Across the history of recorded music, one can find a number of moments where the entirety of the world of music is forced to take a step back and reexamine exactly “what” is possible within their particular style or genre. Whether it was the rise of electronic music and its impact on the world of pop music or the countless shifts within the world of jazz, no style can stay stagnant for long, and often times, it is when a group returns to the true roots of a playing approach where the most important music can be created. It is with this in mind that one must look a bit deeper into the band that remain one of the most overlooked of their generation: The Byrds. While most are familiar with their handful of classic singles, it is within their early studio albums where they forced a massive shift in the world of rock music, as they seemed capable of playing brilliantly across nearly every style imaginable. It is perhaps due to the fact that the band went through so many lineup changes that this diversity in approach can be found, and yet there is never a moment in their catalog where it seems as if they are “forced” into a particular sound or approach. However, while the entire catalog of The Byrds is exceptional, there is no other record that sounds quite like or holds the same overall importance as their flawless, country and western rooted 1968 release, Sweetheart Of The Rodeo.
Though other groups had certainly delved into the space where country and western music meet rock and roll before, none had gone so deeply, nor taken an entire album for this approach, and the results one finds all across the record are stunning. From the opening moments of their cover of Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” it is almost impossible to properly place this album into either the “country and western” or “rock and roll” category, as it constantly shifts between the two with absolute musical perfection. Led by the superb acoustic guitar and banjo of Roger McGuinn, there is instantly an organic, “down home” tone to the songs, and this persists in a fantastic manner throughout the entire album. It is the way that his sound combines so seamlessly with the guitar and piano of new member Gram Parsons that quickly sets the record apart from their previous release, and one can easily argue that it was Parsons’ musical taste and direction that truly pushed the record and band into this more “country fried” direction. Along with this pair, bassist Chris Hillman performs flawlessly, and it is his additions of mandolin that pushes some of the tracks to true greatness. However, one of the biggest shifts in sound for The Byrds is in the drumming of Kevin Kelley, as his tone is far different from that of his processor, and it is quickly clear that he understands the mood and lightness required to properly execute the country style. It is the way that the four core members move as a single unit that pulls the listener in, and few records have as much pure warmth as one finds here.
However, while the core of the musical arrangements may be a bit of a contrast from the previous work of The Byrds, the element that makes Sweetheart Of The Rodeo fit perfectly into the bands’ catalog comes in the blissfully beautiful vocals. While there is certainly a similar level of influence from the country and western styles as one hears in the music, the fact remains that you can hear their influence on a massive number of bands that worked vocal harmonies in the late 1960’s. There is a completely raw and highly emotional feel running through every vocal on the album, and it is the fact that there is not even a hint of pretension or parody in their singing that sets the record so far apart from others that had perhaps dabbled in the country-rock sound previously. Much like their musical chemistry, the vocals shared between Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman, and Gram Parsons are truly fantastic, and whether it is a softer harmony or a swinging lead, few vocal performances in history can compare to the sounds found all across Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. Yet at the same time, the album is a bit of an oddity due to the fact that it is almost entirely covers in terms of song choice, as the group pulls from artists ranging from Woody Guthrie to Merle Haggard to Dylan, along with a pair of Parson’s originals. It is the fact that The Byrds are able to make each of these songs their own in every sense of the word that shows their true musical talents, as well as their clear understanding of the proper balance between country and rock music.
Truth be told, while a number of artists had attempted to blend together rock and roll with its country and western roots, a majority of these songs had been overlain with a sense of parody or comedy, thus compromising the actual musical work on the song in question. This was perhaps due to the fact that at the time, it was not seen as “cool” to musically experiment in such ways, and many groups were likely concerned about alienating their audiences. However, The Byrds clearly did not have such concerns, as they jumped in completely to the country and western sound, managing to make it flow and groove like never before. It is the unique edge that they bring to each of the tracks that makes Sweetheart Of The Rodeo so distinctive, and once you experience this record, you can easily point out the long list of bands that decided to copy this musical formula. Yet at the same time, one can easily argue that had it not been for Gram Parsons joining the group, the album would not have achieved in the manner that it did, as this sound was one that Parsons had already been known, and while The Byrds were planning to make a more roots-based record, Parsons helped to guide and focus them to this musical perfection. At the same time, it is the combined sound and musical commitment of all the players involved that ultimately yields such a superb musical product, and there has simply never been another album quite like The Byrds 1968 classic, Sweetheart Of The Rodeo.