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How The Byrds' 'Sweetheart Of The Rodeo' Became A Classic 50 Years After Its Debut


Last year marked the 50th anniversary of The Byrds' album "Sweetheart Of The Rodeo."


THE BYRDS: (Singing) Nothing was delivered. And I tell this truth to you.

CORNISH: It was a commercial flop when it was released. Now it's considered a classic. To commemorate it, founding members Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman reunited for a brief tour. And to help them resurrect the album, they enlisted Marty Stuart and his band, who are some of Nashville's most renowned musicians. Meredith Ochs has the story.

MEREDITH OCHS, BYLINE: In 1968, "Sweetheart Of The Rodeo" was too country for rock fans, and the Byrds were too rock for country fans. With steel guitar and banjo, covers of Merle Haggard, the Louvin Brothers and others, they debuted their new sound at the Grand Ole Opry. And it didn't go over very well. "Sweetheart" also stalled at number 77 on Billboard's album chart, a steep decline for a band who'd already hit the top 10.

These days, that kind of crossover can lead to hit records. Americana artists like Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell have topped both country and pop charts and collected multiple Grammys. But the Byrds were one of the bands that set the template.


THE BYRDS: (Singing) Whoo-ee (ph), ride me high. Tomorrow's the day my bride's going to come. Oh, oh, are we going to fly down in the easy chair.

OCHS: "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" is one of more than a dozen Bob Dylan songs that the Byrds recorded during their career, beginning with their 1965 debut. They established themselves as folk rockers but grew increasingly adventurous over the five albums that followed, exploring psychedelia, jazz, raga and more.

They sort of experimented themselves off the charts, but they kept pushing boundaries. Even though "Sweetheart Of The Rodeo," their sixth album, was unabashedly country, they included a twanged-out version of this R&B hit by William Bell, blurring the lines between country and soul music.


THE BYRDS: (Singing) But when you left me, oh, how I cried. You don't miss your water till your well runs dry.

OCHS: "Sweetheart Of The Rodeo" is as much a landmark for its groundbreaking sound as it is for introducing singer-songwriter Gram Parsons to a broader audience. He was only part of The Byrds for several months, but it was Parsons who led the band down this country road, his influence deeply felt throughout the album. He called this mix of genres cosmic American music.

Parsons later went on to form The Flying Burrito Brothers with Byrds bassist Chris Hillman and record with Emmylou Harris before his death in 1973 at age 26. He also contributed two of his most memorable songs to "Sweetheart," including this one.


THE BYRDS: (Singing) One hundred years from this day, will the people still feel this way?

OCHS: Recreating an exalted 50-year-old album in concert is risky business. But McGuinn and Hillman pulled it off nearly note for note with help from Marty Stuart, a dazzling showman who seamlessly melds past with present. There was magic in conjuring "Sweetheart's" ghosts, telling the stories behind the songs and reminiscing about late, great colleagues and collaborators, especially Gram Parsons. But there's also magic in the album itself, its long reach still rippling through both country and rock and roll.


THE BYRDS AND THE FABULOUS SUPERLATIVES: (Singing) Crimson flames tied through my ears, rolling high and mighty traps.

CORNISH: That's The Byrds with Marty Stuart and his band, The Fabulous Superlatives, recorded live during their 2018 "Sweetheart Of The Rodeo" tour. Our reviewer, Meredith Ochs, is the author of several books. Her latest is "Aretha: The Queen Of Soul."


THE BYRDS AND THE FABULOUS SUPERLATIVES: (Singing) Ah, but I was so much older then. I'm younger than that now. In a soldier's stance, I aimed my hand at the mongrel dogs who teach. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Meredith Ochs