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McGuinn and Hillman celebrate Sweetheart

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The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, together with Marty Stuart and his Superlatives, are currently on tour to observe the 50th anniversary of their pivotal album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo.

Of all the golden anniversaries connecting the tumult of 1968 to 2018, it is fitting to revisit The Byrds’ country-rock classic here near year’s end. At the time of its August 1968 release, four months had passed since Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, two since Bobby Kennedy’s, a week since Soviet tanks had rumbled into Prague, mere days since tear gas wafted onto the floor of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. On the surface, Sweetheart doesn’t sound like any of that, at all.

And yet, it may be one of 1968’s most profound sonic documents, because what you can hear in it is a California rock band turning to American musical tradition to make sense of their moment. Different corners of the counterculture handled the year’s apocalyptic air in their own appropriate ways. The MC5 and The Stooges hurled vitriol; the Velvet Underground curled into a knowing cynicism. The Byrds responded by practically inventing Americana. With the nation’s social fabric seemingly torn asunder, Sweetheart’s country-rock ballads played their small part in stitching it back together.

This seems like a lot to lay on The Byrds. After all, the ’60s pantheon does not tend to include them in the first tier of rock revolutionaries: Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison. It was the experimental collages of Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper’s, not the nostalgic harmonies of Sweetheart of the Rodeo, that supposedly drove home the idea that rock music was serious, complex, adult art. These works leaned into the shock of the new, the decade’s dizzying mix of heightened expectations and dashed hopes, modish affectation and psychedelic splash. The Byrds were a part of all of these conversations, and understood them well. “Eight Miles High” had established their psych credentials. But with Sweetheart, they made something like the anti-Sgt. Pepper’s, a statement of sonic simplicity, reverence for tradition and arrangements that translated well to live performance.

Of the other ’60s icons, The Byrds’ career most closely intertwines with Dylan’s. The beginning of the decade found Dylan squarely ensconced in folk, a universe then far removed from rock. Folk was for the earnest, the engaged, the intellectual, while rock, the folkies claimed, pandered to the fun-seekers, weekend hell-raisers and fad-chasers. Together, The Byrds and Dylan obliterated the distinction between the two, merging rock’s infectious verve and folk’s ambitious gravity. Dylan’s electric turn at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival often serves as shorthand for the whole process but, earlier that same year, The Byrds had also helped ease Dylan’s rock transition with their chart-topping recording of his “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

If “Mr. Tambourine Man” was folk-rock’s opening act, Sweetheart of the Rodeo inaugurated country-rock with the further recognition that the lines between “folk” and “country” had more to do with social position, region, marketing and politics than with the music itself. Sweetheart is country-rock’s beating heart, the genre’s Pangea, its Big Bang, its Rosetta Stone.

Of course, the Byrds were not the only act blurring the boundaries between rock and country and folk. Country-rock arrived as a cresting wave of artists rather than a solo voyage of discovery. Dylan and the group that would come to be called The Band had already improvised the infamous Basement Tapes in upstate New York, though those tracks remained apocryphal in 1968. Dylan had also already tested the Nashville waters with John Wesley Harding. Fellow Southern Californians Buffalo Springfield plowed the same fields; Mike Nesmith eyed a post-Monkees career that reflected his Texas roots; and The Beau Brummels’ country-rock gem Bradley’s Barn dropped shortly after Sweetheart.

But Sweetheart of the Rodeo crystalized all these ongoing developments. It did so with a refurbished Byrds lineup. David Crosby had moved on, and Florida-born, Georgia-raised Gram Parsons had entered the ranks. Though McGuinn and Hillman had always been steeped in folk and bluegrass, Parsons strongly influenced the new album’s country turn.

The track list begins, appropriately, with Dylan, as The Byrds brought “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” one of those self-same basement tapes, into the light of day. They stirred in other iconic folkies, recording Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd” and reworking the traditional “I Am a Pilgrim.” They gestured to the genre’s African-American influences with soul singer William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water.” The album’s signature, though, is its full country tilt: tracks like The Louvin Brothers’ “The Christian Life,” honky-tonk auteur Cindy Walker’s “Blue Canadian Rockies” and Merle Haggard’s “Life in Prison.” Gram Parsons contributes the album’s only original tracks, and his classic “Hickory Wind” feels very much at home in this august company. The 2018 setlists have included all of these, in addition to other Byrds classics.

From top to bottom, Sweetheart of the Rodeo is both timely and timeless. It sounds timeless because the impeccable musicianship and song-craft hold up (with an able assist in concert from Marty Stuart’s top-notch group). It feels timely because The Byrds seem to have turned to country as a port in the 1968 storm, looking to the nation’s past to explain its present.

Whether the album’s rendition of American tradition resonates as hymn, hallelujah or dirge depends largely on the listener. Personally, I have always heard their work as anthemic, a Guthrie-style reminder that American tradition has always been contested territory, the province of anyone who might be able to imagine himself or herself in it, whether hippie like Hillman, Southerner like Parsons, black like Bell, or ex-con like Haggard.

In the years following Sweetheart, the Byrds would split and regroup in various combinations. Hillman and Parsons teamed up to further California country-rock with The Flying Burrito Brothers, before Parsons spiraled off in collaborations with The Rolling Stones, Emmylou Harris and martyrdom. McGuinn held the band together in partnership with Clarence White through the early ’70s and subsequent reunions. Separately, their work would often match Sweetheart, but nothing they made after could really surpass it.

Sweetheart of the Rodeo is the hope and hurt of 1968 encased in amber, yearning for an America that feels both whole and true to itself, all in a melodious country-rock package. When McGuinn, Hillman, Stuart and the band take the stage in 2018, that amber liquefies just a little, the feelings frozen in it reanimated for our own moment.

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Mellard is assistant professor of history at Texas State University and author of Progressive Country: How the 1970s Transformed the Texan in Popular Culture.

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