“I didn’t know what this song meant when I sang it on the record,” Roger McGuinn said before performing The Louvin Brothers’ “The Christian Life” at the State Theatre in New Brunswick, Oct. 28. “But I do know, now.”
I assume that McGuinn, who became a born-again Christian about a decade after recording this song, meant that he didn’t fully understand Christianity, at that point, the same way that he did later. But the comment stuck with me for another reason.
“The Christian Life” is from The Byrds’ 1968 Sweetheart of The Rodeo album, and this concert — which also featured McGuinn’s former Byrds partner Chris Hillman, plus Marty Stuart and Stuart’s band The Fabulous Superlatives — was part of a tour paying tribute to the album, in honor of its 50th anniversary. (The show featured all the album’s songs, though not in their original order, plus 16 others; see setlist below.)
The album was made when members of The Byrds were still in their 20s. They had had a tremendous amount of success at that point, making pop music and folk-rock and psychedelic-rock. But with Sweetheart of The Rodeo — now regarded as a landmark, though it was a commercial disappointment at the time — they reached beyond themselves and made music that, in many ways, sounded timeless.
Call it country, or country-rock, but it was the kind of music that mature adult musicians, not young pop stars, make: “Hickory Wind,” a breathtakingly stately ballad written by Gram Parsons (who was only briefly a Byrds member), songs associated with venerable figures such as Woody Guthrie (“Pretty Boy Floyd”) and Gene Autry (“Blue Canadian Rockies”) or country stars like George Jones (“You’re Still on My Mind”) and Merle Haggard (“Life in Prison”), two mysterious, then-new songs by the music world’s reigning poet, Bob Dylan (“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” “Nothing Was Delivered”).
Like “The Christian Life,” these are not songs that you sing when you’re young, then leave behind. These are songs you grow into. Playing an old, classic album in its entirety is inherently a nostalgic exercise. But due to the material, and the sheer magnificence of the performers’ musicianship, this show did not have an overwhelmingly nostalgic feel. Timeless art always sounds new, whenever and however encountered.
The first set opened, pointedly, with Dylan’s “My Back Pages,” after which McGuinn said that the show was going to take us through the back pages of Sweetheart of the Rodeo. In other words, the first set was dominated by songs from The Byrds’ previous albums that had some country flavor, including the Hillman-written “Time Between,” Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home” and the McGuinn/Parsons composition “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man” (preceded by McGuinn’s story about the encounter with a country disk jockey that inspired the song).
At the start of the second set, Stuart noted that he was playing the late Byrds member Clarence White’s guitar before leading The Fabulous Superlatives through two songs without McGuinn and Hillman, “Country Boy Rock & Roll” and the very Byrdsy “Time Don’t Wait.” Then it was the Sweetheart of the Rodeo songs, capped by a repeat of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” with the crowd invited to sing along.
The encore started with The Byrds’ “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” followed by a three-song tribute to Tom Petty (“King of the Hill,” “Wildflowers” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream”). “Wildflowers” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream” were given bluegrass arrangements, with Stuart translating Mike Campbell’s “Runnin’ Down a Dream” guitar solo to mandolin, and miraculously making it sound just as explosive. The show closed with The Byrds’ hit version of Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season).”
Hillman played guitar for most of the night, though he did switch to his usual Byrds instrument, bass, for a few of the Byrds songs (“Mr. Tambourine Man,” “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” “Turn! Turn! Turn!”). Fabulous Superlatives bassist Chris Scruggs moved to pedal steel guitar for most of the Sweetheart material, with Superlatives guitarist Kenny Vaughan taking over on bass. Everyone sang (drummer Harry Stinson provided the crucial high harmonies), creating a rich vocal mix reminiscence of The Byrds at their best.
Throughout the night, McGuinn and Hillman often told stories about writing and recording the songs. Stuart also spoke about buying Sweetheart of the Rodeo, in a cutout bin, and playing a show with Parsons in the early ’70s.
This was the only New Jersey stop of the Sweetheart of the Rodeo tour. There will be more shows, elsewhere, through mid-December, but none after that, McGuinn has said, since the 50th anniversary runs only through the end of this year.
Here is the show’s setlist. Songs from Sweetheart of the Rodeo are in bold.
“My Back Pages”
“A Satisfied Mind”
“Old John Robertson”
“Wasn’t Born to Follow”
“Sing Me Back Home”
“Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man”
“Mr. Tambourine Man”
“Country Boy Rock & Roll”
“Time Don’t Wait”
“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”
“Pretty Boy Floyd”
“Life in Prison”
“One Hundred Years From Now”
“Nothing Was Delivered”
“Blue Canadian Rockies”
“The Christian Life”
“You’re Still on My Mind”
“You Don’t Miss Your Water”
“I Am a Pilgrim”
“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” (singalong)
“So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”
“King of the Hill”
“Runnin’ Down a Dream”
“Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)”