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Patrick Walsh

Perfect Album: Sweetheart of the Rodeo

It comes to us time-tested and patinated, curiously familiar like a sepia-toned photo of a bygone family gathering, as discernibly venerable as a weathered baseball in a glass case at Cooperstown. With Sweetheart of the Rodeo, released by Columbia Records on August 30, 1968, The Byrds didn’t just cut an album, they crafted an American heirloom.


Just shy of 50 years on, Sweetheart of the Rodeo stands as accustomed and beloved a recording to Country-Rock fans as Grand Central’s Main Concourse to New Yorkers. Perhaps the Empire State Building is a better comparison; along with its sheer ambition, Manhattan’s iconic landmark ruffled the ascots of an earlier Gotham generation, built as it was on the site of the original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.


The Byrds caught flak from fans, as well as the Country music establishment; some fans felt that The Byrds had taken an unexpected turn down a Country road while the fuddy-duddies objected to a bunch of “long hairs” taking a turn down their Country road. The fans forgot the Country tunes on earlier albums, beginning with “Satisfied Mind” on the debut Turn! Turn! Turn! The rednecks who booed at the Grand Ole Opry were just . . . rednecks (photos of the group show four young men who would all be described as “clean-cut,” especially by the hirsute standards of the day.)


But who cares? Those feeble objections are footnotes in a glorious chapter of the American songbook. Besides, Beethoven went “Pastoral” with his 6th Symphony; Sweetheart of the Rodeo was The Byrds’ 6th album.


Other groups and artists had made earlier forays into Country. As in almost everything, The Beatles got there first in 1965 on both Help! (with a cover of “Act Naturally,” a song which made a big star of Buck Owens two years prior) and Rubber Soul (with “What Goes On,” an original composition.) On their 1966 LP Hums of The Lovin’ Spoonful, The Lovin’ Spoonful had “Nashville Cats,” a pedal steel-trilled paean to the guitar-pickin’ pros of Country’s capital. And, with the help of ace pedal steel player Pete Drake, Bob Dylan made his first trip to the Country in 1967 with “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” the last track on John Wesley Harding.


But no major Pop or Rock 'n' Roll act had committed so wholeheartedly to the genre. The Byrds weren’t dabbling at Country and Bluegrass; their album exuded fidelity, an earnest dedication to authenticity. Ever the devoted Dylan acolytes, they had even beaten the master to the punch by over six months: Dylan’s magnificent Nashville Skyline, an all-Country album built along similar lines, was released April 9, 1969.


A measure of their artistic devotion is their choice of additional personnel. Backing up The Byrds on various tracks is a squad of Nashville session players whose biographies read like integral threads in the tapestry of Country, Bluegrass, and Rock ‘n’ Roll: Honky-Tonk pianist par excellence Earl Poole Ball; steel guitarist Lloyd Green; one-man band and American Renaissance man John Hartford on banjo and guitar; pedal steel ace Jay Dee Maness; and Clarence White, a guitar pioneer who became an official member of The Byrds after the departure of Gram Parsons.


Even the album cover, which uses details from a 1932 poster by Jo Mora called “The American Cowboy,” conveys the project’s ethos. Joseph Jacinto “Jo” Mora achieved renown as an illustrator, painter, sculptor, author, and art historian. His artistic milieux were northern California and Arizona. It’s no accident, then, that the artwork evokes the era of the Works Progress Administration (for which Mora worked) and, by association, Woody Guthrie. And yes, the album’s name is a kind of “found title” in the poster.


As groundbreaking as the record turned out to be, Roger McGuinn initially had even bigger ambitions, envisioning a multi -disc conspectus of American musics, one he outlined in an October 1970 Rolling Stone interview with Ed Ward:

    My original idea for Sweetheart of the Rodeo was to do a double album, a chronological album starting out with old -timey music–which I’m into too–not bluegrass but pre-bluegrass, dulcimers and [in a reedy voice] “In Nottamun Town...”, nasal Appalachian stuff, and then get into like the 1930s advanced version of it, move it up to modern country, the Forties and Fifties with steel guitar and pedal steel guitar–kind of do an article on the evolution of that type of music. Then cut it there and kind of bring it up to electronic music and a kind of space music and going into futuristic music.

