Monday 9 June 2014

The Byrds "Sweetheart Of The Rodeo" (1968) (Review)

You can buy 'All The Things - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of The Byrds' by clicking here!

The Byrds "Sweetheart Of The Rodeo" (1968)

You Ain't Goin' Nowhere/I Am A Pilgrim/The Christian Life/You Don't Miss Your Water/You're Still On My Mind//Pretty Boy Floyd/Hickory Wind/One Hundred Years From Now/Blue Canadian Rockies/Life In Prison/Nothing Was Delivered

Traditionally, reviews of traditional country album 'Sweetheart Of The Rodeo' both then and now start off by saying something along the lines of '...and then, after all that psychedelic experimentation, the Byrds decided to get back to the country', as if it was the most natural thing in the whole wide world. Yes 'Sweethearts' is a respected album now, introducing one of country-rock's biggest names to at first a slightly puzzled world and receiving plaudits from bands who weren't even born when this album came out - by rights this album has been named as a 'towering influence' by so many bands this record should have been a million seller. With hindsight 'Sweetheart' looks like a clever idea, giving the Byrds back their cult status and turning a whole new market onto their music, enabling them to be forevermore a part of music history long after the event. Judging by reviews, 'Sweetheart' should be the perfect middle ground between rock and country, but in truth its a little bit of both sudennly intruding on each other. At the time it seemed either stupid or reckless - country music existed in a completely separate universe to rock music back in 1968 and far from looking for a merger, fans of either genre were often bitter enemies. It wasn't that the world was waiting for an album like 'Sweetheart' to be made - both sides had been actively trying to prevent the like of it's happening for years. If 'Sweetheart' can be considered a 'success' these days it certainly wasn't seen as that at the time - back in 1968, at a time when nobody had ever heard anything like it before, it was roundly condemned by both rock radio and country stations. The reason was simple: country purists thought the Byrds were a 'pop' band who didn't understand country music and pop fans simply saw the band turning their back on everything they'd fallen in love with. Far from expanding the Byrd's dwindling audiences, 'Sweetheart' seemed to shut the door on the few fans the band still had and did it by trying to open another door that was locked, bolted and protected by 50 layers of dynamite. Even the band were divided, the ripples caused by this album and all the problems making it causing ruptures for the rest of the band's life (and the rest of this website/book), with Roger McGuinn left as the sole remaining Byrd and slightly confused from hereon as to who the Byrds really were: folk-rock pioneers, groundbreaking proponents of the most exotic psychedelic sounds around or as American as a McDonald's Apple Pie.

I'd love to be able to tell you that the Byrds went into the country direction out of a love for the genre, some deeper feeling in their soul that chimed with the 'rootsy' feel of country music a good year before the rest of the Western world plugged into the same acoustic country vibe or that they'd suddenly 'found' their calling. The truth is, the Byrds walked into the genre by accident. Reduced to a duo after the sacking of David Crosby and the departure of Michael Clarke during the making of 'The Notorious Byrd Brothers', Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman had been touting around for a piano player to help them out with a new idea they'd been toying with: a double-album that looked at the entire history of music from the very earliest Appalachian mountain folk songs, through the Renaissance, Victoriana, Wild West, Roaring Twenties and into the 1950s and 1960s and then ended with a side-long impression of where music might go in the 'future' (which no doubt would have featured McGuinn's beloved synthesiser heavily once again). Roger's idea is a fabulous one that surely would have been perfect for the times (The Beatles' own double-set 'The White Album' is out a mere three months after 'Sweethearts' and treads a similar grab-bag approach to every genre you can shake a drumstick at), although I fear he was also right when he looked back on it for the 'Sweetheart' CD liner notes in 1997 and added 'it was a nice idea - but harder to pull off than to think about'. Another idea of McGuinn's was to turn the Byrds into a more jazz-based improvisatory group that would cut another 'Eight Miles High' - which actually isn't that far off the direction the White/Battin/Gene Parsons Byrds will go in. Meanwhile, back in 1968 and with this theme in mind the band loosely advertised for, of all things, a jazz pianist. Instead they got Gram Parsons, who at a loose end after the break-up of his own promising group 'The International Submarine Band' (whose debut record 'Safe At Home' has a much better claim than 'Sweethearts' in being the world's first country-rock record, even if it ended up selling even less copies than the Byrds' work) broke up, was convinced that stardom could be his for the taking if he 'found' a big-band name to draw into his world of country music. Encouraged by early chance meetings with Hillman, Parsons showed up for the gig - despite being a rudimentary piano player (his main instrument was the guitar) and having no interest in the 'jazz' being advertised. How he really got the gig is anyone's guess - seemingly a combination of Hillman's excitement, McGuinn's confusion and his own hypnotic personality - as early as the band's first studio session together they'd dropped all of the whizz-bang-whallop psychedelic firepower of 'Notorious' as well as any ideas of doing jazz or Appalachian folk tunes and were instead an honest to God country band.

A millionaire kid with a deep love of country music who looked down on most rock and roll groups including the Byrds, Gram wasn't exactly a natural fit for the band.You rather wonder why he took the job in fact: Gram didn't need the money, was enjoying himself much better as a 'cult celebrity' than as a mainstream pop sell-out (even if the Byrds' truly big drawing power days were long behind them by this time) and he ended up having to teach the Byrds all the country songs he knew backwards when they showed an interest (the strange thing is that despite being heralded as a 'country-rock' album, the influence of 'Sweetheart' is a one-way street: there's no way this would have happened the other way round - I'd love to think that McGuinn turned Parsons onto Elvis and Bob Dylan in return, but I can't see it happening somehow). Despite being in the band a matter of months, Gram had such a strong hand in this album that he seriously pitched for it to be billed 'Gram Parsons and the Byrds' and caved in only after a huge fight (arguably Gram is the most famous individual Byrd in the 21st century, thanks to the cult status of his two solo albums and the great copy his mysterious death in the Joshua Tree desert created: it speaks volumes that the first film ever made about the Byrd is not a biopic of the group of their many clashes but about Gram's close friend and roadie stealing his coffin and giving him a private desert burial so his 'square' family don't get their hands on him: see 2003's surprise hit 'Grand Theft Parsons' if you haven't already!)

