It took just one ringing chord from Roger McGuinn’s signature Rickenbacker guitar to know it: This was going to be a special night. From the moment McGuinn and Chris Hillman, the two remaining original members of the Byrds, stepped onstage on Wednesday at the ornate Emerson Colonial Theatre, accompanied by Nashville star Marty Stuart and his three-piece band, audience and musicians alike were in for a celebration.
The occasion: the 50th anniversary of “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” the country-flavored Byrds album that was initially received with perplexity, but has since earned a reputation as one of the foundations of country-rock and the whole Americana category. Guitars and harmonies mingled joyously all night.
The band took the stage to “My Back Pages,” one of the many Bob Dylan songs the Byrds stamped with their own style in the mid-’60s. “Ah, but I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now,” they sang.
The Byrds, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991, were a beguiling mashup of Dylan’s inscrutability and the Beatles’ musical charm. But when the group parted ways with David Crosby, the addition of Harvard hillbilly Gram Parsons set in motion a major shift, one that still reverberates today.
Parsons, who would die of an accidental overdose in 1973, made just one album with the Byrds, but what an album it turned out to be. In their first set of the night, McGuinn and Hillman set up the “Sweetheart” album by pointing out the country undertones that were already present in the Byrds’ music: the backbeat lilt of “Mr. Spaceman” and “Time Between,” a cover of the country standard “A Satisfied Mind.”
After a break, Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives, his fringed and sequined band of ringers — drummer Harry Stinson, guitarist Kenny Vaughan, and multi-instrumentalist Chris Scruggs, who bounced from guitar to upright bass and pedal steel — showcased two of their own songs, the Dwight Yoakam-ish cover “Country Boy Rock & Roll” and “Time Don’t Wait.” The former featured some mean pickin’, the latter a distinctly Byrds-y flair.
“Roger and Chris are like family,” Stuart said. “We have no problem stealing some of their licks.”
With McGuinn and Hillman back onstage, the ensemble played all 11 songs from the “Sweetheart” album, including Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd” (with Stuart switching to mandolin), and Parsons’s masterpiece “Hickory Wind” (sung by Hillman). Introducing their version of the Louvin Brothers’ “The Christian Life,” McGuinn acknowledged that he didn’t understand the meaning of the song when he recorded it, “but I do now.”
With the album complete, the band reprised “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” and the audience — having already jumped up for several standing ovations — seemed happy to oblige. The encore was a true bonus: a four-song tribute to the late Tom Petty, who loved the Byrds, often covered their music, and produced Hillman’s most recent solo album, months before his death last October. They closed on a glorious note, with “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” the Byrds’ version of Pete Seeger’s biblical hymn. Which honors, in part, a time to mourn, and a time to dance.
SWEETHEART OF THE RODEO
Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, with Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives. At Emerson Colonial Theatre, Wednesday night.James Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.