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Concert Review: Ex-Byrds Deliver Stirring ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ Tribute

At the Theatre at Ace Hotel, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman were joined by Marty Stuart — and, for this tour opening, Mike Campbell — to celebrate the 50th anniversary of not just an album, but the country-rock movement it started.

Sweetheart of the Rodeo
Chris Willman

Tracing the progression of rock ‘n’ roll as art in the 1960s, it’s easy to see how each of the great bands of the time attempted to build on and outdo what had come just before. The Beach Boys’ 1966 release “Pet Sounds” has often been cited by Paul McCartney as the springboard for the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” the following year. And hearing that psych-pop landmark, what evolutionary choice did the Byrds have in 1968 but to blow the collective minds of the Haight-Ashbury generation with… an album of traditional country music.

“Sweetheart of the Rodeo” is widely regarded as the world’s first true country-rock album. That R&R&C&W landmark status makes it riper than any other effort in the Byrds’ catalog — even their earlier, far more successful efforts — for silver-haired, silver-anniversary commemoration. Fans are getting the desired “Sweetheart” deal with a tour headlined by ex-Byrds Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, backed by country renaissance man Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatyves (creative misspelling ours). At the opening night of the short national jaunt Tuesday at the Theatre at Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, it was like time hadn’t flown at all, partly because entire recent national movements have been dedicated to recreating this vibe.

The “Sgt. Pepper” comparison may be a joke, but the Beatles — earlier Beatles — were invoked Tuesday as a roundabout roots-music stimulant. “I heard Ringo Starr do a Buck Owens song, ‘Act Naturally’,” said McGuinn, “and I thought, if the Beatles can get away with a country beat, the Byrds can, too.” Hillman recalled his own point of more vaguely country inspiration: “We heard the Beatles, I think it was on the ‘Revolver’ album, and we heard them doing ‘Falling, yes I am falling…’” (The tune he excerpted, “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” was actually on “Help!” in the UK and “Rubber Soul” in the U.S., but close enough for country-rock.)

The first set of this two-part show is mostly dedicated to songs of a country-ish nature that preceded the “Sweetheart” album in the Byrds’ catalog. In other words, they want you to know, this wasn’t their first trip to the rodeo. You can sense a bit of a long-standing agenda in the thesis behind this 45-minute opening act: Gram Parsons has long gotten credit as the chief engineer behind their most influential album, even though he was in the Byrds for a grand total of five months, which obviously doesn’t sit entirely well with McGuinn and Hillman. “We really started doing country songs way back on the second album,” Hillman pointed out, introducing their 1965 cover of the Porter Wagoner hit “Satisfied Mind.” Introducing another pre-Parsons catalog pick, 1966’s “Mr. Spaceman,” McGuinn deadpanned, “I’ve always been kind of a spacy person, so I thought I’d write a country tune about outer space.”

Come the second act, which consisted of “Sweetheart” in its 11-song, out-of-order entirety (plus a sing-along reprise of its lone minor hit, Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”), Parsons was given more of his due. McGuinn told the familiar but still amusing story of how Parsons got recruited while he was looking for a pianist who could play in a McCoy Tyner jazz style, only to find out that not only did he favor guitar but “he’d turn into George Jones in a sparkly suit.” You can debate till the cowgirls come home whether Parsons effectively hijacked the Byrds during his brief tenure (the commandeering might have seemed more blatant if his lead vocals hadn’t been scrubbed off three out of six album tracks) or if he just helped focus McGuinn and particularly the already roots-sensitive Hillman on a path they were already on. But that short-lived lineup had a hell of a semester.

Fifty years on, Stuart is McGuinn and Hillman’s booster, enabler and evangelist, in a reunion that isn’t exactly being billed as a reunion. (It’s safe to say that David Crosby, who was reportedly not happy at not being invited, even though he was gone from the Byrds before “Sweetheart” was recorded, would not approve of the band’s name being used anywhere in the billing.) Stuart and his band could pull off a pretty good “Sweetheart” tribute all by themselves, and probably have, in the privacy of their rehearsal studio. As it was Tuesday, he assumed some of the lead vocals but, more importantly, took command of pretty much all of the soloing that took place in a standing position.

That qualifier is to leave out the presence of Chris Scruggs, who sat at the pedal steel and recreated the wall-to-wall instrumental parts that almost made “Sweetheart” feel “too country for country” even in 1968. In the first act, there was no pedal steel at all — just Stuart playing the actual modified Telecaster that the late Clarence White used on a lot of the original sessions, an instrument that, when its strings are bent exactly the right way by exactly the right person, sounds exactly like a pedal steel. Stuart proved so proficient at replicating White’s brilliantly steely guitar leads that you might’ve half-wondered if he would do that for the pedal-pushing “Sweetheart” second act, too. But they had too much reverence to go faux, and Scruggs was obviously the right pick to wield the pick for what is arguably the most famously steel-powered album of all time.

It was a guitar-nut dream night, and not only because McGuinn did revive his Rickenbacker side for the encore segment, which began with “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” and climaxed with “Turn, Turn, Turn.” The former hit was a favorite cover for Tom Petty to do over the decades, and for the three songs that came in-between in the encore, the night turned into a Petty fest instead of a Byrds nest. McGuinn pointed out how he’d had Petty’s assistance when he recorded “American Girl” as a solo artist in the late ‘70s, and he brought out Heartbreaker Mike Campbell to assist in the task. Then Hillman, whose recent solo album was produced by Petty, did his version of “Wildflowers” from that album. The whose-tribute-is-this-anyway mini-set continued when Stuart did a string-band version of “Running Down a Dream” — a staple in his live repertoire going back years — that, pound for objective pound, was the most viscerally exciting number of the night.

But visceral thrills are probably fourth or fifth on the list of things you’re going to a “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” anniversary show for. You’re going for the stories, like the one McGuinn told about how being dissed by WSM-AM DJ Ralph Emery led them to co-write the dismissive “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man.” (The famous country radio personality “put [‘You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere’] on a little preview turntable and listened to about 10 seconds’ worth and he said, ‘I’m not gonna play that song on my show.’ We said, ‘Why not?’ He said, ‘What’s it about?’ ‘Ralph, it’s a Bob Dylan song!’ Followed by in-studio crickets.)

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Chris Willman

You’re attending to hear how Hillman’s and McGuinn’s voices are holding up, more than a half-century on from their biggest hits. Or precisely half of the Parsons-written “One Hundred Years From Now,” to use another yardstick. The answer: extraordinarily well, with Hillman bringing a more urgent poignancy to his reading of “Hundred Years” and McGuinn singing the Louvin Brothers’ “The Christian Life” with sweet sincerity instead of the faint trace of condescension heard in the original. “I didn’t really know what it meant then,” McGuinn said. “I do now.” Both McGuinn and Hillman became known for their faith in subsequent years, and their voices blended impeccably with Stuart’s as the threesome joined at center stage for “I Am a Pilgrim” — a title that took on a secular as well as spiritual meaning in this revivalist setting.

Any intimations of mortality went unspoken, but it was hard to escape the fact that the deaths of key members Parsons and White in 1973, and that of the acolyte Petty so recently, made it that much more moving that McGuinn and Hillman are here to do this in their 70s… and to do it so well, after showing no particular urgency about reliving their past in intervening decades. To everything there is a season, but the Americana movement they had such a huge part in kickstarting hasn’t really been off-season since. Bully for them for acceding to a characteristically gentle victory lap.

After a second night in L.A. Wednesday, the “Sweetheart” tour — so far, short and intermittent in its 11-date booking — continues with stops including shows at New York’s Town Hall on Sept. 26 and Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium Oct. 8.