The Harmonic Ornithology: The Byrds
“Sweetheart of the Rodeo”
47th Anniversary of Opry Performance
On this night in Nashville 47 years ago, In good ol’ 1968…One of the most important Airs in Music History blew open the heavy doors of the church of Country Music.
An Air rushing so powerful, that not even the greasiest, coarsest, shortest of hairs inside a tight-fitting cowboy hat could keep from bending back in its forwardly blowing direction.
Of course, those “unique” individuals sporting longer hairs experienced this ‘Air’ more as an exhilarating charge than a bend. A charge that rushed up the end of each strand like a current of electricity—flowing back and forth through the contours of each wave, looping around curls, and resolving to a shimmery cadence in the roots.
‘Air’ or ‘Ayre’ is something that was ‘pop’ back in the “Baroque” era…it also had a place among bards…later among folkies..and a few moons later in the 60s, The Beatles soared with it.
An ‘Air”s definition changes throughout the centuries, but for guitar nuts who love Elizabethan groovers like John Dowland, The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians explains it: that composition which consisted of a melody accompanied either by other voices or an instrument.
It’s light. It’s AIR-Y. Simple melody, simple accompaniment. Distinctions of “air”…is determined by its content and purpose…usually derives from an Italian form like, an “aria”.
Bach’s Air chimed on the G String…In 1968, the song had major (G) but moved a little more like “Wind” than “Air”, and the sound was the meowing of a pedal steel player climbing up an oak tree, not a voice coming from a cat’s gut. Although there was some fiddle bowed on the album…meow, Hartford.
Just like the pressure of Bach’s air, This “Wind” pushed around things. “Hickory Wind” as this so called controversial song is known, was written by none other than (G)ram Parsons (and Bob Buchanan). Think of it a Country Aria where the singer has full discretion with simple instruments working under his/her direction. Pedal steel plays the harpsichord in this setting, haha.
When the older conservative people living in Nashville hear this title mentioned in present-day conversation, you are gonna get a lot more rolling eyes than you are rolling air-banjo licks in support.
The story goes that The Byrds were long-haired troublemakers. Not-so-good ol’ boys. A washed up rock band responsible for rattling a Tambourine to lure naïve victims into death–like the Pied Piper of Hamelin did innocent children and rats with a flute in German folklore. The WEST COAST group where only two of its founding members remained (and likely broken as a result of disorganization and partying)—joined by a drumming cousin of Chris Hillman and a Southern, rich college drop-out of a punk who sounded like cornbread glows brown on the top…or “George Jones in a sequined suit”—as Roger McGuinn once described him. They can’t see to correctly put on their boots with their eyes covered in hair!! If they even WEAR SHOES, those hippie dippies.
Buy me a flute and gun that shoots.
You ain’t goin’ nowhere.
Imposters are what they were to Nashvillians. Threats. Dressed not in rhinestones where everyone could see ‘em, but hiding under modest country gentleman’s clothing. And gray-haired disc jockeys like Ralph Emery needed to keep authentic flutes broadcasting the Right, wholesome melodies of drinkin’ and cheatin’ to keep the slow cookin’ good lookin’ people from leaving home.
So DJ Emery’s weapon of choice was his own fingers, shaped into a gun….and along with dissonant comments, he fired at the blasphemes recording The Byrds had made…that very week, in Music Row’s very own Columbia studio, with Nashville’s A Team musicians (country version of the Wrecking Crew), using country music’s words and instruments. Lloyd Green, a well-known Nashville pedal steel player who worked with them on the album said that he was in the WSM station with Roger and Gram during the interview; and that just to hear the bullets shooting from Emery’s tongue was painful.
Wow. To think Johnny Cash’s references to wishing for drugs on Sunday morning in a song he did just a few years later were a laughing matter in this town…
But as for the Hitchcockian scary Byrds that descended upon Nashville..
When by the grace of God, the Opry saints agreed to grant The Byrds a mere (let’s call it what it was) “15 minutes of experiencing reality” out of respect for Columbia Records—Lloyd Green told me in conversation that he had never seen Gram more excited to receive anything in his life. This reaction coming from a wealthy boy thought to ‘get everything he wanted’.
And so they stood on that hallowed stage in the late evening of March 15, 1968…
A rock group. For the first time at the Opry. Byrds. FLYING from the seat of their new breeches. Allowed. On the AIR. Friday Night Frolics…not the actual Saturday night show, but still as important…and broadcasted on the radio.
(For those of you less familiar with this story: The Byrds were instructed to play a couple of Merle Haggard tunes. After they performed the first song to a cold audience, Gram made the switch without anyone’s consent–thus, “‘messing” with the format of the program…which The Opry folk interpreted that as rebellious…changing their recipe out of spite…making the Opry’s usually polished production look bad in front of their audience.)
Of course, when Gram made the switch…..the establishment went ballistic.
Les Leverett, the famed Opry staff photographer who took photos of them that night said, “The audience was not happy at all.” As he showed the pictures to me he continued:”Here are these nice young men and people were makin’ bird calls, tweeting and stuff, and telling them to cut their hair. I felt sorry for them.”
