In 1968, the Byrds released Sweetheart of the Rodeo, an LP built on the band's new commitment to traditional American country music. The record was spearheaded by a new Byrd, Gram Parsons, a trust fund dropout who'd fallen for Merle Haggard while studying theology at Harvard, and its devotion to twang shocked the band's folk rock fans. Its birth was marked by power struggles between Byrds leader Roger McGuinn and Parsons, and legal strife between Parsons and Lee Hazlewood, who'd signed Parsons' previous band, the International Submarine Band, to his LHI label and fought to have Parsons' vocals removed from the Byrds' album.
But when the finished record was finally released — with many of Parsons' vocal contributions muted — it would become a foundational pillar of the country rock scene. Along with Parsons' subsequent work with the Flying Burrito Brothers, as a solo act, and with Emmylou Harris, it helped spark a wave of country rock through the '70s and the "alt-country" movement of the late '80s and early '90s, when bands like Uncle Tupelo, the Bottle Rockets, Freakwater, the Waco Brothers, and Tempe's The Grievous Angels (named for a Parsons' song, "Return of the Grievous Angel") began playing a brand of country rock which incorporated punk rock and DIY ethos.
Grievous Angels' pedal steel guitarist Jon Rauhouse — who's gone on to play with Neko Case, Jakob Dylan, Billy Bob Thorton, the Old 97s, and dozens more since the Angels disbanded in 2000 — calls Sweetheart of the Rodeo "musical comfort food," and its songs reside deep within his musical DNA. On Wednesday, December 16, he'll pay tribute to Sweetheart of the Rodeo — as well as songs from the greater Byrds/Parsons repertoire — as part of the Americana supergroup The Odd Byrds, assembled by vocalist/guitarist Matthew John Arnold, featuring guitarists Tommy Connell and Michael Krassner of Boxhead Ensemble, Robin Vining of Sweetbleeders on piano, vocalists Taylor Upsahl and Kelly Ehley, Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra's Lukas Mathers on bass, violinist Carolyn Camp of Pick and Holler, and drummer Don Windham. The band takes the stage with Tierra Del Fuego, playing the music of Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline, and KJZZ's Steve Conrad, who'll teach a brief class in the art of western swing dancing, all benefitting Rauhouse's wife Jennifer Rauhouse's suicide prevention charity, Peer Solutions.
"It was something I wanted to do for a long time," Arnold says. "It's become one of those things that was bigger than my original idea. [It's going to be an] eclectic psychedelic country swing dress-and-dance night."
Parsons would have liked the idea of a "psychedelic country swing" hootenanny. Upon joining the Byrds in 1968, following the departure of David Crosby and Michael Clarke, Parsons wasted no time pushing his C&W agenda on McGuinn and Byrds bassist Chris Hillman. Originally, McGuinn had envisioned a double album encompassing the history of American music, starting with bluegrass through electronic music, but Parsons had a more single-minded vision.
The resulting album was the product of it. Armed with only a few originals, the band devoted itself to an eclectic song list, adding country flair to Bob Dylan's "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," inhabiting the country gospel sound of the Louvin Brothers on "The Christian Life," mining the ground between country and soul with "You Don't Miss Your Water," and dipping its toes into the Bakersfield sound with Merle Haggard's hard-bitten "Life in Prison." The album is the sound of the coolest guys on the scene turning their attention to unhip sounds at the time, teaming up with some of the session players known for crafting Nashville's biggest hits.
It was in many ways the first example of an established pop act "going country," and while disparate artists from outside the country canon — like Justin Timberlake, Darius Rucker, Kid Rock, Steven Tyler, and Bret Michaels — now are welcomed by the modern country establishment, at the time, the long-haired hippie interlopers were viewed with scorn by the gatekeepers and country fans and met with boos when they played the Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Auditorium. Their peers, on the other hand, were turned on and diving into country sounds themselves.
The Byrds helped open "the door for the New Riders of the Purple Sage, Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen, the Grateful Dead," Rauhouse says. "You could hear those bands on the radio, especially in Arizona," he says, recalling playing along while learning pedal steel as a teen in Tempe. "A lot of the Byrds fans hated it, but it also opened it up to a lot of people." The influence went both ways. Eventually, artists like Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Tompall Glaser, and more got fed up with Nashville's strict stylistic and moralistic guidelines, forming the loosely affiliated "outlaw" moment, which embraced rock aesthetics.
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"It almost seems like a natural progression coming from where the Byrds started," Connell says of the country influence on the rock scene of the time. Like Bob Dylan, who'd penned many of their biggest hits, McGuinn was interested in traditional sounds, even without the influence of Parsons. "Dylan was going from purist folk stuff and people hated him going electric, and then he moved into doing country stuff. They were kind of following the same path."
Parsons left the Byrds soon after the album was released, taking Hillman with him to form the Flying Burrito Brothers. He envisioned a kind of "cosmic American music," and he went to great lengths to connect his druggy, psychedelic outlook to the heritage of country music — his Nudie suit, a hallmark of western fashion, was of course emblazoned with marijuana leaves. He turned the Rolling Stones — Keith Richards, in particular — onto country music and his evangelistic zeal for the music spread through Los Angeles' Topanga Canyon, influencing Linda Rondstadt and the Eagles, who'd become stars with a streamlined take on his wild-eyed vision. By the time he died in 1973, famously overdosing at the Joshua Tree Inn, Parson's influence had already begun to take hold on the popular music landscape. Rock and country, seemingly opposites at the time of Sweetheart of the Rodeo's release, started to sound an awful lot alike on the West Coast.
By the time of the "alt-country" movement a decade and a half or so later, roots music had gone from being viewed as corny to fashionable, to out of style once again. But there remained a connective thread, Krassner says. "If you play physical music — from the ass more than the head — it's just going to seep in there: rhythm and blues, country, folk music."
And while devoted musicians like Rauhouse and company have traced the lineage of the music further back than Parsons — to the hillbilly string bands and Appalachian strains that inspired even his inspirations — his shadow still looms. "That Sweetheart of the Rodeo record, be it good or bad, it's the one that made everyone go, 'What the hell is that?'" Rauhouse laughs. Almost 50 years after the album's release, devotees are still figuring it out.