The Byrds were in a tight spot. In a matter of months, the band had gone from being a quartet to being a duo. They’d lost David Crosby, who had been arguably their best harmony singer and who had written much of the original material on the band’s recent albums, and Michael Clarke had also left. The remaining members, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, had to get a band together quickly — they were booked to play a US tour of colleges and universities, something they’d never been able to do while Crosby was in the band, as Crosby claimed a philosophical objection to “intellectualising” rock music. Meanwhile, McGuinn and Hillman had signed a fresh contract with Columbia records, listing them as sole members of the Byrds — everyone else to join the band, from then on, would be a salaried sideman.
Finding a replacement for Clarke was the easier of the two problems — Hillman’s cousin, Kevin Kelley, had been the drummer for the Rising Sons, but had had to take a job working in a clothing store when the band split up. Figuring that it was better to have a drummer they knew than to have to audition strangers, McGuinn and Hillman took him on, and the college tour went ahead with the band as a trio.
It was clear, though, that this was not a permanent solution. McGuinn wanted to push the band in a jazz-influenced, keyboard-led, avant-garde electronic direction, and they also needed someone to cover the harmony parts that had been sung by Crosby and Gene Clark when playing their old hits on stage.
Enter Gram Parsons.
Gram Parsons auditioned for the Byrds as a jazz keyboard player, but his real love was what he described as “cosmic American music”, a mixture of country and soul, but leaning firmly towards the former. As soon as he was made a member of the band, he instantly started pushing for the band to perform his own material, Buck Owens covers, and other country music.
Chris Hillman, who had been a bluegrass musician before joining the band, was keen, as he’d never liked McGuinn’s electronic jazz ideas. At first McGuinn tried to compromise, and indeed came up with a plan on which he was keen — the new album would indeed be “cosmic American music” in the broadest sense, a double album history of American music, covering bluegrass, country, 50s rock, and “space music” Moog-based electronica.
However, Hillman, Parsons, and producer Gary Usher all eventually persuaded McGuinn to drop the space music idea, and suddenly the Byrds were a country band. They even played the Grand Ole Opry, getting the gig after promising to play Merle Haggard covers, and performing to a hostile audience who were as far from the Byrds’ regular crowd as it was possible to get.
The Opry performance was even more of a disaster, though, because Parsons, who had quickly become the band’s new lead vocalist, decided on the spur of the moment to change the setlist, dropping one of the Haggard songs and replacing it with his own song, Hickory Wind.
Hickory Wind should by rights have gone down well with the Opry audience. A beautiful, elegaic, country waltz, co-written by Parsons and his former bandmate Bob Buchanan [FOOTNOTE There have been accusations that Parsons stole the song from an obscure folk singer. There’s no actual evidence for these accusations, and the song sounds of a piece with Parsons’ other work.], it’s a song of longing for home, and of being rich and successful but wishing for a time in the past when the singer was more spiritually fulfilled. Parsons’ beautiful, keening, vocals were utterly unlike anything on any previous Byrds record, but were heartfelt and moving. As Chris Hillman has often said since, if Parsons had never written another song, Hickory Wind by itself would have confirmed him as a great songwriter, and the song has been covered many times over the years.
But Hickory Wind nearly didn’t make it on to the new album, eventually titled Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Parsons had become the de facto leader of the band, much to McGuinn’s displeasure, and the recordings they made in Nashville were a mixture of old folk tunes, country songs by people like Merle Haggard or the Louvin Brothers, and songs by Parsons, as well as the obligatory Dylan covers and a countrified cover of the soul song You Don’t Miss Your Water. The album was becoming a gospel-tinged country record, with many of the songs being about Christianity and redemption, and McGuinn was reduced to playing acoustic rhythm guitar and singing backing vocals in what had been his own band. Parsons was also pushing for another musician to join the band — he wanted steel guitar player “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow to become a member, so that Parsons’ material could have a more authentic country feel.
Then a problem arose. Parsons’ old band, the International Submarine Band, had been signed to a contract with Lee Hazelwood, and Columbia records decided that the contract had not been broken thoroughly enough to allow them to have Parsons’ lead vocals on an album. Most of Parsons’ vocals were replaced by Roger McGuinn, doing a near-perfect impersonation of Parsons, and while eventually three Parsons leads (including Hickory Wind) made it to the album, Parsons had been put in his place. This was still Roger McGuinn’s band.
Parsons was bitterly disappointed by the decision to drop his lead vocals, and while on tour with the band in the UK, before the album was even released, he announced that he wouldn’t accompany the band when they left the UK on the next leg of their tour. They were playing South Africa, and Parsons had been persuaded by his friends in the Rolling Stones that it would be unethical to play there given the country’s appaling apartheid regime. The rest of the band persuaded their roadie, Carlos Bernal, to impersonate Parsons on the tour, and rehearsed on the plane to Johannesburg.
By the time the album came out, in August 1968, Parsons had been replaced by Clarence White, who’d played as a session musician on many of the band’s recent albums. But like Parsons, White preferred playing with musicians he knew, and pushed for Kelley to leave. Kelley was replaced by Gene Parsons (no relation to Gram), but on the night Gene Parsons first played with the band, Chris Hillman decided he’d had enough. The new arrangement, with him and McGuinn paying a salary to the other members, meant that with the drop in record sales they were losing money. After the first show with Gene Parsons, Hillman grabbed the band’s manager, who he blamed for what he considered a poor deal, and pinned him up against the wall. He then smashed his bass on the floor, and walked out.
Roger McGuinn was now The Byrd.
Composer: Gram Parsons and Bob Buchanan
Line-up: Gram Parsons (vocal, guitar, piano), Roger McGuinn (vocal, guitar, banjo), Chris Hillman (bass), Kevin Kelley (drums), John Hartford (fiddle), Lloyd Green (pedal steel guitar),
Original release: Sweetheart of the Rodeo, The Byrds, Columbia CS9670
Currently available on: Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Columbia Legacy CD