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(Columbia CS-9670 / CK-9670, 1968)
Reissued: (Columbia/Legacy CK 65150, 1997)
Released July 22, 1968. Produced by Gary Usher. Engineered by Roy Halee and Charlie Bragg. Recorded in Nashville & Hollywood March - May 1968. Cover Art: Jo Mora.
The Byrds v. 4.1
Roger McGuinn: vocals, guitar
Chris Hillman: vocals, bass, mandolin
Gram Parsons: guitar
Kevin Kelley: drums
Earl "Les" Ball: piano
Jon Corneal: drums
Lloyd Green: steel guitar
John Hartford: banjo, guitar, fiddle
Roy M. Huskey: bass
Jay Dee Maness: steel guitar
Clarence White : guitar
Singles from album sessions:
"You Ain't Going Nowhere" /
Released April 2, 1968
"I Am A Pilgrim" /
"Pretty Boy Floyd"
Released September 2, 1968
McGuinn has stated in several interviews that he was looking for someone who could handle jazz piano, which Parsons faked his way through well enough for McGuinn.
Hillman doesn't recall anything about the Byrds looking for a jazz pianist in early 1968. It may be that McGuinn did not tell anyone else about his interest in finding a jazz pianist at the time.
"You Ain't Going Nowhere":
Various versions of "You Ain't Going Nowhere" were the platform for an odd exchange between Dylan and McGuinn.
The song was first recorded by Dylan and the Band during the summer of 1967. This version was eventually released on The Basement Tapes (Columbia, 1975). Robbie Robertson's lead guitar imitates a steel at times, giving the song a trace of the country sound the Byrds would emphasize in their own arrangement.
The Byrds' cover version appeared on single in March of 1968. It is faithful to the original in all but one respect: the Byrds switch two vowels, so that Dylan's line "Pick up your money, pack up your tent" becomes "Pack up your money, pick up your tent."
Three years later, Dylan rerecorded the song with Happy Traum on banjo and bass. Dylan plays harmonica and guitar. This version originally appeared on Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, Vol. II (Columbia, 1972). The upbeat, countrified arrangement, all-acoustic, is an improvement on the more slow-paced original.
Although Dylan revamps the words completely for this version, he shows a bit of peevishness about others taking liberties with his lyrics, even with just two letters: "Pack up your money, pull up your tent, McGuinn, you ain't going nowhere," sings Dylan. It seems a bit odd that Dylan would make an issue of two letters, when entire verses were lopped off "Mr. Tambourine Man," so perhaps his pointed comment was not meant to be taken too seriously.
McGuinn got the last word, however. In 1989, he and Hillman redid the song with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on their album Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. Two (Universal/ MCA, 1989) the wonderful sequel to their landmark 1972 work. McGuinn and Hillman trade lead vocals on the same lyrics as the Byrds' version (with the verses reordered). McGuinn good- naturedly sings, "Pack up your money, pick up your tent, Dylan, you ain't going nowhere."
The song would be one of the most successful of the several partial Byrds reunions, both artistically and commercially -- the song hit #6 on Billboard's Country Chart when it was released as a single.
Reasons we may never know:
Why were some of Gram Parsons's vocals left off Sweetheart of the Rodeo?
We will probably never know for sure the precise circumstances surrounding the replacement of Gram Parsons's Sweetheart vocals. Here are the facts:
1. At the time of Sweetheart, Gram Parsons was almost completely unknown outside of L.A., New York and Waycross, Georgia. The International Submarine Band's one album, Safe at Home (LHI, 1968), had been released in February, 1968 and made no impression on the general public. The Byrds were not at their commercial peak but were well known to the public all across the world by 1968.
2. McGuinn had five and a half lead vocals on the album, Parsons had three and a half, and Hillman had two. If the "lost" Parsons vocals had been used, the score would have been Parsons 6, McGuinn 3, Hillman 2. Of the outtakes, two more had Parsons leads, and one had a McGuinn lead.
3. Lee Hazlewood, whose label issued Safe at Home did object to the release of any Parsons lead vocals on Columbia, on the grounds of Parsons's contract with LHI. Hazlewood's concerns were resolved by CBS attorneys sometime before the release of Sweetheart.
4. Sweetheart was released on July 22, 1968, only a couple weeks after Parsons left the band. It seems unlikely that there would have been time to change the LP after his departure. The sessionography does not report any sessions in July.
