Thursday, November 06, 2014

Sweetheart Of The Rodeo (1968)

You would think a long time music junkie like me would have heard everything of importance by now but for some reason the work of the late Gram Parsons never became one of my musical experiences. I haven't been avoiding him, it's just that except for an occasional song or two on the radio, his music never crossed my path. However, last week at Princeton Record Exchange I hit the country-rock trifecta.

The prices at the Exchange for Parsons' CDs were so good that it would have been criminal to pass them up. For $4.99 I grabbed the 1997 reissue of The Byrds' Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, originally released in 1968. It was Parsons one and only record with Roger McGuinn's famous band. For just a buck more I bought both of Parson's solo albums, GP (1973) and Grevious Angel (1974) together on one disc. That's a mere $10.98 for three classics!

Now that I've heard all three albums here is the lowdown. Every musician, critic, and scholar who has praised the late Parsons for decades knew exactly what they were talking about. Sweetheart Of The Rodeo is chock full of great country songs and fine singing combined with a true rock 'n roll spirit. Banjos and steel guitars are everywhere and traditional rock guitar is noticeably absent. So is McGuinn's trademark 12-string. It's my belief that the country-rock label only applies here because the album was recorded by a rock band.

By this time, the only original members left in the group, now reduced to a quartet, are McQuinn and Chris Hillman. Those two, Parsons, and Hillman's cousin, drummer Kevin Kelly, rounded out the lineup.

Several guest musicians added their considerable talents to the sessions including Lloyd Green and Jaydee Maness (later a member of Hillman's Desert Rose Band) on steel guitar. If you're a fan of the instrument this set is for you.

According to McGuinn the platter started out as a concept album that was intended to be a double LP featuring a hundred year history of American popular music. Eventually, that idea evolved into this eleven song country-rock classic that was championed by Parsons. He first convinced Hillman and then McGuinn reluctantly went along with the idea after producer Gary Usher (best known for writing numerous hits with Brian Wilson for the Beach Boys) said he preferred the country album to McGuinn's concept.

The band chose their cover versions carefully. In addition to their gem filled arrangement of Bob Dylan's "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" that opens the disc, they covered the Louvin Brothers' standard "The Christian Life." There is a version of Merle Haggard's "Life In Prison" and Woody Guthrie's "Pretty Boy Floyd." It's another of Guthrie's protest songs and its intricate arrangement includes banjo, mandolin, fiddle and stand-up bass. They close with another Dylan tune, "Nothing Was Delivered" that almost sounds like the early, hit-making version of The Byrds by featuring their familiar harmonies.

Some excellent originals are included. Parsons brought in "Hickory Wind." He carries the track with his lead vocal backed by some great steel guitar. McGuinn and Hillman collaborated on "I Am A Pilgrim" a tune bolstered by John Hartford's fiddle work.

The 1997 CD release of the original vinyl LP is followed by eight bonus tracks. Three of them, "You Got A Reputation", "Lazy Days", and "Pretty Polly," rock more than anything on the original album. Could that be why they were left off? The first two actually use electric guitar and the latter sounds like McGuinn finally broke out his trusty 12-string even though the liner notes don't indicate that. None of them feel like filler.

Sadly, the album was a commercial failure. It only rose to #77 on Billboard's list of best sellers and didn't chart at all in Britain. The two singles culled from the album, "Nowhere" and "Pilgrim" suffered the same fate. Despite this Sweetheart Of The Rodeo has become a legendary work credited with igniting the entire country-rock sub-genre.

You can buy the expanded version here from Amazon.

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