Commercially, the Byrds weren’t exactly at the top of their game in 1968. Their fifth album, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, released in January, topped out at No. 47, and its only single, “Goin’ Back,” barely cracked the Top 90. Plus, the band’s revolving door spit out cofounder David Crosby midway through the recording sessions. Not that there was anything wrong with The Notorious Byrd Brothers; it’s one of the group’s best works. But the record-buying public, which gave the band a pair of No. 1 singles only three years earlier, was growing less interested in the Byrds’ exploratory nature as 1968 rolled around. By the middle of the year, with both Crosby and drummer Michael Clarke gone, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, the only members left, began eyeing their future.
They had dipped into country music on The Notorious Byrd Brothers, and McGuinn wanted to expand the concept on an entire album based on the sounds of Americana — bluegrass, Western swing, jazz.
The problem was that he and Hillman couldn’t do it alone. So they recruited Hillman’s cousin Kevin Kelley on drums and a young singer-songwriter named Gram Parsons, who led the country-rock psychedelic group the International Submarine Band, on guitar, keyboards and vocals. The sessions would be rounded out with various studio musicians playing banjo, fiddle and pedal-steel guitar.
As recording for Sweetheart of the Rodeo began, and Parsons became a major presence and influence on the sessions, McGuinn’s concept was downscaled to a country album punctuated with rock ‘n’ roll grace notes. Parsons even talked the group into relocating to Nashville to record the album, which was made up of Parsons originals (“Hickory Wind”), traditional cuts (“I Am a Pilgrim”), country covers (the Louvin brothers’ “The Christian Life”) and a pair of Bob Dylan songs (including “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” which was still unreleased when the Byrds cut their version). Read More: 47 Years Ago: The Byrds Release 'Sweetheart of the Rodeo'
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