Sweetheart of the Rodeo is the sixth album by The Byrds and was released on August 30, 1968. Recorded with the addition of Gram Parsons, it was influential as the first major country-rock album by an established act and represented a stylistic move away from the psychedelic rock of the band’s previous LP, The Notorious Byrd Brothers. The Byrds had occasionally experimented with country on their four previous albums, but Sweetheart of the Rodeo represented their fullest immersion into the genre thus far. The album was also responsible for bringing Gram Parsons, who had joined The Byrds prior to the recording of the album, to the attention of a mainstream rock audience for the first time. Thus, the album can be seen as an important chapter in Parsons’ personal and musical crusade to make country music fashionable for a young audience.
The album was initially conceived as a musical history of 20th century American popular music, encompassing examples of country music, jazz and rhythm and blues, among other genres. However, steered by the passion of the little known Parsons, who had only joined The Byrds in February 1968, this proposed concept was abandoned early on and the album instead became purely a country record. Tensions developed between Parsons and the rest of the band (Roger McGuinn especially) with some of Parsons’ vocals being re-recorded, partly due to legal complications, that by the time the album was released in August, Parsons had left the band.
The Byrds move away from rock towards country music elicited a great deal of resistance and hostility from the ultra-conservative Nashville country music establishment who viewed The Byrds as a group of long-haired hippies attempting to subvert country music.
Upon its release, the album reached #77 on the Billboard Top LPs chart, but failed to reach the charts in the UK. Two attendant singles were released during 1968, “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”, which achieved modest success, and “I Am a Pilgrim”, which failed to chart. The album received mostly positive reviews in the music press, but the band’s shift away from psychedelic music alienated much of its pop audience. Despite being the most commercially unsuccessful Byrds’ album to date upon its initial release, Sweetheart of the Rodeo is today considered to be a seminal and highly influential country-rock album.
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