The reason Gram stayed even the short time he did was surely the 'soulmate' vibe he got from bassist Chris Hillman, the Byrd he's met first and who despite writing easily the most consistently out-there songs of the Byrds' psychedelic years was feeling nostalgic for his pre-Byrds days as a mandolin player in several bluegrass bands (including the wonderfully named 'Scottsville Squirrel Barkers'). Chris certainly seemed to be enjoying himself on this album a lot more than he had of late - but who at the time this album came out would have guessed that Chris would throw his lot in with a cult figure country-guitarist he'd known barely a matter of months rather than stick with the band with which he'd made his name three long years earlier? That must have been some musical hold Gram had over Chris and their partnership will last longer than any of the fickle Parsons' other musical ones, across several love-hate years in the Byrds spin-off band 'The Flying Burrito Brothers' which the pair form not long after the release of 'Sweethearts Of The Rodeo'. In addition, producer Gary Usher - previously Brian Wilson's most prolific co-writer outside his co-writer Mike Love and the producer of the band's last two records - very openly told McGuinn his history idea was 'nuts' and that he quite fancied working on a country album himself.

Spare a thought for poor Roger McGuinn in this period, then. From his point of view he's finally got rid of his one serious competitor for direction of the band whose been driving him scatty for the past few years (David Crosby) and is finally down to working with the Byrd he always got on with best, the perennial second-in-command Chris Hillman. Suddenly there his best friend is, giggling in the corner with the new interloper, probably while making digs at the expense of Roger's beloved synthesisers, folk music and rock and roll, often with the band's producer joining in too. Far from being life or death as rock and roll and folk had always seemed to the other Byrds, it was just a bit of a giggle wasn't it? Good honest country was what really mattered! At least Crosby came from a similar sort of background and had similar drive and ambition to Roger, but this young rich kid with more money than sense and who owned only country music records must have seemed like an alien from another planet (until comparatively recently, McGuinn had been far from rich and had had to earn money the hard way - and tended to save it rather than spend it). Following on from the success of 'Notorious Byrd Brothers' (The band's peak as a writing band, even if the departed Crosby deserves at least a third of the credit), McGuinn and his Rickenbacker should have been dominating the band's sound: instead, at first, he was lucky if he got a vocal or had a chance to get his guitar out of the case in favour of 'Sneaky' Pete Klienow's pedal steel guitar 9another future member of the Flying Burrito Brothers). Usually my sympathies lie elsewhere - Roger was a tough bandleader, who started off by trying to get his colleagues out of the limelight in the early years and then keeps the band on a lower wage as employees for the second half of the band's career. But here it's hard not to feel sorry for Roger, who usually so firmly in control, seemed to have walked into this album's sessions with his eyes shut and who will spend the next five years of his life trying to regain the rock and roll audiences he loses in part thanks to this album, which he didn't even want to make in the first place, while Gram and Chris get off scott free. To be fair, country remains a key part of the Byrds' sound (especially in concert) until Roger finally calls it a day in 1972 so he probably had more than a little interest in the genre himself - but 'Sweetheart' is more than just a little country, it's a lot country, as we'll be seeing later.

I feel equally sorry for the band's other newest member Kevin Kelley, cousin of Chris Hillman, who gets badly overlooked in the band's story. While the Byrds were never that lucky with drummers (hiring Michael Clarke for his blonde pudding bowl haircut and only teaching him how to play the drums later rather set the tone), Kelley is the best of a nervy trio of drummers in the Byrds, really getting into the  swing of playing in a genre he probably didn't expect to be playing on either when he joined the group a few weeks before Gram did (in fact he copes with the setting better than either of his two non-countryfied colleagues: a period review by Jon Landau noted that 'they leave just enough rock and roll in the drums to sound like the Byrds' and he's dead right, despite the fact that rock and roller Kelley is as new to the Byrds as Gram was). Considering that he inevitably got the job through his family connections when the Byrds needed a new drummer in a hurry, he copes very well with being thrown in at the deep end. It couldn't have been easy, too, being Chris' cousin at a time when Roger and Chris were never further apart and when the country pair decided to go off and start a new band he must have been counting down the minutes till Roger fired him (as things turn out, McGuinn probably soon wished he hadn't as the quiet, self-effacing Kelley couldn't have been more different from the laidback, mouthy Gene Parsons, another sadly overlooked figure in the Byrds' story). Sadly Kelley never gets to play on another album the rest of his career and his total time with The Byrds lasts less than a year - a sad reward for his hard work on this album.

