Sweetheart of the Rodeo 50th Anniversary
Monday, Oct. 15, 7:30 p.m., $40-$70
Durham Performing Arts Center, Durham
In 1968, the United States was at a boiling point: Public outrage over the war in Vietnam had reached its peak, Richard Nixon was elected president, and the Civil Rights Movement was reeling from the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. It was also the year of the Summer of Love, the same year that Johnny Cash took the stage at Folsom Prison, Led Zeppelin made its debut, and The Beatles went to India. Meanwhile, The Byrds, who had become American icons in the folk and early rock ’n’ roll movement were at a boiling point themselves.
Having fired half the band (including David Crosby) after issuing The Notorious Byrd Brothers in January of 1968, The Byrds’ lead songwriters, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, were scrambling to regroup and figure out their next move. Months of trial and error led them to discover the enigmatic country cult-hero Gram Parsons, who would eventually become what many consider to be the father of psychedelic-tinged “cosmic” American music. Parsons joined the band for a single album that would ultimately spark decades of admirers and imitators: Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
The record is a marriage of the deep passion for country music’s past and folk-rock’s future. The band imbued the rigidity of traditional country music with a more free-flowing sound inspired by the psychedelic sixties, for a blend dubbed “cosmic country.” But The Byrds’ embrace of the music of the American South wouldn’t last long. In 1970, the collective—which by then was operating as the Flying Burrito Brothers—fired Parsons, their cosmic sweetheart, just three years before he passed away at the ripe age of twenty-six. But what business did a group of longhaired Californians have in making a record celebrating the music of the American South in the first place?
“I think what happened was because we were folkies and Chris Hillman was from a bluegrass background; what emerged was a combination of folk and rock, then country music and bluegrass,” McGuinn says. “All four of those genres were blended into Sweetheart of the Rodeo, but it didn’t go over because of political tensions in the country.”
Though the record was a commercial flop, it spawned a plethora of Southern outcast disciples looking for their place within the music they loved so dearly: pure country.
The fiftieth anniversary of The Byrds’ landmark LP is about much more than celebrating the life of critical darling Gram Parsons, who often gets most the credit on this recording. It’s about celebrating a band that persevered and decided to get back to basics to make a record that, half a century later, has had arguably more influence than any other Byrds recording. Sweetheart of the Rodeo has become a cornerstone in what is now called a wide range of names, from Americana to country rock. But to a band that was reveling in the sounds of The Louvin Brothers, George Jones, and Porter Wagoner, they were just making a country record the only way they knew how. The purists, however, didn’t take too kindly to what they came up with.
“We thought they’d like it!” McGuinn says, still surprised at the record’s initial reception so many years later. “Lloyd Green [pedal steel guitarist on Sweetheart] remembers we got booed at the Grande Ole Opry with Parsons. We were interlopers, a bunch of hippies invading Nashville. It was sad, because we loved the music so much, and we were so sincere about getting it right.”
McGuinn still vividly recalls visiting a country radio station in the San Fernando Valley that had a long hallway with a bulletin board at the end. As he approached the bulletin board, he could see that Sweetheart was tacked to it. His delight over thinking the station was playing the record dissipated quickly.
“I got a little closer and it said, ‘DO NOT PLAY. THIS IS NOT COUNTRY MUSIC,’” he says. But McGuinn and company have had the last laugh as their masterpiece has withstood the years. “It’s come full circle. Obviously, it was an inspiration to a lot of people after it came out. We were just the pioneers with the arrow in our back.”
Fifty years later, and it feels like the country is embroiled in a similar period of cultural and political tumult. And once again, McGuinn and Hillman find themselves together at the helm of Sweetheart of the Rodeo with new circumstances of personal toil. A year ago, the pair lost their close friend Tom Petty, who produced Hillman’s 2017 solo LP, Bidin’ My Time. A few months later, California wildfires hit Hillman’s Los Angeles home while he was out for a birthday dinner.
“He had to move out of the house for six months,” McGuinn says. “We wanted to do something that would cheer Chris up.”
But they couldn’t have done it with just the two of them. They decided to enlist their friend Marty Stuart, the country music veteran who also currently owns Clarence White’s B-bender Telecaster guitar. Gene Parsons (no relation to Gram) built the instrument for White to simulate the sound of a pedal steel guitar, and its tone is a definitive element of Sweetheart’s distinct sound. McGuinn met Stuart nearly twenty years ago on the set for a Dolly Parton movie that was never released.
“Marty was a master of ceremonies, and when Dolly was doing something else, Marty and I went down by the creek and played some songs from Sweetheart, ‘Pretty Boy Floyd’ and ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere,’” McGuinn says. “Marty had his B-bender and could play all of Clarence’s licks, and we’ve been friends ever since.”
Prior to this tour, the band had never performed Sweetheart in its entirety, and it’s been important to McGuinn to revive it with the pomp it deserves. The record will live on as a cult classic, an emblem of creative liberation from a genre that had been marked by rigid conservatism. For those that didn’t grow up in the golden age of country music, it’s a gateway to that era and an important time capsule. Regardless of The Byrds’ original intention to capture the heart of the purists, Sweetheart of the Rodeo will forever be seen as a record made by outsiders, for outsiders—and that’s its greatest appeal all these years later.