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The Byrds speak on

Sweetheart Of The Rodeo


  Chris Hillman - Richie Unterberger ca 2000

Roger had thoughts of making the album after Notorious Byrd Brothers a double album that would cover everything from traditional folk to electronic synthesizer music. Instead you did Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Did you have any regrets that you never got to work on the original ambitious double-album concept?

None at all [laughs hard]. With all due respect, I didn't want a bunch of "CTA 102"s or "Moog Raga" or whatever that stuff is. It didn't work for me, and I'm glad it didn't happen. 'Cause it would have made no sense at all. Although there weren't that many strong parameters then. You could sort of do those kind of projects, record company budget willing, on that end. But no, no regrets at all. That would have been a separate deal. To put the two of them together would have been a little crazy. It would have been an interesting separate project, but like I said earlier, either I didn't understand what he was doing, or I just didn't like it. And he had that Moog synthesizer, of course, then, it was like owning a computer in 1955. It took up the whole room. It made a lot of noise. It wasn't really musical. It was like a toy, a gadget. But it was interesting, I respect him. He was following something that intrigued him, and he likes electronics. The guy's very computer-literate, and I'm [in] sort of the caveman stage of mine, after all these years.

I'm glad we didn't do that. I'm glad we did the Sweetheart as it was. And that record was probably the worst seller we ever...it wasn't my favorite Byrd record. But as far a legacy, it opened the door for so many people who are probably pretty current right now who got into country music, or started to discover country music, through that album. So it was an interesting...and all the controversy over Gram's vocals or Roger's vocals or blah blah blah, some of Gram's vocals that we didn't use weren't as, even that good as people think they were. And Roger might have gone a little overboard on "Christian Life," I think he was an actor, he was doing a part, he just was overacting on the accent a bit. But hey, it's okay, it worked out alright. I think there's a lot of good things on there. I mean, there's some funny stuff on that album too, but as always...

Chris Hillman - Portfolio Weekly 2008

The Byrds took off to the top of the pop charts, and Hillman didn't pick up a mandolin again until the band dove into classic country music on Sweetheart of the Rodeo in 1968:

-During the Sweetheart time I bought a Gibson F-5 down in Virginia. It wasn't that good, but I played it for a few years. Then Stephen Stills gave me a beautiful mandolin; he said 'that one sounded so bad that had to get you another one.' I still have it.-

Roger McGuinn - Folk To Flyte 1996

We had begun to experiment with country music as early as the second album with "Satisfied Mind." When Gram came along, we merely expanded our exploration into that area. Did you ever notice how much "Hickory Wind" sounds like "Satisfied Mind?"

Roger McGuinn - Vincent Flanders 1969

We said we were going to do that (record a double album), but there was a change of mind in the organization so they released a country album instead.

I don't think Sweetheart was that well accepted. The reason Sweetheart didn't do well was because the AM stations didn't go for country and neither did the country people, although the underground FM stations did. So we had a minority of the radio listening audience.  It hurt us financially -- as far as sales go

We're going to get harder rock and less country (on our next album) -- soft country.

Well, it ('Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde') really wasn't as good an album - musically. At least Sweetheart had some integrity whereas Dr. Byrds was a more or less contrived departure. I'm not too happy with that one. That doesn't mean you should stop listening to it if you have it. An artist should never be satisfied with his own work anyway. I can't really say that I'm satisfied with anything we've ever done. I can find holes in anything we've ever done -- which is a healthy symptom, I think.

Roger McGuinn - Ear Candy 1999

I can't say that the "Musical History" album would have done as well in the long run.

It was a great thrill to play the Grand Old Opry, especially for Gram. There is still some residual influence from what the Byrds did out there.

Chris Hillman - ICE Magazine 2003

I think it ('Sweetheart Of The Rodeo') was a noble experiment for the time. There are some great songs, including two of Gram's best, 'One Hundred Years from Now' and 'Hickory Wind.' He was like a young colt let out of the corral, rearing to go, and that was good for Roger and me. I think we opened a lot of doors for people who otherwise would never had listened to that kind of music.

I don't think it was the best Byrds album we made. When I listen to things like 'Life in Prison,' sung by a trust-fund kid, it doesn't quite gel. That was sort of a bad pick of material, [with] Gram singing 'I'll do life in prison for the wrongs that I've done,' unless it was more of an insightful, abstract look at his own problems - 'life in prison' being suffering emotionally in his own mind.

Having Parsons in the band was great for me. I love country music, and now I had an ally, and we sort of nudged Roger along. Roger never really liked that kind of music, and to this day I don't think he likes it.

Roger McGuinn - Musicangle 2004

Graham kinda speared it into the country direction. I heard him as a jazz piano player. It took us a while to get a head of steam going with the country theme. I really liked it -- it was fun. I certainly enjoyed it. We went out to Nudie's, the rodeo tailor, and got some cowboy clothes and hats and I got a Cadillac, an El Dorado, and it was like a role. We got a gold record on that (the later version with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band), and a Grammy nomination.