Here are various accounts of the removal of the Parsons vocals, including several inconsistent versions of the story from Parsons himself:
Gram Parsons in 1970:
"They just chopped up the album however they wanted to. I wasn't there when they chopped it.... And this cat, the producer of the album, decided it should go Hollywood freaky.... It was a great album that might as well have never been recorded. So there's another Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and, uh, I dig it."*
Gram Parsons in 1972:
"Columbia, for some reason, thought they were going to get sued because my release from Lee Hazlewood looked kind of shaky. And so a few songs they overdubbed completely, things that shouldn't have been overdubbed and my voice was used way in the background, as a guide to go by. It didn't work. It gave too much of that old Byrds sound which we were fighting against at that time.... Things really came out well until this thing about the suit and I don't know if everybody remembers it that way in the Byrds but I do and I think Chris [Hillman] does too.... They were just about to scratch "Hickory Wind" when somebody ran in with a piece of paper, that's the last one they had saved."*
Gram Parsons in 1973:
"[McGuinn] erased it and did the vocals himself and f#$%ed it up."*
"Parsons got really mad because Roger told him CBS insisted on that, but [Parsons] didn't believe it. He thought it was Roger's own idea. But Parsons had a lot of things in life distorted."*
"Christian Life" should have been Gram's vocal but we had a contractual problem with Lee Hazlewood over Gram's vocals.... Here's the story. Gram was signed to Lee Hazlewood and we had a problem letting him sing on a Columbia release. Lee Hazlewood International or whatever put out the Submarine album and we got Gram past on "One Hundred Years From Now" but we didn't get him past on "The Christian Life." I don't know why.... "You Don't Miss Your Water" should have been Gram. Those two. Those two are the only are the only ones that we didn't get by with and I don't know why....
Interviewer: There have been stories that you guys went back and pulled his vocals because of his leaving the group.
Hillman: No, no. No way. His vocals were on and we really had to pull for them and that's the truth. We never would do that. Never would do that, never have done it.... On The Notorious Byrd Brothers David [Crosby] left in the middle of that and we did not pull his vocals off.... We did not delete David's part at all. Nor would I ever do that or allow that to happen. So Gram had the vocals on those two songs and Lee Hazlewood was suing, so at the last minute Roger put his vocals on. We didn't want to, Roger didn't want to sing over them. They were Gram's songs.*
"Yes, it is true that some of Parsons's leads were overdubbed because of legal problems but those problems were resolved once we were down in Nashville, the attorneys back in Los Angeles were able to work that out. Whoever sang lead on the songs on Sweetheart of the Rodeo were there not because of what we could do legally but because that's how we wanted to slice the album up. McGuinn was a little bit edgy that Parsons was getting a little bit too much out of this whole thing.... He didn't want the album to turn into a Gram Parsons album. We wanted to keep Gram's voice in there but we also wanted the recognition to come from Hillman and McGuinn, obviously. You just don't take a hit group and interject a new singer for no reason.... There were legal problems but they were resolved and the album had just the exact amount of Gram Parsons that McGuinn, Hillman and I wanted."*
"Cosmic American Music":
"Cosmic American Music" was a term Gram Parsons coined to describe his vision of American roots music, linked by common and parallel sources and frequent cross-pollenization. His definition was broad enough to include not just country, but also soul (he covered William Bell and James Carr), R&B (Larry Williams), early rock and roll (Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers) and certain of his contemporaries (Dylan, the Rolling Stones).
Parsons's term lives on in the name of the newsletter of his fan club, the Cosmic American Music News, which is devoted not just to Parsons but to other artists who share his vision of roots music.
"Pretty Boy Floyd":
Woody Guthrie's outlaw anthem "Pretty Boy Floyd" was recorded in 1940 for the Library of Congress. The song appeared on the set Dust Bowl Ballads, which has been released on several labels, most recently Rounder in 1988.
Dylan released a version of "Pretty Boy Floyd" on Folkways: A Vision Shared (Columbia, 1988).
"Nothing Was Delivered":
The original version of "Nothing Was Delivered" can be found on The Basement Tapes (Columbia, 1975). As on the rest of the LP, the Band back Dylan.
"Pretty Polly" is a bluegrass standard that originated in the British Isles. By 1968 the Dillards and Judy Collins, among others, had recorded it. Years later, McGuinn would include a version on his solo LP, Cardiff Rose (Columbia, 1976).
After the recording of The Notorious Byrd Brothers, McGuinn and Hillman were the only two remaining Byrds. Judging from the music on Notorious, they had developed a close creative partnership, perhaps the first real collaborative relationship between two Byrds. Since frustration with Crosby was one of the factors uniting McGuinn and Hillman, it should be no surprise that after Crosby's departure, their unity would not last long.
