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.”
You never know how much a ‘secondary’ figure in the band can suddenly influence the sound of the whole band. Just like Mick Taylor revolutionized the Stones’ sound a year later without the band even realizing it, the arrival of Gram Parsons on the scene proved to be crucial and, in the long run, disastrous for the Byrds. McGuinn originally planned a double album drawing on every genre in the history of American music, a kind of anthology of Folk, Bluegrass, Country, Jazz And Blues – an idea later shared by the Doors, surprisingly. However, neither of the bands had enough guts to carry out the idea, so the Doors recorded The Soft Parade (bummer), and McGuinn took Parsons’ advice and recorded an all-country album instead. This isn’t even country-rock – it’s just pure country, with pedal steel guitar as the only prominent instrument in existence. The result is that it gets boring. And boy, does it get boring…
Now I don’t know that much about country music – I’m no expert, really. But I know for damn sure country music can be really really entertaining – like, for instance, the countryfied version of Dylan’s ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’ that opens the album. Once again, McGuinn does an outstanding singing job on this one, maybe their third best Dylan cover after ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ and ‘My Back Pages’: for once, the composition can be called ‘improved upon’, at least as compared to the rather sloppy version on The Basement Tapes. And the Parsons-led choruses are particularly impressive, with the band soaring up to the skies with simple and uncomprehensible, but beautiful lyrics (‘ooh-wee, ride on high/Tomorrow’s the day my bride’s gonna come…’)
But what about the rest? One after another, we get ten dull, gloomy, ploddering numbers that resemble each other like two drops of water and make the record sound horrendously dated and pointless – sometimes it seems that McGuinn didn’t really care at all about what he was singing as long as it featured some steel pedal. The songs are all covers, except for the sole Parsons original (‘Hickory Wind’) which everybody seems to love for no obvious reason – to me, it sounds like everything else on here: a slow, dreamy pedal steel ballad with a primitive melody and typical country lyrics. It’s… how do you describe it? It’s like the proverbial country song – all the necessary ingredients to form a country song are there, but there’s nothing to distinguish it from every other country song in existence.
In fact, I pretty much prefer listening to Woody Guthrie’s ‘Pretty Boy Floyd’: at least it’s fast, and I like the tongue-in-cheek accent of McGuinn on this one. Another good number is ‘Nothing Was Delivered’, yet another Dylan cover: which actually convinces me as further proof to the fact that they just didn’t get enough good material. ‘The Christian Life’? ‘Blue Canadian Rockies’? ‘Life In Prison’? Bores the living hell out of me.
I mean, really, country music can be much more exciting. It’s not the great melodic diversity, of course – like all ‘root’ genres, country is pretty limited – but it’s the interesting tricks and mood shifts you get that make a country track sound great. Songs like the above mentioned ones, or, for instance, ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’, don’t lift their heads up from the ‘zero level’ not for a single second: just the same expressionless, formulaic slide guitars (God knows I love slide guitars – but you gotta diversify the chords, too), expressionless, soulless vocals, and trivial arrangements. Berk. Country my ass. I’ll take Dylan’s Selfportrait over this stuff easily, at least Bob shifts tempos and puts some colour and flavour into his voice as he goes along.
On the positive side, I don’t have anything in particular against this stuff – it doesn’t offend me nohow. But I tell you, these songs shouldn’t have all made it to the same album, because it ruins their individual charm (not that all of them have individual charm: ‘Blue Canadian Rockies’ is as dull as may be). And some sound like countrified takes on their earlier and better material (‘I Am A Pilgrim’, a pale shadow of the far superior ‘I Come And Stand At Every Door’).
The endless bonus tracks on here mostly add alternate takes with Parsons vocals instead of McGuinn ones, which isn’t as interesting as it might seem. However, it does include three previously unreleased cuts which liven up things quite a bit, just because they break with the pattern: ‘You Got A Reputation’ is still countryish, but it sounds mean and menacing, with an atmosphere that recalls the dangerous psychedelia of ‘Thoughts And Words’; ‘Lazy Days’ is a groovy Chuck Berry-style rocker where McGuinn sounds like Ringo Starr, so you just have to give it a listen; and ‘Pretty Polly’ is one of those scary, nightmarish folk songs that Bob Dylan was so fond of, with a lyrical subject that reminds me of ‘House Carpenter’. Why they haven’t made the grade back in 1968 seems obvious – they have next to none pedal steel; however, in retrospect it seems that, were they included, the album would only have benefited from that. And yet – didn’t they inspire Dylan for Nashville Skyline? I mean – lead for once instead of follow? Who cares? Skyline isn’t one of his best albums, anyway.
