This review was slightly delayed because just as I was about to complete it my friend Casey called reminding me we were going to a concert that night! I had totally forgotten but after a quick change of clothes and a hurried walk/run downtown we saw Tami Neilson play at Distrikt nightclub.
I’ll write a review of the show shortly but for now let’s get back to the review I rudely interrupted with my own forgetfulness. I mean, who forgets they're going to a concert?
Disc 1021 is…Sweetheart of the Rodeo
Artist: The Byrds
Year of Release: 1968
What’s up with the Cover? If hippie cowgirls made Tarot cards, they’d look like this. Or maybe these are supposed to be rodeo trading cards. Bronco Billy! Lureen Newsome! Collect them all!
How I Came To Know It: I think the aforementioned Casey once told me this record was a big deal in the history of music. Then it seemed for months after he did, every other music article I read seemed to mention it. When they released a special edition with a bunch of extra Gram Parsons content on it, I decided it was time to see what all the fuss was about. Gram’s no longer with us, so I don’t pass up a chance to get more of his work.
How It Stacks Up: This is the only Byrds album I have, so it can’t really stack up.
Ratings: 4 stars
For an album that was a commercial disappointment, “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” has cast an awfully long shadow. This is widely cited as the album that married country music with rock and roll and the rest, as they say, is history. Nowadays you can hear country artists covering Elvis and rock artists taking on John Prine around every corner. The boundaries between the styles have been fuzzy for years, and a lot of the credit goes to “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.”
So that’s the history of it all (well, a very short version of it anyway) but is the record any good? The short answer is – yes. I don’t love it to death just because of its importance, though. If anything, I had heard so much country/rock crossover music by the time I worked my way back to the beginning that I have to remind myself that in 1968 the concept was relatively unknown.
What’s important is the record is full of beautiful harmonies, carefully constructed songs and some top-notch guitar playing from Roger McGuinn and pedal steel master Lloyd Green. Green in particular, gives the album just the right mix of rock resonance and country twang and I don’t think it would be the same without him.
McGuinn and Gram Parsons famously fought over this record, and we are all the poorer for it, because the resulting legal threats kept several songs from having Gram Parson’s vocals on them (they went with McGuinn singing instead). Roger McGuinn has a lot of talent, but he’s not much of a vocalist. His voice always sounds thin and nasally, a bit like Bob Dylan but without the mix of sass and weighty import that Dylan manages. He is solid on the old-timey crime ballad “Pretty Boy Floyd” because it’s a song that sounds like it should be played on some old tavern record player that winds with a crank, but otherwise I wanted Gram on almost every song.
You get Gram on “Hickory Wind” and he absolutely kills it, his hurtful mourn providing the perfect partner to Green’s pedal steel wail. I prefer later remakes by Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch even more but Gram did it first, and he did it beautifully.
Also, my copy of “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” is a bonus two-disc edition that includes the original Gram Parsons’ vocals for “The Christian Life,” “You Don’t Miss Your Water” and “One Hundred Years From Now” turning every song from just plain good to something special.
If anything, it is the addition of Gram Parsons that makes this album the special creation it is. Gram had the rock/country cross in his head coming into the band and the direction his presence provides the Byrds is immediately noticeable. With all those fresh ideas and heartfelt vocals, it is no wonder his ego clashed with McGuinn’s.
The bonus disc has a lot of outtakes that include the band doing a series of false starts and questions about the various mic levels. The takes are competent, but all that professional musician banter is annoying. “What take is this?” “Is the bass coming through for you?” Seriously guys, that’s not interesting to your listening audience.
What was cool were two instrumental versions of “All I Have Are Memories”. I wouldn’t listen to these every day, but it really underscored how talented they were as musicians, and a nice addition.
Also welcome were six tracks of the International Submarine Band (ISB), which was Gram Parsons’ band before he joined the Byrds. You can hear the germination of Parsons’ sound on these tracks and it underscores what a difference his creative genius and vision were for the Byrds. One of the tracks, “Luxury Liner” would eventually be the title track to one of Emmylou Harris’ better records (reviewed back at Disc 697).
As a member of the ISB, Parsons does a killer version of the old Terry Fell song “Truck Drivin’ Man.” “Blue Eyes” is a honky tonk love song as good as anything that “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” had to offer.
Taken as a whole, two discs and 39 songs are a bit much, particularly when you are getting multiple rough cuts of the same songs, but I wouldn’t trade this in for the non-extended version because I don’t want to part with the Gram Parsons versions of some of the songs, as well as the International Submarine Band section.
As for the original record, this is one of those seminal albums that you really must have in your collection if you care about the development of Americana music. While “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” may not have been fully appreciated when it was released almost 50 years ago, this album has made a hell of an impression on generations of musicians that followed in its wake.
Best tracks: Pretty Boy Floyd, Hickory Wind, One Hundred Years From Now, The Christian Life (Gram Parsons vocals), One Hundred Years From Now (Gram Parsons vocal),
Best International Submarine Band Tracks: Truck Drivin’ Man, Blue Eyes, Luxury Liner, Strong Boy