Last year, former Byrds bandmates Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman teamed with Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives for a 50th-anniversary tour celebrating a benchmark country-rock album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
A crossover moment in 2018 featuring a group keeping Nashville weird plus two folk-rock legends might have felt like some kind of reclamation of country music's glory days. In reality, it helped balance out 50-plus years of bad memories from when The Byrds played The Grand Ole Opry.
Hillman and future Emmylou Harris collaborator Gram Parsons plotted Sweetheart of the Rodeo as a genuine tribute to old-time country music. Sessions in both Nashville in Los Angeles included such legendary side musicians as pedal steel guitarists Lloyd Green and JayDee Maness, guitarist and future Byrds member Clarence White and fiddling and banjo picking legend John Hartford.
The band and its collaborators covered the Louvin Brothers, Merle Haggard and multiple Bob Dylan songs for what's now considered a classic moment in American music. Sweetheart also exposed Parsons' talent as a songwriter to a broader audience with "One Hundred Years From Now" and the Roy Buchanan co-write "Hickory Wind."
Despite featuring songs and session musicians from Nashville, the country music world seemed off-put by long-haired, rock 'n' roll-playing hippies associated with California's folk music scene. Because of this, all the steel guitar wizardry in the world was not going to win over Grand Ole Opry visitors when The Byrds took the Ryman Auditorium stage on March 15, 1968.
What was supposed to be a performance of Haggard's "Sing Me Back Home" got changed on the spot by Parsons, who told the crowd that his grandmother loved the Opry, so he wanted to play a song written for her: "Hickory Wind." Changing the script and not looking the part got the Byrds booed offstage and banned from The Ryman.
A little over three years later, another group with West Coast and folk-rock roots called the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band found way more success when trying to share its love of old country music with Nashville. The Dirt Band's first Will the Circle Be Unbroken album arrived in 1971 and featured the name and face of the Grand Ole Opry, Roy Acuff.
After the Dirt Band softened Music City's opposition to rock bands, the once impenetrable barrier between genres further crumbled thanks to Hillman and Parson's The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Eagles, Exile, Charlie Daniels, Johnny Cash and others we might now consider Americana acts.
When the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band released its second Circle album in 1989, it featured a new version of Dylan's "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" by Hillman and McGuinn. The duo first recorded it as a single for Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The new version allowed two former Byrds to experience firsthand how differently Nashville treated outsiders in the 1980s. A post-Sweetheart Byrds cut titled "Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man" addressed being shunned by country radio by mocking influential DJ Ralph Emery. Over 20 years later, past naysayers were proven wrong when a rerecorded cut from the Byrd's country album became a hit.
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This article was published on Sept. 27, 2019.