Even after the band decided to make a 'country' record (or in some cases had the decision made for them) things didn't go at all well. Gram inevitably ended up singing on the lion's share of the album as well as writing the only two original songs on the whole record, given that he understood the genre so much better than everyone else. However, what he had 'forgotten' to tell his new band was that he was still under an exclusive contract to Nancy Sinatra collaborator Lee Hazelwood and his label LHI Records. The Byrds' label Columbia were in a quandary - the band simply didn't sell enough records anymore to make a lengthy court case viable but they didn't want to scrap all the expensive work done so far either. As a compromise, the band were asked to do about the only thing left available to them: go back into the studio and re-record every single one of Gram's vocals, thus making him as un-noticeable on the record as the band could get away with. As a result, 'Sweetheart' at least sounds more like the Byrds than it would otherwise have done, with Roger thankfully re-instated as the band's lead vocalist, even if he's far too obviously trying to do a 'Gram Parsons' impression on four of the album's songs ('The Christian Life' 'You Don't Miss Your Water' 'You're Still On My Mind' and 'One Hundred Years From Now') instead of singing them with his natural voice. Frankly, there's no wonder Gram and Chris were laughing their socks off - McGuinn simply doesn't understand the genre and his mock-Southern drawl sounds the antithesis of true 'honest' country music and Gram, especially, was scathing about his partner's work to his dying day (to be fair, Roger sounds as great as ever on the Dylan covers and folk covers - it's just country that he can't sing). A far better compromise, surely, would have been to get Chris to sing them instead - or record a different batch of songs altogether (even by Byrds' standards 'Sweethearts' is an album that contains one heck of a lot of outtakes, a whopping eight on the 1997 CD re-issue - McGuinn's cover of traditional song 'Pretty Polly' or Gran's rockiest songs 'Lazy Day' and 'Reputation', which already featured Hillman quite heavily, would have been better choices).
As it turned out, the court case got settled remarkably quickly - just in time, so tradition states, for Gram to keep his career best vocal on his own 'theme song' Hickory Wind', which along with his take on country weepie standard 'Life In Prison' at least gives him a vocal presence on the album. But if the threat of a court case was removed so quickly, why not go the whole hog and re-instate Gram's vocals on the above four tracks? (If the band had cold feet about letting an untried and untested part of the band sing lead on them - then why were they recorded in the first place?) Far from being the 'pure' country the Byrds intended, instead we have a mis-mash of styles as rock vocalists try so very hard to forget their last ten years of training to adopt a new country sound they've never tried before. Ironically, too, the most recognisably Byrds element on the album comes - aside from two countryfied Dylan covers - from Gram's rocky 'One Hundred Years From Now', thanks to the presence of Gram's future replacement Clarence White on guitar and the fact that Roger and Chris share the vocal. If 'Sweetheart' is to be judged as the 'pure' country the band wanted to make then it's clearly a mess: country purists, Gram included, would have been scratching their head over the Dylan covers and Woody Guthrie's 'Pretty Boy Floyd' (which even with a fiddle attached sounds more like folk than country) and that's without the re-recorded McGuinn vocals that make the Byrds versions of country standards like 'The Christian Life' and 'You Don't Miss Your Water' sound like insincere imitation. No wonder the country radio stations and country music critics hated it, particularly a miserable tour across Nashville and a near-fight with legendary country DJ Ralph Emery, who mocked the band's rock roots throughout one uncomfortable interview and refused to play any of their record (he's the inspiration for the damning character assassination 'Drug Store Truck Driving Man' from next Byrds record 'Dr Byrds and Mr Hyde').

That said, 'Sweetheart' is unbelievably influential. Debate has raged about whether its the world's first country-rock record and by and large most music historians now think that it isn't and that there are dozens of examples from earlier  in the 1960s and even the 1950s. But that's rather missing the point: The Byrds were arguably the first band the average American fan of any genre in the street would have heard of having a go at merging the two genres and must surely have been the first group associated so thoroughly with rock and roll giving it a go. There are several bands who would never have existed had The Byrds not paved the way - unforgivably in most cases (The Eagles, I'm looking at you!) but thankfully in some others (Poco, Richie Furay's band after the Buffalo Springfield - always the closest band in sound to the Byrds even before their rock family trees get intertwined with CSNY - are a great under-rated country rock band and the Flying Burrito Brothers themselves make a much better stab at country-rock being a viable genre than this mongrel of a record). Today 'Sweetheart' might well be the most famous album the Byrds ever made, despite selling a pathetic amount of copies on first release, giving the world the first country music pin-up in Gram Parsons and forever part of the record books simply for doing what nobody else had done or been noticed doing before.

'Sweetheart' is surely a remarkable debut for Gram Parsons. Thankfully the tapes with his lead vocals for the above songs have survived and have been released, first on the 'Byrds' box set of 1990 and again on the 1997 CD re-issue of this album and if you programme your CD player to play them instead of the McGuinn versions then 'Sweetheart' seems like a much more remarkable and valuable beast ('The Christian Life' singlehandedly went from being my least favourite track on the album to one of the best when I finally got to hear Gram's version and Roger's harmony interestingly sounds so much more accomplished than his lead vocxal replacement). Both of Gram's own songs 'Hickory Wind' and 'One Hundred Years From Now' are the album highlights, with a life and sparkle to them that the often tired and dreary country covers don't have in either version and for someone who had such a low opinion of rock music Gram had a real feel for rhythm. In many ways his two more traditionally-country solo albums are a real downturn after this album, full of the country clichés that his rockier work on this album doesn't possess and it's a real shame he chooses to jump the Byrds so quickly after this record (leaving after the band just before a tour of South Africa during the days of Apartheid, which to be fair sounds like an excuse after the fact - nobody tried harder to play to non-segregated audiences than The Byrds and Gram was one of the key movers behind the band going in the first place; certainly the band have more of an excuse for their behaviour  than Paul Simon does 20-odd years later and may well have been more about hanging around Gram's 'new' musical friends like Keith Richards). Hillman, too, has never sounded as natural or as comfortable as he does singing 'I Am A Pilgrim' and in one swoop manages to dispel memories of such wonderfully hippie songs as 'Change Is Now' and 'Thoughts and Words'. McGuinn, however, sounds comfortable only on the Dylan covers and even then managed to upset the big Bobmeister himself by accidentally re-writing some of the words, losing him his biggest musical champion along the way (Dylan's own later version of 'You Ain't Goin' Nowhere' reads 'Pick up your money and pack up your tent, McGuinn, you ain't goin' nowhere!', a spiteful attack on The Byrds being left behind). Much of this album is likeable, a lot of it is interesting (especially with Gram's vocals, the way it was meant to be heard), but none of it comes close to matching the sheer pizzazz and invention of 'The Notorious Byrd Brothers' and the fact that the Byrds were never again a viable musical option for so many after this album this album unforgivable for me.

