I am constantly amazed at how The Byrds could change their musical direction and survive the loss of members time and time again, yet continue to produce one excellent album after another.
Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman found themselves the only two remaining Byrds after the release of The Notorious Byrd Brothers. Hillman’s cousin, Kevin Kelley, was hired to play the drums and Gram Parsons was added as a guitarist and banjo player. The duo of Hillman and Parsons shared a musical vision of country music and that vision would dominate the group’s sixth release, Sweetheart Of The Radio. They would combine their country leanings with the rock sensibilities of Roger McGuinn and that combination would result in one of the earliest and most influential examples of the country-rock sound.
Gary Usher returned to produce his third album for the group and led them to the country capital of the world, Nashville Tennessee, for the recording sessions.
The group members would only write three original songs. Two Dylan tunes would be chosen for interpretation and they would combine with a number of classic country songs by such artists as the Louvin Brothers, Merle Haggard, and Cindy Walker to form the foundation of the album.
Gram Parsons would author two of the best songs of his career. The major problem was that he was still under contract to A&M records and producer Lee Hazlewood called him on it. Roger McGuinn would replace his vocals on some of the tracks to avoid possible legal problems. “Hickory Wind” is a lyrical song of beauty with mesmerizing harmonies in support. If you would like to hear the song in all its glory, without McGuinn’s post production interference, check out the live version on Parsons' Grievous Angel album with Emmylou Harris providing the harmonies. “One Hundred Years From Now” features the combined voices of Hillman and McGuinn just cascading over the instrumental track.
The two Dylan tracks book ended the original release. “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” set up the tone of the album as a steel pedal guitar replaced Roger McGuinn’s usual 12 string. “Nothing Was Delivered” features a layered sound and ultimately brings the album to a gentle end.
Sweetheart Of The Rodeo would contain a number of other highlights. The Merle Haggard tune, “Life In Prison,” is a song about murder and suffering and is about as country as you can get, yet the Byrds have the ability to shift it just a little from its roots toward a rock sound. “The Christian Life” finds McGuinn getting into the spirit of the album as his vocal even has a slight southern twang. Woody Guthrie’s, “Pretty Boy Floyd” features some wonderful banjo playing as the song is moved from its stark folk roots toward a country rock sound.
Sweetheart Of The Rodeo did not have the commercial success of their prior albums but may have been their most influential. The country-rock sound they established would be carried on by such artists as Poco, The Eagles, Emmylou Harris, Mary Chapin Carpenter and many others. Released in 1968, during the Vietnam War era, it provided a counterpoint to much of what was appearing at the time. Rolling Stone Magazine would rank it at number 117 on their list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
I don’t think it is their best album and it is not my favorite, but I do considerate it their most essential. It was a revolutionary release at the time and remains a worthwhile listen today.