McGuinn had conceived of a grand concept for the next album. It would be a double album that canvassed the history of American popular music, beginning with early stringband music and moving into bluegrass, country music, jazz, rock, and electronic music. Apparently, the concept initially appealed to Hillman's catholic musical tastes. Having secured a new drummer in the person of Hillman's cousin, Kevin Kelley, McGuinn and Hillman decided to hire a pianist. McGuinn was looking for someone who could handle jazz piano. What he got instead was a singer and guitarist who loved country music, and the greatest challenge so far to his leadership of the Byrds: Gram Parsons.
Chris Hillman, whose background was in bluegrass music, had successfully persuaded his bandmates to incorporate country sounds into the Byrds' repertoire as early as their second album, on which they covered Porter Wagoner's "Satisfied Mind." In Parsons, Hillman found a musical soulmate who genuinely appreciated traditional country and bluegrass music. Almost immediately after the 21-year-old Parsons joined in late February of 1968, he and Hillman were pushing McGuinn to abandon his grand design and make an album of country music. Not the country-tinged rock of earlier Byrds songs like "Time Between," but authentic, honest-to-goodness country. Producer Gary Usher expressed a preference for the country concept as well. Swept away by his fellows' enthusiasm and the charisma of Parsons, McGuinn acquiesced. By early March of 1968 the band was in Nashville to appear on the Grand Ole Opry and record tracks with a host of Nashville session pros. Several of these musicians had worked with Gram Parsons on Safe at Home (LHI, 1968), the only album by his earlier group, the International Submarine Band.
"You Ain't Going Nowhere"
The first single released by the Parsons Byrds was a nice segué between the old Byrds sound and the new one. "You Ain't Going Nowhere" was a Bob Dylan number from the 1967 sessons that would later be released as The Basement Tapes (Columbia, 1975). Like past Dylan covers, the song features McGuinn on lead, with harmony vocals by the three singers on the choruses. But the instrumental arrangement of the song marks a dramatic shift. Acoustic and steel guitars predominate, and the characteristic McGuinn 12-string is nowhere to be heard. For the first time on any of the band's Dylan covers, McGuinn dispensed with his faux Dylan voice. And buried among the harmonies was the plaintive voice of Gram Parsons. When he sings his soulful "Oh no..." in the chorus, it's almost as if he heard something sorrowful in the song that no one else had noticed.
Sweetheart of the Rodeo
In July, Sweetheart hit the shelves. Byrds fans were in for a shock. After the lead-off track "You Ain't Going Nowhere," the album plunges headfirst into traditional country material and arrangements. "I Am A Pilgrim" is an old folk song rooted in black camp song and popularized by Merle Travis. McGuinn and Hillman's arrangement featured only banjo, guitar, fiddle and upright bass. Hillman's solo vocal is plain and not at all self-conscious, despite the religious theme of the material. The result was a song more rooted in country tradition than most of the music coming from Nashville in 1968.
"The Christian Life" is an old country gospel number by Charles and Ira Louvin. Once again, the arrangement is old-school country, with steel guitar dominating. Gram Parsons had originally sung the lead vocal, but for reasons we may never know, his vocals were replaced on this song and others by Roger McGuinn's. McGuinn emulates the vocal style of Parsons, even though very few listeners had ever heard, or heard of, Gram Parsons before the album's release. McGuinn's vocal, unlike Hillman's on "Pilgrim," is quite self-conscious, with the result that the band's reading of the song comes across as sardonic, not sincere.
The original Parsons vocals were restored on The Byrds Boxed Set. Not surprisingly, the actual Parsons vocal is an improvement over McGuinn's ersatz Parsons vocal. The Parsons version lacks the irony that, intentionally or not, McGuinn brought to the Sweetheart version. While it's clear from the way Parsons lived his life that his beliefs didn't mirror those of the narrator, it's also clear that he viewed the beliefs of the narrator with respect.
"You Don't Miss Your Water," the classic Stax ballad by William Bell, is the first attempt at the soul repertoire by Parsons or the Byrds (not counting "Captain Soul"). Soul would be an essential component in Parsons's vision of "Cosmic American Music" -- he would later cover Southern soul classics made famous by Aretha Franklin ("Do Right Woman") and James Carr ("Dark End of the Street") on the first Burritos album. The group's treatment of "Water" -- all honky tonk piano and steel guitar -- made explicit the connections Parsons saw between soul and country music.