If there's a theme to this record then it's a slightly defensive tone that already seems to pre-empt the brickbats that are going to be hurled at this album by both sides. Pretty much all the characters on this album are outlaws or outsiders, doing their own thing - not that unusual for The Byrds (the last album featured Old John Robertson, perhaps the ultimate hippie outsider alongside The Small Faces' 'Mad John'), but all of them are pioneers too who ultimately get proved 'right'. Most worrying of all, they all seem to assume that the band's fanbase will come along with them too when they see where the band are going, without any hint that they kight be surprised or have trouble with the Byrds' new surroundings that to all intents and purposes have come out of nowhere. 'You Ain't Goin' Nowhere' is the closest Dylan came to writing a sequel to 'The Times They Are A Changin' (another song the Byrds covered), a warning that if you stands still for too long you become a 'tree with roots' (without actually explaining why that's a bad thing - trees 'live' for longer than practically anything else if not disturbed). 'I Am A Pilgrim' and 'The Christian Life' use the religious metaphor of being born-again for the country phase in the band's career and the latter especially might as well be singing 'I won't lose a fan for heeding God's call, for what is a fan who wants you to fall' instead of substituting 'friend' for the 'f' word. 'You Don't Miss Your Water' half-suggests that the Byrds didn't like all that psychedelic noise anyway and that their well has 'run dry'. Hmm. 'Pretty Boy Floyd' should be a folk hero, a cowboy who may have murdered someone but someone who was deserving and at least he's open about it, unlike the men who 'rob you with a fountain pen' as the song puts it. 'One Hundred Years From Now' is actually asking whether a reckless marriage will still seem that way to others in the future, but might as well be about the band's new country vibe and whether it's a mistake or not (Well I can only go by 46 years' distance here but yes, yes, it is). 'Life In Prison' goes one better by having an outlaw in prison for a crime he didn't commit, simply for being different - alas we don't know the dates but I'm willing to be this recording (apparently intended as a 'rehearsal' rather than a finished take) was included as a knee-jerk 'we'll show them' response to the Byrds' cool reception in Nashville where this music was treated as if it was a 'crime'. Finally 'Nothing Was Delivered' is a very folky Dylan song dressed up in country clobber apparently simply to show that the Byrds can do this now and ends the album with the curious summation of the whole album: 'nothing is better, nothing is best'. It's as if the band are already reminding their fans that country is as good a road as rock and roll any day and an equally worthy genre (unless you're Gram Parsons, of course, in which case it's a far worthier genre). Am I alone in getting the feeling that this album is 'nagging' somehow, without the laidback charm of the rest of the Byrds' catalogue, even during some quite difficult and dark power struggles? ('Notorious' being a case in point). Interestingly what are the only other Byrds-related records to have a similar 'chastising' feel to them? Yes and yes - 'GP' and 'Grievous Angel', Gram's two post-Byrds records, albums that however good offer the uncomfortable feeling that everyone in the world has always done bad things except the main narrator. Only 'So You Want To Be A Rock and Roll Star?' in the Byrds' canon cuts this album close for sheer disdain and contempt - and probably not co-incidentally that's one of the few songs written by Roger and Chris together. Good as this record is for Gram Parsons - and Kevin Kelley it has to be said - it truly brings out the worst in the others.

Yes 'Sweetheart' is a noble experiment at something new and having the best of it reduced to a single side on a double LP about all eras of music it would have been nice - but it simply isn't good enough to make up for all the problems it causes the band. I'd understand this record more had the band ever showed their 'country music' influences before now - but a rather leaden Chris Hillman lead cover of 'Satisfied Mind' (the weakest track on second album 'Turn! Turn! Turn!' and surely a good reason for not diving head first into country music) is all there is up until this record. Frankly only Gram Parsons wanted to go there - and even with his bandmate and producer against him Roger should still have been strong enough to say 'no' (no one had heard of Gram back then and argiuably most Americans won't know of him till long after his death, but everyone under 40 in America in 1968 could have recognised Roger on sight if he was wearing his trademark 'granny glasses'). The worst of it is, Roger and Chris don't write a single song between them, despite being on top form on 'Notorious Byrd Brothers' - and their new interloper, whose never had a hit record in his life, doesn't just get to choose the new traditional country songs to cover, he gets two of his own songs to sing! Madness! Not 'honest' enough to be country, not rocky enough to be rock and not interesting enough to follow down the chasm between the two styles, 'Sweetheart' is ultimately a costly failure even if it's far from being a worthless record - a good record maybe, if a rather patchy one, but a good Byrds record? No-sirree. Had  I had my say I'd have produced a 'proper' Gram Parsons record, thus bringing him the spotlight he clearly deserved, but kept him as my hired hand on the even better idea of a 'history of music' record. What a shame - the one time Roger arguably should have got tough with his bandmates he cuts them too much slack - which might perhaps explain why he ruffles the feathers of John York, Gene Parsons and Skip Battin over the next three years instead of letting them do their thing and be themselves, simple fear of another takeover. Gram may have been a natural leader in life, but Roger was the natural leader of The Byrds and this record suffers first from his lack of input and thereafter his awful imitations of a style he shouldn't have been doing in the first place. In the end, the best thing about 'Sweetheart Of The Rodeo' might well be the cover - a 1933 painting by Jo Mora that neatly sums up the country direction without losing the uniqueness that goes with being a good Byrds album cover. And when a sleeve which was painted ten years before the band were even born is the best thing about an album then you know a group is in big big trouble.

