Somehow, the Byrds managed to parlay their folk-rock traditions into some sort of country rock hybrid, and while their new sound didn’t come off like Buck Owens & His Buckaroos, namely because the Byrds weren’t in the same class, their lyrics and musicianship were alright … perhaps a bit pretentious, yet still pretty good.
That said, the material they’ve chosen, along with the way they perform it is folksy, relaxed and extraordinarily simple. Of course this sentence requires another ‘that said’, as much of the material are cover versions of Bob Dylan, Gene Autry, Woody Guthrie and Merle Haggard songs. Where on a whole, much of the material is entirely uninspired folk strumming, making for a very uninvolved record that is entirely too easy to listen to, as if it had been created as background songs from the get-go, but hey, the boys were never known, ever, to have delivered a record that was good from the first song to the last.
Of course everyone points to Sweetheart Of The Rodeo due to the influence of Gram Parsons, and while you can hang me from the tallest tree, I’ve never been one who was able to wrap my head around what Gram was doing, or even his vision, though here, he leaves listeners with that easy going just passing through attitude, where everything stretches out like like a pink and orange sunset. People are going to attempt to tell you that Sweetheart is a landmark album whose influence can’t be overstated, when the truth is, they can be, especially if one connects with what was going down in 1968. Yes, others will inform you that the album was an instant classic, that it was ahead of its time, that folks didn’t recognize, and wouldn’t recognize Sweetheart for what it was for decades to come … but that just ain’t true, ‘less of course you’re a fan of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and then anything is possible, I suppose.
The album reveals founding Byrd Roger McGuinn giving up his trademark Rickenbacker jangle in favor of a banjo, evidencing the musical departure as well as anything here. Also, famously McGuinn ended up re-recording vocals over three of Parsons’ lead tracks. Although maybe a bit obnoxious that one of those was a song Parsons wrote (“One Hundred Years From Now”), but truly it is no matter. Whether it is McGuinn, Parsons or other band co-founder Chris Hillman on lead vocals, the songs are all matter of factly done. There are several country/folk music covers and two Parsons’ songs bookended by two countrified Bob Dylan songs that are as strong as anything here. The opening “You Ain’t Goin” Nowhere’ may personify the album as a classic opener, but the closing “Nothing Was Delivered” is the most Byrds sounding of the tracks with harmonies fully intact.
Yes, this was a commercial flop from the day it was released, far too country for rock fans and simply too rock for country fans. If you weren’t there then, you’ve no idea of the cultural lines of demarcation between country music whose fans, in the middle of the Viet Nam war, supported the notion of ‘my country right or wrong,’ and that black people should know their place, as opposed to counterculture citizens who embraced black Americans and despised the notion that anything is right without justification, so why the Byrds at this time would seek to align themselves with southern country bumble-heads is beyond me … and certainly, I may be a bit prejudiced, as I lived through those times and saw the ugliness that lurked ‘round The Grand Ole Opry. Yet consider this, the Byrds were never really folk, they were never really rock, they weren’t psychedelic (save maybe for “Eight Miles High”) and they were’nt actually country, they were simply throwing everything at the wall, all of their musical experiences and cultural attitudes, to see what stuck; they were a band from nowhere headed nowhere.
Perhaps this best sums up the release, Sweetheart Of The Rodeo was the product of a new band searching for a direction whose members wouldn’t last six months together. It was a devoted detour into the depths of country music, which neither The Byrds’ existing fans nor country connoisseurs were willing to accompany them into. In the short term, it was a stepping stone for newbie and chief instigator, Gram Parsons, to validate his country-rock vision, the pinnacle of which he wouldn’t live to see, all while leaving his fellow Byrds behind to pick up the pieces.
But it is a nifty album cover for sure … but I still don’t like the album today.
Ruined the Byrds as rock band. Was so disappointed when this drek came out. After the wonderful “Notorious Byrds Brothers Album” Sweetheart was like a bad dream. Dreary bland Country songs front the over rated Gram Parsons. Why Mcguinn agreed to do this album always was strange. Firing Crosby, doing this poor album ended the Byrds, and McGuinn’s career in my opinion. Using the “Byrds” name on this and the country rock junk that followed was terrible. Clarence White, great country guitar player, was never a “Byrd”. Went to concerts hoping for McGuinn play the RIC. Byrds concert with Gram Parsons at Fillmore was the worst. Chris Hellman was part of the reasons he Byrds had a bad reputation as a bad concert band. McGuinn solo career brought back the Byrds for me. Sweetheart 50 year anniversary played in Atlanta. Marty Stuart as a Byrd made me sick. McGuinn has given up. Should kiss Crosby’s ass to play with him.