But a few years later, McGuinn would start to strain at their sound. Introduced to the world as Jim McGuinn before he renamed himself after a signaling protocol term (as in, “Roger that!”), he had an absorption in both the future and the distant past. He ate up the American folk tradition, sure, but also modern-day aviation, cutting-edge gadgets and extraterrestrial life. When it came time to follow up the band’s ambitious The Notorious Byrd Brothers, he was going to bring his Janus-like curiosities into full relief: a tour of all the 20th century musical styles, from primitive blues to electronic music. But a scrappy young songwriter outside of their camp had different ideas.
A Harvard dropout with few real-world prospects, Gram Parsons didn’t give much thought to country music until being turned on to Merle Haggard around his 20th birthday. Feeling called to action, he briefly fronted a group with some of his fellow folkies called The International Submarine Band, who split around the time The Byrds lost their founding members David Crosby and Michael Clarke. Needing a fourth member, Parsons was recruited by the Byrds’ business manager Larry Spector as the band’s pianist. But this was a Trojan Horse move. Once he was within their ranks, the adrift Byrds were putty in his hands.
Parsons convinced McGuinn to ditch all the styles in his album tour of American music: they were only going to do Nashville country. And they were going to play the role to the hilt by heading to Nashville and getting real-deal session players on it; pedal steel player Lloyd Green, fiddler John Hartford, guitarist Clarence White.
And that was it: mostly standards, a couple of Parsons tunes, a Dylan or two for good measure. The results sold poorly, confused Byrds fans and polarized Nashville purists, and the group would never try such a radical genre experiment again. But the hypnotizing, hard-luck sound resonates to this day. If you dig Drive-By Truckers, Old ‘97s or Two Cow Garage, this early marriage of rock attitude and twangy woe reads less like a failed experiment and more like the Book of Genesis.
In honor of Hillman and McGuinn bringing Sweetheart of the Rodeo on the road for its 50th anniversary, here’s a track-by-track breakdown of the original album.
“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”
In true Byrds tradition, the set kicks off with some Dylan. The record company had sent the boys some demos from Dylan’s recent sessions in Woodstock, and “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” was one of two tracks they chose. It’s a natural fit, even though McGuinn made a minor lyrical flub on the recording. This was to Dylan’s playful chagrin. When Dylan re-recorded "Nowhere" in 1971, he’d added a sly little dig: “Pack up your money, put up your tent, McGuinn.”
“I Am a Pilgrim”
Hillman takes the lead on this gospel standard, written way back in 1898 by an uncredited author. His honeyed tone was perfect for this sweet Christian devotional, in which a bunch of party-animal L.A. kids plead to bathe in the river of Jordan and reach the opposite shore.
“The Christian Life”
“The Christian Life” was originally a cut from The Louvin Brothers’ evangelical classic Satan Is Real, an album whose frequently mocked cover art depicted the country duo recoiling from a googly-eyed plywood devil in a field of incinerating tires. It also proves to be right in The Byrds’ wheelhouse. Gram Parsons drawling this ode to abstinence and chastity like he has a head cold is pure joy.
“You Don’t Miss Your Water”
Not a country song per se but an R&B hit by William Bell, “You Don’t Miss Your Water” transcends genre lines and fits like a glove. It's a testament to how country, soul and R&B were never quite mutually exclusive concepts, with artists from each sphere having plenty to teach the others. The Byrds are fully willing to participate: McGuinn draws out every syllable for miles with that low, sandy voice.
"You're Still On My Mind"
Talk about a standard: any country singer worth his or her salt should know "You're Still On My Mind" upside down and backwards. Originally written by the less-famous-than-influential rockabilly singer Luke McDaniel and popularized by George Jones, it also finds a home on Sweetheart. Call it the Byrds paying their dues.
“Pretty Boy Floyd”
Like The Beach Boys pulling out the Bahamian folk song “Sloop John B” or The Beatles doing the schoolyard chant “Maggie Mae,” the inclusion of Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd” is a cracked door to the past. McGuinn performed the song often as a youth, singing folk songs in coffee shops. With no country originals to bring to the sessions, this outlaw standard was clearly right in McGuinn’s DNA.
This is Parsons’ bittersweet ode to Greenville, South Carolina, where he lived as a teenager and first picked up a guitar. Hillman loved the song so much that he called it Parsons’ greatest work, saying this in the liner notes to Parsons’ CD compilation Sacred Hearts and Fallen Angels: “It’s very descriptive, with vivid imagery. Gram was shuffled off to a prep school, lots of money. He was a lonely kid.”
“One Hundred Years From Now”
The most traditionally Byrdsy track on Sweetheart ponders life, the universe and everything in the year 2068. “Would anybody change their minds / And find out one thing or two about life?” ponder McGuinn and Hillman. Sounds like they even pulled the Rickenbacker out from under the bed; it burbles low in the mix.
“Blue Canadian Rockies”
The brilliant country songwriter Cindy Walker was responsible for about five decades of Top 10 hits, including ones by Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb and Hank Snow. The Byrds tip their hat with this reading of her “Blue Canadian Rockies,” though they may have had more cumulative experience at Keith Richards’ mansion parties than seeing the poppies bloom around Lake Louise.
“Life in Prison”
It’s not all springtime and churchgoing in country music’s lyric bank -- quite the opposite! Parsons is covering his old hero Merle Haggard here, specifically this ode to uxoricide from his 1967 album I’m a Lonesome Fugitive. It mostly reminds the world how many taboo subjects slipped to the airways by the benefit of gleaming Nashville production.
“Nothing is Delivered”
Though it was received as an aberration at the time, it’s arguable that Sweetheart of the Rodeo was the Byrds’ final great album. If this is so, then let it finish off with another tune by the band’s spiritual father, Bob Dylan. Another cut from Dylan’s upstate New York sessions that would culminate in The Basement Tapes, delivering some of his most sphinxlike lyrics: “Nothing is better, nothing is best / Take care of yourself, get plenty rest.” And with that question mark of a lyric, The Byrds send us on our way. But those big, lonely, gleaming sounds they achieved on Sweetheart resonate, even if it took 50 years for McGuinn and Hillman to reap the deserved applause.