'You Ain't Goin' Nowhere' seems a sensible place to start, given that it's the closest thing here to the 'traditional' Byrds sound. An officially unreleased Dylan song that was part of Bob's widely circulated 'Basement Tapes' following his motorcycle crash and 'retirement' in 1967, it was quite a coup for the Byrds to be the 'first' to record this song. It's one of their better Dylan covers, actually, with the band doing  a pretty good job at joining not only Dylan and the Beatles but country music too, with a nicely rocking interplay from cousins Hillman and Kelley on bass and drums and only the 'ghost' of country, thanks to the distant echo-laden spirit of Sneaky Pete's pedal-steel flowing in and out of the track. Notably, Gram barely appears on this song, buried right at the bottom of the mix of Roger, Chris and Gram harmonies (that's Gram at the bottom, with Chris moved to the top where Crosby always used to sit) and playing a simple three-note organ part, the closest he ever came to fulfilling his 'jazz pianist' role. For the last time on the album McGuinn sounds not only competent but confident, rattling off Dylan's characteristically tricky lyrics about the dangers of standing still, which pack in everything from the intellectual (change being the natural currency of man), to the historical (a quick mention of Genghis Khan not adapting to nature during his invasions of other lands and ultimately being defeated by it) and the, err, banal (was this song inspired by Bob's car refusing to start, all 'tailgates and substitutes'?!) Like many a Dylan song its actually quite a nasty rant but like many a Byrds cover of a Dylan song the anger is diluted and the prettyness is accelerated, with the band really bringing this song's lovely understated melody to the fore (Gram's sweeping organ has a lot to do with it too, to be fair, showing what an able pop participant he could have been in a parallel universe). Surprisingly, though, Dylan hated this cover and by and large turned his back on The Byrds after this, adding McGuinn's own name to his 1971 sniping version of the song - apparently because Roger, working under pressure, accidentally changed some of the words in the second verse (singing 'pack up your money and pick up your tent' instead of 'pick up your money, pack up your tent' - Dylan sarcastically adds 'McGuinn' to this line on his version, adding 'You ain't goin' nowhere!', with a cackle for good measure). Dylan should have been kinder: even with the lyric fluff, the Byrds cover of this song is arguably the closest to their shared vision of the band as taking the beauty in Dylan's songs and re-recording them for a mass market and is arguably their best studio performance of a Dylan song (with the live 'Positively Fourth Street' from 'Untitled' the only serious challenger). Had the rest of the album stayed like this - a rock album dressed in country clothes - I would have liked it more; a real album highlight and a fine hit single.

'I Am A Pilgrim' is a pretty solid second song too, an old traditional standard that Chris Hillman first learnt during his earliest days as a mandolin player but performed by him here on guitar alongside McGuinn's surprisingly efficient banjo playing (there's a fair bit of banjo playing on Roger's folk albums but this is the only example of him playing the banjo as a member of the Byrds). Again, Gram is noticeable by his absence, with the country flavour on this song coming from John Hatford's fiddle playing, which swirls around the guitarists like the call of home the narrator feels as he struggled to go home. Hillman's vocal is delightful, laidback and easy but sung with just the right amount of pathos and energy the song demands - sure that he'll get to where he's going but not exactly sure when. Note too how the Byrds are clearly associating 'country' with 'Christianity' across this album, with a religious and spiritual set of lyrics equally suitable for the Byrds' journey back to their country roots and not for the last time on the record. Another of the album highlights, this song was perhaps a brave choice for the album's second single (after 'Nowhere'), containing none of the Rickenbacker guitar or harmony vocals the band were known for. At least it sounds loosely like the Byrds, though, thanks to the swing in the acoustic guitar and Chris' voice, however, which is more than can be said for much of the album...

'The Christian Life' is the first of four songs to feature Roger singing what Gram should have been singing and features perhaps his worst impression of a country whine - or at least it does on the verses; the choruses revert to Gram taking the 'main' line and Roger doing the harmony. A Louvin Brothers song that was already something of a country standard by 1968, it features a rather stuck-up narrator proclaiming that he's giving his life to God - and more fool anybody who tries to tell him otherwise, because they clearly don't really love him or want to save his soul (which would be fair enough if the narrator hadn't turned his back on his friends and family in the first place). Unusually, this song about conversion makes no comment on what happened in the boy's life to turn him to Jesus - only a niggling feeling that he should have got there sooner and that he didn't really like his old life anyway. The version of this song as released on the album is a mess - McGuinn is hopelessly miscast as the do-gooder country boy (couldn't they have given this song to Chris to sing?) and even the first ever presence of Clarnece White (then a Nashville session musician) on a Byrds record can't give this song the bounce it needs - instead the Byrds visibly drag by the third and thankfully final repeat of the same straight chorus. The rehearsal take from earlier in the sessions with Gram on lead, though (included on the CD as a bonus track) makes a lot more sense - Gram is a natural at this sort of thing, singing with conviction even though the lyrics about turning your back on a hedonistic lifestyle are closer to Roger's lifestyle at the time than his own. The Byrds sound tighter on the backing track too, taken at a livelier, faster lick and with only one superfluous guitar part rather than three (listen out too for the highly revealing speech at the start of that version, producer Gary Usher accidentally pressing the 'halt!' button on the link between studio and mixing place and Roger saying with feeling that it was his predecessor Terry Melcher's 'favourite toy'; you can also hear just how much pressure Gram is putting on his colleagues to get things right). As finished then, 'The Christian Life' is one of the weaker recordings on the album, but hearing the original (ie a country song being done by someone who knows what they're doing) it suddenly makes a lot more sense what it's doing here.

