“Sweetheart of the Rodeo” by the Byrds (1968)
The cover of the Byrds’ fifth album, “The Notorious Byrd Brothers,” famously features the image of a horse in place of David Crosby, who’d either left the band or been fired during recording sessions, depending on whom you believe.
Crosby had been increasingly at odds with fellow founding members Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, who chafed at Crosby’s spaced-out ramblings between songs during the Byrds’ set at the Monterey Pop Festival, as well as his guest spot spelling Neil Young in Buffalo Springfield.
Crosby, in turn, opposed the others’ song selections for “Notorious,” arguing that his ode to a menage a trois, “Triad,” should be on the album, and Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s “Goin’ Back” should not.
At any rate, he was gone as of October 1967, and McGuinn and Hillman coaxed former lead singer Gene Clark back into the band. He’d left the previous year – the classic “Eight Miles High” was prompted by his fear of flying – but decided to return for an appearance on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and a short tour of the Midwest. After only a couple of weeks, he bowed out again.
Drummer Michael Clarke wasn’t far behind. A Columbia Records CD re-release contains a section of studio chatter that puts the rest of the Byrds’ dissatisfaction with Clarke on full display, with Crosby taunting him with crybaby sounds. Clarke stuck around long enough to finish the LP, but by the time it was released in January 1968, the Byrds effectively were a duo.
While two other groundbreaking bands with personnel problems imploded that same year – Young, Richie Furay and Stephen Stills went their separate ways, as did Jimmy Page and the rest of the Yardbirds – McGuinn and Hillman decided to carry on and went about recruiting new members.
McGuinn’s concept at the time – he never would quite see a Byrds’ concept album to fruition – was an overview of American popular music, exploring bluegrass, country, jazz and blues, all the way up to Moog synthesizer experiments, such as he had tried during the “Notorious” sessions.
Kevin Kelley, Hillman’s drummer cousin, came aboard to get proceedings going, and a potential fourth member auditioned in March. In his book “Hickory Wind,” Ben Fong-Torres describes the scenario:
“Gram Parsons wasn’t exactly bursting with credentials when he came up for consideration as a member of the Byrds … His first album was flopping; he wrote a song that Peter Fonda had recorded; and he had a few flickers of a bit part in (the Roger Corman movie) ‘The Trip.’ He was just the kind of dilettante that a guy like Chris Hillman should have snubbed.”
The two had hit it off a few months before, though, when they met while waiting in line at the bank. He invited Parsons to rehearsal, where McGuinn asked him if he could play jazz piano.
“Gram, as he recalled, faked a blues figure of some sort, sang, played some guitar, and seemed like a nice guy who’d fit in with the band. Roger, in classic ’60s, laissez-faire style, hired him on the spot,” Fong-Torres wrote in his Parsons biography.
McGuinn’s rumination remains an integral part of Byrds lore:
“I had no idea he was Hank Williams Jr.”
Parsons’ recently released album, “Safe at Home” by the International Submarine Band, combined elements of rock and country in a manner that some bands – the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield were among them – had dabbled in a bit. But the ISB’s lone long-player stands as the first example of the two styles melding together as a seamless whole.
What’s fascinating in retrospect is how Parsons was able almost immediately to convince McGuinn to concentrate solely on the country component of his American music vision.
“Soon, the band decided to cut its next album in Nashville: Music City, USA. And not only would they be the first long-haired folk-rock band from California to invade Nashville, they would crash the temple of all that was good and backward about country music, the Grand Ole Opry.
The March 10, 1968, performance is legendary for Parsons’ blowing off the Opry producers and launching into his own composition “Hickory Wind” instead of the Merle Haggard song that host Tompall Glaser was expecting.
“The other Byrds looked at each other,” Fong-Torres wrote. “They had gotten stoned backstage, and they weren’t ready for a plot twist like this. They just managed to catch up with Gram, and the song proceeded smoothly.”
Just 21 years old at the time, Parsons apparently had become de facto leader of the Byrds, and sessions for what would become “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” proceeded accordingly. Studio musicians assisted the band for the March sessions in Nashville, and recording continued in Los Angeles during April and May.
The International Submarine Band was under contract to LHI Productions, owned by Lee Hazlewood, the guy who wrote and produced “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'” for Nancy Sinatra. According to Fong-Torres:
Hazlewood had worked hard to establish his first record company, and he didn’t like watching the Submarine Band fall apart just as its first album was being issued. Nor did he appreciate the leader of that band wandering off to another group. He decided to get hard-nosed. He contacted CBS Records to inform the company that LHI Productions still owned the rights to Gram’s vocal performances, if not to his compositions or to his work as an instrumentalists.