Chris Hillman - Musicangle 2004

It was tough. I mean, Graham Parsons ended up working for us for a little while, and he did know country music. He was the only person I'd come across at that point that really understood who Buck Owns was, and he didn't know bluegrass that much, but he did know his country music. He really knew it well, and so that was a boost for us to do that. I wanted to do the thing, and he was certainly a good ally to have.
I knew he had done the Submarine Band. I'd heard that and I thought it was okay, just a little too polished for me. When he got in, I remember we were singing something together at a rehearsal and I went, "Oh, this guy knows his stuff."

His early stuff is great. I mean there's a couple of vocals on record and they're unbeatable. Both Hot Burritos were just unbelievable, soulful vocals. A lot of the other things he did were so sloppy and out of tune. It was just another situation where he was undisciplined. Graham was seduced by all the trappings. He had so much talent and everything. He was a great songwriter, but just to discipline himself and really do it, it wasn't in him. He wanted all the other things that surrounded the music.

The Sweetheart thing was interesting; it's not my favorite Byrds' album. It's a noble attempt, and then when Roger had to do Graham's vocals over, it was affected. He knows how I feel. It's not Roger's thing to do that. Roger's strong in other areas where none of the rest of us are strong, but to do a country thing with a sort of strange, country accent became very affected and it lost it all. But, it was okay. Even my cousin played pretty good on that and he wasn't too good a musician. I know it left a good lasting legacy. There's a lot of times I run across young players who say, Sweetheart of the Rodeo was what got me into country music." You know, these guys were active, professional musicians.

The Burritos, and to some degree Sweetheart at the Rodeo weren't accepted on the FM rock, and we certainly weren't accepted on country radio. The Burritos really didn't have any singles anyway. Other than "You Ain't Going Nowhere," on the Sweetheart album, we really didn't have any singles either. But, it probably would have done quite well in the seventies, on an FM station. It did amazingly for the Dirt Band, in the eighties. McGuinn and I went in there and cut that, and put it out as single. It's real strange -- I don't understand why that happened. I'm glad it was a Top 10 country single, but it was like we never benefited from it in any way, shape or form.

Roger McGuinn - Email to Rick Campbell 2008

The Byrds had experimented with country music as early as our second album 'Turn! Turn! Turn!'with tracks like 'Time Between, 'Satisfied Mind' and 'Girl With No Name', but it wasn't until Chris Hillman met Gram Parsons at a bank in Beverly Hills and brought him over to our rehearsal studio that we decided to go to Nashville and record an entire album of country material. We were in love with the genre and as sincere as we could possibly have been, in recording those songs.

Our rock audience felt betrayed and the country community was weary of 'hippies' infiltrating their territory. I remember seeing the 'Sweetheart of the Rodeo' cover on a bulletin board at a country radio station in Los Angeles. I was overjoyed . . . until I got closer and saw written in red DO NOT PLAY - THIS IS NOT COUNTRY.

Roger McGuinn - Rolling Stone 1970

(The original concept for 'Sweetheart' was to be) a chronological album starting out with old-time music. Not bluegrass but pre-bluegrass, dulcimers-nasal Appalachian stuff and then get into like the 1930s, advanced version of it, move it up to modern country, the 40s and 50s with steel guitar. (The record was to conclude with a jump out to the future) electronic music..a kind of space music. It was a nice idea but harder to pull off than think of.

Roger McGuinn - Rolling Stone 1968

Gram (has) added a whole hunk of country. Gram's bag is country and we're going to let him do his thing.

Gram Parsons - Dutch Radio Interview

As a result too much of that old Byrds sound which we were fighting against because it had already been done, got onto the album. Which was a pity because the idea had been 'Don't look back', as Bob Dylan once put it.

Chris Hillman - CD Liner Notes 1996

It was my idea to do 'I Am A Pilgrim'. I used to play that song with Clarence White during the bluegrass days.

Gram Parsons - Cameron Crowe 1973

They had to pull a few things out of the can that weren't supposed to be used, things like 'Life In Prison' and 'You're Still On My Mind'. We just did them as warm-up numbers. We could've done them a lot better. They just chopped up the album however they wanted to.

He (Roger McGuinn) erased it and did the vocals himself and fucked it up. The producer (Gary Usher) decided it should go Hollywood freaky, and it wasn't the time for that. I thought it was the time for a 'Nashville Skyline' or something like the album as I remember it, a serious country album. It was a great album that might as well have never been recorded.

