This Country's For The Byrds!
Roger McGuinn looks back on 50 years of Sweetheart of the Rodeo
It wasn't a massive hit when it was originally released in 1968, but the legacy of The Byrds' sixth album Sweetheart of the Rodeo has grown over the decades. Once viewed as a novel stunt by long-haired West Coast interlopers of Nashville's ultra-conservative country music scene, the record is now cited by many in rock and Americana as one of the most influential records of the '60s.
Produced at a crossroads of culture, art and personnel changes, The Byrds of springtime '68 were radically different than previous lineups. Founders Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman remained but drummer Michael Clark had quit the group and outspoken singer-songwriter David Crosby had been dismissed. In their place were Hillman's cousin Kevin Kelley on drums and multi-instrumentalist Gram Parsons.
McGuinn had planned an ambitious overview of musical styles for the collection. But guided by the rootsy influences of Parsons, the record leaned heavily on country, or "Cosmic American Music," as he later called it. The result was a masterpiece of Americana.
During a break from the album's 50th anniversary tour featuring McGuinn, Hillman and Marty Stuart with his Fabulous Superlatives, the soft-spoken McGuinn spoke with INsite from his home in Florida.
Great art comes from Turbulent times, so as a man of faith how does it reflect in your art?
I just try to take the attitude that when we perform for people for a couple of hours, we're taking their minds off of all these nasty and turbulent things, and giving them something soothing to make them feel better.
Sweetheart came from a crazy time for music in general and for your band in particular.
Yes indeed. We'd lost all the members but Chris and then he finally quit. But Chris was still there for the Sweetheart album and Gram was a great catalyst for us to do it. Chris and I had done country before and loved the genre. That was the reason we did the album, because we all loved country music so much.
Previous to the country concept, your idea for the follow-up to The Notorious Byrd Brothers was a genre-spanning, two-record-set exploring the history of popular music.
Yeah, that was a very ambitious idea. It was gonna be a double-album starting with early European music, going through the Baroque period and then on through Celtic, folk and eventually country music, ending with rock and roll, jazz and finally space music with the synthesizer. But nobody would go along with it.
Do you think you'll ever get around to recording an album of that magnitude?
No, I'm not sure I want to do that anymore. Though I have done solo shows that've had that theme.
Once Gram was in the band, you jumped into country music full-force.
Yeah, whole hog! It was fun; we enjoyed it. It was really a great pleasure to do all of that music at the time.
You even adopted the whole lifestyle - jumping in "whole hog" on the fashion aspect of the country scene at the time, with flashy Nudie suits.
We really got into it. I even bought a black Cadillac El Dorado. I used to drive it around L.A listening to country music and just lovin' it.
What did your friends and peers on Sunset and in the Valley think of the new mindset? 'Has Roger lost his mind?'
I wasn't really in touch with a lot of peers at that point. I was married and had kids so the only people I was really in touch with were the other Byrds.
So the whole band was immersed in the genre. But since you came from the folk scene, it wasn't that big of a jump.
Not at all. I've always regarded country music as a kind of folk music. They're story songs. They deal with human interest subjects with pretty melodies, some of which come from the old Celtic songs.
Once you decided to go with an all-country format, the ideas seemed to flow effortlessly.
That's right and [producer] Gary Usher was great. He jumped into it with us. So we went to Nashville and got [steel guitarist] Lloyd Green and [bassist] Junior Husky and boy, it was a really good time. Lloyd Green commented that he loved it because it was so unstructured. He was used to somebody telling him exactly what to play. It was definitely a different kind of recording session for him. It wasn't quite as conservative. He said, 'Where do you want me to play?' We said, 'Everywhere, man!'
Do you think you needed to physically be in Nashville in order to capture the vibe?
I think we needed Lloyd Green for sure. I guess we could have flown him to L.A., but I think it was great that we got the whole nine yards of county by going to Nashville. I think the tracks we got there were great.
You got the whole Nashville spectrum of reactions when you played the Grand Ole Opry after the sessions were done.
Oh that. Yeah, well that was a kind of a black-eye. And then [influential country disc jockey and tastemaker] Ralph Emery's reaction was a black-eye too. But I think it worked out OK.
Right, it must be sweet vindication now to return to the Ryman and sell it out, playing the same music you were doing 50 years ago.
Yeah we played with Marty at the Ryman in June. I'd played there before then with him on one of his late-night jams. That was his doing. He said, 'You got so dissed at the Ryman back in '68, I want to have you come back and do it again.' Everyone was very gracious.
Even that clip of you on Nashville Now with Ralph Emery looks gracious in retrospect, although it did seem he was still a little suspicious of you.
Yeah, I didn't see any reason for animosity. I was being diplomatic. I find the interesting thing is, he was trying to pin me down as to where [the lyrics of] "Turn, Turn, Turn" were in the Bible. I told it was Ecclesiastes 3 and the first twenty verses. It's really the first eight verses, but I didn't know that at the time. It was like he was trying to say, 'Well I think you're a rock and roll heathen and you've never opened a Bible.' But I was like, 'Uh yeah, I have.'
I noticed that too. It's like, 'Ok Mr West Coast, who's the Bible scholar now?'
(Laughs) Yeah, 'Ok I've got you. I'm gonna pin you down with Bible verses.'
It's still weird that he didn't appreciate [album opener] "You Aint Goin' Nowhere." That's definitely a country song.
Yeah, it is. But first of all, he berated us when we got to the studio. He said, 'Why did you come here and try to mess around with our kind of music?' We said, 'Well, we love it, Ralph.'
But he wasn't buying that answer.
No. Well he thought - or his excuse on the show was, 'Well I didn't have any Byrds albums.' But that wasn't the point, we didn't want him to play any other Byrds album.
Right, because it was so different from the records that had preceded it.
Yeah, it was real country, but country folks didn't think so and then the rock people thought we'd sold out to the enemy. It was just kind of a crossfire.
I read that he asked you what the song meant. But you replied that since it's a Dylan song, it's up for the listener's interpretation.
Exactly. I don't think even Bob Dylan knows what everything he writes means.
Right and he certainly wouldn't tell us. But now that you've played it on and off for 50 years, what do you think it means?
I still try to never interpret Bob's songs.
Now looking back on it, Sweetheart has become one of those classic albums like Pet Sounds or Odessey and Oracle. The legend has grown with time.
It has and I'm lovin' it. I'm really enjoying playing with Marty and Chris again.
Marty is a walking country music encyclopedia and memorabilia museum.
Marty is like having [former Byrds guitarist] Clarence White with us again. He's got his b-bender guitar and he really knows all the licks. He said the Sweetheart album was always his blueprint of what to do, to mix folk and country and rock. So we're all just having a love-fest up there.
The Sweetheart of the Rodeo tour arrives in Atlanta on October 21 at the Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center. Showtime is 8 p.m. For more information, please visit citysprings.com.