The Byrds co-founders have reunited for a special tour in honor of the pioneering country rock album's 50th anniversary

By Jordan Runtagh
August 27, 2018 10:00 AM
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Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Earlier this summer, Roger McGuinn reunited with his Byrds co-founder Chris Hillman to embark on their first series of concerts together in more than 25 years. But that isn’t the craziest part. The pair have teamed up to pay tribute to an album that was, to all intents and purposes, rejected by their fans when it was issued in 1968. On Sweetheart of the Rodeo, the band made one of the most daring course changes in rock history, eschewing the folk-rock blend that had made them pop luminaries and trading it for a full-blown country sound. “When it first came out, nobody liked it,” McGuinn tells PEOPLE. “And then 40 years on people started to appreciate it. Rolling Stone put out the 500 Top Albums of All Time, and it just climbed up above all of the other Byrds albums on the chart. So I thought it was something worthy of celebration.”

Marty Stuart, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman.
| Credit: Alysse Gafkjen

Throughout their tour — which continues through October — McGuinn and Hillman will perform the album in full and tell the stories behind its creation. They’ll be joined onstage by Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives, deputizing for the late Gram Parsons and Kevin Kelley, who played on the original. “I love Marty and his band,” says Hillman. “You couldn’t get a better band, especially for this album. They really understand the music and know how to play it.” Stuart, a five-time Grammy winner and country legend, will perform using the custom-outfitted 1954 Telecaster previously owned by Clarence White, the session pro (and future Byrd) heard on several tracks.

In honor of the groundbreaking country rock album’s 50th anniversary, PEOPLE spoke with McGuinn and Hillman at length about the album’s genesis and its remarkable legacy.

By early 1968, the Byrds bore scant resemblance to the band of folk-rock troubadours who first stormed the charts three years earlier with “Mr. Tambourine Man” — a song penned by Roger McGuinn’s old Greenwich Village buddy, Bob Dylan. Following the departure of vocalist Gene Clark in 1966, plus the dismissal guitarist David Crosby and drummer Michael Clarke a year later, only McGuinn and Chris Hillman remained from the group’s initial lineup. Even with just two full-time Byrds on hand to finish off their fifth LP, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, the musicianship remained strong, the ideas potent, and the harmonies as angelic and airtight as ever.

Upon its release that January, the album was hailed by many as their best to date, showcasing a bold blend that added early-synth electronica (“Space Odyssey”), acoustic roots rock (“Old John Robertson”), complex jazz voicings (“Tribal Gathering”), brass bands, and baroque strings to their trademark wash of lush harmonies and McGuinn’s shimmering Rickenbacker 12-string. “The Byrds’ eclecticism is awesome,” wrote Jon Landau in the ninth issue of a then-new publication called Rolling Stone. “C&W, science fiction, light jazz touches, finger-picking rhythms, pop-rock (two fine Goffin-King songs), and touches of strings all play their part on this album. Yet if one doesn’t listen closely he may not notice even a fraction of the incongruities which are present. And therein lies a key to the Byrds’ ability to assimilate everything that they touch.”

The critical praise fueled McGuinn and Hillman’s desire to explore and experiment. While few could have anticipated that they’d follow The Notorious Byrd Brothers with an enthusiastic country music excursion, the signs were there if you knew where to look.

CHRIS HILLMAN: I’ve always said that it wasn’t a stretch for us to go down and make a country record. We’d already been doing those kinds of things. Even prior to the Byrds, our background was folk music and country music. Especially for me, it was traditional bluegrass music. So I knew the music and I knew the genre. We were sort of leading up to it and dabbling in it prior to the Sweetheart idea.

ROGER McGUINN: We had dabbled in it as early on as the Turn! Turn! Turn! album with “Satisfied Mind.” Chris Hillman, coming from a bluegrass background, wrote a few songs that were in the country vein — and I did too. I was influenced by the Beatles, of all people. They did “Act Naturally,” so I thought, “If the Beatles can get away with the 2/4 beat, the Byrds can too!”

Country music was just a small portion of McGuinn’s initial concept for the new album. Emboldened by the genre-hopping Notorious Byrd Brothers LP, he envisioned the follow-up as a sweeping double-disc tour through American music, past and present. As conceived, the first record would contain songs representing early folk and bluegrass, while the second would look to the future, with space-age Moog instrumentals à la previous tracks like “C.T.A.-102” and “Moog Raga.” Though the chronological song cycle was certainly intriguing, McGuinn had a hard time getting the concept off the ground.

