Was there ever a thought when you were making this album that you might lose a lot of your original Byrds audience?
RM: No, we just loved the music so much we wanted to do it. I even went to Nudie’s [Rodeo Tailors clothing shop] and got some country stuff and I bought a Cadillac Eldorado like Nudie had. I’d drive around L.A. listening to country radio like Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton and Jerry Lee Lewis, who was doing country at that time. I used to listen to Flatt and Scruggs, all the country guys.
What were the sessions in Nashville like?
RM: They were wonderful because we were dealing with the A-team, like the Wrecking Crew kind of guys, and they were happy to be playing with us because we had a more relaxed approach to recording. They’re kind of formal, with lead sheets and all that. We were just kind of wild, doing it by ear.
CH: John Hartford was really an asset too. He could play fiddle and banjo and he was such a good guy and a good player. We had [Roy] Junior Huskey on bass and of course Lloyd Green, a wonderful steel player, and still a good friend of mine. And then we finished it up in L.A. with Clarence White, and Jay Dee Maness [also on pedal steel] on a few things. But we had a great time recording, a lot of fun. Gary Usher was one of the better producers we ever used in the Byrds, a really good guy.
RM: It was a dream to record. It was one or two takes and we had it, and we took it back to L.A. and sweetened it up with some other guys.
How was the cover material put together? You had everything from Merle Haggard and the Louvin Brothers to Woody Guthrie, of course Dylan, and then there’s a William Bell song.
RM: We just chipped in things that we liked. Gram was responsible for the Merle Haggard and George Jones stuff and the Louvin Brothers. [Guthrie’s] “Pretty Boy Floyd” came from my folk background. Chris had “Blue Canadian Rockies.” I guess he’d seen Gene Autry doing it.
CH: I think “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” Gram brought in. But I also think Taj Mahal had cut that. It’s a great tune. Gram had a great ear for R&B ballads and putting them together into more of a country presentation. “Blue Canadian Rockies,” I heard that somewhere. It was from a Gene Autry movie. It was a Cindy Walker song. She wrote that in Nashville—great songwriter. I can’t wait to tackle that one again. I always loved that song in its simplicity and beauty.
What did Columbia Records say when you handed them the tapes? Were they OK with the country direction?
RM: Columbia Records was very lenient. They never really tried to get us to go in any direction. We’d had some success with them and they didn’t really know what we were doing. “Let them go and do what they want.” I don’t remember being called in on it, like, “What did you guys do? Why isn’t this selling?”
Since you brought that up, the album wasn’t quite as big a hit as the earlier albums were. Was that a surprise to you guys?
CH: I don’t think so. I don’t think we ever approached anything, nor does any group go, “This is going to be great.” Of course, you’re going to be excited about it. I didn’t really know what to expect; it was so out of left field. It wasn’t a big-seller but it left an incredible legacy, and I really think it did open up the gates for all these country type things to come along: Burrito Brothers, Poco, Dillard and Clark. Rick Nelson was doing stuff before us, with the Stone Canyon Band.
Sweetheart is often credited as the first real country-rock album. Would you agree with that assessment of it?
RM: Well, there was [Parsons’] International Submarine Band, but it didn’t really catch on. Technically, there was country-rock before that, and even Ringo Starr did Buck Owens’ “Act Naturally,” which was kind of country rock. That was the thing that told me to write “Mr. Spaceman” in 2/4 time, because if the Beatles can get away with the 2/4 time then the Byrds could. But we were doing country as far back as “Satisfied Mind” on Turn! Turn! Turn! And some of the stuff Chris came up with was very country-ish.
What worked on Sweetheart and what didn’t work?
CH: There’s a couple tunes [that didn’t] but I’ve never done an album where I come off wishing I had done something different. You follow your heart and then later you go, “Well, maybe that wasn’t the right choice to make.” That’s just normal. All in all, I think that we had a good selection. The Byrds were blessed twice by Bob Dylan, once with “Mr. Tambourine Man” and once with “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” two great demos given to us. “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” has really been a solid winner for five decades. Bob wrote that when he was laid up after his motorcycle accident. He wrote all these songs in Woodstock, and we were lucky enough to get hold of that.
RM: I think [the album] was very well played; the instrumentation was great and our vocals were OK. We were really sincere; it wasn’t like we’re putting on this music.
“Nothing Was Delivered” was from the same pool of Dylan’s basement tapes.
CH: Yeah. That’s a funny song. I never knew the meaning of that song until about a month ago when Roger was talking about it. I never even thought about it; that’s a great, funny song.
Does Gram Parsons get enough credit for his role in Sweetheart of the Rodeo, or too much credit?
CH: He was a good part of the project and he brought two great songs to it. Is he the king of country rock? No, not really. But he was a joy to work with then and into the first Burrito Brothers album. He was an integral part of the whole thing.
Why did the band fall apart so quickly? Gram was gone by the time the album hit the stores.
RM: Gram developed an affection for Keith Richards and wanted to hang out with him, so we asked him to leave. Also, Crosby had left and Michael [Clarke] left and finally, after Sweetheart, Chris left. I was the only one left in the band. Bands are pretty tough. Even the Beatles broke up. It was very sad. And the Beatles had been like the four Musketeers. I mean, they were all for one and one for all. I remember I asked George Harrison about God and he said, “We don’t know about that.” It was like a group mind. I compare the Byrds to a pirate ship: every man for himself. Walk the plank.
Why didn’t the Byrds’ country phase last longer than it did?
RM: I kept doing it. We got Clarence in the band. We were doing a lot of country-rock; we were doing stuff from Sweetheart of the Rodeo, “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and so on.
The album was released in 1968, which was a very volatile year, with the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Dr. King, and the escalation of the Vietnam War. Was the album a reaction to all of that?
RM: I think it was a reaction to the chaos that was going on both in the war and everything else, and also after the psychedelic music movement. It was just crazy, madness. So this was a way to simplify things and do kind of soothing music.
David Crosby has said that he’d love to do something with you and Chris again. Now that you’re doing this tour, do you think that’s a possibility?
RM: This is not really a Byrds reunion; it’s more of a celebration of the Sweetheart album. I’m kind of reluctant to do a Byrds reunion. It’s so commercial, a bunch of old guys doing it for the money. This is not for the money. This is a labor of love.
CH: I dearly love David and I worked with him two weeks ago in Massachusetts. I opened two shows for him and we had a great time. And of course, we sang together on stage. And I love Roger, but I don’t think that’ll happen. There’s three of us left and we are all good friends and I just don’t think this is something that’s ever going to happen. And that’s OK. It’s best left as a wonderful memory and that you see and hear what the Byrds were. It’ll never quite be the same without Gene [Clark] and Michael [Clarke]. And David’s fine with Roger and me doing this because he wasn’t really in the band and he had nothing to do with this record. He’s very supportive of it. I think we’re closer friends now than we were 40, 50, 55 years ago.
The shows have been selling out. That must feel like a validation of the album’s legacy.
RM: I’m surprised, really. I thought we’d just do a couple of shows and be done with it. But people are asking for more.