Sweetheart of the Rodeo Legacy Edition
s great as he was, I sometimes wonder if Gram Parsons’ drug overdose death was the Grievous Angel’s perverse way of ducking a legacy that would inspire rich kids throughout the American South to cop their cousin’s hillbilly accent and sing bogus stories about country heartache and killing their girlfriends. I am, of course, referring to the yawntaculous Alt Country movement, of which Parsons is the spiritual—if unwitting—Godfather. Largely comprised of upper-middle class white kids in their twenties from liberal southern college towns like Asheville, North Carolina and Austin, Texas, Alt Country began promisingly with bands like the Illinois-based Uncle Tupelo in the late 80s/early 90s. Unfortunately, much of the genre has since grown into an indulgent cottage industry, with the many, many in its roster seeming to exist less out of artistic necessity than to keep magazines like Uncut and No Depression in circulation. Even noted Grammographer (Grammologist?) Sid Griffin, himself responsible for much of the Grammania (ok, I’ll stop), went on record recently to say how embarrassing all the tributes and homage have become. But with a bio-pic starring Johnny Knoxville reportedly in the works, it seems we haven’t seen the last of Parsons worship.
The latest chapter in all this is Columbia/Legacy’s new “Legacy Edition” 2-CD set of The Byrds’ foray into country-rock, Sweetheart of the Rodeo – yet more fodder for the converted, laden as it is with unreleased songs, vocals and rehearsals. Recorded in 1968 between Parsons’ pre-Byrds International Submarine Band (reportedly the first country rock group) and the post-coop Flying Burrito Brothers, Sweetheart represents Parsons’ brief tenure in the second biggest California band of the decade but, more importantly, his introduction to the world at-large.
And for all the posthumous mythmaking, it’s still a damned good record. Thirty-five years after it startled Byrds fans everywhere with its po(st)dunk proclivities, Sweetheart remains a particularly fascinating example of two musical ships passing in the night, documenting both Parsons’ transformation into a visionary country-rock auteur and a pop band’s remarkable sense of artistic risk. In fact, aside from the two Dylan songs that bookend the album, The Byrds and producer Gary Usher almost entirely allowed their own classic sound—the sumptuous harmonies, the ringing 12-string—to be subsumed by Parsons, who brought out the dormant inner-Appalachian in Byrds mainman Roger McGuinn and sidekick Chris Hillman.
As striking as Parsons’ “Cosmic American Music” sound was to the Byrds’ 1968 audience, however, the group had long been making a career out of appropriating different musics into their sound – the most famous example of which was the Coltrane nod on “Eight Miles High” (indeed, before Parsons joined up, McGuinn had been planning a “history of music” record incorporating every kind of music imaginable). And anyway, The Byrds had been flirting with country and bluegrass for several years with several tracks on Sweetheart’s predecessor, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, betraying a growing interest in the music.
Still, that didn’t stop several publications at the time from dismissing Sweetheart as little more than an incongruous genre exercise. Of course, while tracks like “Hickory Wind” and Parsons rendition of Merle Haggard’s “Life In Prison” showed little of the classic Byrds sound that would influence at least two generations of pop musicians in the group’s wake, the record hardly lacked for the band’s signature sound. Indeed, it made fairly regular appearances throughout Sweetheart’s 11 tracks, most notably on the two Dylan tracks that bookend the album, “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and “Nothing Was Delivered,” both from the then-unreleased Basement Tapes sessions. And whether it’s Hillman’s sweet tenor gracing the “Oooooh-weee!” of the former’s chorus or the driving rock rhythm on the refrain of the latter, both rank among The Byrds’ finest recordings in their long career.
Even with the deluge of talent (and ego) in on the proceedings, the record also gave Hillman, who began his career as a bluegrass performer and would eventually follow Parsons into the Burritos, a few opportunities to shine. Though still in the understated supporting role he’d assumed since founding member Gene Clark had left in 1966, Hillman provides some of the most inspired and unsung creations here – his lead on “Blue Canadian Rockies” is particularly lovely and one of the best of the many traditional tunes covered on the record. It all went to prove that whether they were interpreting country classics (the born-again sanctimony of The Louvin Brothers’ “The Christian Life”), handing it off to Parsons to write a few new classics of their own (the gorgeous “Hickory Wind”), or appropriating Dylan as only they could, The Byrds juggernaut was still at its creative peak.
Which brings us to the question of this particular edition, Columbia/Legacy’s “Legacy Edition” and unless I’ve lost count, the third release of the Sweetheart on CD. I should state at the outset that it would be extremely hard for Legacy to top the last “Expanded Edition” of Sweetheart, which came out in 1997. For both the fanatic and casual fan alike, that edition was a revelation, packed as it was with copious liner notes, rehearsal takes and finished bonus tracks that gave a comprehensive picture of Sweetheart in all its (ol’) glory.
At first glance, the 2-CD Legacy Edition seems to do that edition several better by restoring a few Parsons vocals that were contractually stripped from the original release in 1968 and issued only on the Byrds boxed set in 1990. It also adds a radio spot (actually a hidden track on the last reissue), one new unreleased cut (“All I Have Are Memories” with new drummer Kevin Kelley singing lead), as well as several working demos, outtakes and rehearsal versions that give a nice idea of the band dynamics at the time (and Parsons’ growing ego). Perhaps the biggest revelations on the Legacy Edition are the six cuts included here by Parsons’ pre-Byrds International Submarine Band, three of which that have never been on CD before. While half the ISB tracks sound very similar to Parsons’ better-known later work, two of the “lost” songs, “Sum Up Broke” and “One Day Week,” display a hitherto unheard predilection for melodic garage rock in the vein of the Kinks or Blue Cheer.
As interesting as this all is, however, much of the extra material will be overkill for all but the most ardent Grammaniacs. And even they might find themselves a little frustrated, as at least two of the rehearsal takes included on the 1997 Expanded Edition weren’t included here for some reason (including an incredible version of “One Hundred Years From Now” after which Parsons admits he sang without the aid of hearing himself because his headphones didn’t work). So in the absence of those cuts, to get the complete take on Sweetheart, you still have to buy that version.
But if you’re a fan—and even though I prefer Notorious Byrd Bros., I count myself among them—you’ll want to check out the Sweetheart Legacy Edition. You’ll want to hear what a bunch of rock n’ roll kids singing country standards about loving Jesus sounded like when the whole thing was still fresh. And on those grounds, trust me: it sounds pretty amazing.
Reviewed by: Matthew Weiner
Reviewed on: 2003-09-22