McGUINN: Nobody was going for my ambitious two-album set starting with early music and into baroque and coming out into the Celtic songs that got distilled in the Appalachians and became country music and rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues going into jazz and out into space music. Nobody was going for that, it was too ambitious. It was a crazy idea, and I loved it.

HILLMAN: I think everybody sort of looked at it and said, “OK, what are we doing? Either we’re going to do this or we’re going to do that. We can’t do both of these. We can’t market both of these ideas.” We could have, but it just didn’t feel right. It was better that we postpone one or the other. The other one got postponed…indefinitely. [laughs]

McGUINN: I think Gram Parsons was really the reason we did the country album. He was the catalyst. He was so in love with country music, it infected us. It was catching.

Gram Parsons, 1968.
| Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Born Ingram Cecil Connor III in 1946, Parsons had the very un-rock ‘n’ roll distinction of being heir to a Florida citrus grove fortune. An early disciple of Elvis Presley in the late ’50s, he later graduated to folk music, playing coffee house hootenannies while still a prep school student. By 1965 he had enrolled at Harvard University to study theology, but the songs of Merle Haggard provided nothing short of a religious experience for the young musician. Now a passionate country devotee, he dropped out and formed the International Submarine Band with like-minded guitarist John Nuese and other local Boston musicians. The group relocated briefly to New York and finally to Los Angeles, where they eventually signed to Lee Hazlewood’s record label. They recorded their one and only album, Safe at Home, in late 1967, but before it was released Parsons would cross paths with McGuinn and Hillman. The ISB was effectively forgotten as he took flight with the Byrds in February 1968.

McGUINN: Chris Hillman found Gram in a bank in Beverly Hills. He was probably there getting his trust fund money.

HILLMAN: I knew who he was. I’d heard about him, but I hadn’t heard him play or anything. But I invited him to our rehearsal that night just to hear him play. We were sort of rebuilding the band at that point, putting it back together. Gram came down and he was interesting and he had some great songs that he had written and a lot of ambition and a lot of energy — just what we needed.

McGUINN: I was interested in pursuing the “Eight Miles High” sound with the John Coltrane tribute, so I asked him if he could play some McCoy Tyner. He played a little Floyd Cramer style and I thought, “Wow, this guy’s got talent. We can work with him.”

HILLMAN: We didn’t hire him that night — we gave it a couple more nights — but it worked out well. It was the right thing to do at the time.

McGUINN: Later he sort of morphed into George Jones in a sequined suit…and that wasn’t a bad thing!

HILLMAN: Hiring Gram into the group certainly helped push the [Sweetheart] idea along because he was such a strong proponent of country music. He loved it, sang it well, did all of the above.

Having embraced the country direction, the Byrds — now with Hillman’s cousin, former Rising Suns drummer Kevin Kelley, in their ranks — traveled to the source: Nashville, Tennessee. The choice was quietly radical; the cultural gap between the young LA rock stars and the Music City old guard was expansive. Hoping to dispel the notion that they were merely longhaired Hollywood interlopers, the band submitted to having their locks trimmed — a move that was both practical and deeply metaphorical.

Between March 9 and 15, they recorded at Columbia’s legendary Studio A on Music Row, enlisting the help of hired song factory pros like pedal steel guitarist Lloyd Green, fiddler John Hartford and bassist Roy Husky. The sessions continued the following month at Columbia’s Los Angeles facility on Sunset Boulevard, but the inclusion of pianist Earl P. Ball, pedal steel guitarist JayDee Maness, and future Byrds guitarist Clarence White ensured that the authentic Nashville country flavor remained.

HILLMAN: Going to Nashville just felt good. It was a natural progression. We had no idea what it would do, all we were doing was making a record and having a good time and following our hearts and instincts.

McGUINN: It wasn’t that shocking. I come from a folk music background, and Chris is bluegrass, and Gram was from the South, so I think we were fine. We just kind of kept to ourselves and hung out at the hotel before we went to the studio.

HILLMAN: Basically we got down there and we went to the studio every day. It really wasn’t any different than being in LA recording — I didn’t think it was — but we had some wonderful [session] guys down there we were using.

