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Center Stage: McGuinn and Hillman celebrate 50 years of Byrds Sweetheart of the Rodeo

November 22, 2018

BY TOM NETHERLAND | SPECIAL TO THE HERALD COURIER

America divided sharply along political, societal, geographical and generational lines in 1968.

Along came a rock ’n’ roll band of longhairs with a seemingly unlikely record. They were The Byrds. Their record was “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.” And it flopped.

Yet 50 years later, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman will celebrate “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” with Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives. The tour started in June at Nashville’s hallowed Ryman Auditorium. It continues Dec. 1 at the revered Paramount Center for the Arts in Bristol, Tennessee.

“We do the entire album, but it’s out of sequence,” said Roger McGuinn, by phone from his home in Florida. “I’m just loving the tour. Chris and I are having a great time. Marty is having a great time.”

Three participants from The Byrds’ seminal “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” album will occupy the stage of the Paramount. McGuinn and Hillman sang eight of the album’s 11 songs. The late Gram Parsons led on three of the tunes, including his career highlight, “Hickory Wind.”

The late Clarence White played his 1954 Fender Telecaster, outfitted with a twang-inducing B-Bender device, on the album. Stuart has long owned and played the guitar, as he will during the show. That guitar commands a spotlight all its own.

“Oh, it is a star,” McGuinn said. “Marty doesn’t make a big deal about it. Chris and I do most of the talking in the show. But Clarence’s guitar gets so much applause.”

Still, McGuinn said that consideration of a tour to mark 50 years of the album that many signal as the start of the country-rock movement, hadn’t occurred to either him or Hillman. After all, it’s The Byrds’ sixth album. They hadn’t celebrated either of the previous five in similar fashion, so why now?

Conventional wisdom changed on the set of a Dolly Parton movie where McGuinn met Stuart.

“It was in Nashville, on the outskirts. Dolly was making a movie for IMAX, but it never came out. We sat down next to a creek and played songs on the ‘Sweetheart’ album,” McGuinn said. “I thought, ‘Wow, he can play Clarence’s licks real well.’”

Those licks were originally recorded March 9, 1968, at Columbia Studios in Nashville. The Byrds’ Nashville sessions concluded March 15, after which additional recording was done in Hollywood in April and May.

Stuart first bought a copy of the album in 1972. He said that its blend of country, bluegrass, rock ’n’ roll, gospel and folk music provided a blueprint for his style to follow.

But first came the original performances of songs from the album. Two emerged Saturday, March 15, 1968, at the Grand Ole Opry on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Tompall Glaser brought The Byrds onto the beloved stage of the Mother Church of Country Music.

“Lloyd Green (steel guitar player) said we got booed,” McGuinn said. “We were horrified. We didn’t expect it.”

Dressed in Nudie-made rhinestone suits, which were widely embraced by country musicians of the era, The Byrds’ clothes seemed to fit in well. Mostly.

“We did two songs, ‘You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,’ the Bob Dylan song, and we were supposed to do a Merle Haggard song, ‘Life in Prison.’ Gram said, ‘My grandmother loves to listen to the Grand Ole Opry. For her, he went into ‘Hickory Wind.’ That made everyone mad.”

Only thing, Parsons’ rhinestone suit featured marijuana leafs in a prominent display. Coupled with long hair, that did not help their reception. Simply put, The Byrds were like spacemen — too far out, too far left, and too rock for the conservative Opry crowd.

“I think so,” McGuinn said. “It was a political thing, and we got caught in the crossfire.”

The Byrds’ performance at the Opry foreshadowed the album’s reception. Consequently, “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” flopped.

“We were saddened that it wasn’t loved,” McGuinn said. “People didn’t like it. There was a big division between country and rock. Country people didn’t like rock people, and rock people didn’t like country people. We got caught in that crossfire, too.”

Though panned mercilessly by the public in 1968, “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” now stands as the most widely loved album of The Byrds. It forged history. Groundwork laid with the album made possible such landmark country-rock bands as The Flying Burrito Brothers.

“Lloyd Green said it was a game-changer album,” McGuinn said. “We felt that of all of our albums, this was the album to be celebrated for its 50th year.”