now, and no one seems to talk about the band, but young fans of country fans might find a lot to please them in this record. Along with Workingman’s Dead, it’s the pre-eminent early country rock album.
*I should say, if he did indeed steal it from Sylvia Sammons, it was a despicable act, but with both dead and Parsons also the writer of enough good songs to make it totally feasible he did write it, I guess we have to give him the benefit of the doubt.