'You Don't Miss Your Water' is another old standard by soul writer William Bell that's been done in just about every way possible down the years (check out fellow AAA star Otis Redding's soul version on 'Otis Blue', taped three years before this). This song should be right down the Byrds' street - it has the tone of regret heard in many of their old folk songs and the band are generally a dab at hand at re-arranging older songs to sound contemporary. Unfortunately, this is another of those occasions where Gram's vocal was replaced at the eleventh hour by Roger McGuinn doing a wobbly impersonation of someone who can sing instead of delivering from the heart and his nasal twang is often quite painful to hear. Gram's original version of the song survives and was released on the 'Byrds' box set of 1991, but sadly wasn't included on the 1997 CD re-issue of the 'Sweetheart' album, making it something of a rarity. Even compared to his other vocals for the group, Gram sounds as if he's exorcising his demons on this song, lamenting all his bad boy ways because it means he lost the one love he ever really had. Compared to this, Roger sounds like he's down at the pub for a karaoke night, the wrong singer struggling to cope with a song that really doesn't fit him. Even for the 'Sweetheart' album the 'released' version of this song really drags - both the song (one of the better cover choices on the album) and the genre deserved better.

'You're Still On My Mind' is another old song, this time by Luke McDaniel, who by this album's standards was almost contemporaneous (he was about 15 years older than the Byrds) but this song of his was already something of a country 'standard' by 1968, thanks to a version by George Jones. It was a brave move by the Byrds to have a go at a song that would have been so revered by the country community and sensibly Gram elected to sing it - thankfully this song is one of two on this album to feature his vocals that were reprieved at the last minute. I have to say it's a shame that this was one of the two that survived though - Gram sounds every bit as out of his depth as Roger would have done (actually Roger's harmony vocal is one of his best on the album, suggesting he'd have made a better first of this song than some of the others). Another drinking song, with the narrator unwilling to go home because he'll be going back to an empty house and - worse - an 'empty bottle', it could have been Gram Parsons' theme song but really doesn't suit the rest of the band (heavy drinking is actually a 50s and 70s thing to do for most rock musicians, not a late 60s thing - owing to the growth of light drugs and an unwillingness to be like bands who came before). To be fair, this is a take that was never intended for public release - it was a rehearsal piece added to the album after Gram's 'reprieve' came through and he was mortified by its appearance (why on earth was this lame cover added to the album instead of a Gram song and vocal, such as 'Lazy Way' or 'Reputation'? The mind boggles...) As soul-less as any band 'playing' rather than living a song can be, only Kevin Kelley's 'buckaroo' drumming and guest Earl P Ball's honky tonk piano really shine. No wonder so many country fans got so angry about this album - by the standards of every other well known version of this song its slapdash at best and even though the circumstances behind its inclusion explain it, they don't really excuse it.

Robin Hood figure 'Pretty Boy Floyd', thankfully, is one of the rare songs on the album that hasn't been messed around with. An old Woody Guthrie song, Roger sounds right at home as the sheriff-evading outlaw and Chris gets a rare chance to get out his mandolin, making for a happier, sunnier, more spontaneous-sounding recording than most tracks on this album. However, it speaks volumes that Roger's one big non-Dylan number for the album isn't really a country song - it's a folk song dressed up in a fiddle overcoat and mandolin slippers; Gram Parsons is once again notable by his absence and no doubt flipped his lid when it was seriously suggested adding a folk song onto a country-rock album. It may well be that 'Floyd' is the only song that survived from McGuinn's original vision of this album as a 'history of music'; one of the best historians of folk music around (as heard on his multi-series 'Folk Den Project' CDs in the 1990s), you can almost hear the relief in his voice as Roger finally gets to sing something he understands. The song is one of Guthrie's cleverest too, either an enjoyable romp about  a lovable rogue who was a folk hero to many or a deep song about what breaking the law when the law isn't right (the song's best line: 'In this life you will meet some funny men, some will rob you with a six-gun - and some with a fountain pen'). Several other performers down the years have chosen to sing about bankrobber Pretty Boy Floyd as a tragic figure, but the Byrds' take on the song is a comedy, missing out the moment when the police catch up with him and shoot him dead (in real life Floyd came from a destitute background and did his best only to take money from the rich - indeed he was even reported to have 'torn up' various harsh mortgage terms during a robbery, which temporarily freed several poverty-stricken people from massive re-payments and excessive interest rates). The hint is that at least Floyd was an honest robber, who stole only to live and fend for himself on the run - the real villains of the song are the faceless businessmen after everything they can get. And to be fair to McGuinn, if that doesn't make 'Pretty Boy Floyd' the best country song on the album despite its folky roots then I don't know what does.