McGUINN: The guys at the studio loved it. They weren’t used to that level of freedom. They were used to strict lead sheets and they had to play exactly what was on the sheets. We said, “Play whatever feels good.” They loved that! Lloyd Green just thought it was great, he’d never had so much fun in the studio.

HILLMAN: At that time it did not cross my mind at all to write a song for that album. I don’t know why. We picked some good ones to record.

“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”

McGUINN: That’s a Bob Dylan song. He and I got along. He’s always been like an older brother to me, like the guy who’s a senior when you’re a junior. Bob was in Woodstock, putting together what later became the Basement Tapes and he sent some songs down. “Going Nowhere” was one of them and we loved it. I loved the chord progression. I had no idea what he was talking about, but you know — it was a Bob Dylan song!

HILL: The demo for that song actually came to my house, that one and “Nothing Was Delivered” and something else. They were some Bob Dylan demos that he had written in Woodstock. I don’t know why they came to me instead of Roger but I called up Roger and said, “I got these Dylan demos and one or two of them are pretty good, you should listen to them.” That was before we were even thinking about Sweetheart.

McGUINN: So we recorded [“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”] in a country style and I think it was one of the better tunes on the album. We decided to make it the single, so we took it over to WSM [Nashville’s major country radio station] and asked [DJ] Ralph Emery to play it on the air. He said, “What’s it about?” He was looking for a cohesive story that he could understand. I said, “Man, it’s a Bob Dylan song! Get over it.” And then he went into a commercial. He said, “No matter what kind of a rig you drive, a Clark seat will fit it. So go on down to your Clark dealer today and get a Clark seat put in your rig. Mile after mile, you’ll be glad you did.” And we said, “This guy’s not a real trucker…” That was where we got the title for “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man.”

HILLMAN: Ralph Emery didn’t want to play it…But I can understand that, they were a little nervous about a rock band doing a country album, or a rock band coming into that area. It was very tight at the time.

“I Am a Pilgrim”

McGUINN: Chris brought that in to the group. He liked it because he’d heard Clarence White play it on acoustic guitar as an instrumental. So Chris researched the song and found out the lyrics and brought it into the studio.

HILLMAN: It was written by Merle Travis. I first heard it as an instrumental by Clarence White and the Kentucky Colonels. He played this beautiful guitar solo of “I Am a Pilgrim,” which lead me to further research the song and see how Merle Travis did it. Roger and I sort of arranged it into a different place.

McGUINN: I put the banjo on that and it turned out real good.

“The Christian Life”

HILLMAN: I was pretty well-versed in the Louvin Brothers but for some reason I hadn’t heard that one over the years.

McGUINN: That was one Gram brought around. He sang it originally and we got into this contractual difficulty with Lee Hazlewood where he was signed to another label so I went in and re-recorded it. I have to confess, I didn’t really do a great job on that because I was kind of making fun of the whole thing. I was putting on this phony Southern accent, which I feel like I probably shouldn’t have done.

HILLMAN: It’s a great tune but it’s almost sort of tongue in cheek in how we do it. And of course, the way we do it now, we add a little bit more depth to those lyrics. It means a little bit more to us. [laughs]

McGUINN: After all these years I finally understand what it’s about.

“You Don’t Miss Your Water”

McGUINN: That was another one Gram liked. I had not heard William Bell’s version of it, which I have now. I researched the song and it turns out it’s not about a relationship. It’s about William Bell being homesick for Memphis. He was working in New York and he just vented. So that’s what the song’s about. His version is ostensibly R&B, but it’s amazing how well it adapted to country music.

HILLMAN: I give Gram a lot of credit for taking R&B ballads and doing them in a country vein. He had a gift where he’d hear an R&B ballad like “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” which was really something he brought into the mix. Ray Charles did that with “Crying Time.” He had a huge hit with that Buck Owen’s song “Crying Time.” They’re very close cousins, country music and rhythm and blues. Where did it all come from? The church. It all came out of the church.

McGUINN: Country is soul music.

“You’re Still on My Mind”

McGUINN: “Empty bottle, broken heart, you’re still on my mind.” It’s great, isn’t it? George Jones could relate to that. We didn’t give any thought as to who would like the music and who wasn’t going to like it — we just loved the material and were doing it as sincerely as possible and we hoped everybody would appreciate it as much as we did.

