WHEN GRAM PARSONS JOINED Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman in the Byrds, rock music changed forever. The August 1968 release of Sweetheart Of The Rodeo goes down in history as the first true country-rock record, beating out Dylan’s Nashville Skyline by a year. Parsons, a Southern-born, Harvard-educated musical visionary, found a willing musical ally in Hillman, a former bluegrass player, and McGuinn brought his 12-string guitar along for the ride. Parsons’ tenure in the Byrds was short-lived, however. He left before Sweetheart was released and went on to form the Flying Burrito Brothers, with Hillman joining him soon afterward.
Sweetheart is a legitimate landmark in rock music, with its guitars, pedal steel, mandolin, and fiddles heralding a country-rock revolution. The tunes draw deeply on Parsons’ broad knowledge of Southern music, and include traditional country numbers (“I Am A Pilgrim”), a tune by the Louvin Brothers (“The Christian Life”), the honky-tonk “You’re Still on My Mind,” Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd,” and Merle Haggard’s “Life in Prison.” Two Dylan tunes opened and closed the original record, with a pair of Gram Parsons selections (“Hickory Wind” and “One Hundred Years From Now”) highlighting the set.
Columbia’s repackaged, remastered reissue cleans up the original sound quality while adding seven bonus cuts. Due to bizarre contractual circumstances, four tunes on the original album featured McGuinn’s lead vocals on songs that were slated to have Parsons at the mike. Four of the bonus cuts feature the rehearsal versions of these songs, with Gram on lead vocals. Parsons purists will finally feel redeemed.
Here’s another treat for Parsons purists: Rhino’s reissue of the legendary (and relatively obscure) Gram Parsons and The Fallen Angels: Live 1973 brings a hot live set back into circulation. Recorded in March 1973, between the release of GP, his first solo album, and Grievous Angel, his second and final album, Live 1973 features Emmylou Harris on background vocals. Emmylou has remarked that she found her voice with Parsons, and her delivery is raw, young, and pure.
Parsons’ genius at assimilating various aspects of Southern music rings true throughout this disc, on both covers and Parsons originals. The recording quality isn’t great (Neil Flanz’s pedal steel is undermiked), but this is essential stuff, nonetheless. Not long after the recording of Grievous Angel, Parsons would die at the age of 26, a victim of his own fast living. (As an aside, Warner Brothers repackaged both GP and Grievous Angel as a single CD back in 1990, collecting two essential masterpieces on one disc.)
The synthesis of country and rock is taken for granted now — spend a few moments with the country top-40 and you’ll know this is so. Sweetheart Of The Rodeo got this twangin’, rockin’ ball rolling, and things haven’t been the same since.