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The Roots of Indie: The Byrds – ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’

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Uncle Tupelo kicked off the ’90s with ‘No Depression,’ the opening salvo in the alt-country genre. They were only 22 years late to the party.

Back in 1967, the Byrds were veterans of the rock world. They’d recorded four albums and racked up seven top 40 singles including two numbers ones. Their unique blend of folk and psychedelia powered by Roger McGuinn’s jangling Rickenbacker 12-string had already contributed ‘Eight Miles High,’ ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ and ‘So You Want to be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’ to the classic rock canon.

That’s a lot of success for a bunch of young guys, and in true ‘Behind the Music’ fashion, it led to the implosion of the original band. David Crosby was fired and both Gene Clark and Michael Clarke quit. Drummer Kevin Kelley was brought on and Gram Parsons came aboard to play keyboard. Shortly after joining, he moved to guitar.

What played out next is interesting. One of the reasons that Crosby was canned was that he was trying to control the musical direction of the band, but when Gram Parsons joined, he somehow managed to convince Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman into blending country and rock.

The resulting album, 1968’s ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo,’ sounds like nothing else in the Byrds’ discography. There were hints of country in its immediate predecessor, ‘The Notorious Byrd Brothers,’ but nothing like what the new Byrds laid down. That April, they released a Dylan cover (‘You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere’)  four months before the album’s release:

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Just three years earlier, the band rode another Dylan cover, ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ all the way to number one. But their latest single barely cracked the top 100, peaking at number 74. The next (and last) single from the album, ‘I Am A Pilgrim,’ didn’t chart at all:

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In ‘Canyon of Dreams: The Magic and Music of Laurel Canyon,’ Roger McGuinn tells author Harvey Kubernik:

I was a fan of country music and we were dablling with country-rock before Gram came in….the only difference when Gram came along is that we decided to do an entire album of it. And I think it was because Chris [Hillman] had an ally….and the two of them kind of swung it over to that at the time.

The songwriting credits bear that out. Parsons only has two songs on the record: ‘One Hundred Years From Now’ and the achingly beautiful ‘Hickory Wind':

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m4dIQITw5bw

Byrds fans expecting another ‘Eight Miles High’ shunned the album.’Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ was the first Byrds record not to break the top 50, peaking at a lowly 77. Its follow up, 1969’s ‘Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde,’ was a schizophrenic blend of country and psychedelia that fared even worse.

By the end of the year, Parsons and Hillman were out of the band and onto their next adventure, the Flying Burrito Brothers. Parsons died in 1973 from a drug overdose and Hillman returned to the Byrds in various incarnations over the next decades.

Meanwhile, both Parsons and ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ took on almost mythical status as influences on the first wave of country rock. The Eagles, Poco, Jackson Browne, Linda Rondstadt — that whole crowd was built on what the Byrds kicked off back in ’68.

When the ’80s came along, R.E.M. pushed the sound a little further. Peter Buck’s guitar playing was hailed as “the return of the Rickenbacker” and the band was often described as “a new wave Byrds.”  However, their early sound was indebted less to ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ than its follow-up:

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That brings us back to the ’90s and the beginning of the alt-country movement. Uncle Tupelo made no secret their fondness for Parsons, covering his ‘Blue Eyes’ on 1993’s ‘Conmemorativo: A Tribute to Gram Parsons':

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Neither the Byrds nor Gram Parsons invented country rock. From the very beginning, rock has been an amalgam of musical genres — predominantly country and rhythm & blues. What ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ did was endorsed a particular sound, much like Dylan going electric did a few years earlier. All it took was a measly 22 years for the rest of the music world to catch up with them.

Next: The Roots of Indie — The Waitresses

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