Parsons had sung lead vocals on several of the songs on which the Byrds were working. But, Fong-Torres wrote:
After Lee’s call, Columbia ordered Gram’s voice stripped off the album and replaced it with Roger’s and Chris’. Roger got to work putting his own voice, with a brand-new Southern acent, where Gram’s had been.
Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons
Eventually, the two companies settled.
“We were just about to scratch ‘Hickory Wind’ when somebody ran in with a piece of paper,” Parsons, who died of an overdose in 1973, recalled in an interview. “That’s the last one they saved.”
According to at least one source, the whole Hazlewood controversy just may have served as an excuse for McGuinn to do some reconsidering.
Gary Usher, who produced “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” told a publication shortly before his death in 1990 that McGuinn had overdubbed some songs because of the legal issue, but that the differences were resolved early in the process.
“So whoever sang leads on the songs were there because that’s how we wanted to slice the album up,” he said, noting McGuinn was wary “that Parsons was getting a little bit too much out of this thing. He didn’t want the album to turn into a Gram Parsons album. You just don’t take a hit group and interject a new singer for no reason.”
Whatever the true story, Columbia released “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” on Aug. 30, much to the confusion of fans who were expecting more psychedelia-tinged folk-rock along the lines of “The Notorious Byrd Brothers.”
A radio commercial included in a CD re-release plays on the band’s shift in musical direction, as a couple debate whether what’s playing really is the Byrds. The spot ends with the voiceover guy unequivocally announcing:
“The Byrds take 11 trips to the country. Why not fly with them?”
Not too many record buyers did, compared with previous Byrds releases. The album peaked at No. 77 on Billboard, and in the United Kingdom, where the band had a substantial following, it failed to reach the charts.
As far as the LP tracks, the band revisits familiar territory to start Side One, covering a Bob Dylan song. This time around, though, instead of a 12-string guitar lick along the lines of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” this particular tune opens with the unmistakably country-tinged twang of guest Lloyd Green’s pedal steel guitar.
“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” successfully combines Dylan’s amusingly obscure lyrics with a swinging rhythm, all in a two-and-a-half minute package that also came out as the album’s first single. It performed slightly better than the LP, reaching No. 74.
On the second track, the Byrds delve fully into the country genre with the traditional “I Am a Pilgrim.” The choice of instruments veers far off the rock ‘n’ roll path, with John Hartford providing fiddle, Roy Husky on double bass and McGuinn playing banjo.
“The Christian Life” is a song by Charles and Ira Loudermilk, better known as the gospel-country duo the Louvin Brothers. Parsons brought the song to the Byrds, but McGuinn’s lead vocal ended up on the album. A comparison between the two singers shows Parsons, in a version released decades after the fact, giving “The Christian Life” a much more reverential treatment than McGuinn, who seems to put tongue in cheek for lines like “My buddies shun me since I turned to Jesus/They say I’m missing a whole world of fun.”
Stax/Volt singer William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water” received an R&B treatment in its original incarnation, as it did on Otis Redding’s cover. The Byrds’ backwoods reading originally featured Parsons’ lead vocal, but McGuinn’s appears on the album, for whichever reason the listener wants to believe. For comparison’s sake, Gram’s version has surfaced on the 1990 boxed set “The Byrds” and re-releases of “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.”
“You’re Still On My Mind” is a honky-tonk-flavored song penned by Mississippi musician Luke McDaniel, a friend of Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins. Parsons, who brought the song to the band, ended up with the “Sweetheart” lead vocal, regardless of his own story about the album’s making.
Woody Guthrie wrote “Pretty Boy Floyd” as a romanticized version of the infamous bank robber’s proclivity to play Robin Hood: “Well you say that I’m an outlaw, you say that I’m a thief/Well, here’s a Christmas dinner for the families on relief.” The tune perhaps is the most Byrds-like, at least compared to the band’s folk-rock origins, on the album.
Parsons actually co-wrote “Hickory Wind” with Bob Buchanan, who contributed lyrical input while the two were passengers on a train to Los Angeles. The song combines Gram’s nostalgia for his upbringing in Georgia and Florida with homesickness and disappointment on the part of both musicians:
It’s hard to find out that trouble is real
In a far away city, with a far away feel
But it makes me feel better each time it begins
Callin’ me home, hickory wind
The next album track is another Parsons composition, “One Hundred Years from Now,” although McGuinn and Hillman share the vocal on the finished product. A rehearsal version featuring Gram appears on re-releases.
