This year one of my favorite albums turns 50, The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and to commemorate the milestone, co-founders of The Byrds, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman decided to embark on a tour, along with Marty Stuart. They opened in LA last week, and I was overjoyed to snag tickets to the second LA show, as the first one sold out. Sadly after snapping photos of the outside of the theater, and standing in line, we were told we couldn’t bring in the camera, so you just get my outfit and the history of the album.
For the evening I went with an outfit inspired by the album’s cover art, as well as my jacket featuring the artwork, and a Grand Ole Opry charm bracelet, as the album resulted in the Byrds’ infamous appearance at the Grand Old Opry.
The funny thing about the cover art is that it is just a small portion of a much larger poster by Jo Mora, which illustrates various aspects and equipment of rodeos. And what I wouldn’t do for an original poster! You can check it out here.
So, just how did a rock ‘n roll band known for their Rickenbacker guitars end up at the Grand Ole Opry? After David Crosby was fired from the Byrds, the band was in need of a new member, and Chris Hillman remembered a fella he met at the bank, Gram Parsons, and invited him to audition. Roger McGuinn reflected hiring Parsons, “I thought I hired a piano player. He turned out to be a monster in sheep’s clothing. He exploded out of that sheep’s clothing. Good God! It’s George Jones in a sequin suit!”
Originally Sweetheart of the Rodeo was to be a look back on the history of music in the 20th century and where music was headed. McGuinn shared, “My original idea of Sweetheart of the Rodeo was to do a double album, a chronological album, starting out with old-timey music – not bluegrass, but pre-bluegrass, dulcimers and Appalachian stuff. Then get into the advanced 1930s version of string music, and move it up to the more modern country, the forties and fifties, with pedal-steel guitar. Do the evolution of that music, and go into futuristic music.” McGuinn though had written no new songs, but did bring two unreleased Bob Dylan songs to the table, “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” and “Nothing was Delivered.”
Parsons and Hillman bonded over a love of county music, and Parsons admitted the two “formed an alliance and persuaded the others that the Byrds should start playing country.” McGuinn later said “Gram and Chris took over…They brought it into the country thing. That wasn’t my idea, but I went along with it because it sounded fun. It was totally their trip.” Hillman also acknowledged Parsons’ love of country music, “Gram understood [country music] too, and he knew how to sing it…Gram came in with such a strong love of country music that that’s when we made the decision to go to Nashville and cut Sweetheart of the Rodeo.”
In March of 1968 the Byrds headed to Nashville to record, Byrds roadie Jimmi Seiter states “We were the first rock band to record in Nashville.” To add credit to their move into country music, the band cut their hair, and hired some Nashville musicians to play on the album. With the two Dylan songs, they also added other country classics like Merle Haggard’s “Life in Prison,” and Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd,” along with two Parsons originals “One Hundred Years From Now,” and “Hickory Wind” which he co-wrote with Bob Buchanan. A third Parsons original “Lazy Days” was recorded, but not included in the original pressing. During recording sessions, Parsons sang lead vocal on most of the tracks, an odd move, for a man who had only been in the band a couple of months. McGuinn also laid down lead vocals for some of the same songs, and Hillman performed lead vocals on a few as well.
While in Nashville the Byrds went on Ralph Emery’s radio program, where Emery initially refused to play a rough cut of “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” he eventually aired it, but voiced his distain for the song and the band. McGuinn and Parsons responded by penning “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man” which was released on Dr. Byrds & Mr Hyde, the album after Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
On March 15 the Byrds stepped onto sacred country music ground as they took to the Ryman Auditorium of the Grand Ole Opry, becoming the first rock band to perform there and be broadcast. McGuinn reflected on the audience, “The Grand Old Opry was cold – we were interlopers and they were leery of us. They didn’t know what we were about. They didn’t know if we were sincere or making fun of their music. They knew we were hippies, and there was a good deal of polarity.”
Despite cutting their hair upon arrival in Nashville, there were shouts of “cut your hair!” from the audience. McGuinn admitted “We had relatively short hair at the time short by LA standards, but long by New York standards, and insane by Nashville standards.” Parsons believed their hair was short enough “Even though our hair was short at that period, we were considered long hairs, ’cause they knew what we were into.”
