For years, I have read of the lineage between The Byrds and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, but the two Byrds songs I knew, “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn! Turn! Turn! (There is a Season)” were not enough to give me a true sense of the connection or even prove its existence. As I rediscovered Petty's work (Highway Companion, Conversations…Petty, live review, Confessions 001), my curiosity about The Byrds grew. An entire wall of our apartment is devoted to my musical curiosities. It was time to add another "brick" to that wall.
I learned from The Byrds’ Greatest Hits that I knew more of their songs than I thought I did. Petty has covered “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” and “So You Wanna Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” and I never knew “Eight Miles High,” was a Byrds’ tune.
One curiosity settled, a new one born. The ringing sound of the Rickenbacker is one of the unmistakable sonic threads that joins The Byrds and Petty. This first question answered, I found my appetite whetted for more when presented with this sampling of great music. I was now possessed with a new curiosity about The Byrds. Did I mention the altar assembled along one wall of our apartment, devoted to housing the evidence of my musical curiosities?
Sadly, Best Buy is the best place to find music in Huntsville. If I want to find anything more obscure than the new Paris Hilton record, I usually have to order it or drive two hours to Nashville. When a man is possessed by the musical curiosity, he does not want to wait 5-7 days on Postal Service. The four-hour round trip to Nashville is not high on the practical scale, either. This means I usually start my hunting at Best Buy even though I know at some point I will become irrationally angry with the experience. Not only do I often have trouble finding what I want, I have to listen to some godawful hiphop rubbish played at unspeakably loud volumes. Yes, I realize how old that makes me sound, but I am writing a review of The Byrds. Besides, I am not opposed to loud music. I still listen to loud music. What I am opposed to is bad music, bad music played loudly, and bad music played quietly. While scouring these shelves of frustration, I stumbled onto There is a Season, the new 99 track, 4-CD/1-DVD box set on sale for the ridiculously good price of $29.99. Even if the box only produces a few new favorites not found on Greatest Hits, this was still a hell of a deal. That’s value! I hated Best Buy 17 percent less for the rest of that day.
It turns out there was more than a handful of great new songs on this set. Hell, I found out The Byrds were making great music before they were The Byrds. The best of the gems recorded during early sessions aimed at attracting a record label is the David Crosby-sung “The Airport Song.” Crosby and Roger McGuinn co-wrote this breezy, melancholy song while watching planes at LAX.
You get in trouble anytime you anoint a particular artist the inventor of a genre because someone will always find a slightly earlier cut from some obscure outfit who might have made a record that could loosely be fitted in that genre. The Byrds may not have invented either genre, but they are often credited for pioneering two of them. The first, folk-rock, is the sound of the original five-man lineup and takes up the first two discs. The Byrds' version of folk-rock relied heavily on that Rickenbacker guitar and brilliant harmonies.
When "Mr. Tambourine Man," the title cut from The Byrds first album, became a #1 hit, Bob Dylan was still building his legend in the folk realm. The Byrds made Dylan electric before The Man himself did. It is a wonderful contradiction that many of these early songs sound both timeless and dated. I am not old enough to have lived the '60s, so my perceptions of that period are informed through the prism of history. The Byrds' sound is vital to the soundtrack of those years. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones got more of the headlines and damn deservedly so, but "Eight Days a Week" does not echo The '60s the way "Eight Miles High" does.
These first two discs exceeded my expectations but they failed to surprise me. The band found a winning formula and stayed true to it on their early records, often to delightful effect. Disc Three is the curveball. The second genre The Byrds helped pioneer was country-rock. I had no idea. The steel guitar line in the intro of "You Ain't Going Nowhere," another Dylan cover, introduces not only the song but an entirely new sound. The harmonies from the early records have remained, but the sonic landscape is completely different.
By 1968, the Clark(e)s had departed as had David Crosby. Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn were the last of the originals and at Hillman's suggestion, the legendary Gram Parsons was welcomed into the fold. What followed is either the first or first important country-rock album. Some critics say Sweetheart of the Rodeo was more a Parsons album than a Byrds' album. It seems pointless to debate because regardless of what you call it in terms of genre or who you credit, it is a magnificent record and I loathe country music only slightly less than hip hop rubbish. "Hickory Wind" is the blueprint for bands like The Eagles and America who would later carry the torch for the country-rock movement. It is also one of the best things Parsons ever recorded and one of the highlights on this set.
Sweetheart is represented on There is a Season by songs as they appeared on the album as well as some alternate versions. Alternate versions are sometimes hard to distinguish from their more famous counterparts when included on box sets and deluxe editions. That is not the case on Season. The alternate versions from Sweetheart included here feature the late Parsons' lead vocals. When the album was originally recorded, the group planned for Parsons to handle the majority of the lead vocals. There are various reasons as to why that did not happen, among them legal issues surrounding Parsons. While there is nothing wrong with McGuinn's replacement vocals, in most cases they do not hold a candle to Parsons. Some of these versions have been added to the two re-issues of the Sweetheart album which diminishes their value as rarities but has no negative impact on their musical worth. The Parsons' era and these versions are a vital part of the Byrds' musical story.
There is a Season provided me with another similarity between Petty and The Byrds. I'll pose it in the form of a question: is it possible for a band to be enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and still be under appreciated? I was not alive during the heyday of The Byrds. Maybe they received the adulation they deserved when these songs were released. I hope they did because these songs still stand up 30 and 40 years later and I am hearing so many of them for the first time. Taking shots at music labels is like shooting fish in a barrel, but sometimes they get one right. There is a Season is one of those rare examples where they did. Does this have every great song the band ever recorded? I don't know, but it has enough to make me want to find out.
What started as curiosity has concluded with me becoming a Byrds' fan. I moved from Greatest Hits to There is a Season and have now bought two different versions of Sweetheart of The Rodeo, a story and album worthy of a future Confessions installment.
Have I mentioned that wall in our apartment where I keep all the artifacts of my musical investigations?