"Water" also featured Parsons on lead vocals in the original version. On Sweetheart, his vocals are not entirely eliminated, but are buried under McGuinn vocals on lead and harmony. McGuinn doesn't imitate the Parsons vocal style here, and the agreeable results are an improvement over "Christian Life."
The original Parsons vocal, heard as a faint guide vocal in the background of the Sweetheart version, is restored on The Byrds Boxed Set. McGuinn's Sweetheart vocal is earnest and straightforward, but the Parsons lead is soulful and poignant, with some of the cracking and straining that give his vocals their heartbreaking quality on later albums. McGuinn's solid harmony vocal remains here. Their voices entwine beautifully around the final words of the song in the classic drawn-out ending.
"You're Still On My Mind" was a hit for George Jones in 1962. Here it's given the honky-tonk treatment, with wonderful piano by Earl "Les" Ball, more great steel work, Parsons on lead vocal and McGuinn on backing vocals. Although the track was not originally intended for inclusion on the LP, the performance is unassailable. And what would a country album be without some empty bottles and broken hearts?
Of the three singing Byrds, McGuinn was the least familiar with country music. Including a banjo version of the Woody Guthrie outlaw ballad "Pretty Boy Floyd" was a shrewd way to incorporate McGuinn's strength -- interpreting the folk repertoire -- into a country music context. The bluegrass-style backing is masterful, with McGuinn on banjo, Hillman on mandolin, John Hartford on fiddle, and Roy M. Huskey on upright bass.
Side Two leads off with one of Gram Parsons's greatest songs: "Hickory Wind." Written with his friend Bob Buchanan on the train to L.A. from Florida, where both singers had been visiting their mutual friend Fred Neil, "Hickory Wind" is a melancholic ballad contrasting the trials of big city life with the comforts of a rural childhood home. Everything about this song is just right -- the mournful steel guitars, the Hillman harmony part, and Parsons's heartfelt vocal. Parsons would remake this song as a duet with Emmylou Harris on his second solo album, Grievous Angel (Reprise, 1974), but Harris's beautiful vocal is undercut by Parsons's wobbly lead. For many Parsons fans, the Sweetheart original remains the definitive version.
"One Hundred Years from Now" is another Parsons original, and another song on which he was originally to have the lead vocal. His part is audible, but McGuinn doubles up on the lead, obscuring much of Parsons's singing. Hillman sings high harmony during the choruses. McGuinn and Hillman permit themselves a hint of the Parsons inflection, rather than the broad imitation of "The Christian Life." This song is not arranged in the traditional style of the other songs on the album. Hillman plays bass in his trademark style, while real steel guitar is eschewed in favor of Clarence White's guitar picking. The melody is engaging, and White plays an irresistible hook during the fade.
On The Boxed Set, the vocals by McGuinn and Hillman are deleted, uncovering Parsons's original vocal. Here the result is not an improvement, as Parsons's lead could use some polishing and the harmonies are absent. Ideally, the song might have combined Parsons's lead on the verses with the Byrds' harmonies on the choruses. Modern studio wizardry might yet permit such a combination, although the wizards employed by Sony did not take the opportunity to do so when producing the 1997 reissue.
"Blue Canadian Rockies" is a traditional country number in waltz time written by Cindy Walker and earlier recorded by such country stars as Gene Autry, Jim Reeves and Hank Snow. The lead vocal sounds like Parsons, but it's actually Hillman singing in a lower-than-normal register. Although the song was always intended for Hillman, his vocal sounds uncannily like Parsons, demonstrating that McGuinn was not the only Byrd with a talent for mimicry.
Merle Haggard's "Life in Prison" features another Parsons lead vocal. "Prison," like "You're Still On My Mind," was not originally intended for inclusion on the album. Like that track, it's spontaneous, unaffected honky-tonk music in a time-tested genre -- this time, the prison song rather than the drinking song.
The album closes with another Dylan cover, "Nothing Was Delivered," another track from the Dylan and the Band sessions that would become The Basement Tapes. The band follows the same approach as on "You Ain't Going Nowhere": country steel and piano, choruses in the classic Byrds mode, basic rock rhythm section. Another entry in the band's list of great Dylan covers.
In addition to the three lost Parsons vocals already mentioned, The Byrds Boxed Set contained three never-before heard outtakes from Sweetheart (all of which are appended to the 1997 reissue). All three songs were removed by producer Gary Usher. The best of these is a cover of Tim Hardin's "You Got A Reputation," a languid folk-blues number with some nice bluesy fake-steel licks from Clarence White. Parsons and Hillman share vocals. The song would be one of very few attempts at blues-based material by any version of the band.