The Byrds agreed to do two Merle Haggard songs on the Opry, “Life in Prison” and “Sing Me Back Home” but that isn’t what was performed. The Opry’s live performances that came over radio airwaves were loved by thousands, and it was vital performers provided their song lengths ahead of time to allow for scheduling other portions of the program. The Byrds performed “Life in Prison” and as Tompall Glaser, the master of ceremonies that day, introduced their second number, Parsons took to the mic, explaining his grandmother listened to the Grand Ole Opry (Parsons’ own account says she was in the audience) and instead they were going to perform a song he wrote for her, “Hickory Wind.” Seiter said “You could see Glaser turn red from the neck up. He was fucking livid. He thought we told him the wrong songs on purpose.” Hillman reflected “Gram decided, out of nowhere, to do ‘Hickory Wind,’ which I thought was interesting. But it incensed Tompall Glaser, and he screamed at Gram afterwards.” Glaser reportedly yelled at Hillman as well, saying “You made me look like a fool on the radio.” It is this moment that caused the Byrds to never be invited back to the Opry, however McGuinn has since made a return, and ironically, McGuinn and Hillman will return to the Ryman (no longer home to the Opry) as part of their current tour.
Performing at London’s Middle Earth, Parsons had a fateful meeting with the Rolling Stones. Keith Richards admits “I was really going to see Roger. Gram was with him and we hit it off right away.” After their performance, the Byrds got a ride to Stonehenge with Mick Jagger and Richards in their Rolls-Royce. There they talked about the tour, and where the Byrds were headed to next, which was South Africa. Richards explained the apartheid that was going on, and claimed many musicians were protesting by not performing there, going as far as to say they would not play there.
As Sweetheart of the Rodeo was set to be released, the time came to decide on the lead vocals, and there are several different stories about how that was decided. The main one is that Lee Hazelwood International, who produced the International Submarine Band’s album Safe at Home (which Parsons had left for the Byrds) threatened to sue Columbia, claiming that Parsons was still under contract with them, so Parsons’ vocals were erased from Sweetheart of the Rodeo, with three exceptions, “You’re Still On My Mind,” “Life in Prison,” and “Hickory Wind.” While there is evidence that there was indeed a legal issue, it was brought up early during the Nashville recordings, and cleared up quickly. The other possible reasons for Parsons’ lack of vocals is that McGuinn felt threatened by Parsons, and didn’t want Parsons to be seen as the new lead for the band, or for the album to be a Gram Parsons album, and eventually overdubbed himself, and Hillman over most of Parsons’ lead vocal tracks. In a 1973 interview where Parsons reflected on his lack of vocals, he said that McGuinn “fucked it up.” I’m inclined to agree. While I enjoy McGuinn on tracks such as “Pretty Boy Floyd” Parsons voice is much better on “The Christian Life” and “One Hundred Years from Now.”
On July 7, the Byrds had another London performance, at Royal Albert Hall, and the following day were scheduled to head to South Africa. Everyone and everything was in the car. Ready to leave, roadie Carlos Bernal looked around for Parsons. All of the Byrds asked where he was and Bernal went to find out, only to discover Parsons still in his room and saying wasn’t going to South Africa. Bernal remembered the moment, “I mean the motor’s running and we are on our way to the airport and I say ‘What do you mean you’re not going?’ ‘I’m going to stay here,’ he says. I said ‘Well, okay.’ I went down and let Roger and Chris know that he wasn’t coming. I guess they must have had a feeling, ’cause it didn’t take long for them to say ‘Okay, screw that. We’ll go without him.’ I said ‘What about his stuff?’ They said, ‘Put it on the curb.’ We put Gram’s stuff on the curb, drove off, and went to South Africa.”
McGuinn thinks Parsons used the apartheid as an excuse, “He said that he didn’t want to go to South Africa because of the segregation, but what he really wanted to do was hang out with the Rolling Stones.” Hillman wasn’t happy about it, and admitted “I really wanted to murder him.” Richards is fully aware of his influence, and admits “I was instrumental in his leaving the Byrds.” The Byrds arrived in South Africa and played to only segregated audiences, and later Hillman said the tour was a bad idea, “We shouldn’t have gone.”
When Sweetheart of the Rodeo was released on August 30, 1968, it sold poorly, charting at number 77, but in retrospect is hailed as a masterpiece, and vital to the saga of creating the genre of country-rock. Later that year Hillman left The Byrds, and Hillman and Parsons reconciled, and went on to create one of my favorite bands of all time, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and furthered the development of country-rock.
Fong-Torres, Ben. Hickory Wind: The Life and Times of Gram Parsons. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. Print.
Kealing, Bob. Calling Me Home: Gram Parsons and the Roots of Country Rock. Gainsville: University Press of Florida, 2012. Print.
Meyer, David N. Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music. New York: Villard Books, 2007. Print.