When the album “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” by the Byrds came out in August of 1968, I wasn’t quite born yet. But from what I’ve since read and heard, it marked a turning point not only for the band, but for the history of rock and country music.
Until then, the Byrds were known mostly for folk rock covers of Bob Dylan and a hit take on Pete Seegar’s “Turn Turn Turn.” But their sixth album surprised fans with a total immersion into traditional country music, spurred by the enthusiasm of the group’s new young vocalist, Gram Parsons.
Recorded in Nashville and Hollywood, “Sweetheart” is filled with gorgeous harmonies, brilliant pedal steel work by Lloyd Green and thrilling electric guitar by Clarence White. These were accomplished songs that would manage to make country music more hip for younger audiences (covers of Dylan’s “Nothing Was Delivered” and “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” probably helped). And although a commercial dud at the time, the work's reputation has grown and today many consider it the greatest country rock album ever.
On its 50th anniversary, Byrds founder Roger McGuinn wanted to cheer up his old bandmate Chris Hillman, who was having a bad year with the loss of Tom Petty (his friend and producer) and the loss of his home to a fire. In a wise move, McGuinn and Hillman called in country legend Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives to back them up on a select tour of "Sweetheart" in big cities – oh, and Hopewell. That's right, after stops in Los Angeles and New York, this rare tour rolled into the cozy, sold-out Beacon Theatre on Thursday, Sept. 20 for a nostalgic night that would deliver the musical goods in a big way.
A brief opening set drew from the band's country touchstones that pre-date “Sweetheart,” as McGuinn, wearing a dapper black hat, and Hillman, took turns telling stories about their influences and songwriting (McGuinn noted that after hearing Ringo Starr sing “Act Naturally,” the Byrds were inspired to work the country beat).
The talented Stuart, playing White’s modified Telecaster from the original album sessions, provided the musical muscle that carried the entire show -- bending a dizzying array of notes like nobody's business. Another key ingredient of his band was Chris Scruggs, grandson of legendary banjoist Earl Scruggs, who played numerous instruments including the crucial pedal steel parts in the second set.
For their part, McGuinn and Hillman’s vocals did not disappoint. The first set featured gorgeous takes on “My Back Pages,” “Time Between,” and the shimmering “Easy Rider” gem, “Wasn’t Born To Follow,” as well as covers of Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home” and Dylan’s “Mr. Tamborine Man” which closed out the 45-minute set, sending the mostly older crowd out to refresh their reasonably-priced drinks.
The second set began with a couple of Marty Stuart rockers (the beaming guitarist noted that this was his favorite tour ever) before diving into all of the “Sweetheart” songs, though not performed in order. There were impassioned takes on fan favorites “The Christian Life” and “Hickory Wind,” with Hillman singing this beautiful Parsons chestnut with gravitas. He also relayed a story about how the Byrds were supposed to perform a different song on the Grand 'Ole Opry, but Parsons insisted on playing “Hickory Wind” for his grandmother, a longtime listener of the show.
Thankfully, there was no airing of grievances tonight; the band has been known to be a bit sour about Parsons getting too much credit for the masterpiece – he was only in the band about five months. By 1973, he had overdosed on morphine and tequila in the Joshua Tree Inn at the age of 26.
Hearing the "Sweetheart" album performed in smalltown Virginia just felt right. Tonight was one of those rare concerts where older legends do justice to their legendary material and a grateful, rapt crowd seemed to recognize how special the night was from before the first note. Throughout the expertly paced show it was easy to imagine these songs never having been performed quite as beautifully, even in their heyday. Among the appreciative crowd were well-known Richmond musicians including Armistead Wellford (Love Tractor) and the Long Ryders’ Stephen McCarthy and Sid Griffin, visiting from Los Angeles. I also met some VCU political science professors and another musician from a Norfolk band called the Mockers, who was so thrilled with the show he planned to see it again in Bristol, Tn. The music seemed to lift everyone's spirits.
A well-deserved five-song encore started with the mariachi-inflected rocker “So You Want To Be A Rock and Roll Star” before breaking into three Tom Petty classics – McGuinn singing “American Girl,” Hillman singing “Wildflowers” (both songs on their past solo albums) and the band delivering a rootsy, down-home take on “Running Down A Dream.” This mini tribute made sense considering Petty was a major Byrds acolyte -- clearly the Byrds loved him back. But as my buddy noted, I might've swapped that third Petty cover for a "Chestnut Mare."
The night’s final song was a feel-good version of “Turn Turn Turn” that had the audience singing along, lost in reverie before a final standing ovation.
"My Back Pages" (Dylan cover)
"A Satisfied Mind" (Porter Wagoner cover)
"Old John Robertson"
"Wasn't Born to Follow" (Carole King)
"Sing Me Back Home" (Merle Haggard)
"Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man"
"Mr. Tamborine Man" (Dylan)
"Country Boy Rock and Roll" (Marty Stuart)
"Time Don't Wait" (Stuart)
"You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" (Dylan & The Band)
"Pretty Boy Floyd" (Woody Guthrie)
"Life in Prison" (Merle Haggard and The Strangers)
"One Hundred Years From Now"
"Nothing Was Delivered" (Bob Dylan & The Band)
"Blue Canadian Rockies" (Gene Autry)
"The Christian Life" (The Louvin Brothers)
"You're Still on My Mind" (Luke McDaniel)
"You Don't Miss Your Water" (William Bell)
"I Am a Pilgrim" [traditional]
"You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" (Bob Dylan & The Band)
"So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star"
"American Girl" (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers)
"Runnin' Down a Dream" (Petty)
"Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)" (Pete Seeger)