The Byrds Go Country
In the 1960s music scene, one of the most unusual changes was the Byrds abrupt move to a straight country sound ( with a somewhat heavier backbeat ). During the swirling turbulent psychedelic era of the late 1960s, musicians were exploring different kinds of music and trying all sorts of combinations of sound. For the most part a harder edged more psychedelic sound was the then favored style. One group that decided to go against the grain in 1968 were the Byrds, who after a few personnel changes decided (much to the horror of their record company) to abruptly change course and do a straight country album. New member Gram Parsons joined with original band member Chris Hillman in pushing for the new direction. As part of this plan they decided to record in Nashville, the home of country music. The Byrds visited Opryland in early 1968.
Once in Nashville, the band began working on what would become "Sweetheart of the Rodeo". They received a bit of a cold reception from much of the Nashville music establishment, although most of the musicians were welcoming. While recording the album they received an invitation to go on the Grand Ole Opry, which was the pinnacle of country music. An invitation to play the Opry at Ryman Auditorium was considered a benchmark of success. The Byrds were also granted an interview segment on a very popular radio show hosted by Ralph Emery on WSM AM (a station which could be heard all over the south).
The Grand Ole Opry and the WSM Interview
So while the Byrds finished up their week in Nashville, one evening two of the band-members, Roger McGuinn, and Gram Parsons, headed over to the radio station to do the interview. Unfortunately the DJ Emery was hostile, and refused to play the Byrds promo single they had brought over for that purpose. The nadir of the interview was reportedly reached when Emery asked Parsons about his draft status, and made other unpleasant accusations both on and off air. The band was taken aback but handled the unpleasant encounter. The appearance at the Opry went a little better, although the band received some catcalls when they went out on stage. Parsons also decided on the fly to switch the second song the Byrds were performing after another song had been announced by the host. Needless to say that did not go over well with the Opry management. Overall though it was groundbreaking event. The Byrds were the first rock band to play the Opry ( and the last for many years ).
It was a bit tough to cross over in those days. Back at that time, the music fields of country and pop were almost completely polarized, and had their own audiences, TV shows, and venues to tour. The Byrds were considered long haired hippies even though they had cut their hair and wore conservative clothing while in Nashville. Once back in Los Angeles, the band decided to no longer court the country audience, and a possible tour of country music venues was bypassed. Instead with promoters in America unsure how to book and promote the new country Byrds, they decided to tour Europe which seemed to be a little more open to the band's new sound. The tour was a success, and the offers in the U.S. began to come in.
Sweetheart Of The Rodeo
Sweetheart of the Rodeo was released to critical acclaim and commercial indifference. The band's fans were alienated by the new musical direction, and the country music audience never heard it. The album was a sales disappointment. Before long both Gram Parsons, and Chris Hillman would leave the Byrds and form the Flying Burrito Brothers. Roger McGuinn was left to rebuild the band around himself and guitar virtuoso Clarence White. Sweetheart of the Rodeo seemed like a failed and soon to be forgotten experiment.
However as years went by, and the band's back catalog was re-released, the Sweetheart of the Rodeo album began selling. At one point it was said to be the Byrds best selling album besides the greatest hits collection. Pretty amazing considering that the album gets virtually no radio airplay. The record also became influential to newer groups and performers who wanted to straddle the divide between rock and country. Sweetheart of the Rodeo began being name checked by a number of performers as an inspiration.
Roger McGuinn on Nashville Now
Drug Store Truck Drivin Man
Shortly before Gram Parsons left the band, he sat down with Roger McGuinn and wrote a song about the Nashville DJ that wouldn’t play their record, and was so abrasive to them. The song “Drug Store Truck Drivin Man” would appear on the next Byrds album “Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde”. The uncomplimentary song even has a spoken word coda as the song finishes stating “This one's for you Ralph”. Rather humorously Ralph Emery became the host of his own program Nashville Now in the 80's, and would occasionally have one of the former Byrds on the show. In particular Chris Hillman who had formed the highly successful “Desert Rose Band”. In the interviews which are on YouTube, Emery could never seem to remember the name of the country influenced Byrds album.
The best interview however is with Roger McGuinn. This was their first meeting since the ill-fated interview in 1968. Reportedly Waylon Jennings who appeared on the show shortly before McGuinn, had asked Emery if he knew he had a song written about him. I'm guessing that Emery knew well about the Byrds “letter” to him. The interview is fun to watch as Emery seems to only know the Byrds as a “hot rock group”. Both McGuinn and Emery are pretty forthright about the 1968 encounter, and the Grand Ole Opry appearance is also touched upon.
I should also credit Emery for having McGuinn on the show to begin with. He could hardly have avoided having Hillman on at this point as the Desert Rose Band was a fixture on the country charts at that time. But McGuinn (and later Gene Clark who made an appearance on the show), were not necessarily country musicians, and could have easily been ignored. Perhaps Emery thought it was time to make amends for his 1968 antagonism. Either way it's nice to see the Byrds get a little of their due on a country music program after being ignored for many years.
The Byrds In Opry History
As a fitting end to the story it should be noted that a few years ago, the Grand Ole Opry website put together the Eighty Great Moments in Opry History. Nestled in among all the well known country acts and Opry regulars was somewhat surprisingly the March 15, 1968 one time appearance of the Byrds. Unfortunately the performance was radio only, and no video or audio seems to exist for it except for a single black and white photograph. They were never invited back, but once was enough apparently to make a little history.