The Byrds helped create the genres of folk-rock and psychedelic-rock on their first five albums. But on their sixth, 1968’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo, they struck out in a new direction: Country-rock.
The album — which was recorded in Nashville, with session musicians supplementing the band members — did not sell well at the time, and generated only one minor hit (a cover of Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”). But it has come to be regarded not only as one of The Byrds’ best efforts, but as, perhaps, the most seminal country-rock album of them all.
“The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo recording stands as a milestone in American music,” Marty Stuart has said. “I bought my first copy of the record in 1972. Upon my first listen, I was mesmerized at the effect of the combined power country music, rock & roll, bluegrass, gospel and folk music had on me.”
Byrds members Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, as well as Stuart and Stuart’s band The Fabulous Superlatives, are playing Sweetheart of the Rodeo in its entirety, as well as other songs, on a 50th anniversary tour that has already come to Town Hall in New York for two shows in September, and will make its only New Jersey stop at The State Theatre in New Brunswick, Oct. 28.
McGuinn also has a new album of his own, Sweet Memories, that he is selling at the shows. It contains re-recordings of some of his Byrds hits, as well as other material.
I spoke to McGuinn, 76, by phone, earlier this week.
Q: I haven’t seen the tour yet — I’m going to see it in New Brunswick — but I know it’s been getting very good reviews so far, so congratulations about that.
A: Thank you.
Q: I know you’re doing the album, but not in the original order. What’s the thinking behind changing up the order of the album?
A: I don’t know. We just did it that way. (laughs)
Q: Okay. Of course, when most people do albums in they entirety, they tend to do them in the original order. But I guess there’s no reason you have to do it that way.
A: I really haven’t seen any of the concerts where people are doing albums (in their entirety). It just never occurred to us to do it any differently.
Q: I know you’ve been touring mostly as a solo artist in recent years. Does it feel strange to be on the road with a bigger group like this? How has that transition been for you?
A: It’s really fun to play with Chris and Marty and the guys. I’ve played with Marty before. I’ve gone out on tour with him, I think, in 2015, and I’ve been on his TV show (RFD-TV’s “The Marty Stuart Show”) and played the Ryman a couple of times for the late-night jam. And then I get to play with the Rock Bottom Remainders, which is a group with Stephen King and Ridley Pearson, Dave Barry, Amy Tan … So I play with bands quite a lot. But I love to do my solo show. That’s really fun for me.
Q: Going back, listening to the Sweetheart songs and relearning them … have there been surprises for you, in some ways, in the songs, or that have come up in the process of doing them live again?
A: Well, I think it’s really fun to sing harmony with the guys. I love singing harmony with Chris Hillman on “Hickory Wind,” and redoing “Nothing Was Delivered,” the Bob Dylan song that he sent down to us, when we were in Nashville. It’s kind of fun to sing that. We still don’t know what it’s about. It’s kind of like punk-country.
Q: Right, and with (Dylan’s) “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” too, I guess … Dylan was doing a lot of inscrutable songs, in that time period.
A: Yeah. I remember, there was some interview where Bob said he didn’t even know what the songs were about.
Q: Of course, he had done John Wesley Harding in ’67. Was that an influence, at all, in the direction you took on Sweetheart of the Rodeo?
A: No, it really wasn’t. I have no idea how we decided to go to Nashville. I think it was (producer) Gary Usher’s idea.
Q: But you were obviously thinking of doing a country-rock album before you went to Nashville.
A: We were thinking of doing a country album. The rock just kind of seeped through, because we were a rock band.
Q: Were those sessions for the album quick and easy, or were they difficult?
A: They were fun. (Pedal steel guitarist) Lloyd Green said it changed his life. He said it was the most fun he ever had in the studio. The normal sessions in Nashville were very structured. He’d come in and they’d say, play two bars at bar 37, and he’d do that, and that was it. When we did it, he said, “What do you want me to play?,” and we’d say, “Play any time you want, man.”
Q: I know Marty Stuart also worked on the Sweet Memories album with you. Did that lead to him being involved in this tour, too?
A: Well, I’ve known Marty since the year 2000. He was the master of ceremonies on a Dolly Parton movie shoot, and the movie never came out. But he and I got together and sat down by a creek, and started playing some songs, and they were from Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and we became friends.
Q: I know you’ve got Sweetheart shows scheduled through December. Is there are thought of continuing to do them after that, or will that be it?
A: No, because the 50-year thing expires in December.
Q: So what are your plans for next year?
A: I’m gonna go back to doing my one-man show, which I really love.
Q: And promoting the Sweet Memories album more?
A: Well, it’s doing pretty well by itself. We sell it at venues. And the whole reason for doing that album is that people come up to the merchandise stand, and they ask for some Byrds songs, and we can’t buy them from Sony Music, because they charge too much. It’s not feasible. So I re-recorded several of them.
Q: And of course, there’s some non-Byrds stuff on there, too.
A: Right, there are songs that my wife and I had written, over the years, and songs that I had. They are “sweet memories,” for us.
Q: Any other plans for more recording?
A: Yeah, we’ve got all these possible projects, like a children’s album, a Christmas album, a blues album …
Q: But no specific timetable for any of those?
A: No. I don’t care about time.
The Sweetheart of the Rodeo 50th anniversary show — featuring Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman and Marty Stuart & his Fabulous Superlatives — takes place at the State Theatre in New Brunswick, Oct. 28 at 7:30 p.m. Visit stnj.org.
For a chance to win two tickets, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org by midnight Oct. 25, with the word “Sweetheart” in the subject line.