Behind the mellow sound of The Byrds' was a loud controversy over their 1968 album Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. While the band was growing increasingly experimental, in-fighting and firings led to the hiring of then-unknown musician Gram Parsons. Parsons' influence on Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, the only remaining original members by that point, was profound, and the decision was ultimately made to create an album that married the jangly rock sound they were known for with classic country songs.
The results of the album were roundly rejected by Byrds fans upon release, and the album didn't do well commercially. In the years that passed, however, aided by Parsons' icon status and a generation of alternative country musicians who cherished the album, Sweetheart Of The Rodeo has come to be considered a landmark recording in both country and rock music. Let's take a look at some of the most fascinating facts about the making of the album.
The events that led to Gram Parsons joining The Byrds, and in turn the creation of Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, began with the departure of members David Crosby and Michael Clarke. Egos and disastrous recording sessions led to Clarke's exit during the recording of The Notorious Byrd Brothers and Crosby's later firing. Bassist Chris Hillman later recalled:
David just had this knack for causing trouble. ... He was an extrovert and had a lot of guts -- which sometimes meant he could be an arrogant jerk. If anybody threatened him or he perceived it as a threat, he would lash out. And David Crosby was lucky that none of us popped him. He was really asking for it. It was the most different set of people with diverse backgrounds you could find, that was the five of us.
Crosby's replacement came from an unorthodox shift in stylistic direction. When the guitarist was fired, McGuinn began searching for a jazz pianist to take his place - leading them to a then-unknown musician named Gram Parsons.
When Parsons joined the band, he made the switch to guitar and began a quest to push the group towards the country-tinged sound that became Sweetheart. The new lineup was booked at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville but were not very well received by country music traditionalists.
"There were indeed some folks attending. . . who didn’t seem to appreciate how sincere we were in doing country music. You have to remember, it was during the Vietnam War and we were perceived as hippies. But backstage was different. Skeeter Davis took us under her wing, and she was very kind," McGuinn said.
Once Parsons joined the band, the re-grouped Byrds - which also included new drummer Kevin Kelley - began work on what would become Sweetheart. Initially, the idea for the album was to create a concept album that showcased the music of the 20th century - encompassing many different genres including country, R&B, jazz, rock, and pop.
That idea was abandoned in favor of a pure country album. Parsons was the biggest contributing factor to the direction of the album, but would end up not contributing as much as initially intended for complicated reasons.
Three songs on Sweetheart, including a cover of The Louvin Brothers' "This Christian Life," were originally meant to feature Parsons singing lead vocals. However, those vocals were ultimately replaced by McGuinn for reasons that remain disputed today.
Parsons insisted, up until the end of his life, that McGuinn replaced his vocals because he was trying to regain control of the band. McGuinn, however, claimed that the vocals were replaced because of clearance issues with Parsons' former record label. Though it has never been 100% confirmed one way or another, McGuinn's recollection of the reasons for Parsons deleted contributions are widely known and accepted.