The Byrds - Sweetheart of the Rodeo - Classic Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

The Byrds - Sweetheart of the Rodeo

by Mark Moody Rating:10 Release Date:1968-08-30
The Byrds - Sweetheart of the Rodeo
The Byrds - Sweetheart of the Rodeo

You can hang me high for this one if you must, but I’ve never been a huge fan of Gram Parsons’ musical output.  Not quite sure if it’s his voice, the songs themselves or the way they are played, but I just have never been able to get into it that much.  What I am a huge fan of is the influence he brought to bear on rock music in the late 60s and onwards to this day.  Maybe some shun the term “country rock” and there have been some musical train wrecks as a result of that - on both sides of the aisle if you will. 

But more importantly, it’s impossible not to trace back Parsons’ influence on what generally today would be referred to as Americana music but also earlier “alt-country” bands like Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown, Green on Red, The Jayhawks, and endless others.  

The other thing I am a huge fan of when it comes to Gram Parsons is The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo album, and his "just passing through" influence on it.  There was a pretty good chunk of my life that if someone asked me my favorite album this was the answer they got.  I usually got a blank stare in return and today I don’t think in terms of favorite albums if I can help it.  Sweetheart is a landmark album whose influence can’t be overstated.  Yes, I know it post-dated Parsons’ International Submarine Band debut, but who really listened to that back then, or now.  The Byrds were already a well established and popular band when Sweetheart came out and as with so many classics that aren’t recognized at the time it was not well received as either a rock or a country record.  Honestly, it’s really a country record performed by a rock band (with a lot of Nashville session players on board), but it was enough to get the genre-melding going.  Even a scant few years on an album like The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will The Circle Be Unbroken was more widely accepted even if Bill Monroe famously refused to play on it.

The album sees founding Byrd Roger McGuinn giving up his trademark Rickenbacker jangle in favor of a banjo, evidencing the musical departure as well as anything here.  Also, famously McGuinn ended up re-recording vocals over three of Parsons’ lead tracks.  Although maybe a bit obnoxious that one of those was a song Parsons wrote (‘One Hundred Years From Now’), but truly it is no matter.  Whether it is McGuinn, Parsons, or other Band co-founder, Chris Hillman, on lead vocals the songs are all brilliantly done.  There are several country/folk music covers and two Parsons’ songs bookended by two countrified Bob Dylan songs that are as strong as anything here.  The opening ‘You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere’ may personify the album as a classic opener, but the closing ‘Nothing Was Delivered’ is the most Byrds-sounding of the tracks with harmonies fully intact.

Parsons’ own songs include his trademark ‘Hickory Wind’ that recall a boyhood in a state that he didn’t even grow up in, but you would never know that given how authentically nostalgic it sounds.  His other original, that McGuinn recorded over, is the best of his cutting room floor vocals.  McGuinn’s re-dos on ‘The Christian Life’ and ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’ are the vocals that are forever ingrained on these tracks and it’s hard not to argue he brings a little more life to the recordings.  Of the other covers, Cindy Walker’s ‘Blue Canadian Rockies’ is as evocative of place as anything you will ever hear.  The reworking of the traditional ‘I Am A Pilgrim’ with John Hartford’s sawing fiddle and Hillman’s earnest vocal is early evidence that the band is serious about their change in direction.  While Parsons’ lead on Luke McDaniel’s ‘You’re Still On My Mind’ is his strongest with Earl P. Ball’s fingers flying on piano making it a honky-tonk highlight.

Whatever your take on Parsons or The Byrds, Sweetheart ended up being the flawless face that launched a thousand ships.  Its eleven tracks over a scant thirty minutes are a collection of perfectly cut diamonds that sparkle hard.  Please don’t take the time to listen to extended versions, outtakes, and demos of these tracks.  Everything else pales to what was captured on the original release, and the album is short and simple enough to play on repeat.  It’s not surprising that McGuinn and Hillman are out touring around fifty years on in remembrance of this great album and its influence as opposed to one of their more popular releases at the time.  And if you need one last thing to count as unmistakably legendary about Gram Parsons (though he was an involuntary participant), the theft and immolation of his body in the California desert has to be the most rock ’n’ roll of rock ’n’ roll stories there are.  Here’s to hoping Sweetheart continues to influence the one hundred years from now that Parsons imagined.                      

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