Washington Post spots big religion ghost in the Byrds' 'Sweetheart of the Rodeo' revival

You know those "desert island" games people like to play with music, books, movies and other forms of culture? You start with a question like this: If you were stranded on a dessert island, what 10 albums/CDs would you have choose to have with you (with no box sets allowed)? Let the life-defining debates begin.

The Washington Post ran a long, wonderful feature the other day that punched one of those buttons for me. The headline: "It was the Byrds album everyone hated in 1968. Now, ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ is a classic."

If I had to name a "favorite American rock band," I would almost certainly pick the Byrds.

If all Roger McGuinn and company gave American history (forget music) was radio hits that helped introduce that Bob Dylan guy, that would be a lot of cultural clout. But the Byrds, with a major assist from Buffalo Springfield, gave us so, so, so much more. Think Crosby, Stills & Nash, think Poco, think Flying Burrito Brothers, think Eagles, think Tom Petty, think R.E.M. and on and on. Just look at this family-tree chart on that.

This Post story gets that, but it also spotlights the fact that several crucial issues linked to the "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" album that were, yes,  essentially religious. This was when the Byrds tried to wade deep into the water of country music and, thus, ran head-on into Bible Belt culture.

Did the Post spot this "religion ghost"? Yes! This feature does a fantastic job handling a major religion ghost, woven into the life of McQuinn, but missed two other ghosts. Hold that thought. Here is the overture:

In June, with so little fanfare they weren’t even listed on the bill, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman took the stage at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium to play a song from “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.”
They last did that on March 16, 1968, and it did not go well. They were the Byrds then, and the appearance at the Grand Ole Opry elicited boos, catcalls or indifference, depending on who’s telling the story. This time, backed by Marty Stuart and his band, the Fabulous Superlatives, the crowd cheered as McGuinn and Hillman kicked into “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” the Bob Dylan song that opens “Sweetheart.”
“I cried,” says Tyler Mahan Coe, a country music historian who hosts the popular “Cocaine & Rhinestones”podcast. “I never even imagined that it would hit me as hard as it did.”

 

 

So what were the boos in Nashville about, way back when, when the Byrds took the stage in the cathedral of country music?

Well, that leads us to the late, great Gram Parsons, whose love of real country music (matching that of Hillman) helped shape this classic album.

So let's let McGuinn tell the story, care of the Post. Let's play spot the ghost.

There was one choice that led to a debate that continues today. Producer Gary Usher had McGuinn and Parsons record lead vocals for many of the same songs. But when “Sweetheart” came out, McGuinn’s leads dominated. One argument is that McGuinn did this to assert himself, and this angered Parsons. Others point to record label head Lee Hazelwood’s threats to sue Parsons, who had signed a deal with him before joining the Byrds. The 2003 expanded reissue of “Sweetheart” added all of Parsons’s vocal takes.
McGuinn concedes that Parsons sang at least one of those songs better than he did during the original sessions. McGuinn overdid the Louvins’ “The Christian Life” with an exaggerated country accent.
“I was doing almost a satire on it,” he says. “I was not a Christian at the time. Back then, it was kind of tongue in cheek. I know the Louvin Brothers meant it when they wrote it and sang it. And Gram meant it. He was a little Baptist boy.”

The country audience saw through the act. Yes, and then there was Vietnam, long hair, the '60s and lots of other stuff, too.

Now, I have read a lot of stories about McGuinn and, trust me, it is very rare to see anyone take seriously the impact of this legend's conversion to Christianity.

Now, here are the lyrics of "The Christian Life":

My buddies tell me that I should've waited
They say I'm missing a whole world of fun
But I still love them and I sing with pride
I like the Christian life
I won't lose a friend by heeding God's call
For what is a friend who'd want you to fall
Others find pleasure in things I despise
I like the Christian life
My buddies shun me since I turned to Jesus
They say I'm missing a whole world of fun
I live without them and walk in the light
I like the Christian life
I won't lose a friend by heeding God's call
For what is a friend who'd want you to fall
Others find pleasure in things I despise
I like the Christian life
I like the Christian life

Now, there's a lot to that song and hints of faith material show up all through this piece, including a touching recent encounter between McGuinn and the legendary Nashville DJ Ralph Emery. It was Emery who -- for moral and cultural reasons -- refused to play "Sweetheart" when it first came out. You have to read this part of the piece, especially if you love country music.

So what are the other ghosts in this piece?

Who are the three crucial men on stage in this "Sweetheart" revival? Well, there is McGuinn -- obviously. Then there is Hillman who also, as an adult, converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity (look for the icon corner in the short video that is a few lines down). Then there is Stuart, who is also an outspoken Christian.

 

 

So there is more to this drama than McGuinn learning how to sing "The Christian Life," and mean it. There is a trinity of superstars making this journey into the heart of country music and, one could argue, they really need to add the gospel classic "Bless Be the Tie That Bind" to the set list.

This Post story gets the big picture, but didn't mention the fact that McGuinn's faith story parallels, in many ways, those lived by Hillman and Stuart. That would have added even more depth to this good feature.

I'll end with a passage that sums this all up. The setting is the Theatre at Ace Hotel in Los Angeles, as this trio opened the “Sweetheart” tour.

Dwight Yoakam, with his cowboy hat, took a seat in the orchestra section. So did Mike Campbell, the longtime guitarist in Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers. The late Petty, a huge Byrds fan, produced solo records by both McGuinn and Hillman.
The concert opened with the Dylan-penned Byrds staple “My Back Pages” and Hillman’s vocal on the country-influenced, pre-“Sweetheart” song, “Time Between.”
Finally, after a short break, Stuart returned for the second set and proclaimed, “Can you believe what we’re going to experience?”
McGuinn sang “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” Hillman took “Hickory Wind,” and Chris Scruggs, grandson of the legendary banjo player Earl, put down his bass for the pedal steel. McGuinn got his do-over at “The Christian Life.”
“I didn’t really know what it meant,” he told the crowd. “I do now.”

Read the whole Post story, please. Here's the music to listen to, while you do.

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