Byrds Founder Chris Hillman Offers a Track-by-Track Analysis of 'Sweetheart of the Rodeo'

Byrds Founder Chris Hillman Offers a Track-by-Track Analysis of 'Sweetheart of the Rodeo'
Alysse Gafkjen
Singer-bassist Chris Hillman, a third-generation native of California, launched his career back in the early 1960s with the bluegrass act the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers. He would then go on to found the Byrds, a truly innovative country-rock group that also featured singer-guitarist Roger McGuinn and the late singer-guitarist Gram Parsons.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the band’s influential album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo. To mark the occasion, Hillman and McGuinn have teamed up with Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives to play the album in its entirety. They perform at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 3, at the Akron Civic Theatre.

“The Bryds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo recording stands as a milestone in American music,” says Stuart in a press release announcing the tour.

For the tour, Stuart is playing the famous 1954 Fender Telecaster originally owned by country-rock pioneer Clarence White, a contributor to the recording.

“I bought my first copy of the record in 1972," Stuart says. "Upon my first listen, I was mesmerized at the effect of the combined power that country music, rock 'n' roll, bluegrass, gospel and folk music had on me. From that day forward, I considered Sweetheart of the Rodeo a blueprint as to how I should live my musical life. It is truly an honor for me and the Superlatives to get to go out and play music from Sweetheart with Roger [McGuinn] and Chris [Hillman]. We love and greatly admire both of them, and I have to believe this is a show not to be missed.”

Reached via phone, Hillman echoes Stuart’s enthusiasm.

“It’s been such a blast and every night has gotten better,” he says. “We’re having a great time, and the songs have taken on a whole new meaning 50 years later. We haven’t changed anything. It’s the same arrangements as when we recorded the songs in 1968, but the execution now is so much better, and we have Marty & His Fabulous Superlatives, which is one of the best bands I’ve ever been around or played with. They’re so good.”

The show features two segments. The first segment includes songs that led up to Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The second segment features the album in its entirety. An encore will feature a few Byrds hits.

“We were doing country songs back in 1966,” says Hillman. “It was a clear-cut pathway to get to the point of going to Nashville in 1968 for Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The album didn't even get reviewed positively when it came out. It was not the best-selling Byrds record at all. It was probably the worst-selling Byrds album, but it did become accepted. I do believe it was the first country-rock album, and it opened the floodgates. It's never about having millions of dollars and Grammys. It's more about treating music as an art form and innovating, as Tom Petty did when he took his Byrds influence and then went up the ladder.”

We asked Hillman to talk about each of the disc's tunes. Here’s what he had to say.

“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”

“It’s just such a great song. Bob [Dylan] sent the demo out to us along with ‘Nothing Was Delivered,’ and we loved the song. It was a great song. It was the second time we were blessed with a great Dylan song. The other was ‘Mr. Tambourine Man.’ They were divine gifts. We had Lloyd Green kick it off with steel guitar.”

“I Am a Pilgrim”

“Merle Travis wrote that song, and I had heard it when [guitarist] Clarence [White] had played it as an instrumental in the Kentucky Colonels, a bluegrass band he had. Clarence and I have known since we were 16 years old. Roger [McGuinn] and I just put a new arrangement to it. I love it.”

“The Christian Life”

“I’m pretty sure Ira Louvin’ wrote the song. It’s a great song approached with more depth and meaning now in our later years than when we first cut it.”

“You Don’t Miss Your Water”

“He was an R&B singer who recorded for Stax. He’s still active. I heard Taj Mahal do this years ago, and then we cut it. It’s a great tune.”

“You’re Still on My Mind”

“It’s a classic honkytonk song. George Jones had a hit with it. Gram [Parsons] sang it originally, but here we are doing it. It has worked out great in the set.”

“Pretty Boy Floyd”

“Roger [McGuinn] brought that in. it’s a great tune by Woody [Guthrie], who wrote such great story tunes. I love the lyrics and how well-crafted it is. I played mandolin on the original and Marty is doing it on stage, which is fine because Marty is such a great player. He has a great approach to mandolin on that song.”

“Hickory Wind”

“That was written by Bob Buchanan and Gram Parsons. Gram gets a lot of the credit for it, which is okay, but Bob Buchanan is an old friend of mine, and he contributed to a lot the writing. It’s a beautiful song. It’s a classic. We do it in the show. I sing it and people just love it. There’s a great connection with people in that song.”

“One Hundred Years From Now”

“We arranged and did it in the sense of a Byrds groove, so to speak. Gram [Parsons] brought two great songs into the project. He brought ‘Hickory Wind’ and ‘One Hundred Years From Now.’ It’s the only Byrds album that Roger [McGuinn] and I did not write songs for. I don’t know why but it just happened that way.”

“Blue Canadian Rockies”

“I heard that song originally by a group from Canada when I was working on this country show, Cal’s Corral, when I was 18 years old. Canadian Sweethearts did it, and I heard it in a Gene Autrey movie. It just stuck in my head. I remembered it when we started working on Sweetheart of the Rodeo and wanted to include it because it’s a sweet love song. Cindy Walker wrote that, and she was a terrific prolific songwriter who’s now passed on.”

“Life in Prison”

“We decided to do all the tunes from Sweetheart, and at first I didn’t think we should do ‘Life in Prison’ because it’s such a silly song. But we’ve been doing it, and Marty [Stuart] sings it, and he makes it sound so good. He’s such a good singer that he can make that song come alive.”

“Nothing Was Delivered”

“I’m not sure what it’s about. I like the way Roger sings it. It has many subtexts to it. I think Bob wrote this song and ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’ when he was laid up with a broken leg from his motorcycle accident. That’s how he came up with the songs.”

The 50th Anniversary of the Byrds Album Sweetheart of the Rodeo with Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman and Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 3, Akron Civic Theatre, 182 S. Main St., Akron, 330-253-2488. Tickets: $53-$93,
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About The Author

Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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