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Gram Parsons: Going Up the Country – The Byrds and Sweetheart Of The Rodeo

byrds-sweetheartFrom ICE

Though opinion differ on who recorded the first country-rock album, there is no question that the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo was the first one by a major rock group, and Sony/Legacy is set to debut an expanded two-CD version, with lots of bonus material, on September 2 as part of its new ‘Legacy Editions’ series.

As long-time Byrds fans will know, the Byrds by the time of Sweetheart of the Rodeo in 1968 were down from five original members to just Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, with singer-songwriter Gene Clark and drummer Michael Clarke having exited on their own and David Crosby a recent victim of a pink-slip for his volatility in the recording studio during sessions for the preceding Notorious Byrd Brothers.

Joining McGuinn and Hillman in the new lineup were Hillman’s cousin Kevin Kelley, formerly the drummer in Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal’s Rising Sons, and Gram Parsons, then the leader of the little-known International Submarine Band, on keyboards. The album that resulted failed initially with both rock and country fans, the former put off by the twangy content and the latter by the band’s long hair, but has since become a certified classic and the foundation for Parsons’ role as a cult hero to alt-country musicians.

Disc 1 of the new Legacy Edition, supervised by Bob Irwin and mixed by Vic Anesini, starts with the 11 songs on the original Sweetheart of the Rodeo LP, including those where McGuinn re-recorded lead vocals originally done by Parsons but dumped after the latter was discovered to be under contract to another label, Lee Hazelwood’s LHI Productions.

These tracks are then followed by the outtakes and alternates, including those with Parsons’ vocals, that first surfaced on the out-of-print 1990 Byrds Box Set – ‘Pretty Polly,’ ‘The Christian Life,’ ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’ and ‘One Hundred Years from Now,’ ‘(You’ve Got a) Reputation’ and ‘Lazy Days.’ Also added to the first disc the previously unavailable Kevin Kelley vocal version of ‘All I Have Is Memories,’ which Irwin recently discovered in the vaults, plus the Columbia radio spot advertising the album that appeared as bonus on the 1997 expanded Sweetheart reissue.

Disc 2 then offers up a motherlode of unreleased and often revelatory alternate takes, along with several rare Parsons tracks that pre-date his short stay from January to July 1968 in the Byrds.

The disc opens with ‘Sum Up Broke’ and ‘One Day Week,’ the A and B sides of the International Submarine Band’s lone single on the Columbia label. Parsons and John Nuese co-wrote and sing on ‘Sum Up Broke,’ while Parsons has the microphone to himself on his solo credit ‘One Day Week.’ Both tracks are in mono, as is the subsequent ‘Truck Drivin’ Man,’ the B side of another ISB single done for the short-lived Ascot company. The A side, a prosaic instrumental tie-in for the cold war film comedy The Russians Are Going, The Russians are Coming, is not included.

Stereo recordings then kick in with three tracks – ‘Blue Eyes,’ ‘Luxury Liner’ and ‘Strong Boy’ – taken from the International Submarine Band’s one full-length album, Safe at Home. “We had the original two-track stereo masters for these,” Irwin tells ICE. “With these tracks we wanted to show what Gram’s history was before he joined the Byrds and indicate what he and Chris Hillman (who had country roots also) brought to the table – the musical palate they offered,” Irwin adds.

The disc then delivers 14 previously unheard rehearsal and alternate takes from Sweetheart sessions. They begin with a very funky version of ‘Lazy Days,’ driven by Jaydee Maness steel guitar.’ Irwin mentions the harmonies on the track as reminding him of what Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were doing during Let It Bleed period. Parsons and Hillman, after they regrouped as the Flying Burrito Brothers, recut the song for Burrito Deluxe in 1970.

Disc 2 continues with an alternate version of the Parsons-written, but McGuinn-sung, ‘Pretty Polly,’ this time without the double-tracked McGuinn vocal used on the Box Set. This is followed by a take of Parsons’ ‘Hickory Wind’ recorded during the band’s week-long stay in Nashville before the Byrds became the first rock group to perform at the Grand Ole Opry.

Irwin next serves up two rehearsals each, with bits of studio chatter and occasional false starts, of Parsons fronting the band on the Louvin Brothers’ ‘The Christian Life,’ Merle Haggard’s ‘Life in Prison,’ Parsons’ own ‘One Hundred Years from Now’ and the old George Jones hit ‘You’re Still on My Mind.’

The disc closes with a pair of instrumental run-throughs of Kelley’s ‘All I Have Is Memories’ and a rehearsal of ‘Blue Canadian Rockies’ featuring Hillman handling the vocal. Altogether the second disc clocks in at 61 minutes of rare and previously unreleased material.

Irwin singles out original producer Gary Usher for his crucial role in crafting Sweetheart. ‘He was a member of the new school of producers as opposed to some of the older guys who would rein in the younger musicians back in the ’60s. He pretty much let them go and shape their music the way they wanted to and then offered very smart musical guidance . . . Roger McGuinn has great things to say about Gary. Certainly they feel that he fostered their creativity.”

Irwin also praises McGuinn, “A lot of credit has to be given to Roger’s openness and willingness to listen to the people he was playing with. I think that’s something that is often overlooked – the strength of Roger’s contribution. Even though the band was feeling the influences of this new music, Roger was still very much the main driving force behind the band when it came to shaping the music. You can hear on the studio chatter that he and Gram are calling the shots, but Roger is structuring the songs.”

Asked about Sweetheart, Hillman tells ICE, “I think it was a noble experiment for the time. There are some great songs, including two of Gram’s best, ‘One Hundred Years from Now’ and ‘Hickory Wind.’ He was like a young colt let out of the corral, rearing to go, and that was good for Roger and me. I think we opened a lot of doors for people who otherwise would never had listened to that kind of music.”

But Hillman does qualify his praise for Sweetheart. “I don’t think it was the best Byrds album we made. When I listen to things like ‘Life in Prison,’ sung by a trust-fund kid, it doesn’t quite gel. That was sort of a bad pick of material, [with] Gram singing ‘I’ll do life in prison for the wrongs that I’ve done,’ unless it was more of an insightful, abstract look at his own problems – ‘life in prison’ being suffering emotionally in his own mind.”

But having Parsons in the band, he says, was great for him. “I love country music, and now I had an ally, and we sort of nudged Roger along. Roger never really liked that kind of music, and to this day I don’t think he likes it.”

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March 30, 2013 - Posted by | Gram Parsons The Byrds Sweetheart Of The Rodeo |

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