Veteran country songwriter and singer Cindy Walker wrote “Blue Canadian Rockies” for Gene Autry’s 1952 movie of the same name. Hillman’s vocal carries the relatively straightforward love song, and future Byrds member Clarence White plays guitar.
Merle Haggard’s “Life In Prison” explores a time-honored country theme: The protagonist has murdered the love of his life. In this case, the powers that be won’t execute him, much to his chagrin: “If I die, my pain will go away.” Haggard, a former inmate, has gotten a lot of mileage out of jail-oriented songs, including the better-known “Mama Tried” and “Sing Me Back Home,” both of which were covered by the Grateful Dead.
The original LP wraps up with another Dylan composition that had not been released as of 1968, “Nothing Was Delivered.” As with “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” the dominant instrument is Green’s pedal steel, which opens the song on somewhat of an upbeat note before the vocals begin.
As for the subject matter, Dylan is relatively straightforward in his description of a drug deal gone bad (although nowhere near as graphic as Don “Buck Dharma” Roeser in the Blue Oyster Cult’s “Then Came the Last Day of May”). Bob’s narrator plays it cool, but his message is clear:
Nothing was delivered
But I can’t say I sympathize
With what your fate is going to be
Yes, for telling all those lies
Now you must provide some answers
For what you sold has not been received
And the sooner you come up with them
The sooner you can leave
The outtakes from the album that eventually saw the light of day include three tunes that didn’t make the album: Parsons’ “Lazy Day,” Tim Hardin’s “You Got a Reputation” and the traditional “Pretty Polly.” The latter is the sinister tale of a gambler who “courts” a young girl, then brutally murders her. Perhaps he’s related to the “Life in Prison” guy.
Although it tanked sales-wise, “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” received critical praise and went on to influence myriad bands that sought to combine rock with country, most notably (from a commercial standpoint) the Eagles.
But Parsons’ stay with the band was brief. The Byrds left for London in July, wowing the crowd at a “Sounds ’68” charity concert at the Royal Albert Hall. From there, it was on to then-segregated South Africa, but without Gram.
“Something a lot of people don’t know about me is that I was brought up with a Negro for a brother,” Parsons later claimed. “Like all Southern families, we had maids and servants, a whole family called the Dixons that took care of us. Sammy Dixon was a little older than me, and he lived with and grew up with me, so I learned at a real close leel that segregation was just not it.”
The other Byrds weren’t buying it.
“It was total garbage,” a still-bitter Hillman told Fong-Torres. “I really wanted to murder him.”
Hillman figured Parsons wanted to hang out with new friend Keith Richards, and the Rolling Stones guitarist confirmed his role in Gram’s decision.
“I was instrumental in his leaving the Byrds,” Fong-Torres quotes Richards as admitting, “because I said, ‘Nobody goes to play in South Africa.'”
Hillman bailed out later in the year, leaving McGuinn, the band’s sole original member, to regroup around White. Drummer Gene Parsons (no relation to Gram) and bass player John York came aboard, but the Byrds had trouble regaining their artistic and commercial heights before breaking up in 1972.
Gram Parsons later talked Hillman into joining a new band, the Flying Burrito Brothers, which recorded the de facto followup to “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” for their classic debut, “The Gilded Palace of Sin.”
White, whose guitar-playing skills made him far and away the best instrumentalist the band ever had, died in 1973. While loading equipment into his car, he was hit by a drunken driver.
Gram Parsons died in Room 8 at the Joshua Tree Inn.
Parsons, who had recorded to “solo” albums with singing partner and future country superstar Emmylou Harris, died a few months later, on Sept. 18. He’d gone on vacation to Joshua Tree National Park in California, staying at a nondescript motel on the edge of the desert.
“Gram wasted little time in making a connection with a heroin dealer in town,” Fong-Torres wrote. “Before scoring, he drank heavily at lunch” with two women. “They sat and watched Gram chain-drink Jack Daniel’s, then drove him back to the Joshua Tree Inn. There, he found his drug connection, and in a room next to the owners’ apartment, he added heroin to his already overloaded system.”
After his death, friend Phil Kaufman, honoring some kind of pledge the two supposedly had made, stole Gram’s casket from Los Angeles International Airport and burned his body at Joshua Tree.
All that drama might have made for a good song on “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.”