'Hickory Wind' is the first of two Gram Parsons songs on the album and thankfully features his yearning lead vocal intact. Generally reckoned by fans to be the best song Gram ever wrote (and by its author - Gram even re-recorded the song in 1974 for his second album 'Grievous Angel' but sadly in a more slapdash manner than here), 'Hickory Wind' is much as you'd expect from its author: sincere and melancholy, but with a hint of mischief. Co-written with Gram's friend and fellow 'Submariner' Bob Buchanan, legend has it the two wrote the song during a long and boring train journey the pair took together while travelling from Florida to LA. However, the song probably stretches back further than that - to Gram's lonely childhood, packed off to a boarding school for rich kids he never understood and dreaming of home. The wind that used to breeze through the valley is also a useful metaphor for the uncertainty Gram's narrator feels in his life, not just 'calling me home' but onwards, towards an elusive goal even he doesn't quite understand. Clearly a very real song, Gram packs a lot of imagery into its three verses: being 'younger' than everyone else (Gram was all of 22 when he made this album - Roger was 26, Chris 24 - although this line makes even more sense if you picture every other country stars circa 1968, who tend to be old and wizened) and the fact that as Gram was born into 'riches and pleasures' he had nothing to aim for in life. As ever with Gram Parsons, however, nothing is straightforward - a very plausible claim was made in 2002 that the song wasn't written by Gram at all but by folksinger Sylvia Sammons, who was paid handsomely by Gram to pretend that 'he' had written it (its not just a fluke claim either - lots of people have testified that they heard Sylvia singing this song long before the Byrds' version came out). The song is certainly more accomplished than almost all of Gram's other tunes, with a calmness and serenity even his more laidback solo albums don't possess, but if Sammons did write it then she must have had a background identical to Grams' own: this is clearly a highly personal song and Gran's delivery is on the verge of tears throughout. Already sounding like more of a standards than all of the standards on the album, 'Hickory Wind' is a remarkable achievement for someone so young - whichever of the two young writers wrote it. Thankfully the Byrds version is sung straight, without any of the slight tongue-in-cheekness of the rest of the album and given the full works it deserves - although I still have to question whether it belongs on a Byrds album, without any appearance of the band bar a rather ragged McGuinn harmony part. A sign of how rushed even this recording was though: listen out for a very audible cough just after Gram sings the line '...South Carolina'.

Better still for me is Gram's other song 'One Hundred Years From Now', the one song here that sounds like a genuine halfway house between rock and country - all the more surprising given how little experience of rock and roll Gram had had up till here. Alas record company issues meant that Gram's vocal was replaced by Roger and Chris (though Gram's does existed and two separate takes were added to the Byrds box set and the 1997 CD re-issue), although that matters less here than anywhere else, the song's rockier drawl making it much more of a 'Byrds' song anyway despite the ownership (Gram's nicely raw vocal still makes the latter of his two versions the 'keeper', however). By Gram's standards, this is a very poppy song, complete with verses, choruses and a delightful switch to a minor key for a sudden, unexpected middle eight The best use yet of an outside metaphor for the Byrds' sudden conversion to country music, this song speculates whether a notorious marriage between two people who don't belong but clearly love each other dearly will still be talked about in a centuries' time when all the detractors are proved wrong. You can hear more than a little gritted teeth and defensiveness in this track, though, as if The Byrds are telling us that when they've been making records like this for a hundred years people will only think of the Byrds as a 'country' band. Once again, I curse the fact that Kevin Kelley came along for this album of all others - he has a really great feel for rock and roll and even Sneaky Pete's pedal steel makes more sense here than anywhere else, filling in the 'holes' where Roger's Rickenbacker would normally be instead of dominating the sound. Interestingly, Chris Hillman had already worked on a song titled 'One Hundred Years From Now' earlier in the year while producing country stars The Gosdin Brothers (more usually associated with fellow Byrd Gene Clark; they also wrote 'There Must Be Someone I Can Turn To', which the Byrds will cover in two albums' time), although the two are quite different songs. Very much the sound of the first Flying Burrito Brothers album ('The Gilded Palace Of Sin'), I wonder how much Hillman had to do with arranging this second song of the same name, too (like much of the Flying Burrito's work), giving it a neat rock kick that doesn't take away from the 'country' in the song. Another album highlight.

Alas 'Blue Canadian Rockies' is ruined by Chris Hillman doing a 'Roger' and sounding completely out of his depth on a song that should be sung by a grizzled country legend but instead sounds like a boy doing a bit of acting. The song makes more sense when you realize that once again this track is only here because of the impending court case and the thought that the Byrds had to get more of Roger and Chris on the album - it's another song 'recovered' from a rehearsal and considering the throwaway nature of its recording its nicely together and polished. suggesting that the band at least went back to add a few overdubs when they learnt they were going to use it. Compared to the rest of the album, however, it's another mess with the wrong singer on the wrong song and a feeling that the Byrds are 'playing' at this new genre, not living it. If this is meant to be the Byrds' brave new world then I'll stick to the old one, thanks. The song isn't all that interesting anyway, a Cindy Walker song most famous from Gene Autry's cover version that spends the whole song pining for the mountains of the title without ever quite getting round to telling us what was so special about them. At least Gram gets to do the actual role he was hired for though, playing some tinkly piano on the song.

'Life In Prison' could have been a lot worse: at least Gram's earthy vocal for it was rescued in time for its appearance here. But, honestly, couldn't the Byrds have come up with a standard more suitable than this? A country tearjerker of the worst order, it features a criminal in prison regretting the death of his wife (who 'I loved more than life') praying for 'death' to come so he wouldn't have to suffer for it. However, no one seems to have told the rest of the band what the lyrics are because the song is treated as grand farce: Earl P Ball's crashing piano chords, JayDee Mayness' playful pedal steel squeaks and Chris' oompah-ing bass line all add up to a backing track that sounds more like 'Yellow Submarine' than 'Blue Canadian Rockies'. Yet another 'rehearsal' song rescued at the eleventh hour, this was apparently the track that Gram resented the inclusion of the most - and for good reason. Far from sounding like the only Byrd who knows what he's doing (as per the rest of the album), even he sounds out of his depth on a song that seems to have been done more for laughs than anything. Writer Merle Haggard deserved much better from the band, even if this song isn't one of his best (it's no 'Mama Tried' for instance, a song the Grateful Dead will record in 1971; as a side note I'm amazed Johnny Cash didn't record this track as its right down his field, a fierce bitter criminal reduced to a quivering wreck by some iron bars and all they signify) - this recording alone should have had the whole of the Grand Old Opry running after the Byrds and shooing them away.

