Saturday, June 19, 2021

Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968)

Gram Parsons spent six months with the Byrds before moving on, but he left a big mark with this short album—11 tracks, 32 minutes. Ambitious Roger McGuinn intended it originally as a double-LP survey of American popular music across the 20th century, following the heady psychedelic Notorious Byrd Brothers. But under Parsons's messy influence they decided to make it country. Indeed, it's considered the first country-rock album by many although I've never quite figured out how "rock" figures into much of it. It sounds like country tinged with folk to me mostly, and in the wrong mood I can hear it as a parade of creaking cliches. At least they're good enough they never sound like wannabes, which is impressive and likely more the result of the Nashville session cats they rounded up. It was a hectic time for these folks. Look at the tight timelines in 1968: January, The Notorious Byrd Brothers is released; February, Parsons joins the band; March, recording of Sweetheart of the Rodeo begins; August, it's released and Parsons has already left the band. Part of his short time was further clouded by the prospect of a lawsuit from his former label (headed by Lee Hazlewood), which contended he was still under contract to them. Talk about rolling stones: on to the Flying Burrito Brothers, Emmylou Harris, and iconic death at the age of 26. Sweetheart of the Rodeo reflects some of Parsons's, McGuinn's, and the band's (not to mention the world's) turmoil, mostly in the roiling murder ballad and tormented soul undertones of the material, in the dim forlorn sadness of these old songs themselves, accorded utmost respect but with some inevitable roughing up here and there. The range of songwriters is impressive: Bob Dylan of course, the band's brand, but also the Louvin brothers, William Bell (!), Woody Guthrie, and Merle Haggard, plus a couple of originals by Parsons. It's not a typical Byrds album by any means but it's the one I seem to return to the most—bearing in mind I've got mostly a lifelong blind spot for the band and I'm pretty weak on country too. In the late '90s a friend was excited about Wilco and had an idea he was digging country-rock and was curious about Sweetheart of the Rodeo, a name-check in the write-ups. Good thing it's so short! Playing it for him confirmed my notion there's virtually no "rock" to this album at all. He was clearly turned off and seemed to be looking for a way to leave the room. Rock was absolutely dominating in Wilco, needless to say, with country waving a begging bowl. It was a comical episode but clarified for me that Sweetheart of the Rodeo 1) is not really a rock LP, 2) is not really a Byrds LP (or a Gram Parsons, for that matter), and 3) can easily be taken as a citadel of country cliches. The more I listen the more I think what I'm attracted to is the combination of those Nashville session players (notably pedal steel guitar players Lloyd Green and JayDee Maness) and the inspired taste of the Byrds principals in their song choices. Also, they can sing. This is one really everyone needs to hear at least once—for my friend back in the '90s, I helped him get his out of the way.


  1. Rightly or wrongly, I think the vocal group harmonies are looked at as more of a "rock" thing than a "folk" thing. And if you're looking for something to blame the Eagles on, country rock's supergroup, this is the record, right? W/out putting it to a recent test (yet), I always liked Parsons other stuff better. -Skip