The Byrds – Sweetheart of the Rodeo

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 3)

The last Byrds album worth a damn, and the end of their classic period, though they were basically down to a duo at this point. Gene Clark had left after Turn! Turn! Turn! and David Crosby and drummer Michael Clarke had left or been fired in the summer of 1967, during the sessions for The Notorious Byrd Brothers. Fortunately for everyone, Roger McGuinn (Jim had changed his name in 1967, as part of his conversion to Subud) and Chris Hillman decided to hire Gram Parsons as a keyboard player in 1968 and, more importantly, heeded his advice on the new direction for the band. It only lasted for one album but, Jesus, what an album.

What I Think of This Album

I was encouraged to listen to Sweetheart of the Rodeo by a former boss, Jeff; he would be pleased to hear that he was right. I love this album. It is almost entirely covers, with no songwriting contribution by any original Byrd (though Parsons is credited with two songs). 

Parsons (born Ingram Connor III) was a rich kid who had gone to Harvard and had released a country-rock album with his International Submarine Band. Parsons’s love of and experience with country resonated with Hillman, who had a background in bluegrass. For his part, McGuinn wanted to turn the band’s fortunes around. With as-yet-unofficial Byrd Clarence White, they went to Nashville to record with a bunch of session musicians.

True to form, Dylan covers bookend the album, both from the then-unreleased Basement Tapes (which would not see the light of day until 1975). Opener “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” gets things started on the right foot, with a lyrical steel part from Lloyd Green and excellent group harmonies. Dylan released a non-Basement Tapes version of this in 1971; Cracker also covered it (with Adam Duritz of the Counting Crows on lead vocals). Traditional “I Am a Pilgrim” is sung by Hillman, and is fine but nothing special. The Louvin Brothers’ sweetly self-righteous declaration “The Christian Life” is marvelous. This was one of three tracks that Parsons originally sang lead on but for which McGuinn re-recorded the vocals when Lee Hazlewood objected to Parsons’s appearance on the album due to a pre-existing contract with Hazlewood’s label (though some theories state McGuinn simply used that as an excuse to create more parity – and indeed, Parsons’s vocals remained on three other songs). The harmonies on this are fantastic.

The biggest and best surprise on the album was the reworking of William Bell’s soul number “You Don’t Miss Your Water” (also recorded by Otis Redding in 1965). The vocals and weepy steel guitar (by JayDee Maness) are transcendent. This song has also been covered by Brian Eno, Peter Tosh, and the Triffids. “You’re Still On My Mind” may have bordered on country music parody (“An empty bottle / A broken heart / And you’re still on my mind”) even back in 1968, but its broad strokes make it no less poignant. Parsons sings lead on this, and truly, his voice is wonderful. McGuinn adapted Woody Guthrie’s socialist-flavored outlaw anthem “Pretty Boy Floyd,” complete with violin, banjo, and mandolin; the result is colorful and energetic.

Parsons original “Hickory Wind” (co-written with his ISB partner Bob Buchanan) is a mournful slice of nostalgia; his aching vocals are expertly matched by the steel guitar of Green. Parsons also wrote “One Hundred Years From Now,” though this was one of the tracks on which McGuinn substituted his vocal. It’s a nice little song with fine filigreed guitar part. Hillman takes the lead on “Blue Canadian Rockies,” which is sort of a cousin to “Hickory Wind” with the same reflective qualities tied to a specific locale. More interesting is that “Blue” was written by Cindy Walker, who had a number of songs that became hits, including “Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream)” which Roy Orbison recorded. Merle Haggard’s “Life In Prison” was the last of the Parsons-sung tunes on the album, and feels a bit like filler. Closer “Nothing Was Delivered” benefits from steel guitar and some nice harmonizing; Parsons plays the piano and organ on this one, and the band builds up some steam towards the end, approaching a rock sound.

My CD adds eight bonus tracks including the original Parsons-led versions of “The Christian Life” and “One Hundred Years From Now.” There is also a very Chuck Berry-flavored Parsons original titled “Lazy Day” that definitely would not have fit on the album (though it did end up on a Flying Burrito Brothers album).

The Byrds played the Grand Ole Opry after recording and were poorly received; they were also mocked by Nashville DJ Ralph Emery during a promotional appearance, and he became the subject of future song “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man.”

Parsons had already quit the band by the time this album was released, his tenure lasting only a few months. Hillman left later that same year, and joined Parsons in the Flying Burrito Brothers. Parsons died at the age of 26 of an accidental morphine and alcohol overdose in 1973; the fascinating story of the theft o this corpse (from Los Angeles International Airport) and its impromptu cremation in the Joshua Tree National Park is too long to retell here.

The Best Thing About This Album

Hard to pick between “Going Nowhere,” “Miss Your Water,” and “Christian Life.” But I think the Louvin Brothers’ classic wins this one.

Release Date

August, 1968

The Cover Art

I love this cover. I probably can’t even judge it objectively at this point. Just look at it. LOOK AT IT.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Proudly powered by WordPress | Theme: Baskerville 2 by Anders Noren.

Up ↑