A confession: I have totally fallen for this Gram Parsons mythology. Indoctrinated by years of biased textbooks, hippies’ hyperbolic eulogies, and Entertainment Weekly features (a Johnny Knoxville/Christina Applegate biopic currently entitled Grand Theft Parsons is due next year), I have venerated Parsons to the point where, back in ’91, my Parsons figurine necklace saved my life when I should have been shot in the neck. I know he was a narcissistic, condescending, uncontrollable malcontent, probably undeserving of most of my praise. I don’t care. Every martyr has his cross. Jesus’ was made of wood; Parsons’ was made of morphine, booze, and Cosmic Morphoid Crazydust (or some such opiate).
A Harvard drop-out, Parsons met Byrds bassist Chris Hillman at an unromantic Hollywood bank, coerced him into joining the Crosby-less band in Nashville, and, amidst quiet feuding with Roger McGuinn, made what is deniably one of the Top 20 country records of all time. Today, no noteworthy reviewer is naïve enough to claim Sweetheart of the Rodeo was the first country-rock album. Instead they’ll tell you it was Parsons’ International Submarine Band’s 1968 album Safe at Home, and maybe that they even have the receipts to prove it. But, while Parsons was more of a heroin addict than a pedagogue, if he’s taught me anything, it’s that there was no “first” country-rock record. Country has always rocked. When Hank Williams sang, “I’ll never get out of this world alive,” he paved the way for Sid Vicious. If anything, Sweetheart is vastly less rocking than Merle Haggard’s late-60s albums– Parsons was simply the first to disseminate the rock to North Hollywood and Keith Richards’ mansion.
The actual album is a blindingly rusty gait through parched weariness and dusted reverie. It’s not the natural sound of Death Valley or Utah, but rather, a false portrait by people who wished it was, which makes it even more melancholy and charismatic. Between the shuffling and galloping are the astonishingly doomed harmonies, McGuinn and Parson’s hypnotic and enthusiastic vocals, and countless miles of Lloyd Green’s pedal steel. The songs, mostly covers, are equally saturated in sincerity and dedication. McGuinn had originally conceived the album as a panorama of American genres from the turn of the century through the synthesizer era until Parsons and Hillman convinced him to focus solely on country. Still, the diversity is there: a plucking Woody Guthrie, a craggy, grisly Haggard, post-motorcycle Dylan, Stax/Volt genius William Bell. But The Byrds have so totally captured a particular sound that the transitions are seamless. The righteousness of “The Christian Life” is perfectly at home on an album with a song about murdering your wife.
The crucial aspects of this particular release, however, are the extras– especially since an expanded edition already came out in 1997 highlighting some unreleased master tapes. This new double-disc version is about double the price, and somehow managed to miss a few tracks from the ’97 version. It also claims everything’s been remastered without sounding at all distinguishable from the last edition. To be fair, the second disc offers six International Submarine Band songs (three of which have never been available on CD), but even these are valuable mainly for historians and best heard in the context of the entire Safe at Home album. Suffice to say, it’s an underdeveloped band that can occasionally stun you into submission (the steaming “Luxury Liner”, or the waltzing tribute to monogamy and masculinity, “Strong Boy”) and other times sound like a disorderly, if endearing, garage-rock band with way too much emphasis on tambourine.
Due to contractual obligations, Lee Hazlewood, founder of the LHI label, took all but three Parsons tracks off the original album– although, by all accounts, he was the auteur of the entire recording. Parsons has come back here with a vengeance: For starters, 19 of the 28 supplementary tracks feature Parsons on lead vocal. Whether you think this package is worthwhile is entirely dependent on whether you think Parsons deserves this much credit. On the album itself, McGuinn’s belabored, satirical vocal on “The Christian Life” is adequate, even beautiful, performed like a pop star who sings odes to woe while showering in hundred-dollar bills. Conversely, Parsons sounds like he’s had a bloody nose for a week on the bonus track presented here, giving the song a more sincere read than McGuinn’s obvious pisstake. He’s also drunk and has the stuttered, cracking delivery of someone who was self-schooled in a sand dune (which is strange considering he was a spoilt egoist). Of course, this begs the question of who exactly needs four relatively-similar sounding versions of “The Christian Life” or “One Hundred Years from Now”. Well, I do. I’ve been listening to those songs on repeat for years now. Finally, I can mix things up a bit.
While there are significant, if not epiphanic, variations in the second disc’s working demos and rehearsals, the causal Parsons fan will certainly be satiated by the ’97 single disc. If you’re a Gram man, on the other hand, listening to the gradual development of the plaintiveness on “One Hundred Years from Now” or the original sluggishness on “Life in Prison” is equivalent to bowing at Parsons’ altar. Only die-hards will find the second disc worthwhile. But then, everyone should be a die-hard.