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Sweetheart of the Rodeo is the sixth album by American rock band The Byrds, released on July 29, 1968 (see 1968 in music). Along with Bradley's Barn by The Beau Brummels, John Stewart's California Bloodlines, the Everly Brothers' Roots, Bob Dylan's John Wesley Harding and Safe at Home by The Internå´¨ational Submarine Band, Sweetheart of the Rodeo would serve as one of the seminal recordings of country-rock and remains influential to this day despite being the most commercially unsuccessful album recorded by the group at the time of its release.
In January 1968, after the release of The Notorious Byrd Brothers and the departures of both David Crosby and Michael Clarke, the remaining two members, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman decided to push forward. As de facto leader of the band, McGuinn wanted the group to expand upon the genre-bending approach of the previous album, recording an ambitious double-album overview of American musical forms that began with Bluegrass, wove through Jazz-oriented material, and culminated with a side of electronica featuring the Moog modular synthesizer that he had acquired during the Notorious sessions. To this end, McGuinn sought out a pianist with a jazz background to join the group.
By the end of the winter of 1968, McGuinn had hired Kevin Kelley (Hillman's cousin) as drummer and 21-year-old Gram Parsons to play rhythm guitar and piano. Parsons, a marginal figure in the L.A. music scene, and Hillman had been acquainted with one another since 1967, while his faux-jazz piano playing and genial personality had fooled McGuinn at audition. It soon became apparent that Parsons and Hillman wanted to record a blend of what the former had termed "cosmic American music", a compendium of various roots forms that primarily was oriented towards honky tonk country music but also included American folk, soul, 1950s R&B, early rock and roll and contemporary rock. Following the path of Bob Dylan on John Wesley Harding, Parsons desired to record the group's new album in the country music capital of Nashville.
During the recording of the album, the band (introduced by future "outlaw" country star Tompall Glaser) appeared on the Grand Ole Opry. Greeted initially with derision by the conservative audience, their version of Merle Haggard's "Sing Me Back Home" was received warmly. Any hope of salvaging the opportunity however was immediately annihilated when Parsons, rather than singing Haggard's "Life In Prison" as announced by Glaser, launched into a rendition of "Hickory Wind" dedicated to his grandmother. The deviation from protocol stunned Opry regulars like Roy Acuff, and an embarrassed Glaser reportedly attempted to assault several Byrds backstage.
Nearly as disastrous was the group's appearance on the WSM program of legendary Nashville DJ Ralph Emery, who continually mocked his guests throughout the interview and initially refused to play an acetate of "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere." Eventually playing the record, he shockingly dismissed it over the air and in the presence of the band as being mediocre. Clearly upset by their treatment, upon returning to Los Angeles, Parsons and McGuinn would make Emery the intended subject of their oft-covered "Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man" ("He's a drug store truck drivin' man/He's the leader of the Ku Klux Klan", although it should be noted that Emery was not a Klansman).
Post-production of the album was tumultuous. Parsons' appearance was contested by Lee Hazlewood, who contended that the singer was still technically under contract to his record company. While the problem was resolved — Parsons sings lead on "Hickory Wind" and "You're Still on My Mind" — McGuinn ended up replacing three of the new member's lead vocals with his own singing, a move that still infuriated Parsons as late as 1973, when he told an interviewer that "he [McGuinn] erased it and did the vocals himself and fucked it up". According to Usher:
“ McGuinn was a little bit edgy that Parsons was getting a little bit too much out of this whole thing.... He didn't want the album to turn into a Gram Parsons album. We wanted to keep Gram's voice in there, but we also wanted the recognition to come from Hillman and McGuinn, obviously. You just don't take a hit group and interject a new singer for no reason.... There were legal problems but they were resolved and the album had just the exact amount of Gram Parsons that McGuinn, Hillman and I wanted. ”
The line-up for the album was very short lived. After playing a handful of concerts throughout the Los Angeles area, including a party at Ciro's (where the original line-up of The Byrds first gained acclaim) for legendary publicist Derek Taylor, the band embarked on a short European tour. Tapes reveal a very schizophrenic ensemble playing psychedelic-oriented material alongside the Nashville songs. A lipsynched performance on television found Parsons, who, in between concerts, had visited Stonehenge and befriended Keith Richards in what would become one of rock's most infamous associations, sarcastically miming McGuinn's "Eight Miles High" solo on Dobro.
The Byrds were set to follow a reprise English appearance at the Royal Albert Hall in July with a tour of South Africa when Parsons announced he would not be going along in protest at the country's policies of apartheid (a policy that did not cease until 1994), even though McGuinn had been falsely assured by promoters that the audiences would be integrated. Some members of the band doubted the sincerity of Parsons' protest, and ultimately McGuinn and Hillman fired him from the band after their return to the United States (a roadie filled in on rhythm guitar during the tour).
Released at a time when The Byrds' surprising immersion into the world of country coincided with declining commercial appeal, Sweetheart of the Rodeo only reached seventy-seven on Billboard's Pop Albums chart, while the single "You Ain't Going Nowhere" reached seventy-four on the Pop Singles chart. After having a hit with The Notorious Byrd Brothers, Sweetheart of the Rodeo missed the UK charts completely.
Although an uncommercial proposition at time, Sweetheart of the Rodeo proved to be a major landmark album, and its effects are still felt to this day, serving as a blueprint of sorts for the approach of not only Parsons' and Hillman's Flying Burrito Brothers, but of the nascent 1970s Los Angeles country-rock movement, outlaw country, the New Traditionalists, and the so-called alternative country of the 1990s and 2000s. It is widely considered to be The Byrds' last truly influential album.
01."You Ain't Going Nowhere" (Bob Dylan) – 2:38
02."I Am a Pilgrim" (trad. arr. Roger McGuinn & Chris Hillman) – 3:42
03."The Christian Life" (Charles Louvin, Ira Louvin) – 2:33
04."You Don't Miss Your Water" (William Bell) – 3:51
05."You're Still on My Mind" (Luke McDaniel) – 2:26
06."Pretty Boy Floyd" (Woody Guthrie) – 2:37
07."Hickory Wind" (Gram Parsons, Bob Buchanan) – 3:34
08."One Hundred Years from Now" (Parsons) – 2:43
09."Blue Canadian Rockies" (Cindy Walker) – 2:05
10."Life in Prison" (Merle Haggard, J. Sanders) – 2:47
11."Nothing Was Delivered" (Bob Dylan) – 3:34
12."You Got a Reputation" (Tim Hardin) – 3:08
13."Lazy Days" (Parsons) – 3:26
14."Pretty Polly" (trad. arr. Hillman, McGuinn) – 2:53
15."The Christian Life" [Rehearsal – Take #11] (C. Louvin, I. Louvin) – 2:55
16."Life in Prison" [Rehearsal – Take #11] (Haggard, J. Sanders) – 2:58
17."You’re Still on My Mind" [Rehearsal – Take #43] (McDaniel) – 2:29
18."One Hundred Years from Now" [Rehearsal – Take #2] (Parsons) – 2:20
19."All I Have Are Memories" [Instrumental] (E.D. Hewitt, R. J. Ledford) – 4:47