The Byrds’ “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” album — released 50 years ago today — is considered by many to be the first truly country-rock album, one that not only spurred a movement that arguably reached an ultimate end point in the blockbuster success of the Eagles, but also vastly influenced Nashville’s sound and spawned the entire Americana musical genre. Byrds cofounders Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman have united a band — with country ace Marty Stuart — to tour behind the anniversary this fall.
A key architect of that album was singer-songwriter and die-hard country convert Gram Parsons, who’d joined the band as a keyboardist but basically ended up steering the direction of the entire album. While his stint with the Byrds lasted just a matter of months — he left, before the album was even released, when the band decided to perform in apartheid South Africa — and went on to further the album’s pioneering sound over two albums with the Flying Burrito Brothers and later two solo outings. He died of a heroin overdose in 1973.
While writer and veteran Hollywood rock scenester Pamela des Barres is best known for her memoir, “I’m With the Band,” and the stadium-strutting rock bands featured in it, she has long said that the Burritos were her all-time favorite band — she wrote superb liner notes for the “Live at the Avalon 1969” archival release — and was a close personal friend of Parsons’.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of “Sweetheart,” she’s written a long and lovely remembrance of Parsons on the Please Kill Me site.
“It was Spring of ’68, and I had been an obsessed Byrds fan from the get-go, standing below Chris Hillman as he solemnly plucked his bass at the Whisky, Troubadour, love-ins, and various places around Hollywood, making tempting goo-goo eyes at him if his glance happened to settle upon me. We’d had several interactions since I’d knocked on the backstage door at Ciro’s in ’66, when Jim McGuinn handed me a joint and invited me inside to join them. Hey, you have to seize every moment you’re in, right? But like our good ol’ ex-prez, I didn’t inhale that night. Instead, I passed the reefer between the band members, trying to maintain my unstoned, teenage cool.
“There was talk around town (that’s how we found things out waaaay back then!) that the Byrds had a new member and he was none other than the sparkling fellow we’d encountered at the Yellow Submarine premiere. I remember sitting cross-legged, close to the front (always) at the Kaleidoscope Club when Gram Parsons loped across the stage along with the rest of the Byrds and changed music forever. What the heck was this? …”