THE BYRDS: SWEETHEART OF THE RODEO (1968)
1) You Ain't Going Nowhere; 2) I Am A Pilgrim; 3) The Christian Life; 4) You Don't Miss Your Water; 5) You're Still On My Mind; 6) Pretty Boy Floyd; 7) Hickory Wind; 8) One Hundred Years From Now; 9) Blue Canadian Rockies; 10) Life In Prison; 11) Nothing Was Delivered.
The sweetheart in question turned out to be male: Mr. Ingram Cecil Connor The Third of Winter Haven, Florida, better known as Gram Parsons, the father of country-rock and a respectable member of Club 27 (26, to be more precise). Although he was originally recruited by The Byrds as a keyboard player (to play jazz piano, no less!), he soon moved to guitar, then to songwriting, then to musical ideology, and, according to some sources, ended up nearly wrestling control over the band from McGuinn; when that failed, he quit in protest over the band's touring engagements in apartheid-rule South Africa — though some suspected it was largely just a pretext. You never know for sure with these things, anyway.
We all know the drill: McGuinn wanted the next Byrds album to be a sprawling overview of all the genres of American pop music, from the early days and well into the future, but abandoned the project — due partly to the lack of a proper budget and support from the rest of the band, and partly due to Parsons' insistence to turn specifically to country. Spilling tears over Roger's unrealized project is useless, since we do not even know whether he was properly qualified for this; but neither would I agree to succumb to waves of critical respect for this album. Released in August 1968, it marked a sharp commercial decline in the band's fortune. Rock audiences of the time were not prepared for any radical «country twists», and although The Byrds weren't really doing anything that their major idol, Mr. Zimmerman, hadn't already done with John Wesley Harding and those parts of the Basement Tapes that were already circulating among devotees, their wholesale conversion to the Nashville spirit was not greeted with too much pleasure by record buyers, even if critical reviews seemed to be relatively benevolent.
The historical status of Sweetheart Of The Rodeo — the first LP release by a major established «pop/rock» artist to consistently, rather than sporadically, embrace the country idiom, and without any traces of irony at that — is indisputable, as is its social importance: a sincere attempt to bridge the gap between the rural and the urban, the conservative and the progressive, the hillbilly and the hippie. The Byrds may have gotten their fair share of flack for this gesture, from both the hillbilly and the hippie side, but this is the predictable fate of all fence-sitters, sacrificing themselves while gambling on humanity's future. What matters far more is how well the record holds up after all these years — and this is where I continue to have my doubts.
Curiously, it does continue to have its fanbase among the rockers, usually along the lines of "well, I'm not much of a country fan, but I have nothing against country if it's done right, and this is one such case". Well, the thing is, I'm not sure how this here version of ʽLife In Prisonʼ is done more right than Merle Haggard's; or how this particular performance of ʽYou're Still On My Mindʼ carries more energy and excitement than George Jones' rendition of it. The Byrds pick a solid set of tunes — as far as country goes, these songs mostly have interesting vocal hooks, though the base melodies are predictably generic waltzes and shuffles. McGuinn, Hillman, and Parsons sing the tunes with enough conviction, guest guitarist Clarence White does the Nashville shtick with gusto, it's all fine and dandy, but... ultimately, it's just a cover album of country tunes.
Sure there are a few originals, mostly courtesy of Parsons, but I have never understood and still do not understand the adoration for ʽHickory Windʼ, a song whose compositional virtues amount to precisely zero (it is just a regular country waltz), lyrical virtues consist of clichés ("hickory wind keeps callin' me home" is not exactly a breakthrough in country lyricism), and musical arrangement is not fundamentally different from similar arrangements for hundreds of country songs (fiddles, slide guitars, honky tonk piano, you know the drill). The only thing standing for it is Parsons' presence, I guess — if you are enchanted by the man's lonesome-hero charisma — but it's not as if he had a totally unique singing voice or presence, either. For my money, his other original, ʽOne Hundred Years From Nowʼ, beats ʽHickory Windʼ on all counts — less obvious vocal melody (the verse melody actually pinches a bit from ʽGod Only Knowsʼ, don't you think?), psycho-folk harmonic singing from McGuinn and Hillman, and overall, a clever mixture of folk, country, pop, and psychedelic elements.
Ironically, the Byrds are still at their best when they rely on the tried and true — covering Dylan, that is. ʽYou Ain't Going Nowhereʼ, a perfect opener for the album, does the usual wonder of converting Bob's natural ugly beauty into smooth-glamorous pop perfection, with there being enough free space in the world to allow for both visions. Here, we have the most heartfelt and sensitive McGuinn vocal performance on the album, and a vivacious, elegantly woven steel guitar lead melody as his lovin' partner throughout the song, and those "ooh-wee, ride my high, tomorrow's the day my bride's gonna come" harmonies are a downright epitome of tenderness itself. Basically, they took a Dylan song that began life as an absurdist ode to nihilism and turned it into an optimistic love anthem, while still retaining some of that absurdism. And then, in a sudden fit of symmetry, they close out the album with a bitter reversal of these feelings — having started out with "get your mind on wintertime, you ain't going nowhere", they end the record on "the sooner you come up with it, the sooner you can leave" (ʽNothing Was Deliveredʼ) and a sort of disillusioned atmosphere (which, incidentally, is also how I feel about this record).
The problem is, they know how to reinvent Dylan, but they never had a good idea about how to reinvent Woody Guthrie, Merle Haggard, or Cindy Walker — they just cover them, retaining the original spirits of these songs. The whole point of Sweetheart Of The Rodeo is to shock the audiences along the lines of "see, we're rockers, but we're doing country, how unusual is that?": this attitude was even incorporated into the promotional campaign, as you can see from the original radio promotion bit, hidden at the end of the last bonus track on the CD reissue — as bits and pieces of songs flow out of the speaker, a girl and a guy argue with each other: "It is the Byrds! — That's not the Byrds... — Okay, listen to this one! See, it is the Byrds! They're playing Dylan! — It can't be the Byrds! Play another one... — It's the Byrds all right! — Nah, that ain't the Byrds..." I regret to say that sometimes it seems to me this radio bit carries more fun with it than the majority of the record itself.
Anyway, these are mostly decent tunes (though lyrically, ʽThe Christian Lifeʼ is atrocious, and McGuinn must have lost plenty of credibility with his friends for that one), and only people with a very strong anti-Nashville bias could hate Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. But shuffle these tunes around a bunch of top (or even middle) quality country albums, and if there's some way in which they will notably stand out, let me know. As far as I'm concerned, Sweetheart is an ideological gesture first, and a collection of musical pieces second — which doesn't do much for a record in the long run. Interesting and curious, yes, not without its few moments of Dylanesque glory, yes, but essentially the band just shot itself in the foot with this one, and ended up hobbling for the next three years of its existence.