The Byrds returned from the Rodeo a different band in March of ’69
The month after his former bandmates Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman unveiled the latest evolution of country-rock with The Flying Burrito Brothers’ Gilded Palace of Sin, remaining Byrd Roger McGuinn interpreted the next logical step from Sweetheart of the Rodeo with the March 1969 release Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde.
After becoming unlikely country artists with 1968’s Sweetheart album, the nucleus of Parsons, Hillman and McGuinn slowly parted ways. Parsons and Hillman left the band at different times over an ill-advised trip to South Africa. McGuinn kept The Byrds going with member-in-waiting Clarence White on guitar and the new rhythm section of drummer Gene Parsons (no relation to Gram) and bassist John York.
While the Burrito Bros. balanced nostalgia with the progressive musical bent of Parsons’ pals from The Rolling Stones, McGuinn and his bandmates avoided crossing the streams. By wearing two hats—a Stetson and an astronaut helmet—the new Byrds lineup shared a dual identity throughout one of the most underrated albums of the late ‘60s.
The Byrds resumed its prior lineup’s fixation with country music with the Bakersfield-style selections “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man” and “Bad Night at the Whiskey.” Other examples of Byrdsian twang include clap-along folk tune “Old Blue” and an instrumental track bearing the name of White’s prior band, “Nashville West.” With each rootsy selection, The Byrds honor the past while mixing in enough rock-inspired innovation to spark the future creativity of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and the current owner of White’s guitar, Marty Stuart.
The producer of these country songs, Bob Johnston, is remembered in part for producing great Bob Dylan albums (Highway 61 Revisited through New Morning) and the only questionable releases by Flatt & Scruggs—as in, he was in the studio when Lester flatly sang “everybody must get stoned.” Yet Johnston knew his stuff beyond the folk revival. His pre-’69 discography included albums by Marty Robbins and Johnny Cash.
On the psychedelic end, McGuinn’s warbling vocals cut through the haze on a cover of Dylan’s “The Wheel’s on Fire” and the explosive one-two punch of “Child of the Universe” and “King Apathy III.” Each prove that the acid rock of the time suited the new Byrds, meaning the group never tossed out the trippy baby with the David Crosby bath water.
The band does tease its own blend of folk-rock and country music with the postmodern honky tonk cut “Candy.” However, McGuinn and his new bandmates mostly kept their musical impulses separate. In doing so, they made an album that celebrated two distinct sides of California’s pop music legacy—a concept revisited with Cracker’s 2014 album Berkeley to Bakersfield.