Chris Hillman - Jane Weber 2000

I helped promote that ('Sweetheart Of The Rodeo') and get us down to Nashville to record that album. I wasn't a very good singer, I learnt later on after that album but at the time I wasn't a good enough singer. Gram was a better singer, Roger was a better singer, but I got the material together and I picked the musicians we used. Some of the other musicians that were outside session musicians I picked them to play on it - John Hartford and people like that. It was a good album. Of course Gram having passed away, he's not around anymore and so he sometimes gets a lot more attention and that's fine because he was very talented.

('Life In Prison'), that was Gram. We had a problem when we made that record. You've probably read the story that Gram was signed to another contract with a record company and they decided they didn't want him to sing on the Byrds album. At the last minute we got to keep 'Life In Prison' so that's him singing on it.

I think Gene Autry's where I found that ('Blue Canadian Rockies'). I think that's where I first heard that song. It's a good song.

Well, Merle Travis wrote it ('I Am A Pilgrim'), he must have written it in the late '40s or early '50s. I remember Clarence White playing that as an instrumental and it was so beautiful. Then I found the words and learned it and I still do that song on stage. When I go out with Tony and Larry Rice and Herb Pedersen I do 'I Am A Pilgrim' with a full bluegrass band.

Chris Hillman - John Einarson Hot Burritos 2008

John Hartford was a great guy, a great musician. He hadn't had the success of 'Gentle On My Mind' yet. Junior Husky was a great bass player. (Pedal steel guitarist) Lloyd Green was terrific, too. Those guys were all nice guys, and they accepted us. It was a job to those guys and they treated us well.

The common ground was the music. Lloyd Green has said many times the one great thing about working on that album ('Sweetheart Of The Rodeo') was that no one told him what to do. He got to play what he wanted. He'd never experienced that before. So he had the freedom to express himself on his instrument. At Nashville sessions you're told what to play and when to play it. So the Nashville sessions came off well. We played a lot of ping pong in the studio between takes. Gram was in heaven recording in Nashville.

Roger and I weren't writing on 'Sweetheart'. We were lazy. I don't think the idea was to simply do country music cover versions, I just don't think Roger and I had any original material. Some of the cover versions were good choices, like 'I Am A Pilgrim' and 'Pretty Boy Floyd', but we weren't writing.
He (Gram Parsons) brought out his songs at our first rehearsals. He already had 'Hickory Wind' and 'One Hundred Years From Now'. Those were great tunes.

Just as we stumbled into 'Mr. Tambourine Man' we stumbled into 'You Ain't Goin' Nowhere'. Bob (Dylan) wrote it while he laying up in Woodstock. For some odd reason I got sent all these songs he'd written and I took them to Roger and we listened to them. Here were all these great songs: 'You Ain't Goin' Nowhere', 'Nothing Was Delivered', 'This Wheel's On Fire'. So we had access to all those tunes, plus we had 'Hickory Wind' and 'One Hundred Years From Now'.

Roger never understood what country music was. His lead vocal on 'Christian Life' is way over the top. He's trying to act it out as a southerner and it's not convincing. He overdid the character. I think he approached it like an acting job, but not a good acting job. He didn't have the background in country music that I had. Roger never did like country music and I don't think he likes it to this day. He's in a different place musically, and country music wasn't one of his great loves. He came from the commercial side of folk music, which was very different from mine. His background was Bob Gibson, The Limeliters, that commercial folk stuff, hence hid professionalism. I wasn't a good enough singer on that record. If it was now I could go in and tackle all those Parsons vocals real good. But I couldn't then because I didn't have the chops yet as a singer. But here's the funny part. We get the original vocals back of Gram's for the boxed set and the deluxe edition of the 'Sweetheart' album that we had to remove back in 1968 and they aren't that good. Gram rarely sang in tune. He was so out of tune sometimes that you're cringing. But there is a certain appeal to that voice that touched nerves with people.

Chris Hillman - Hillbilly Music

(about their gig at the Grand Ol' Opry and the singer Skeeter Davis. Unafraid of unpopular positions, Ms. Davis was supportive of the long-haired country-rock band The Byrds after that group was treated harshly by an Opry audience in 1968.)
We walked out the back door with our tails between our legs, and Skeeter (Davis) caught up with us and said, "You Byrds don't be afraid of these people: they're just not caught up yet." I told her later, "You were the only one who stood up for us. You were there for us, and I'll never forget you for that."

Roger McGuinn - Barnes & Noble 2006

I always felt very close to country, that it was a form of folk music. It was the Appalachian ballads basically that were given a more upbeat treatment. We were doing country as early as the Turn, Turn, Turn album, with "Satisfied Mind" and so on. So it wasn't really that Gram invented country-rock or whatever, but he was the leading factor in us going to Nashville and doing a whole album of it. We hadn't thought of that until Gram came along. But, yes, it was a natural evolution because of the folk roots we all had. I was gung-ho for it; I thought it was great.