Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman, and Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives On The Occasion Of Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ 50th Anniversary At The Town Hall,Monday, September 24th, 2018, Reviewed
Country and rock ain’t that complicated, country is half of rock and has been as early as Elvis Presley ‘s take on Bill Munro’s “Blue Moon Of Kentucky,” so what happened in the ensuing twelve years leading to the Byrds’ country album Sweetheart Of The Rodeo was less musical and more cultural, in a battle not dissimilar to the current Blue State Versus Red State, country was for flag and country, rock was for something else again. Chris Hillman inadvertently expressed why the Byrds were doing to country what they had done to folk, with a story about the band performing at the Grand Ol Opry.Gram Parsons decided to play a song he had written instead of a cover (last night we got both songs) because his Grandma had listened to the Grand Ol Opry all her life and Gram wanted to play it for her. The point being, culture war not withstanding, country was an American heritage and in a “we love it so you leave it” form the Byrds reclaimed country and re-invented country rock. With the widest of brush strokes you might claim that r&b was more rhymical minded and country more about tunes, stick em together and you get… the Eagles.
Well, certainly not Gene Clark, the ultimate Byrd though two years gone by 68. The Byrds in 68 were Roger McGuinn on acoustic guitar, Chris Hillman on bass, Gram (who would spend a total of five months in the Byrds) on second acoustic guitar and piano, all three of them handled vocal chores though Gram’s vocals were scrubbed off for legal reasons, and drummer Kevin Kelley. Lloyd Green played pedal steel and Clarence White soloed a lot on electric guitar. Last night the surviving 68 era Byrds showed (except for Lloyd, who is eighty years old by the way…) and they were joined by Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives -who handled most of the heavy lifting. On the first set, a sort of harbinger for Rodeo yet to come, Marty sounded as though he was playing a pedal steel guitar but wasn’t. In the second set when Sweetheart Of The Rodeo was performed in full (though not in chronological order), Fabulous Superlative utility man Chris Scruggs did a formidable job on pedal steel. Which, along with how Chris and Roger sang together, was the litmus test and between the two it couldn’t have been finer.
If you can get down to the Public and catch the musical play “Girl From The North Country” by Conor McPherson with songs by Bob Dylan, you’ll note that the one and only joyful moment in the show is “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” the opening track on Rodeo, the closing track on Rodeo is another Dylan number, and between the two they are an undoubted high point in the Bard Of Duluth’s’ career. At the Town Hall yesterday, Roger and Chris both began and ended the segment with the song. Roger said “It’s a Dylan song, I don’t know what it means.” The song juxtapositions day to day life in Hibbert with a joy in tomorrow, it is a terrific singalong, so much that Roger and Chris have us do exactly that at the conclusion of the album performance in a reprise. As for the other Dylan song, “Nothing Was Delivered” is moved to mid set and the bummer song (always hit me as a political putdown) has one of Dylan’ most drastic lines: “Nothing is better, nothing is best”.
Once you’re past the two Dylans, the real country songs come up for an airing. The Louvin Brothers “The Christian Life” given a much straighter take now the two friends are born again, their take on the pure country “You’re Still On My Mind” -I know George Jones version, and this one, if you play it back to back with Jones, the lack of a piano is quite alarming. Two Gram Parsons classics open Side Two, and elsewhere there is a mix of traditional, country obscurities, and more with the recurring pedal changing the complexion of the album.
Live, the performance is excellent on just about every level. Chris voice is wistful and nostalgic, Roger still has an edge to himself (especially later on a dynamite “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star”), there is always something a little on the too cool to be true about him. The two are at the opposite end of cool and Marty is the kid brother along for the ride. It has aged, and they look old, but the rock star aura is hard to shake. The evening opened with “My Back Pages” and it fits like a glove, the band is tight and together, and the good humor is so strong that Roger smiles and claps Marty on the back after the solo. The end of the evening is “Turn Turn Turn” -the late Pete seeger classic that the Byrds turned into their biggest hit.
While it might be a stretch to call “Mr. Spaceman” and, God knows, “Mr. Tambourine Man” country, certainly the 1965 vintage “A Satisfied Man” is country spiritual style, and so is the McGuinn-Parsons composition, written after a DJ refused to play one of their songs on the, what’s’ that word, radio, “Drug Store Truck Driving Man”. More than simply a table setting, it works as an expression of the Byrds country roots. The first set is a swift 33 minutes in length, but the second set makes up for the length and by the end of the night the band have been on stage for around 105 minutes -a good chunk of time, and none wasted.
Much like Sweetheart Of The Rodeo itself, the set lacks a center of gravity, in the very best sense it remains a singular set of great songs and a reclamation of a form and of what it means to be American that goes to the heart of cultural differences. The music, these swinging and sidelong sincere set of songs, answers question still relevant today. Look at the Byrds this way: they were an American pop take on the singles as artform The. Byrds were so deeply influenced by the Beatles (take another look at the band name). Hillman references “I’ve Jut Seen A Face” but if they had ever listened to the UK version of Beatles for Sale, it is country meets Buddy Holly. If Black Sabbath were rock slowed to a pulse, the Byrds were folk with a Rickenbacker. The Byrds listened to the Beatles and were transformed, but THEY LISTENED TO THE BEATLES -stardom and sales were part of the equation, and as much as beatlefying Dylan was their reason for being,, mainstreaming to the youth market country was always part of it.
Monday night was an emphatic explanation of all these things from fifty years ago, it echoes in the current landscape like a future not reached.