Thursday, 19 July 2018
The Byrds - Sweetheart Of The Rodeo (1968)
Released August 1968
Recorded in Nashville and Hollywood
1968’s “Sweetheart Of The Rodeo” was unique in that it was the first “country rock” album, (although Gram Parsons had done one before, The Byrds were a mainstream group). The Byrds’ previous album, “The Notorious Byrd Brothers”, had been a psychedelic album, typical of its era. This one completely broke the mould and threw it away. So, Bob Dylan’s 1969 “Nashville Skyline” was one that followed on in this album’s wake, as opposed to being a trail blazer itself. Gram Parsons had joined the band just before this was recorded and his influence is all over it. The album was a pure, essential country record and it resulted in tensions within the rest of the band and it was also rejected by the ultra-conservative country music establishment who, predictably, viewed The Byrds as long haired hippies who had no place in their beloved country music. The band infuriated fans at a concert at Nashville’s “Grand Ole Opry” due to their long hair and just a general resistance on the audience’s part to accept the band at all.
Back to the album, track by track, it is pretty difficult to analyse, as most of the tracks follow the lively, upbeat country formula, often with self-pitying lyrics about drinking, like the morose “You’re Still On My Mind”. “You Don’t Miss Your Water” is a spiritual song in many ways and has a bit of an atmosphere to it, as indeed does the melodic opener, the cover of Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”. The cover of Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd” is a country “story song” about an outlaw with some excellent finger pickin’ guitar and country fiddle.
Steel guitar is everywhere, and a track like “Hickory Wind” is pretty representative of the album’s material - harmonious, lyrically nostalgic and mid-paced. However, Parsons’ “One Hundred Years From Now” is probably the most punchy, rock-influenced of the tracks, brilliantly merging country styles with rock. “Blue Canadian Rockies” is a more traditional country ballad, full of heartbreak for the singer’s girl. The way The Byrds approached this often cloying material was free of any condescension or taking the mickey. They were genuinely trying to make country music “cool, hip” and accessible to all. In retrospect they probably did a good job, as did Dylan, although he got far more criticism for it than they did. Just because he was Dylan, I guess.
“Life In Prison” was a typical maudlin self-pitying song as the title would suggest. “The Christian Life” is pretty awful, although it probably means a lot to many people, so I will not disrespect it. It is just not my thing. “Nothing Was Delivered” is quite punchy, but again the almost deafening, whining steel guitar overrides the whole song. The gospel-flavoured (lyrically) “I Am A Pilgrim” is a banjo and violin mid-tempo country plodder, but not without an appeal.
The sound quality is impressive on the latest remaster, nice and clear with well-highlighted rich bass sound. However, regarding the album, while I applaud The Byrds in their wish to diversify and popularise a long-standing American music form, it really just doesn’t quite do it for me as a whole album. Give me a few tracks at a time and that’s it. If I am going to listen to country rock from the era, I prefer Dylan’s efforts or Crosby, Stills and Nash’s more hippy-oriented efforts.
Funnily enough, though, two of the “bonus” tracks on the extended edition, “All I Have Are Memories” and the powerful “Reputation” are far more rocky in feeling than the tracks on the album. “Pretty Polly” is very like Dylan from his “Good As I Been To You” period. “Lazy Days” is good too, with a Chuck Berry riff to the fore. Again, I would have preferred this on the actual album. Proper country rock. Gram Parsons' tracks from The International Submarine Band are great too. Digitally, of course you can mess around and be your own producer, making up your own album.