Lost Classics! “Sweetheart Of The Rodeo,” The Byrds


Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, the Byrds’ sixth studio album from 1968, is justifiably famous because it features singer/songwriter Gram Parsons on his only album with the band.  Parsons, later to found the Flying Burrito Brothers, would spend only six months as a Byrd, but it was a tumultuous six months indeed.

At the time the album was recorded, the only remaining Byrds from the original lineup were Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman.  Hillman recruited Parsons, and with drummer Kevin Kelley and guitarist Clarence White, the Byrds (at the urging of Parsons) went to Nashville to record the album.  McGuinn’s original concept was a wide range of music including old-timey gospel and country evolving into futuristic “space” music.  Thankfully, Parsons and Hillman tipped the scales in favor of the prescient country rock that the album became.

Gram Parsons

Gram Parsons, in 1969

Dylan, as usual, had set the precedent already – he recorded 1967’s John Wesley Harding in Nashville, so the Byrds weren’t really doing anything groundbreaking at the time.  But they met with a lot of resistance from the good ol’ boys in the Nashville studios.  Even worse, they appeared on the Grand Ole Opry to play two songs but infuriated the straight-laced people there.  Instead of playing a Merle Haggard song as Opry announcer Tompall Glaser introduced, Parsons counted the band off into a version of his “Hickory Wind.”  That apparently pissed off Roy Acuff and Glaser was so enraged he assaulted a couple of the band members backstage.

The Byrds later went to WSM radio station for an appearance with influential country DJ Ralph Emery, but the redneck Emery said on the air he didn’t like hippies and ran down the Byrds in their presence.  Parsons and McGuinn argued with him but it wasn’t a pleasant experience and later McGuinn and Parsons would write a song, “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man,” about Emery.  After laying down basic tracks and a few “live” versions of a couple songs, recording moved back to Los Angeles.

During recording of Sweetheart Of The Rodeo McGuinn and producer Gary Usher began to worry that Gram Parsons was getting too much exposure – basically eclipsing McGuinn’s leadership role in the band.  While Parsons sang lead on five songs, his lead vocals were replaced by McGuinn’s on three of them; on the final album Parsons can be heard singing on only two songs:  “Hickory Wind” and “You’re Still On My Mind.”  McGuinn and Hillman sing lead on the others, including Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.”

One of the session players on the album was Earl Poole Ball, the great pianist who now lives in Austin.  A few years ago, Ball remembered Gram Parsons this way:  “He was a great singer, a very energetic young guy who was irresistible when he was enthusiastic about something.  The trouble was, he was kind of spoiled:  if he got bored with something, he was basically useless and hard to deal with.”

Shortly after Sweetheart Of The Rodeo was released, Parsons was fired from the Byrds.  Supposedly he didn’t want to tour with the band in South Africa, but the writing was on the wall after the run-in with McGuinn.  Hillman would soon quit, and go on to form the Flying Burrito Brothers with Parsons.  Sweetheart didn’t sell many records at the time of its release, but many people regard it as a classic and an influential masterpiece.

MP3: “You’re Still On My Mind” (original album version)

MP3: “Hickory Wind” (Nashville version)

MP3: “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” (original album version)

MP3: “One Hundred Years From Now” (Gram Parsons vocal version)

MP3: “The Christian Life” (Gram Parsons vocal version)

MP3: Radio Spot for Sweetheart Of The Rodeo

The Byrds official website

4 Responses to “Lost Classics! “Sweetheart Of The Rodeo,” The Byrds”

  1. Rockin' Rich Says:

    Interesting but Parsons was under contract with Lee Hazelwood’s LHI records which is why he did fewer vocals despite your speculation to the contrary. (If you have any sources for this claim, I apologize.)

    I bought the album when it first came out as well as subsequent CDs (4 versions and counting!) and still think it’s wonderful.

    (And “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man,” without Parsons, came out on the next album, Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde .

  2. 30daysout Says:

    Thanks, Rockin’ Rich. My source was David N. Meyer’s excellent biography of Gram Parsons, “Twenty Thousand Roads.” Meyer does consider the different versions of the re-recording vocals story, but he backs up his thesis (McGuinn was threatened by Parsons) with quotes from a Byrds insider and McGuinn himself. McGuinn later explained that he didn’t enjoy overdubbing Parsons’ vocals, whatever the reason, and that’s why they appeared on the first Byrds box set. We appreciate your care and share your enthusiasm for “Sweetheart Of The Rodeo,” and thanks for reading!

  3. Rockin' Rich Says:

    Fair enough.

    Cheers and rock on!

  4. The re-issue of ‘Sweethearts of the Radio’ — which includes eight bonus tracks — includes copious liner notes, and they, too, say the reason for the McGuinn overdubs was threat of a lawsuit from Lee Hazelwood.

    BTW: Jason and the Scorchers did a great take on “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man” in the mid-1990s.

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