Tag Archives: Grand Ole Opry

Sweetheart of the Rodeo – The Byrds

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.

 

 

 

Sail On – Commodores

Lionel Richie’s songwriting voice is a sappy, ballad-oriented one.

You’ve learned something already, haven’t you?

For some Richie will always be beyond the pale. And it’s true that he did essentially the same thing so often that even his fans could easily get tired of it. He staked out his signature territory with Three Times a Lady, which bores me by the first time he sings “Twice”, and has continued to cover that territory for four decades. Sure, he’s released dance-oriented records from time to time, but give Lionel Richie a piano, a blank piece of paper and a couple of hours, and nine times out of ten he’ll give you a ballad. He can’t help it.

In the late 1970s, the tension between his soft, smooth ballad writing and the harder R&B leanings of his Commodores bandmates eventually led to tensions in the band, which were added to by the fact that the group’s one-time sax player and maker of synthesiser noises had grabbed the limelight for himself. So his decision to go solo was not a surprising one. But he left his band with a legacy of strong love songs. It should hardly need saying that one of those songs is Easy, a record so wonderful that I am willing to give him a free pass, pretty much, for anything else he’s done, even Say You Say Me. But I’d like to speak up in favour of the country-tinged Sail On, from 1979’s Midnight Magic.

Richie’s talent is founded upon his ability to craft simple melodic hooks, both in the piano accompaniment and the vocal melody, and Sail On is a great example of this. The dual piano-and-guitar part that begins the song is one of those immediately identifiable, “Surely someone’s thought of this before?” moments that record producers and radio programmers say nightly prayers for. But Sail On is a song bursting with inspired moments, of which the intro is just the first.

Sail On one of Richie’s most obviously country songs. Even before he took a batch of old songs and remade them with country musicians a couple of years back (2012’s Tuskegee); before, even Kenny Rogers had a huge hit with Lady, there was evident in his songs an audible country-music streak, a legacy Richie’s childhood in Alabama: “I grew up with the Grand Ole Opry, Dottie West, Conway Twitty, Buck Owens … not realizing it was influencing me as much as it was.”

The harmony vocals of Richie and (I assume from the video) bassist Ronald LaPread are pure country from the outset, but as the two are singing in their lower registers, it’d be possible to miss it. When those higher voices come in (again, the video suggests these are drummer Walter Orange and guitarist Thomas McClarey, though all this may be artistic licence on the part of the clip’s director), it becomes unmistakeable. Lady aside, this was the most obvious song for Richie to dust off for his Tuskegee self-covers album*.

By the time we get to the final choruses, the song has found its way into territory that would come to be called yacht rock: smooth harmonies, horns, mellow vibes, nautical metaphors. So it’s an intriguing blend: downhome at the start and uptown-aspirational at the end.

A quick word about the performance of Walter Orange, the unsung hero of Richie’s Commodore-era ballads. His syncopated bass drum work is a key element in what makes this track (and Easy) a fusion of R&B sensibilities with country (or in Easy’s case) pop ballad writing. Whether the feel is straight eights or a shuffle, country drummer’s play one and three on the kick, pretty much. They might sometimes do the Mick Fleetwood heartbeat thing (adding a second strokes on the kick on “and” three: one, two, and three, four), or the Neil Young thing (a second stroke on the quaver after one and/or three), but the feel is straight, unsyncopated. Orange (with LaPread locked in on bass) take a less obvious route, and give the song a definite funk/R&B underpinning. When Richie went solo and he lost these guys, his ballads were never again as interesting.

commodores

*Of course, it hardly needs saying that the original version is much the superior. For a start, it doesn’t have an ass-clown like Tim McGraw singing half of it. The drummer realised he wasn’t playing a heavy metal power ballad. Most importantly, it isn’t Auto-Tuned to within an inch of its life. Seriously, two voices in absolute, mathematically perfect harmony is a freaky sound. It’s not possible out in the real world. Please. Stop. Doing. It.