In August of 1968, the album Sweetheart of the Rodeo by the Byrds was released. It was quite a surprise to anyone who was familiar with the Byrds' previous recordings that include songs like Turn, Turn, Turn, several pop covers of Dylan songs (such as Mr. Tambourine Man), and the psychedelic Eight Miles High. The Byrds abruptly went from jangly, Beatles-influenced, psychedelic folk-rock icons to an out-and-out Country band. Not everyone was impressed. Country music fans in particular thought it was a smirking mockery of Country music by a bunch of interloping hippies. The Byrds were met with jeers and booing at their Grand Ol' Opry debut, and were famously mocked in an interview with DJ Ralph Emory (McGuinn & Parsons penned their revenge song, Drug Store Truck Driving Man, about the experience). And their previous fans were just confused: was it a joke?
The Byrds were an LA band that started in 1964. Their original personnel included: Jim McGuinn (who inexplicably changed his first name to Roger in 1967), Gene Clark, David Crosby, Chris Hillman, & Michael Clarke. They were riding high in 1965-66, up there with the Beatles and the Stones as symbols of the counterculture. But with the departure of David Crosby, Gene Clark, and Michael Clarke, the two remaining members were searching for a new sound and ended up recruited Gram Parsons, initially to play some Honky Tonk piano, but by the time the record was finished Parsons more or less took over the band, as the primary songwriter, lead singer and overlord. Parsons saw his membership in The Byrds as an opportunity to express his vision of “Cosmic American Music”.
Upon completion of the record, either producer Gary Usher or McGuinn had a change of heart and ended up removing several of Parsons' vocals, replacing them with McGuinn’s, and thus minimizing Parsons’ role in The Byrds. Power struggles, legal & political complications, and drugs followed, and before you could say Bob’s your uncle, Gram Parsons was out of The Byrds. Eight weeks later, Sweetheart of the Rodeo was released.
Although at the time the record seemed a disaster on every level, it’s now seen as a pivotal and influential landmark, launching a whole bunch of musical styles, Alt. Country among them.
I first heard Sweetheart of the Rodeo as a kid, pulling it out of a pile of my older brother's LPs. I remember being particularly struck by the song Hickory Wind, a song that still gets to me. Listening to the album again recently, I can hear that McGuinn in particular has a snarkiness to his singing of the Country cover songs, especially The Christian Life, which he sings with an obvious tongue-in-cheek tone. But I found Gram Parsons' performance on the record sincere. He seemed to have a real love and respect for the music that McGuinn did not (after hearing Parsons' original vocals of Christian Life on a re-release compilation, my suspicions were confirmed).
After Sweetheart The Byrds soldiered on, with McGuinn reforming yet again, but sticking, more or less, with the Country Rock sound. Parsons and Hillman formed The Flying Burrito Brothers, and following that Parsons went solo (his solo records were famous for the discovery of his young singing partner Emmylou Harris) and then died of a drug overdoes at the age of 24 in 1973.
Turn, Turn, Turn
Eight Miles High
You're Still On My Mind
The Christian Life (Gram Parsons lead vocal)
The Christian Life (Roger McGuinn lead vocal)
Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man (Gram Parsons with Emmylou Harris)