HILLMAN: Gram put a vocal on and it was OK, and then Roger and I put a vocal on. It was OK, we almost got it right. I say “almost” — a lot of the Sweetheart album, to me, was almost there. Everybody who’s ever made a record will look back in hindsight and say, “I should have done that differently,” and this album’s no different. And that’s OK because we get a chance to perform them now. “You’re Still on My Mind” is a great example where we put a little more into that now.

“Pretty Boy Floyd”

McGUINN: That was a Woody Guthrie song; we were mixing folk music in there with the country songs. Woody was part of the fabric of folk music, like Pete Seeger and Odetta. He was one of the big folk heroes, and he wrote a lot of great stuff. It was just a great tune.

HILLMAN: Roger brought that in. Good story song. Most of those that Woody Guthrie wrote in that timeframe were wonderful songs — great classic story songs.

McGUINN: I have to tell you a funny story: I play a little three-finger style banjo, so I showed [session player] John Hartford what I was fixing to do on it. He said, “Ummm, you better let me do that…”

“Hickory Wind”

HILLMAN: Really good song. Gram wrote that with Bob Buchanan. I used to know Bob, they had been in the Submarine Band together. They wrote that one together, and it’s a beautiful song — absolutely gorgeous.

McGUINN: You can almost smell the hickory smoke when he sang that, you know? It’s a very pictorial song. It brings you back to that place in time.

HILLMAN: It’s very autobiographical. It’s him growing up and how lonely he felt in his family situation.

The song was at the center of one of the most infamous stories in the Byrds’ history: their ill-fated appearance on the Grand Ole Opry. Columbia had pulled some strings to get them on the ultra-prestigious lineup at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, and members of the conservative country community were less than thrilled. The first number of the Byrds’ two-song set drew derisive cries of “Tweet, tweet,” and the mood got even uglier when Parsons made an on-air decision to switch songs — a breach of protocol that outraged the show’s producers.

The Byrds perform on the Grand Ole Opry, March 15, 1968.
| Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

McGUINN: We did the rehearsal and we did “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” and, I think, “Sing Me Back Home.” So we did those two songs in rehearsal, and of course in radio they time everything with a stopwatch so it comes out right with the commercials. So on the night of the show we did “You Ain’t Goin Nowhere,” and they came out and said, “That was great fellas. Now are you going to do ‘Sing Me Back Home’ by Merle Haggard?” And Gram stepped up to the mic and said, “No. My grandma’s been listening to the Grand Ole Opry all her life. I want to do a song that I wrote for her.” And he went into “Hickory Wind.” And boy did they get mad at us for that. “You’ll never work in this business again!” Skeeter Davis was the only one who was really nice to us there. We felt a cold shoulder. But I’ve played the Ryman since then and it’s been very warm, with standing ovations, so it’s all forgiven.

“One Hundred Years from Now”

McGUINN: That was another Gram song. He wrote it and I still don’t know what he meant by it! It isn’t a love song — it’s hard to figure out precisely what it means, but it’s a good song. It ties together.

HILLMAN: It’s a good song. It works, it moves. It’s a good tune. Gram brought two great songs to the project: “Hickory Wind” and “One Hundred Years from Now.” Well worth the admission price.

“Blue Canadian Rockies”

McGUINN: Chris had heard Gene Autry play that and brought it in.

HILLMAN: It was a Gene Autry record, and I’d also heard this other group do it, the Canadian Sweethearts. They used to do the song back in the early ‘60s. But I’d heard Autry do it and I loved it. It’s just a sweet love song. You can’t get any more analytical than that. It’s just a sweet song of devotion.

“Life in Prison”

HILLMAN: That’s an odd one to put on this album! [It was strange for] any of us to sing about life in prison, unless you go into a total subliminal Freudian thing about life in prison in your brain — which could be Gram. He brought that in.

McGUINN: Gram was a trust fund kid; he never spent the night in jail or anything! Merle Haggard was in San Quentin for a couple years, and in fact he was there in 1959 when Johnny Cash did his famous concert at the prison. He was in for a lesser offense, but I imagine he talked to some guys who were in for life and got the idea to write the song

“Nothing Was Delivered”

McGUINN: That was another song Bob [Dylan] sent down from Woodstock. The whole idea was that he was up in Woodstock and his publisher told him to make a bunch of demos and send them out to prospective people to sing them — outside artists. That was his deal, everything he was recording at that point in his life was for outside people to record. He had gotten more laid back after his [1966 motorcycle] crash.

