Though greeted with commercial indifference at the time of its release, The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo has grown to be certifiable classic. It’s a sacred text of country-rock. The 11 tracks molded together pedal steel and traditional country arrangements with the jangly rock 'n' roll that had become a hallmark of The Byrds’ sound. It’s an album that featured Gram Parsons, the patron saint of the Americana movement. It heralded a degree of artistic freedom that other bands would take hold of, and it served as a reference point for countless future rock stars. It’s also timeless. Free of some of the saccharine and treacly musical accompaniments that plagued many of the era’s country albums, Sweetheart of the Rodeo sounds pure and unfiltered, as resonant and lived-in as it did back in 1968.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of its release, two of the original players, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, have taken the act out on the road. Joined by another musical luminary, Marty Stuart and his band of Fabulous Superlatives — Chris Scruggs, Kenny Vaughan and Harry Stinson — the ensemble has been re-creating the songs and the stories from the time period, providing audiences with faithful renditions of the tunes and entertaining anecdotes and vivid recollections that show insight into how it all came together.
Such was the scene Friday evening at a packed Majestic Theatre, where an enthusiastic audience (many dressed for the occasion with bolo ties, bright Western shirts and bold cowboy hats) sat ready at attention to learn from the masters. Ambling onto the stage with instruments in hand and strumming the opening chords of “My Back Pages,” the group wasted no time commencing with the lessons.
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We were quickly told by McGuinn that the opening number was designed intentionally to “take you through the back pages of our history to better see how Sweetheart of the Rodeo came to be.” The songs that followed appropriately featured country influences. Hillman’s own “Time Between” fit in nicely alongside the Merle Haggard-penned “Sing Me Back Home” and the Hillman/McGuinn-co-written “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man,” written in commemoration of a cantankerous country music disc jockey who refused to play Byrds songs.
Throughout the opening 45-minute set, we learned how McGuinn discovered the key to trimming songs down to appropriate radio-play lengths, how Hillman went home and started writing country songs after an evening of listening to jazz standards and how Peter Fonda’s excited freak-out over “Wasn’t Born To Follow” led to the song’s inclusion in the film, Easy Rider.
After a brief intermission, Stuart and The Superlatives came out onstage and played a three-song set of their own. Fully capable of filling the venue by themselves (and seriously, find me another gunslinger as good as Vaughan), the band gorgeously began things with a gentle harmonic version of “Angels Rock Me To Sleep,” performed at Hillman’s request to honor his native California as it faces deadly wildfires. They then powered through their old favorite “Country Boy Rock 'n' Roll” and their recent “Time Don’t Wait,” a song that, as Stuart duly noted, directly owes its sound to Sweetheart.
At that point, McGuinn and Hillman returned to the stage, and it was time to get to the business of honoring the album on the marquee. Though not performed in order (the set both started and ended with album opener “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”) the songs nonetheless were played to perfection.
At 76 and 73, respectively, both McGuinn’s and Hillman’s voices showed a bit of age, which is to be expected. However, age has brought a timely resonance to these tunes, something that wasn’t quite possible when the guys singing were still in their 20s. Hearing Hillman gently harness the elegant phrasing in a song like “Hickory Wind” or McGuinn similarly channel the plaintive assuredness of “I Am A Pilgrim” was enough to bring a tear to the eye. It certainly did just that for Stuart, who visibly wiped a few away at various points during the performance. Despite some not so collegial history between the two, McGuinn and Hillman also embraced and nodded toward each other frequently. They seem to have let bygones be bygones and have fully acknowledged and appreciated the memories they have made together.
The surprises didn’t end with the completion of the second set. For an encore, the musicians kicked things off with a spirited rendition of “So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star,” which featured solos from McGuinn’s Rickenbacker in all their legendary glory. The five-song set then honored the memory of Tom Petty, a shared collaborator who worked and toured extensively with McGuinn and produced a recent solo album of Hillman’s.
Stuart noted that Petty’s longtime guitar player, Mike Campbell, also produced his latest album, Way Out West. As part of the Petty tribute, Stuart, Vaughan, Scruggs and Stinson reworked “Runnin’ Down a Dream” into a bluegrass shuffle complete with Stuart’s searing mandolin soloing. Hillman also contributed a beautiful rendering of “Wildflowers” that was surely greeted with approval from Tom himself somewhere out there in the cosmos.
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And, of course, being members of The Byrds and all, the group ended the night with a heavy-on-the-audience-participation version of “Turn! Turn! Turn! (There Is A Season).” Though obvious in its inclusion, the song’s spiritual message also served as a fitting encapsulation for a night spent worshiping at the altar of musical scripture and its worthy proclaimers.
“My Back Pages”
“A Satisfied Mind”
“Old John Robertson”
“Wasn’t Born to Follow”
“Sing Me Back Home”
“Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man”
“Mr. Tambourine Man”
“Angels Rock Me To Sleep”
“Country Boy Rock & Roll”
“Time Don’t Wait”
“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”
“Pretty Boy Floyd”
“Life in Prison”
“One Hundred Years From Now”
“Nothing Was Delivered”
“Blue Canadian Rockies”
“The Christian Life”
“You’re Still on My Mind”
“You Don’t Miss Your Water”
“I Am a Pilgrim”
“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” (singalong)
“So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n' Roll Star”
“King of the Hill”
“Runnin’ Down a Dream”
“Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)”