When the Byrds released “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” in August 1968, it marked a distinct change in musical direction for one of the most popular rock bands in America — “16 trips to the country,” as a radio promo put it, including a pair of bookending Dylan songs, a batch of covers of electric honky-tonk and more acoustic country fare, and two gems from a then-unknown Gram Parsons.
Founding Byrds Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman were the only remaining members of the band; yet it was Parsons, brought in as essentially a hired sideman, who was most responsible for engineering a complete reorientation of the Byrds’ sound. Then, before the album had even hit the streets, Parsons had left the band; Hillman followed him out (and into the Flying BurritoBrothers) a few months later. Upon its release, it was greeted with lackluster commercial sales and a reaction from critics and fans that was mixed at best.
In spite of those inauspicious beginnings, McGuinn and Hillman are now out on a tour marking the 50th anniversary of the record, which comes to the Emerson Colonial Theatre later this month. So how did it come to be worthy of such a celebration?
“I’m not exactly sure,” says McGuinn by phone. “I think it was all political back in ’68 when it came out. The rock-and-roll people felt betrayed, and the country people felt invaded by a bunch of hippies. It just got lost in the crossfire.” But over time, the record’s reputation changed: “I guess because of the success of the Eagles and Poco and the New Riders of the Purple Sage and even Waylon [Jennings] and Willie [Nelson] and the outlaw country thing, people recognized that it was something good.”
McGuinn’s suggestion points to the influence the record had in bringing country and rock together as a hyphenated hybrid. It wasn’t the first country-rock record, but it was the first full-blown country foray by an established, well-known rock band. The very success of the Byrds was what brought “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” the attention it received (records that predated it like the lone release by Parsons’s International Submarine Band were barely noticed), even if some of the band’s fans were bewildered by it. In a separate phone call, Hillman credits the album with creating a pathway for the Flying Burrito Brothers, Poco, and others; “it opened the floodgates.”
Marty Stuart, who with his Fabulous Superlatives is providing the band for the tour, attests to the profound effect that “Sweetheart” had on him. Stuart bought his copy of the record from the cut-out bin in 1972, when he was living in Nashville and playing in Lester Flatt’s band. “What struck me was that it was the first time I had ever heard country and rock and blues and bluegrass and folk and gospel collide successfully” (a collision that his own music has manifested for a good part of his career). “I picked up on the adventurous spirit of it all.”
At the time, neither McGuinn nor Hillman thought that they were involved in forging some new amalgam of rock and country; they were trying to make a country record, pure and simple. “We were very sincere in our approach,” says McGuinn. “But because we were a rock band, some of the rock came through inadvertently. You can hear it on ‘Nothing Was Delivered,’ and a couple of other tracks that have more of a rock beat than a country beat. But it wasn’t intentional. It was kind of a happy accident.”
McGuinn came up with the idea of doing an anniversary tour when he was sitting in the Buenos Aires airport and realized that the record was about to turn 50. He pitched the idea to Hillman, who said he’d love to do it; the tour brings them together professionally for the first time in 20 years. And he thought that Stuart and his band would be a perfect fit for the project. The assemblage will play the record, and add what could be called precursors — “Satisfied Mind,” “Mr. Spaceman,” “Time Between,” and other songs that show how country tinges had occasionally seeped into the Byrds’ sound before the full dive of “Sweetheart.”
Both McGuinn and Hillman offer that “Sweetheart” isn’t their favorite Byrds album. Hillman calls it “a noble experiment,” and relates an anecdote about an interview he was involved in with Merle Haggard. “Merle was such a funny guy, he said, ‘You know that “Sweetheart” thing?’ I said, ‘Yeah?’ He said, ‘Almost.’”
For his part, Stuart doesn’t think that the Byrds’ takes on “You’re Still on My Mind” or “Life in Prison” surpassed the originals by George Jones or Haggard. But, he continues, “I think everything that has been a little bit on the edge or considered an outside form of country music since 1968 forward can be directly traced back to, and part of its lineage would be, the ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ record. It absolutely gave people like me a license to do what we do.”
Sweetheart of the Rodeo
Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, with Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives. At Emerson Colonial Theatre, Boston, Sept. 26 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $49-$124, 888-616-0272, www.emersoncolonialtheatre.comStuart Munro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.