HILLMAN: I never paid attention to the [words], but then finally Roger said, “This is about a bad drug deal.” And I said, “Then this is a really funny song if that’s what it’s about.” I’d never thought of it that way, but now I think that’s what it’s about.

McGUINN: Again, it’s hard to figure out exactly what he’s talking about, but it’s interesting. Different people have different interpretations of it. We were rehearsing it and some people thought it was a relationship song and other people thought it was about a drug deal. Different people can take it different places and it would make sense.

Sweetheart of the Rodeo, 1968.
| Credit: Columbia

Taking its title from the text found on Jo Mora’s 1932 poster that graced the cover, Sweetheart of the Rodeo was issued on Aug. 30, 1968. Columbia built a catchy promotional campaign around the release, including the punny tagline “This Country’s for the Byrds,” but both critics and the general public were confused by the group’s western makeover. “The latest Byrds album adheres to most of the ‘rules of the game’ about country sound, and yet, sad to say, to this old fan of the Byrds, the album is a distinguished bore,” Robert Shelton wrote in his New York Times review. Others praised the musicianship but dismissed the overall work as slight, particularly in that tumultuous summer when Robert Kennedy was murdered and peaceful protesters billy-clubbed outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The young expected their rock heroes to make a statement (see: the Beatles’ “Revolution,” released four days earlier on Aug. 26) or at very least point the way to a new state of mind. The Byrds’ latest album, pretty and backwards-facing, seemingly did neither.

Sweetheart of the Rodeo suffered from being caught between two worlds: The Byrds’ counterculture base felt alienated by music they associated with old Southern squares, and country fans felt it was just not quite country enough. The album peaked at No. 77 on the Billboard charts, the lowest for any Byrds album to date.

HILLMAN: It wasn’t the Byrds’ bestselling album by any means, but it did get some interesting reviews. I can’t remember if they were good reviews or sort of middle of the road.

McGUINN: I guess it was just a misunderstanding that country folks thought we were invading hippies, and rock folks thought we’d gone over to the other side. [After it was released] I walked into a country station in LA, and they had a long hallway with a bulletin board at the end of the hallway. The Sweetheart album was pinned to the bulletin board. And I thought, “Oh great, they’re playing it.” I walked a little closer and in magic marker it said: “Do Not Play, This Is Not Country.”

HILLMAN: It’s an interesting record because it took a decade or two to really get a response. All of that came later. And here we are 50 years later doing this celebratory tour on the record!

Despite initial low sales and tepid reviews, Sweetheart of the Rodeo would ultimately be hailed as a classic of its kind, earning spots on numerous Best Of lists and recognition from multiple generations of artists. Along with Parsons and Hillman’s post-Byrds project, the Flying Burrito Brothers, the album is widely credited for helping jumpstart the West Coast Country Rock boom of the early ’70s, popularized by acts like the Eagles, America, and Linda Ronstadt. Echoes of the music they recorded 50 years ago can be heard in everyone from Elvis Costello and Wilco to the Avett Brothers and Ryan Adams.

McGUINN: I think the term [“Country Rock”] appropriate, we did some rockin’ in there. Some of the stuff we did was more rocky than standard country music. Sweetheart helped create this whole genre of outlaw country with Willie [Nelson], Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, the Eagles — that whole thing. It created a whole new genre that really is a part of rock ‘n’ roll.

HILLMAN: I’m not patting myself on the head but I know this record opened the flood gates and all of us put an emphasis on country, west coast, three-part harmony music. It was based on country music and it leads from Byrds to the Eagles, by the way of the Flying Burrito Brothers and Poco and Dillard & Clark. Those are the groups that came out of Sweetheart that blazed that red-hot trail. That was the good part that we left. Did Sweetheart make a lot of money? No, not at all. It was not a bestselling record. Did it get a lot of good press? Yes, 10 or 20 years later! Then it got picked to be one of the Best Albums in the History of Rock in Rolling Stone or whatever. Those things are more worthy than a bank account. That’s what it’s all about — it’s a creative art form and we’re adding to it and hopefully evolving it.

Sweetheart Of The Rodeo Tour Dates