This one sets my ears a jumpin’ for a number of reasons. It’s The Byrds, it’s The Byrds doing Country and it’s The Byrds doing Country including Gram Parsons.
Founder members David Crosby and Michael Clarke had been “dismissed” from the band in 1967. Although Roger McGuinn wanted to record an album covering all styles of American music, from Bluegrass to modern electronic music, what he and Chris Hillman really needed was new band members so they could tour previous album “The Notorious Byrd Brothers”. These turned out to be Kevin Kelley on drums and Gram Parsons who actually auditioned as a piano player. Gram however had his own agenda. He wanted to marry his love of Country Music to the American teen passion for rock. He began to turn Hillman away from McGuinn’s American music concept and his absolute belief in his Country Rock (or Cosmic American Music as he called it) vision was so strong he even convinced McGuinn that was the way to go.
“Sweetheart Of The Rodeo” was recorded in Nashville (of course) and is made up of Country standards (“I Am A Pilgrim”, “Blue Canadian Rockies” and “The Christian Life”) alongside a pair of Dylan songs ("You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" and "Nothing Was Delivered”), some more contemporary Country numbers (Merle Haggard’s “Life In Prison”) and it gave a Country makeover to William Bells Stax hit “You Don’t Miss Your Water”. All this was rounded out with a trio of original songs written by Gram Parsons "Lazy Days", "One Hundred Years from Now" and the quite wonderful “Hickory Wind”. The core band was fleshed out with some top Nashville session players, Clarence White on guitar (who would later join The Byrds), Jaydee Maness on pedal steel and John Hartford on Banjo among them.
Before the album was released Lee Hazelwood threw a spanner in the works by legally contesting Gram Parsons appearance on the record claiming he was signed to Hazelwood’s LHI Records and couldn’t record for Columbia. As a result (in a panic ?) Roger McGuinn erased Grams vocals on 3 songs ("The Christian Life", "You Don't Miss Your Water", and "One Hundred Years from Now") and re-recorded them himself which Gram was still pissed about in 1973. He said in an interview that McGuinn "erased it and did the vocals himself and fucked it up.”. Strangely Grams vocals were left on three other songs ("Hickory Wind", "You're Still on My Mind", and "Life in Prison”) leading to the rumour that McGuinn replaced Grams vocals not in fear of any legal case but to minimise his presence on the album.
On it’s release the album received pretty encouraging reviews in the music press but…their predominantly rock audience hated it because it was too Country and the Country music audience hated it because it was too Rock ! Outside some early Gram Parsons records with the International Submarine Band which weren’t too well known, “Sweetheart Of The Rodeo” can claim to be the first Country Rock record. Without “Sweetheart…” leading the way there’s possibly no Eagles, Poco etc. (I'll leave you to decide if that's a good or bad thing). I love it and it helped cement a love of the edgier side of Country Music in me that survives to this day.
Hickory Wind - https://youtu.be/4D8-5w1gQHA