50 Years a Sweetheart

The Byrds’ 1968 country rock classic reminds us of a time when the privileged used their influence to disrupt the status quo, not nurture it

Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Columbia Records 1968

Since we’ve seen hordes of influential, late-’60s American albums turn 50 over the last few years, maybe it’s appropriate to reaffirm our understanding of the true meaning of the word “timeless”—taken in its most literal meaning— to describe something that is not only a classic of its time, but actually exists outside of time.

While The Byrds had many classic hits, most are still inexorably associated with the ‘60s. Their big breakthrough single, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” became an aquarian pop anthem for its ability to succinctly capture the bipolar agony and ecstasy of a decade in revolt, forged of genocide and communal orgasms. The tune soundtracked a rapidly-evolving youth culture that rode on the back of blissful excess—a classic, for sure, but still very much a product of its time. That’s why you heard it on the Forrest Gump soundtrack.

Meanwhile, there’s this Gram Parsons original on the second side of The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo that deserves its rightful recognition as a profound sister song to that aforementioned classic Byrds single, especially in light of Sweetheart turning 50 last week.

Less concerned with the cyclicality of time itself than it is with the tendency of behaviors and histories to repeat themselves, Parsons’ “One Hundred Years From Now” doesn’t get the same love as the rest of the tracks on Sweetheart. At the center of the song are two questions: how much time must pass before histories, both personal and public, repeat themselves, and what has to happen in order for the outcome of those histories to actually change?

The specific incidents at the heart of these these rhetorical, unanswerable questions may differ depending on the era, but between today’s too soon returns of #MeToo boogeymen and the unknowable pain of historical repetition that has befallen the civil rights and black lives matter movements in this age of radicalized white nationalism, “One Hundred Years From Now” deserves our ears in earnest.

Sweetheart was the first and last Byrds record that Parsons would play on, and though Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman have said that he was a bonafide member of the band on their recent press run marking 50 years of Sweetheart, past interviews tell us that Parsons was more of a salaried employee, paid directly by the band.

Nonetheless, Parsons and the “Cosmic American Music” genre of psych-country to which he is often credited as architect, fully flourished on Sweetheart, which was in turn an incredible influence on the spread of what would eventually become another term in a sea of sub-genres, “country rock.”

To be clear, bands like San Francisco’s The Charlatans had been dressing up as gunslingers and Victorian dandies to electrify old folk and jugband numbers since ‘64. Several of Stephen Stills’ compositions on Buffalo Springfield’s ‘66 debut similarly qualify as a mix of the genres, too. Same with some songs on Country Joe & The Fish’s Electric Music for the Mind and Body and I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die, both released in ‘67 and both wearing their Americana influences as a means of subversion. With its self-titled LP that same year, too, San Francisco’s Moby Grape unleashed a countrified psych-blues unto the world that would only be denied its rightful place in the canon due to a botched album roll-out, a shitty record contract, and later, two of its members becoming diagnosed schizophrenic after latent psychoses were activated by too many trips.

Meanwhile, on the East Coast, yippies like The Fugs and The Holy Modal Rounders sharpened their subversive musical weapons by drawing out folk and Appalachian influences into a wacky, nostalgic trip. Then there was Dylan, who had been playing with The Hawks for a few before they became The Band, reimagining American music in concert halls across the world as an aggressively fluid, psychedelic sort of rock’n’roll. Two of their group compositions from The Basement Tapes sessions would make it on Sweetheart, which were given to Mcguinn by Dylan himself and released just a few months after Music From the Big Pink— “Nothing Was Delivered” and “You Ain’t Goin Nowhere.”

Hell, The Byrds had even flirted with the country rock thing themselves before on a few songs, not limited to but including “Satisfied Mind,” and “Oh! Susannah.” The point is, calling Parsons the architect to this bold, subversive melding of genres is a tad disingenuous. He was much more a catalyst than an architect, activating something that lay nascent in one of the most popular bands of the age, honing it to a more pure place (lap steel and all) and subversively propelling this genre hybrid album to a stage before a large audience.

Parsons, born Ingram Cecil Connor III, was also a trust fund kid and heir to a Florida citrus grove fortune, a little context goes a long way in understanding both his southern roots and his brazen willingness to help upend a staid, traditional genre of American music with hints of freakdom.

On this 50th anniversary press push for Sweetheart, McGuinn and Hillman shared an anecdote that illuminates just how strong integral Parson’s privilege was in helping The Byrds insert themselves into the country gentry. In ‘68, Columbia booked the bamd to make an appearance on a taping of Grand Ole Opry, still just a radio show. After their first number, the cover of Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin Nowhere, ”cries of “tweet tweet” from the audience reminded The Byrds that the more conservative country fans weren’t going to have any of their longhair bullshit.

