If you are coming to the Byrds for the very first time, and followed critical advice, it is then likely that you heard this album as your introduction. Regardless of your first impression, please don’t presume that you now have a handle on the band.
This album has precious little in common with the group’s earlier catalog. Rather, it is the Byrds first ‘country’ record and not so coincidentally, also their first with Gram Parsons, which explains why critics love to fawn over “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.” Before this, the Byrds released five albums that slowly moved away from an intensely saturated Bob Dylan influence, heading toward a heavily psychedelic palette of sounds. It was a very interesting journey, to say the least. With the arrival of Parsons on this, album #6, ‘psychedelic’ became a dirty word.
As the Byrds entered 1968, they were in pretty rough shape. David Crosby and Michael Clarke were both fired, and with Gene Clark also gone, that left only Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman from the apparently not so harmonious five-member lineup. The pair originally hired Gram Parson as a piano player, but he abandoned the instrument upon arrival and almost immediately set out to retool the Byrds in his own image. Parsons harbored a lifelong obsession with country music, even though he was far outside the Nashville establishment that held an iron tight grip on the genre.
At that time, “Country Music” was run like an exclusive country club and longhaired types were absolutely not allowed admittance. Parsons ignored the prejudicial nature of the genre, believing that the ‘younger generation’ might find common cause in embracing something so organic and distinctly American. Chris Hillman previously played in a bluegrass group, so he was easily swayed to Parsons’ way of thinking, and the restructured Byrds decamped to Nashville.
When released, the band’s fans looked on “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” suspiciously, while the country music establishment was downright hostile. Things within the band weren’t so sweet either. Parsons and McGuinn both struggled to control the band, and before its release, McGuinn even went so far as to erase Parsons’ vocals from some of the tracks. The inevitable result was that Parsons was gone from the Byrds before the album was even released, and “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” became the worst selling Byrds album to date. Nevertheless, Gram Parsons made his mark. In two years’ time, it seemed like every band on the West Coast sported country stylings, and an alternate brand of “outlaw” country music would also rise to prominence in its wake.
August 1968 - Billboard Charted #77