Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Byrds - Sweetheart of the Rodeo

While I was always a fan of the Byrds sound, I was never a big enough fanatic to be an avid collector of their
music. I still only own a couple of their albums but as I have been getting more interested in country music, when I came upon this 2-CD set, I decided to pick it up. This is known as one of the first major rock bands' foray into C&W and this is the record that propelled Gram Parsons into the spotlight. Funnily enough, he joined the band just a few months before this was recorded and left before it was released. Still, his influence is mighty strong here.

Roger McGuinn's initial concept for this album was a history of American music, but Parsons soon steered it into a more direct country style, complete with some Nashville studio musicians and plenty of traditional instruments, such as pedal steel guitar, banjo and fiddle. Opening with Bob Dylan's "You Ain't Going Nowhere" (this album pre-dated Nashville Skyline, by the way), this is a perfect blend of their usual Dylan numbers and their C&W direction. There's some nice banjo picking and mellow fiddlin' in the traditional "I Am a Pilgrim" and Parsons' love of the Louvin Brothers brings their "The Christian Life" to the fold, with McGuinn taking lead vocals (though this set includes demos with Parsons singing). I'm not familiar with William Bell's "You Don't Miss Your Water", a soul number that is nicely transformed here and McGuinn does a terrific job with the sweet melody. Parsons gets his first official lead vocal in Luke McDaniel's "You're Still on My Mind", a very traditional C&W tune, complete with "an empty bottle, a broken heart" and fine pedal steel guitar. The first side of the vinyl album ended with Woody Guthrie's "Pretty Boy Floyd", here with guests on acoustic bass, banjo, fiddle and band member Chris Hillman on mandolin.

Side two of the vinyl opened with an original of Gram's, "Hickory Wind", sounding as much like an old, melancholy C&W song as possible while his "One Hundred Years From Now", is very much like the Byrds of old, with McGuinn and Hillman singing wonderful harmonies, with only the pedal steel giving it more of a country feel than a folk touch. Hillman takes the lead on Cindy Walker's "Blue Canadian Rockies", which is a nice enough country tune, but not one of the stand-out numbers. Parsons returns for Merle Haggard's "Life in Prison" and the album concluded, appropriately, with another Dylan cover, "Nothing Was Delivered", again giving old fans more of the sound that they are used to (though with a country orientation).

The bonus tracks on disc 1 starts with new drummer Kevin Kelley singing "All I Have is Memories", then includes a groovin' "Reputation" (which sounds like an old number, but I can't place it), a terrific take on the traditional "Pretty Polly" with nice electric 12-string work, "Lazy Days", a kinda countrified Chuck Berry and then three numbers with Parsons' original vocals - "The Christian Life", "You Don't Miss Your Water" and "One Hundred Years From Now", finishing with a radio spot for the album.

Disc 2 begins with 6 songs from Gram's previous group, The International Submarine Band, and shows why McGuinn thought that he would fit in with the Byrds, as they have a very similar sound, though definitely with a more countrified direction. They even do Buck Owens' "Truck Drivin' Man", a song popularized (to the rock'n'roll crowd) by the J. Geils Band on Blow Your Face Out (funnily enough, since Gram covers one of their songs on his solo album). These are all quite good, reminiscent of stuff like Michael Nesmith's country numbers. The rest of the CD collects demos, outtakes and rehearsal versions of the songs that appeared on the original album, some with Parsons' original vocals. Lots of repetition here, but cool insights to the evolution of the tunes.

Overall, I think that I prefer this record to Parsons' solo work, simply because there is more of a mix of genres here - bluesgrass, C&W, pop and rock - though his solo albums are strong and have obviously been highly influential in both rock and country fields. But here's where it all really started, so certainly something to own!