Celebrating ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’

IMG_6396“One hundred years from this day,” Gram Parsons once wrote. “Will the people still feel this way?”

Alas, he wouldn’t live to find out. Twenty-two when he wrote it, he was dead at 26.

But half a century since it was recorded for a game-changing Byrds album, maybe the people do feel different.

A flop when it was released, “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” gained stature as the first album-length country-rock statement, creating a string of music that flourishes as Americana, and justifying a tour marking its 50th year, which made its way to the Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda in a ringing show Monday.

Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman were the only Byrds remaining to perform it. But that seemed to fit — they were the only two members left in the imploding band when they started the project. They were the ones who hired the country-rock savant Parsons, who in turn helped steer the band to its rhinestone-gilded new direction.

The Byrds had dabbled in classic country previously, from the bluegrass-sounding “Mr. Spaceman” to Hillman’s “Time Between.” But it was Parsons who pulled them further, with three of his own songs as well as the wide-ranging country sampling that rounded it out, recorded in Nashville with some of its finest musicians.

In doing so, after helping invent folk-rock by plugging in Dylan, the Byrds created an honest salute to the twang and rhinestone of classic country with neither condescension nor irony; a full embrace of American ideals unusual for long-haired rockers of the day, and possibly out of step entirely with 1968, the tumultuous year in which it was recorded.

As if to remind fans at the time that they were still the Byrds, they bookended the work with Dylan songs, but also covered Merle Haggard and songs associated with Gene Autry in between with musicians that included Lloyd Green on steel guitar, John Hartford on banjo, and soon-to-be full-time Byrd Clarence White on guitar.

To replicate that reverent old Nashville authenticity, there was no better ally for the two Byrds than Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives. Drummer Harry Stinson had the “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” logo on his drum and a Nudie-style coat; bassist Chris Scruggs moved to pedal steel only late in the show with Kenny Vaughan providing tasty solos when needed.

But mostly the guitar power was provided by Stuart, who famously also owns the very 1954 Fender Telecaster owned and used by White, who died in 1973. White and Parsons had rebuilt the guitar to raise the B string a step to play pedal-style tones — which meant the pedal steel itself wasn’t necessary. It was almost like having another member of the Byrds on board.

And Stuart could also play like crazy — his intricate work done with economy and lack of visual flash.

In the single mid-show showcase of Stuart and his band, they gathered, hushed to a gospel near a cappella on “Angels Rock Me to Sleep,” dedicated to Hillman’s impending 74th birthday Tuesday. They followed out with their own rocked out Reno & Smiley’s “Country Boy Rock & Roll.”

Stuart shared how Sweetheart set his course in music and proved it with their own recent “Time Won’t Wait,” which began with parts of Byrds songs not otherwise played in the show – “Eight Miles High” and “Feel a Whole Lot Better.”

McGuinn, 76, who has toured a one man show about his move from folk to rock, helps create a narrative with the “Sweetheart” show, beginning with their scene setting version of Dylan’s “My Back Pages” and touching on different Byrds forays into country from “A Satisfied Mind” to “Wasn’t Born to Follow” before embarking on the album at hand — not played in original order, but shuffled up a bit.

It’s an interesting grab bag, with classics and little-known classics given verve, from McGuinn taking lead on “Pretty Boy Floyd,” to Hillman enthusing over the title song of a Gene Autry movie.

McGuinn said he didn’t get the Louvin Brothers’ “The Christian Life” when they recorded it; he said he did now.

“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” was one of two Dylan songs on the LP; the other lifted from “The Basement Tapes” collection, “Nothing Was Delivered.”

The latter also ended the LP, but in concert they chose to reprise “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” with a singalong choir, as if they were still pitching the song, which only reached No. 77, as a hit. (It was the one country DJ Ralph Emery rejected after hearing 10 seconds, prompting McGuinn to describe him in the scathing “Drug Store Truck-Driving Man”).

If Dylan inspired the early Byrds, and Parsons influencing the countrified turn, it was Tom Petty who revived the ringing, 12-string sound of the band in his own hits, and the encore was practically a secondary tribute to him.

McGuinn recalled his genius and followed with a song he wrote with him, “King of the Hill.” Hillman also got an album produced by Petty and he played the acoustic Petty song he included on it, “Wildflowers.”

Stuart had a nod to Petty as well, with a terrific “Runnin’ Down a Dream” fueled by his own fiery mandolin playing.

Of course it all had to end with “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” the lesson being that there was a time for everything.


The setlist for “The 50th Anniversary of ‘Sweetheart of the Radio’ Monday was: 

  • “My Back Pages”
  • “A Satisfied Mind”
  • “Mr. Spaceman”
  • “Time Between”
  • “Old John Robertson”
  • “Wasn’t Born to Follow”
  • “Sing Me Back Home”
  • “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man”
  • “Mr. Tambourine Man”
  •  “Angels Rock Me to Sleep”
  • “Country Boy Rock & Roll”
  • “Time Won’t Wait”
  • “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”
  • “Pretty Boy Floyd”
  • “Hickory Wind”
  • “Life in Prison”
  • “One Hundred Years from Now”
  • “Nothing Was Delivered”
  • “Blue Canadian Rockies”
  • “The Christian Life”
  • “You’re Still on My Mind”
  • “You Don’t Miss Your Water”
  • “I Am a Pilgrim”
  • “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”
  • “So You Want to Be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star”
  • “King of the Hill”
  • “Wildflowers”
  • “Runnin’ Down a Dream”
  • :Turn! Turn! Turn! “


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