The finished work, a single LP of eleven tracks, proved narrower in scope–no space music–while still showcasing an organic array of American Song: Folk, Gospel, Country, and Bluegrass.


It’s a perfect album. Sweetheart of the Rodeo is one of those records on which you drop the needle on Side A, let it play through, flip it over, and do the same for Side B. I have two vinyl LP pressings and the lovingly-crafted 1997 CD re-issue with outtakes and additional tracks (for the car, of course.)


Between bookends of two Bob Dylan compositions sit nine more songs, including a traditional arrangement, a Louvin Brothers classic, Woody Guthrie’s homage to Pretty Boy Floyd, another Merle Haggard jailhouse jingle, and two superb originals by a 22 year-old Harvard drop-out from Waycross, Georgia named Gram Parsons.


McGuinn and fellow original Byrd Chris Hillman hired Parsons to replace David Crosby. Parsons and his International Submarine Band had already made a groundbreaking Country-Rock album of their own called Safe at Home (which I highly recommend as well!) In Parsons, Hillman had an ally in Bluegrass and Country; the two would later leave The Byrds to form The Flying Burrito Brothers.


Gram Parsons was truly a meteor in the musical firmament. Over five years he would cross trajectories with The Byrds, Keith Richards (and The Rolling Stones), Emmylou Harris, and The Eagles (via Bernie Leadon.) He would help found the hybrid genre Country-Rock, or what he called in a phrase Walt Whitman would’ve adored “Cosmic American Music.” And he’d be gone at age 26 by way of a heroin overdose in Joshua Tree, California.


In many ways, “Hickory Wind,” written and sung by Parsons, constitutes a hauntingly gorgeous self-elegy. Bernie Leadon would allude to it with feeling in “My Man,” his ode to his former friend and bandmate, on The Eagles’ third album, On the Border.


For pure melodic transport and vocal harmonies by which to be ravished, I send you to the “Blue Canadian Rockies,” the waltzing classic written by Country great Cindy Walker. Chris Hillman sings lead with enough achingly romantic conviction to make a Proven├žal troubadour genuflect.


My favorite song on the album is the other Gram gem, “One Hundred Years From Now.” If any song on Sweetheart of the Rodeo looks to the future of the art, it’s this one. I remember listening to it over and over when I first heard the record. The Byrds bring that breezy California, semi-Beach Boys sensibility to a countrified song of ominous portent and end up with something transcendent. Imagine cruising up the Pacific Coast Highway, top down on the Mustang, with these lyrics as narration: 

    One hundred years from this day

    Would the people still feel this way

    And still say

    The things that they’re sayin’ right now?

    Everyone said I hurt you,

    They said that I desert you;

    If I go away

    You know I’m gonna get back somehow.


    Nobody knows

    What kind of trouble we’re in,

    Nobody seems to think

    It all might happen again. . . .


    One hundred years from this time

    Would anybody change their mind

    And find out

    One thing or two about life?

    But people are always talkin’ –

    You know they’re always talkin’ –

    Everybody’s so wrong

    That I know it’s gonna work out right.


    Nobody knows

    What kind of trouble we’re in,

    Nobody seems to think

    It all might happen again. . . .

The definitive Country-Rock record, Sweetheart of the Rodeo served as my invitation to become a citizen of Country and rediscover America through its musics. It’s not just a collection of songs, it’s a family album to be handed down.

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Patrick Walsh served four years as an infantry officer in the 25th Infantry Division. His articles and poetry have appeared in numerous journals and newspapers both here and abroad.
More at his Website:
He is a columnist and Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of his columns and other writings, check the Archives.

©2017 Patrick Walsh
©2017 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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