The Byrds are quite rightly one of the most revered bands to have emerged from Los Angeles’ gorgeously ethereal ’60s folk-rock scene, famously centered in Laurel Canyon, that also birthed The Mamas and the Papas as well as Buffalo Springfield. Members of the latter would, of course, join forces with David Crosby of The Byrds and Graham Nash of British band The Hollies to form Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. The Byrds’ place in rock & roll history has long been assured.
In the eight years between 1965 and ’73, The Byrds released an astonishing 12 studio albums. That rapid-fire output is all the more incredible when examining the quality of each record, and the shifts in direction the band took. Case in point: in January 1968, The Byrds released the very psychedelic The Notorious Byrd Brothers. By August of that same year, David Crosby was out, Gram Parsons was in, and Sweetheart of the Rodeo was released, seeing the band take a more country-rock swing.
This year, Sweetheart of the Rodeo is 50 years old, and this week, two of the musicians responsible — Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman — will dust the album off for two shows at the Ace Hotel, alongside longtime friend Marty Stuart and his band. Because of the shift in personnel, it’s one of the most fascinating records in the Byrds arsenal to give the full live treatment to.
“In the Rolling Stone ‘Top 500 Albums of All Time,’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo rose up to be the best Byrds album, so we decided to celebrate it,” McGuinn says. “We loved the music so much, so it was special to us. We loved everything we did, it was just a matter of different styles. We didn’t want to get locked in a box with folk rock or psychedelic or anything, so we just changed directions. I really loved country music — I’d come out of a folk music background, Chris Hillman had come from bluegrass, and when Gram Parsons came along he was so infectious about loving country music that it made us want to do this.”
The frontman says that this is one of his personal favorites in the Byrds canon, and he’s looking forward to performing "You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere," "Pretty Boy Floyd," "Life in Prison" and "The Christian Life," though they won’t be playing the album’s tracks in sequence.
Hillman, meanwhile, says that this is a particularly special album simply because it marked such a radical departure from what the band had been doing previously.
“The prior album was The Notorious Byrd Brothers,” he says. “It was more of a rock album, and almost an experimental stage of what we were doing. And then we take this radical departure with Sweetheart. We must give credit to Gram Parsons. He was instrumental, no pun intended, in pushing us in that direction.”
Hillman says that, while he enjoys Sweetheart to this day, it’s not his favorite as he prefers the earlier work. Still, he concedes that he had a great time making it, and he is proud that it influenced other artists.
“What it did is open the floodgates, and all of a sudden this West Coast country rock, for want of a better phrase, came out,” Hillman says. “So many great bands. Sweetheart led to The Flying Burrito Brothers, and then Poco, and then Dillard & Clark. A lot of interesting stuff coming out from 1979 through the early ’80s. I think Sweetheart ushered that all in, and of course was influential in Glenn Frey and Don Henley with the early Eagles.”
The bassist and guitarist says he’s looking forward to performing "I Am a Pilgrim,” while he considers "You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere" one of many gifts to the band from the great Bob Dylan.
“So here we had been given ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ and ‘You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,’ both incredible songs and both did incredible things for us,” Hillman says. "‘You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere’ is really the signature theme of Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Roger and I had a hit record with that in the ’80s with The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. When Sweetheart came out, it was not the best-selling album. I’m not sure if it even had good reviews. Later on, it’s held up in very high esteem, which is good. We didn’t anticipate that happening at all.”
Sweetheart of the Rodeo was actually Hillman’s last album with The Byrds until he returned for the final album, Byrds, in 1973 — an album that saw all five original members reunite. Before that, Hillman and Parsons went off to form The Flying Burrito Brothers, which kept Hillman busy. Still, he admits that he liked the next Byrds album, Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde.
“They did one with Clarence White, Gene Parsons and John York,” he says. “That was a good record. The rest I’m not that familiar with. My regret is that I didn’t play more shows with Clarence. Anyway, after I left, I liked that next record, but who am I to say? I was off doing something else and Roger was soldiering on. He had a good band. Clarence White was a monster player. A phenomenal player.”
When the idea to perform this album with McGuinn was presented to Hillman, the timing was right and he couldn’t resist.
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“Roger’s a consummate professional,” Hillman says. “He’s a great singer, a great player, and I always had a good time working with him. Just the fact that we did The Notorious Byrd Brothers together, finishing it ourselves, it was great. It’s one of the better Byrds albums ever recorded.He’s a wonderful guy and I love him dearly. The same with David Crosby. I love David, too. David wasn’t on this record, so that’s why it’s really not a Byrds reunion, so to speak.”
McGuinn agrees, saying that he loves Hillman and Marty Stuart very much, and is excited to be performing with them. McGuinn recently released a new album, Sweet Memories, which is available at mcguinn.com and at these shows. Hillman doesn’t know what he’ll be doing next.
“I thought I was ready to wind down and bide my time,” he says. “Tom Petty was such a joy to work with and a wonderful guy [Petty produced Hillman’s last solo album], and the years start to go south on everybody. But I’ve had a good 55 years and this is just adding to it. It’s a wonderful thing. We’ll see what happens. You never know.”
Sweetheart of the Rodeo 50th Anniversary featuring Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman, Marty Stuart and his band takes place at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, July 24, and Wednesday, July 25, at the Ace Hotel.