For an album that only peaked at number 77 on the Billboard LPs chart, the Byrds’ 1968 masterpiece Sweetheart of the Rodeo has had quite a long and healthy life. Almost immediately after its release, despite its inability to catch on with the record-buying masses, the group’s attempt at fusing rock with vintage country music began influencing other musicians, who formed bands of their own—some of which subsequently became among the biggest rock bands of all time.
Now, a half-century later, two founding members of the Byrds, guitarist-singer Roger McGuinn and multi-instrumentalist-singer Chris Hillman (who cut the album with the late singer-songwriter-musician Gram Parsons and drummer Kevin Kelley), are heading out on tour to perform Sweetheart in its entirety for the first time ever. McGuinn and Hillman will be joined onstage by Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives, some of the countless musicians who consider Sweetheart a seminal recording.
We spoke with McGuinn and Hillman about the upcoming tour and the legacy of the Byrds’ sixth—and extremely influential—album.
How did the Sweetheart of the Rodeo gigs come together?
Roger McGuinn: My wife and I were in Buenos Aires and sitting in the airport thinking it’s the 50th anniversary of Sweetheart of the Rodeo. It might be fun to do something about it.
Chris Hillman: Roger discussed the idea with Marty. Roger then brought it to me and I immediately agreed to do it. I love working with Roger and I haven’t had the opportunity to work with him for a good 15 years. It’s always a very productive, enjoyable thing playing music with Roger McGuinn. Marty and Roger are very close and I’ve known Marty since the ’80s. He is, as are the Superlatives, very well-versed in the Sweetheart stuff and all the Byrds music. He’s just perfect for this. They’re such a good band; it’s a great package.
Why this album? This isn’t something you did with Notorious Byrd Brothers or Younger Than Yesterday or any of the other Byrds albums.
CH: Well, it’s the 50th anniversary of the record. It’s also the last record I worked on with Roger before I went off and did the Flying Burrito Brothers. Sweetheart of the Rodeo wasn’t really my favorite Byrds album, but it did open a vast floodgate for West Coast country-rock or country music to come out. It was Sweetheart that initiated all that, that really led up to the Eagles. The legacy of Sweetheart of the Rodeo probably surpassed a lot of the other Byrds projects.
Chris, is it fair to say there wouldn’t have been a Flying Burrito Brothers if you hadn’t done this first?
CH: Pretty much, yeah. Or a Poco or Dillard and Clark or any number of things.
Were you satisfied with Sweetheart at the time?
RM: I’m just happy that after about 40-some years, it became popular. Nobody liked it when it came out. Country people didn’t like it and the rock people didn’t like it. It just fell through the cracks. And then gradually, after 40 years, people kind of caught on to it and said hey, this wasn’t bad at all. People just didn’t get it [at the time]. Well, some people did. I had some friends who loved it. I remember going to a country station in L.A. and it had a long hallway and down at the end of the hall there was a bulletin board with the album cover pinned up to it. I thought, oh great, they’re playing the Byrds’ album. Then when I got closer to it I saw it said in big marker, “Do not play!” Then [disc jockey] Ralph Emery at WSM wouldn’t play the “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” single.
Why wouldn’t Emery play it?
RM: He put it on a preview turntable and played about 10 seconds’ worth and said, “I’m not going to play that on my show.” I said, “Why not?” He said, “What’s it about?” and I said, “I don’t know. It’s a Bob Dylan song.” Then he went into a commercial for Clark truck seats. He said, “No matter what kind of a rig you drive, a Clark seat will fit it. Go on down to your Clark dealer’s today and get one. Mile after mile, you’ll be glad you did.” So Gram Parsons and I decided to write a song about that called “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man.” We said, “This guy’s not a real truck driver. We like truck drivers. He’s the kind of guy that dresses up like a cowboy and hangs out at the drugstore.” That’s meaning of the title.
How did Marty Stuart and his band get involved in the Sweetheart tour?
RM: I’d worked with Marty before and toured with him and been on his TV show when he had that going and I played with him at [Nashville’s] Ryman Auditorium a couple of times. He has [post Sweetheart Byrds guitarist] Clarence White’s Telecaster, the B-Bender guitar, and he learned how to work that. He can play all Clarence’s licks. When I’m on stage with Marty, it’s like I’m back with Clarence, who was my really good friend back then. [Marty is] playing the steel guitar parts that Lloyd Green played on the album. We’ve got Gary Scruggs’ son [Chris] on stage. He plays bass normally, but he also plays steel. He’s part of the Fabulous Superlatives band.
Is Marty going to sing the songs that Gram did on the album?
CH: No, Marty’s gonna sing a few songs in the show, but probably some of the stuff we did leading up to Sweetheart of the Rodeo. For the second Byrds album, we recorded “Satisfied Mind,” a big hit for Porter Wagoner. That was our first foray into country music, so to speak. Roger and I will split up the vocals on the Sweetheart material. We’ll be doing songs that led up to Sweetheart, like “Time Between,” from Younger Than Yesterday, and “The Girl With No Name,” “Old John Robertson,” stuff like that. Marty knows how to play Clarence’s licks but he goes beyond that and does his own signature stuff. He’s a really wonderful player.
RM: We’re gonna construct a little play, showing the evolution of how we were dabbling in country music and then Gram came along and fired us up to do the whole album.
Before you started on Sweetheart, your original intent was to do something a lot more ambitious, an overview of American music in general. How did the focus turn strictly to country?
RM: That was the influence of Gram Parsons and Chris. Gram and Chris were both really into country and I loved it too. For me it’s always been part of folk music. The other thing was a little too ambitious. It was going to go from early music through Baroque and into Appalachian and how the Celtic music came over to America and became distilled in the mountains and then became country music and then how R&B started and rock ’n’ roll and then go out through some kind of synthesizer thing and space music. It was just a wild idea and I couldn’t get anybody to go along with it. It would have been a lot of work. I’m not sure we could have pulled it off.
CH: It was an idea that came and went very quickly. [Sweetheart] wasn’t a big stretch for us because we’d already been doing country stuff. It was a stretch in that we all came out of folk music, except for Mike Clarke, the drummer. He probably had a little more rock experience. It wasn’t like a rock guy going down to Nashville and doing a bluegrass album, which is totally out of context. We had our feet firmly planted in that area prior to doing this album.
By the time you started on Sweetheart, all of the original band had left except for you two. Then you added Kevin Kelley on drums and then Gram Parsons. How did Gram come into the picture?
RM: We went out and did some gigs as a threesome [McGuinn, Hillman, Kelley] and there was nobody holding the rhythm together. That’s how Gram got invited. He was basically still a musician for hire but everybody thinks he was supposed to be a part of the Byrds. It was a misunderstanding.
A lot of people aren’t aware that Gram is mostly playing piano on Sweetheart .
RM: I don’t know what he played guitar on, but he did play piano. He was a good piano player. He played like Floyd Cramer, who I just found out played the break on Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel.”
CH: Roger’s wonderful line back then was that we thought we were hiring a piano player and we ended up with George Jones in a sequin suit. Gram was OK. He wasn’t really a very good piano player. His force was playing rhythm guitar and singing and writing.
Chris, Kevin Kelley was your cousin. What can you tell us about Kevin?
CH: I don’t know how we ended up having Kevin, but he actually played pretty well on Sweetheart, and prior to that he had had been in an interesting group called the Rising Sons. It was Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal. Kevin played drums and I think some other fellow played bass. That was about 1965. They might have made one record but they didn’t last too long, because Ry and Taj were off to huge careers.