The Byrds, Sweetheart of the Rodeo
Critics sometimes floated the Byrds as America’s answer to the British Invasion, especially the Beatles, and this wasn’t completely unfair. They gave songwriters Bob Dylan (“Mr. Tambourine Man”) and Pete Seeger (“Turn! Turn! Turn!”) their first number-one chart hits. They pioneered the folk-rock, psychedelia, and moody singer-songwriter genres. So when their sixth album dropped in 1968, fans probably expected more of the same.
Yet this album swerves so seriously from anything that came before, it gave listeners audio whiplash. Critics loved the album, then and now, and it had a terrific influence on other musicians, but audiences didn’t know how to interpret a serious rock band’s careen into another genre, one often regarded as at war with rock. Music historians occasionally call this the birth of “country rock,” but by any serious standards, it’s a full-on country music album.
This album opens with “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” a Bob Dylan composition from the Basement Tapes. But this arrangement, layered with steel guitars and twangy electric lead, sounds little like either a Bleeker Street folk club or Roger McGuinn’s distinctive jangly Rickenbacker 12-string. Fans couldn’t comprehend what they’d heard. Despite Dylan’s famous non-linear lyrics, this tune sonically would’ve fit nicely on most AM country radio back then.
By 1968, the Byrds were down to only two original members. David Crosby had found another home singing close harmonies, while Gene Clark had become a solo singer-songwriter, critically lauded but commercially mediocre. Original drummer Michael Clarke had become a session musician, and would never regain his prior fame. Only lead singer McGuinn and bassist Chris Hillman remained. Desperate to record, they hired Hillman’s cousin Kevin Kelly on percussion.
Most significant, however, they hired Gram Parsons as guitarist. McGuinn considered him a sideman for a planned one-disc history of American music. Parsons, however, had a passion for country music dating from when a friend played him a George Jones record years earlier. He found a kindred spirit in Chris Hillman, whose music career began by picking mandolin in various bluegrass outfits. Teaming up, Parsons and Hillman lobbied successfully for a serious country record.
|The Byrds in 1968 (l-r: Kevin Kelly, Roger McGuinn, Gram Parsons, Chris Hillman)|
Besides two Dylan tracks, this album includes one each by the Louvin Brothers, Merle Haggard, and Woody Guthrie. McGuinn and Hillman composed no original tracks for this album; despite being award-winning musicians, even at the Byrds’ height, they didn’t write much, trusting Clark and Crosby for original material. However, they include two Parsons compositions: “One Hundred Years From Now,” a concert barn-burner, and Parsons’ trademark song, “Hickory Wind.”
Parsons’ love of George Jones drives the sound. It has a rough-hewn fifties honky-tonk texture, but the rhythm section of Chris Hillman and Kevin Kelly gives the band a well-defined low end much like the “Bakersfield Sound,” pioneered by Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, that was contemporaneously transforming country music. This complexity does borrow heavily from rock music, but little resembles later country rockers like Lynyrd Skynyrd or Marshall Tucker.
The Byrds’ longstanding fans regarded this diversion as too extreme. Rock-and-rollers saw country music as reactionary music for white trash, while country fans considered the Byrds ignorable long-haired hippies. The album died on arrival. However, as often happens when something artistic breaks new ground, much of the reaction simply reflected discomfort with something too new and different. Once forgotten, this album now has influential cult following.
Besides core band members, this album includes contributions from several veteran Nashville session musicians, including Earl P. Ball, Jaydee Maness, and Clarence White. (White would later become a band member after Parsons quit.) This complex, layered sound gives the album a legitimate country music vibe. Ten to twenty years after this album’s release, its influence was clearly audible in most Nashville country music.
Despite Parsons’ influence, Columbia Records discovered at the eleventh hour that a contract with a prior band prevented them using Parsons’ vocals. Roger McGuinn rushed into the studio and re-recorded six songs Parsons had already sung, mimicking Parsons’ style. On the Louvins’ “The Christian Life,” this sounds almost like parody, like McGuinn held country music at arm’s length. By “Hickory Wind,” however, he’d found, and embraced, Parsons’ voice.
This album basically consigned the Byrds to permanent “cult” status; they never regained mainstream prominence. But it marked a seismic shift; less than ten years after its release, groups like the Ozark Mountain Daredevils and Pure Prairie League had Hot-100 hits, while Waylon Jennings covered rock gods like Neil Young. Two warring genres began collaborating, and it happened right here. Music would never be the same.