Timeless flights

The last two years of the sixties were a time of awesome transition in music, the nation, and popular culture, as well as the sound and personnel of the Byrds, the Los Angeles-based folk-rock band once touted as America's answer to the Beatles (by Derek Taylor--the Fab Four's own flack--no less). Between 1965 and '67, they'd cut four timeless albums and hit the pop charts with songs like Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" and their own quasi-autobiographical "So You Want To Be A Rock 'N' Roll Star," but real superstardom had eluded the tempestuous outfit. By the dawn of 1968, the group had shrunk from a quintet to a trio, and the common wisdom was that they'd already reached the far side of their creative peak.

But the recent release by Columbia/Legacy of the "expanded editions" of the next four albums by a rapidly mutating group still calling itself the Byrds doesn't just invite reconsideration of such notions. It throws the point your way like a roaring twister of American music, verse, and culture, an eerie, potent, and fascinating collection of musical explorations whose accumulated profundity, like well-aged vintage wine, is stunning even to someone like me who grew up with the original discs as personal hallmarks.

In the not-quite two years between The Notorious Byrd Brothers (released January 1968) and The Ballad of Easy Rider (October 1969), the Byrds would make perhaps their most cogent and subtle folk-space-raga-rock-pop statement ever on Notorious, then all but invent country-rock and neo-traditionalism seven months later with Sweetheart of the Rodeo (August 1968). But the real thrill of rediscovery comes on the next two discs, Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde (February 1969) and Easy Rider, both of which I'd considered marginal Byrds albums at best (even though I'd listened to them for countless hours during my 1970s college years). Each remains a flawed work, but their glories and the ultimate impact of the music cannot be underestimated. Trust me--I even underestimated their impact on my tastes and being.

In the non-linear way one sometimes explores musical passions, Sweetheart was the first of this quartet of albums I came to own and know. I'd been an ardent fan of the Byrds from the folk-rock hits into the space-rock of Fifth Dimension and Younger Than Yesterday, but then the first of many blues revivals (this one led by Americans like Paul Butterfield and Brits like John Mayall) diverted my interest. It wasn't until the very end of the 1960s that I returned to the Byrds and found my aesthetic radically (and happily) shifted. Sweetheart of the Rodeo provides an appropriate point of entry to these four albums in more than just my own personal discography, being the one universally acknowledged classic of the bunch. Surprisingly, the universalism of that status came only with time and the tide of history.

To a Yankee who grew up thinking he hated country music--even though (oddly enough) Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers were for me the mother's milk of pop music, and I've been gaga for the oaken voice of Johnny Cash since well before Rick Rubin was born--the opening steel guitar of "You Ain't Going Nowhere" remains one of the most beautiful and revelatory sounds I've ever heard. The splendor only grows as the album plays (especially with the 20-bit remastering making it all sound like the stuff sung by angels). Sweetheart is the burning bush on my own musical road to Damascus, a conversion and pilgrimage I share with countless other musicians and listeners. Simply put, more than any other one record, it reunited rock and country at a time when they were in almost polar opposition, though the process of rejoining took some time within the album's aftermath.

In its day, Sweetheart not only befuddled the Music City fathers, but also confounded the rock audience with its pure, old-time Nashville radio country sound, echoing like a church, or--maybe better--a session at Bradley's Barn. Thanks to this album, I've come to know genuine country music fairly well. Yet I'd still easily rate Sweetheart one of the 10 greatest country albums ever made, up there among anything by the natural-born masters of the music. In sheer stylistic breadth, instrumental reverence and song quality (Dylan, the Louvins, Merle Haggard, Woody Guthrie, and the emerging Gram Parsons, as well as a masterful soul transplant with "You Don't Miss Your Water"), it's the most heartfelt prayer ever dedicated to the continued vitality of country music's finest roots. And it's an invocation that worked.

One can't discount the centrality of Gram Parsons in all this, especially in how his subsequent work with the Flying Burrito Brothers and as a solo act furthered the mission. But Sweetheart is just as informed by the continuing emergence of founding Byrd Chris Hillman's bluegrass and country roots (he followed Parsons in the Burritos and kept the flame burning right on through his 1980s Nashville run with Desert Rose Band). Roger McGuinn, the capstone Byrd, remained a staunch presence in this revolutionary endeavor as well, while guitarist Clarence White's signature abilities became more distinct even prior to his official membership in the band.