"Lazy Days" is a Chuck Berry-style rave-up. Parsons originally wrote the song for the soundtrack of a movie called The Trip (1967), but it wasn't used. Parsons and the Burritos would attempt the song again on Burrito Deluxe (A&M, 1969). McGuinn's Chuck Berry licks are a pleasant surprise, and the song indicates the place of '50s style rock 'n' roll in Gram Parsons's vision of "Cosmic American Music." That said, there's no getting around the fact that "Lazy Days" isn't much of a song. With no melody to speak of and perfunctory lyrics, the song isn't much more than hackneyed barroom boogie.
The last of the unreleased tracks is the traditional number, "Pretty Polly," a chestnut that travelled from the British Isles to become a bluegrass standard in the US. Parsons thought the track would make a nice present for his newborn daughter Polly; Hillman believed "Polly" had been done to death and argued against its inclusion on the album. It's a pleasant enough number. McGuinn affects a nasal folky voice and plays his guitar in patented McGuinn style, the only time he does so on any of the Sweetheart sessions. "Polly" could have fit within the country framework of the LP, but its omission is no great loss either. McGuinn later recorded a wilder version for Cardiff Rose (Columbia, 1976).
Regrettably, the 1997 reissue omits the three alternate Parsons vocals found on the Boxed Set (thereby ensuring that future generations of Parsons completists have to buy the 4-CD set as well). Happily, the reissue does contain five new outtakes. "All I Have Is Memories" is an instrumental version of an old country standby. The other tracks are fascinating rehearsal versions of "The Christian Life," "Life In Prison," "You're Still On My Mind," and "One Hundred Years From Now." Each features vocals from Parsons as he teaches the songs to the rest of the group. Though these rehearsals lack the polish of the finished alternate versions from the Boxed Set, they are a welcome glimpse into the recording of the LP.
After leaving the Byrds, Parsons made clear his dissatisfaction with Sweetheart. From his comments grew a legend concerning the "lost" Sweetheart of the Rodeo. With the welcome release of the outtakes and missing Parsons vocals, it's possible to re-evaluate both the album and the lore that grew up around it. In hindsight, the removal of the Parsons leads from "The Christian Life" and "You Don't Miss Your Water" (and the burial of his vocal on "One Hundred Years from Now") was a mistake. Not so the decision to exclude "Reputation," "Lazy Days," and "Pretty Polly." None of the three outtakes is a better track than the eleven that made the cut, including the two songs that were not originally intended for the album, "You're Still on My Mind" and "Life in Prison." In fact, both the Parsons outtakes would have been jarring departures from the overall feel of the album.
When taken on its own considerable merits, rather than measured against a mythical work no one had ever heard, Sweetheart stands as a masterpiece. Cohesively and coherently, the Byrds and their top-flight sidemen canvass many of country's subgenres -- bluegrass, country gospel, honky-tonk, balladry -- and explore its tried-and-true subjects -- religious devotion, the outlaw populist hero, prison life, love of the outdoors, longing for a simpler life, empty bottles and broken hearts. Then they bring it all back home by showing that the best songwriter of their generation belonged to the tradition of American roots music, too.
Sweetheart of the Rodeo is a testament to the vision and enthusiasm of Byrds insider Hillman and upstart outsider Parsons, who commandeered a successful, established rock band and steered it in a radical new direction. Their effort was doomed commercially, of course, but it provided a platform for their belief that traditional country could speak to a young audience left cold by the candyfloss then being churned out of Nashville. The influence of this idea, of Sweetheart, and of the later work by Parsons and Hillman, is incalculable, not just on the mellow country rockers of the early '70s (who obviously didn't quite get the point), but also on mainstream country music, on the progressive and neo-traditionalist wings of country, on modern bluegrass, on the roots-rock movement and on many of the musicians lumped under the rubric of alternative rock. Today there is an entire magazine, No Depression, devoted to artists following the direction that Sweetheart pointed.
Sweetheart ranks among the very best of the Byrds' albums. Unfortunately, it was also the last great LP the band would record.
To Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde...
Parsons 1970 quote. Scoppa, "Burrito Deluxe" at 110.
Parsons 1972 quote. Donkers, "Interview" at 140.
Parsons 1973 quote. Interview with Cameron Crowe, quoted in Fong-Torres, Hickory Wind at 94.
Melcher quote. Rogan, Timeless Flight at 107.
Hillman quote. Griffin, "Hillman" at 85 - 86.
Usher quote. Tannfelt at 17.
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