My Favorite Recordings: “Sweetheart Of The Rodeo” by The Byrds

Lately I have had lots of time to lie around and really listen to music at a pretty loud volume whenever I have the house to myself.  Whenever Lynn, my wife, comes home, there I am on the couch listening to a recording. She would say, “It’s been over 40 years and you’re still listening to the same album!”

What’s really interesting is that when you really concentrate on listening, you can hear stuff that was always there, but that you never heard before. Lately, I’ve been listening for the bass lines, sometimes with the help of the loudness switch for emphasis. Sometimes I just try to concentrate on the fiddle or mandolin. Sometimes I start out saying I will just listen to the drums, but then get lost in the whole gestalt and forget what I was trying to concentrate on!

The Byrds, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, specifically the enhanced re-issue with eight extra bonus tracks added to the original eleven tracks issued in 1968. When I first heard this record in 1968, it was a major awakening, “Wow, this is the kind of music I have always wanted to hear.” It was a combination of hillbilly, bluegrass, country and Bob Dylan songs. But here is what did it for me–it was the first high tech, high quality recording of country/bluegrass music that I had ever heard!  Maybe it was because I had recently got my first true high quality stereo system, and the stuff I had been listening to was recorded in the fifties, but it really was a knock out. Or maybe, at that time in 1968 I was into certain stuff, and whenever I hear this music, I get back into that same state.

I had always been into “hillbilly” music, which from the1940’s included what we now know as bluegrass or country-western. I still remember when and where I was when I first heard “Mr. Tambourine Man” on my AM car radio but I had no idea who or what The Byrds were! This album was recommended to me by the late Danny DelSanto, who was a member of a bluegrass band called The Arm Brothers, which included none other than HVBA’s own Jerry Oland on banjo.

In any event, this was the first of what later became known as “long hair country,” “alternative country,” or “outlaw music” before there was Willie, Waylon, or Kris, because it departed from the standard Nashville formula. Although it may stretch the bluegrass genre a bit, this album included pedal steel guitar which gave it an old time 1940’s and 50’s feel, and the addition of drums and electric bass which gave it a “country-rock” flavor. The band line-up included Roger McGuinn on guitar and banjo, Chris Hillman on guitar and mandolin, and introduced the world to Gram Parsons, a future member of the Flying Burrito Brothers.

This album gave us some instant classics: Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” and “Nothing was Delivered,” as well as “I am a Pilgrim” by Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, plus Woodie Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd,” and Gram Parsons’ “Hickory Wind,” and “One Hundred Years from This Day.”

The Louvin Brothers song, “The Christian Life,” was selected by Parsons but was released on the original album with Roger McGuinn singing the lead vocal because Parsons was under contract with another record company. The bonus track of this release features Gram’s vocal, which was closely copied by McGuinn. Even though Gram was a Harvard divinity major for one semester before he dropped out of college, his inclusion of this Louvin Brothers song seems a sarcastic choice. Gram, in his Nudie suit emblazoned with a marijuana leaf embroidery, was the epitome of the California hippie cowboy life style. If you look at the body of his work starting with this album through his Flying Burrito Brothers days and his later solo albums (backed by Emmylou Harris); and up to the time he died from a drug/alcohol overdose at age 26, his songs mention sin, the devil and/or Satan more times than Doyle Lawson or Ricky Skaggs together ever mentioned Jesus! And you can bet that Gram didn’t OD on communion wine! Come on! Gram liked the Christian life?

Blue Canadian Rockies” with the lead vocal by Chris Hillman is another great waltz. The drummer gives part of this song a unique kick of the high hat cymbals on only the 2 beat. I cannot even tap my foot like that.

My favorite song of all time, “You’re Still on my Mind” and Merle Haggard’s “Life in Prison” are both featured twice, so you can compare the rehearsal take and the final selection. I do believe that the best takes were, indeed, chosen for the original 1968 album, but I could listen to these two songs over and over again, and never get tired. That says a lot for someone with a short attention span.

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“You’re Still On My Mind”

Lloyd Green playing the pedal steel does some amazing runs, particularly on “One Hundred Years From This Day.” Some of you may think that drums and pedal steel don’t belong on any “bluegrass” song, but those two instruments on “Pretty Boy Floyd” and both waltz tunes, “Blue Canadian Rockies” and “Christian Life,” is what made this album such an influential breakthrough, and is often credited with the start of the “country rock” or “alternative country” genres.

Know what else is special about this album? When CDs first came out, I said there was no need for me to switch from vinyl because they “don’t even have my kind of music on CD.” Then my son, Rob, finds the original CD of Sweetheart, and it was only then that I bought my first CD player. Of the over 400 CD’s I own, this album is still the “sweetheart” of the collection.

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