Personalities | The Byrds | Country Rock & The Outlaws | Country
The Byrds hired Gram Parsons (vocals, guitar, 1946–73) in 1968 because they needed a guitarist and pianist to fill the instrumental void left by the recent departure of David Crosby (vocals, guitar, b. 1941) and the earlier departure of Gene Clark (vocals, guitar, 1944–91).
The remaining Byrds – Roger McGuinn (vocals, guitar, b. 1942) and Chris Hillman (bass, mandolin, guitar, vocals, b. 1944) – also needed something to reawaken their career, which had begun to sputter after their early run of hits.
The Musical Revolution
The Byrds had launched one musical revolution in 1965 by pioneering folk-rock with such hit singles as Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ and Pete Seeger’s ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’. The Los Angeles quintet then launched a second revolution in 1966 by introducing psychedelic-rock through such singles as ‘5D (Fifth Dimension)’ and ‘Eight Miles High’. Little did they suspect that hiring Parsons would lead them to launch a third: country-rock.
McGuinn (once known as Jim but now known as Roger), Clark and Crosby had all been members of the early-1960s folk revival, but when they heard The Beatles’ first singles they were overcome by the power and elation of the British band. So they took the songs they already knew – folk staples by Dylan, Seeger and others – and arranged them as if they were Beatles singles.
Unlike the others, though, Hillman wasn’t an ex-folkie; he had grown up in California, playing in bluegrass and country bands. He knew those old country songs could be as strange and wonderful as anything written by Dylan or inspired by LSD. He brought his teenage pal Clarence White into The Byrds’ 1967 recording session for Younger Than Yesterday to play stinging Bakersfield-country guitar on Hillman’s song ‘Time Between’.
But Hillman didn’t have the country-fan ally he needed until Parsons joined the Byrds. Parsons had grown up in Georgia and Florida, the son of a suicidal father and an alcoholic citrus-heir mother. He loved the southern country music of his youth, especially the way it was given rhythm and swagger by Elvis Presley. Though he took a detour through the folk-music revival, Parsons founded his first country-rock group, the International Submarine Band, in Boston in 1965. The group moved to Los Angeles and released their only album in 1968.
Sweethearts Of The Rodeo
By that time, the ambitious Parsons had already signed up with the much better known Byrds, and he and Hillman had convinced McGuinn to devote the next Byrds album to country music. The album that emerged, Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, resembled the traditional country music of the 1940s and 1950s more than the country music of 1968, and it didn’t sell very well. But the hip, understated, twangy treatment of folk-flavoured songs mixed in with country standards seemed to change the life of everyone who did hear it. Within a few years there were country-rock bands everywhere you turned....
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