'Sweetheart' then ends on a surprise return to the old Byrds sound for the second and final Dylan cover 'Nothing Was Delivered'. Another harsh and bitter Dylan lyrics, this track doesn't fit into the band's style quite as well as 'Goin' Nowhere', even if it actually fits the country surroundings more - the Byrds cleverly switching behind a country verse to a rock and roll chorus. However the dynamics between the two is sign-posted so early and lurches so suddenly when it happens that both the band and listener struggle to keep up right up until the end, the recording on the verge of collapse throughout. Still, at least they sound as if they vaguely know what they're doing here, Roger's double-tracked vocals showing more confidence than any of his 'country' vocals. The song was another one 'borrowed' from Dylan's basement tapes and not yet recorded by him. Apparently Roger and Chris had been given 'special' access to all of them and pulled out the ones they wanted - 'Nowhere' makes sense in that it already has quite a Beatley swing to it, but I wonder why they happened to choose this one - 'This Wheel's On Fire' (covered ably by the Byrds as the opening track on their very next album) and 'Tears Of Rage' (as covered superbly by ex-Byrd Gene Clark for his 'White Light' album in 1971) sound like much more obvious choices to me. While far from the worst disaster on the album, it's off that the Byrds don't sound better on 'home ground' as it were - I'm surprised too that Dylan didn't get shirty about the Byrds' handling of 'Delivered' as opposed to 'Nowhere' - but then again Dylan is something of a law unto himself. A rather limp ending to the album, which finds the Byrds still struggling to combine country and rock together, despite a few lucky hits somewhere in the middle of this album.

Overall, then, 'Sweetheart Of The Rodeo' is a curious beast - it's not a country-rock album as such, it's a country album with a few bits of rock stapled on. Only new boy Gram Parsons sounds like a natural fit in this new environment (along with Chris' cover of 'I Am A Pilgrim') and just as the real pioneers of the Wild West were most likely hungry, grumpy, tired and a long way from their mythical portrayal as superheroes, so the Byrds as pioneers of country-rock come across as tried, and cynical, lost in an album that is not of their own making. While the band get it impressively right a few times across this album (notably 'You Ain't Goin' Nowhere' 'Hickory Wind' and 'One Hundred Years From Now'), that's more due to re-treading old ground or Gram Parsons' unflagging conviction than any real insight into how great a rock and roll record could be. Admittedly, 'Sweetheart' is a lot better all round as it was meant to have been heard, with Gram as the band's chief vocalist on a good two-thirds of the album rather than Roger coerced into singing country songs against his will. But you have to question why on earth Gram was given so much leeway - yes he's good, but so are Roger and Chris and they're the two with experience and proven talent. It's not as if the later McGuinn-lead Byrds couldn't handle country either - although thrown away on live appearances and rarely appearing on record, their covers of country songs 'Sing Me Back Home' 'Buckaroo' and 'Close Up The Honky Tonks' show that they had a real flavour for the genre, when left to their own devices and performing it on their usual 'rock and roll' instruments. 'Sweetheart' would also have been a much better album had some of the outtakes been included - unused songs like McGuinn's cover of folk standard 'Pretty Polly' (which would have been his best moment on the album) and Gram's rockiest songs 'Reputation' and 'Lazy Way' (even with his vocals taken off, Chris Hillman's harmonies on both songs would have been fine for inclusion on the album). In all, 'Sweetheart' is pretty, when seen in certain lights - but if she's the best on offer at the rodeo then you have to question whether you're at the right rodeo. 

A curious hybrid of the outright right, the outright wrong and the recordings that in other circumstances could have been right but here sound plain wrong, 'Sweetheart' manages to be both things at once: a genuinely pioneering record, mixing country and rock before anyone well known had thought of the idea - and something of a pain to sit through, being easily the worst Byrds album to date and the worst of the whole bunch until both 1971's 'Byrdmaniax' and the 1973 reunion record. Rather than the perfect artificially bred hybrid, the start of a whole new species we come to know and love that so many reviewers like to pretend, 'Sweetheart' is like the wolf on the back cover, howling at the moon and caught seemingly midway between two states, artificially induced to transform into something it was never naturally meant to be. What a shame, so close on the heels of one of the two or three best records the Byrds ever made. 

A Now Complete Link Of Byrd Articles Available To Read At Alan’s Album Archives:

'Mr Tambourine Man' (1965)
‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ (1965)

'(5D) Fifth Dimension' (1966)

'Younger Than Yesterday' (1967)

'The Nototious Byrd Brothers' (1968)

'Sweethearts Of The Rodeo' (1968)

'Dr Byrds and Mr Hyde' (1969)

‘The Ballad Of Easy Rider’ (1969)

'Untitled' (1970)
'Byrdmaniax' (1971)
'The Byrds' (1973)

Surviving TV Appearances
Unreleased Songs
Non-Album Songs (1964-1990)
A Guide To Pre-Fame Byrds Recordings
Solo/Live/Compilation Albums Part One (1964-1972)
Solo/Live/Compilation Albums Part Two (1973-1977)

Solo/Live/Compilation Albums Part Three (1978-1991)
Solo/Live/Compilation Albums Part Four (1992-2013)
Essay: Why This Band Were Made For Turn! Turn! Turn!ing
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

No comments:

Post a Comment