Parsons then swapped out the planned second number, a cover of Merle Haggard’s new hit, “Sing Me Back Home,” for Parsons’ Sweetheart original, “Hickory Wind.” “My grandma’s been listening to the Grand Ole Opry all her life,” Parsons said on the broadcast. “ I want to do a song that I wrote for her.”  With no regard for the fact that the timing of performances needed to be pre-planned for radio, Parsons then led the band into “Hickory Wind” instead of the Merle tune, and the Opry told the band they’d never work again.

 

 

Hence, that brazenness of Parsons not only pushed The Byrds to go full country on Sweetheart (which was originally envisioned as a history of American music, beginning with early primitive stuff and ending with Moog compositions, before Parsons came on) but facilitated their insertion of the record into the very heart of country genteelness. McGuinn cut his long hair for the Opry taping (something Hugh Hefner mentioned in his interview with McGuinn on Playboy After Dark), but it wasn’t enough to pacify the country gentry.

The thing is, those who come from privilege will always have a shorter road to artistic success. The world of culture has never been a purely merit-based game, but more of a capitalist quest for resources and reach. Though Hillman deserves credit for bringing Parsons into the fold after David Crosby and Michael Clark left the band in late ‘67, Parsons only even got on Hillman’s radar to audition for the band (as a piano player) because he knew The Byrds’ business manager, Larry Spector.

Parsons had first met Merle Haggard during Parsons’ short enrollment at Harvard, and it’s during this time in Cambridge, Massachusetts where he’s said to have truly developed his strong love for country music. The point is, it was through the channels of privilege that Parsons was even connected with one of the most beloved American bands in the world in the first place.

Just as songwriters like Sturgill Simpson and his Metamodern Sounds in Country Music still polarize traditionalists while balancing sounds of the heartland with sounds from other realms, Parsons had a point to make. While he loved the sounds of the south, he very publicly despised the culture, or lack of culture, associated with them. David Fricke wrote in the liner notes of the 2003 Sweetheart reissue that Parsons wouldn’t leave London for a ten-day tour of South Africa, becayse disgusted at the apartheid there. “I first heard about the South African tour two months ago,” Parsons told Melody Maker in ‘68. “I knew right off the when I heard about it that I didn’t want to go. I stood firmly on my convictions.”

“The Byrds left without him, using roadie Carlos Bernal on guitar,” wrote Fricke. “The trip was a disaster.”

Because having the time and resources to compose, produce and record creative work is a luxury born of privilege and supported by a patron class, there will always be an element of class and station in mainstream art. What made Sweetheart timeless, though, isn’t just that it didn’t care to fit neatly with either the longhaired peaceniks nor the bolo-tie wearing country gentry—it’s that the album elevated this melding of styles to mainstream, international levels of visibility.

By contrast, today’s scions of wealth and nepotism, like Lana Del Rey and Taylor Swift, aren’t using their similarly privileged stations to facilitate creative work that upends or challenges the status quo, but supports it instead.

It’s possible that they, too, are beholden to the social media platforms’ questionably sustainable reign as our omniscient overlords of “content.” There’s been much talk over the last few years about the danger of “identity politics,” but a far more egregious epidemic in 2018 is what might perhaps best be described as “identity culture marketing.” We’re talking about a hyper-segmented landscape wherein consumers are marketed to based on the most intimate and specific details of their identity, largely data driven by social platforms like Facebook that encourage hyper-targeting your ads to specific demographics—age groups, neighborhoods, pet preferences, you name it—and a narrative of preference and taste is decided for us, not by us. Influencers are the new tastemakers, and algorithms are their gods.

This is dangerous. My generation was sold on New York City cool because of its seeming multiculturalism and lack of classism, told mythologized tales of rooms like Max’s Kansas City, where NYU professors and punks and businessmen would all share drinks after a long day, and the acts playing embraced a similar melding of genre and sound. Now, venues are similarly segmented by identity culture marketing, and rising real estate costs require a venue to book not based on the intentions to build a community or a scene, but rather around what acts will fill the room an any given night, irrespective of the culture that they bring through their doors.

So long as everything really does still turn, turn, turn, today’s youth culture finds itself in similarly uncertain times for freshly frightening reasons. How wonderful would it be, then, if those gifted with fortified milk from the teat of pirvelage were willing to follow Parsons’ lead with Sweetheart, using the weight of their influence to subvert, disrupt and heal our division rather than just widen the gulf?

One hundred years from this day, will the people even remember that such subversion was once possible?

 

 

Justin Joffe

Justin Joffe writes about music, art, technology, and other cultural treasures. Reach him on Twitter @joffaloff.

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