Talkin’ bout finger-guns earlier…I imagine it like:
*1968 Opry audience members pull finger-guns from his/her Levi’s*
How dare these barely experienced, barely adult aged men stand on our pulpit and preach a musical sermon laced with the devil’s intentions! POW POW POW POW POW.
The Byrds were shot down and buried underground….to rest in the Outlaws section in the Country Music Hall of Fame….where they remain to this day.
Life in Prison.
For the wrongs they’d done.
Hope that changes in the new exhibit this month…..if not, I’ll be hittin’ sense into ‘em with a cosmic book soon. Maybe that’ll teach em? If old dogs can be taught?
Which brings me to this thought. I wonder…
Was this song really an act of rebellion against the establishment. Or was it that The Byrds were sincerely attempting to convert their artistic souls to the genre?
I’d like to challenge you all to take off your hats and crawl into mine for a moment. I speak to you from a place of LOVE and as a musician who has often faced the ugly end of the “music politics” gun time and time again….
Sometimes musicians actually want to improve and expand upon how they communicate with their listeners. Even if that means committing to speak in a different voice.
Are you still with me?
Sometimes musicians like to explore cultures different from where they came, or in Gram’s case, come home to familiar ones.
And sometimes, musicians don’t have to leave new traditions behind to adopt old ones.
Gram was guilty of being innocent.
“Hickory Wind” was not an act of rebellion against the establishment. It was an authentic act of improvisation at an appropriate moment to its artist, unbeknownst to or planned by its accompanying members and the venue managers of the production. Inconvenient, yes. Embarassing to the Opry’s sleek event formula….yes, but the Opry didn’t burn down. None of this was in the control of anyone, it was a choice made from the heart and mind…hence….IMPROV.
There, I said it. I ain’t goin’ nowhere. So shoot me.
I will go further in detail in my upcoming book, but for sake of a teaser explanation, roll around a little longer in my hat.
At the moment that the switch was made, it was a surprise to everyone–to Roger, to Chris, to Kevin, to other band members…and to Gram. Lloyd Green said that he had only played “HW” in the studio a few times, but the key was simple and the freedom of interpretation was a breath of fresh *AIR* (Wind). THAT COMING FROM A MUSICIAN LIVIN’ IN THE “COUNTRY”. Of the countless artists Lloyd’s worked with, he cites The Byrds as some of the most fun he has ever had playing. AND the coolest, most professional company he’s ever kept.
If Gram did anything “controversial”, it was that he took the “Hickory Wind” out of the sails of hard-headed country executives and their self-entitled supporters. Here, a rock band was trying to respectfully relate to the audience with a piece of their own cooking. To cook something from scratch and serve your guests is very classy Southern etiquette. The Opry should’ve returned the favor with respect whether they liked the taste of it or not.
NOW, think, just think of what it is to be an artist. With given talent, you have a responsibility to represent yourself and your art in the most authentic way possible. Play-gerism is of course wrong. Covering songs isn’t wrong when permission is sought—but it isn’t the highest degree of personal expression. What would you do? You’d wave when the camera’s lens is made available.
Not only did the audience get a sincerely beautiful slice about simple things, they got to hear The Byrds tweet their own idea, not “serve” a variation of someone else’s recipe. (Not that there is anything wrong with performing work of others…but with that country audience hating on rockstars it was not such a welcomed gesture).
Chosen for especially for Mama Nancy, his paternal grandmother—whom he loved dearly…and who was in attendance. His cousins and Aunt Pauline quietly cheering along with her. All of whom he’d make sure to visit when he’d pass through town.
There is no question in my mind why he would love visiting Mama Nancy so much. When I walked around the gorgeous house his father, Coon Dog grew up in..an early 1900’s home in Columbia, TN…I quickly understood the charm and warmth surrounding the Connor family. The staircase, the fireplaces, and porch all beamed TN comfort. Which I know, because Music City has always been my home…and I say the Connors and their kin are golden eggs. Seems a good word about the family would’ve suffice for those audience members. Before I was aware of his place of origin, I knew within the first few sounds of Gram’s voice–he was part Tennessean by blood, which is more than enough proof he knew about all things country.
Music History is very fortunate that The Byrds had the courage to stand up at the Opry. Thanks to “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” , we have reaped an abundance of cosmic influence since.
Nashville is just as obsessed with a polished formula today as it was then…and now look at what this city is doing to itself with a new found popularity status: destroying well-known establishments and breaking music with heavy business. The publications say we don’t have enough affordable living space per capita…and popular country music is rapidly becoming more artificial to match. I can’t believe there had to be an official halt made to keep builders from demolishing up historic Music Row. Outrageous.
The Byrds sure didn’t throw the past aside to embrace futuristic sounds in”Sweetheart”…Nashville used to be scared of ‘change’….didn’t need to be in 1968, but now’s a good time to start up again! Let’s follow Gram’s lead and abandon formulas this very moment!!
Happy 47th Anniversary to The Byrds Opry performance. May the Hickory Wind still blow us in a positive direction One Hundred Years from Now.
The ENdie Chick