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Roger McGuinn is best known as the singer and lead guitarist of the Byrds, a California-based band considered among the most influential acts of the 1960s. The Byrds’ debut album, “Mr. Tambourine Man” (1965), was a seminal work of folk rock music, and their sixth album, “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” (1968), was a major milestone in the development of country-rock. The Byrds underwent many lineup changes, and McGuinn, who wrote songs in addition to singing and playing, was the only member who stayed in the band for its entire run.
This fall, McGuinn, Byrds bassist and co-founder Chris Hillman, and country singer-songwriter Marty Stuart are touring to celebrate “Sweetheart of the Rodeo”’s 50th anniversary, and they will perform in Boston at the Colonial Theatre on Wednesday, Sept. 26. The Harvard Crimson spoke with McGuinn about the Byrds’ career, the making of “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” and his current tour.
The Harvard Crimson: From what I’ve read about the Beatles and [Beatles producer] George Martin, it seems like Martin was effectively their musical director early in their career. Then, as they became more famous, they were more empowered to take the reins themselves. Is that how it went with you guys and [producer of the Byrds’ first two albums] Terry Melcher?
Roger McGuinn: No, I wouldn’t elevate Terry Melcher to the level of George Martin. Terry was a good producer, but he wasn’t the musician that George Martin was, and he didn’t really tell us our parts. We figured out the parts ourselves. We’d sit around with a guitar and take the elements of a chord: “You sing this part, and I’ll sing that part,” and so on.
THC: Would you say similar things about Allen Stanton [producer of the Byrds’ third album] and Gary Usher [producer of their fourth, fifth, and sixth albums]?
RM: Gary was more of a hands-on producer. Allen Stanton was kind of like, “Turn on the machine and let’s see what happens.”
THC: What hands-on things would Gary do?
RM: Gary was really good. He invented a way to take two eight-tracks [tape recording machines that allowed for eight distinct layers of recorded sound] and spool them together and make a 16-track out of it before they’d invented a standalone 16-track recorder. He was into experimental things like sound effects, backwards tape, and so on, things that the Beatles had been experimenting with. We all listened to the Beatles and were inspired by them, and Gary was into that. He was very cool about using different effects.
THC: I’ve always listened to “The Notorious Byrd Brothers” [one of the three Gary Usher-produced Byrds albums] and thought, “How did they get those crazy sounds with primitive equipment?” but it turns out the equipment wasn’t actually primitive.
RM: Some of it wasn’t, but some of it was. Some of the things were just, like, banging on the strings of a piano with the sustain pedal down, so it’d go “bonnnng.” The sounds at the beginning of “Dolphin’s Smile” [a track on “The Notorious Byrd Brothers”] were done by clicking the strings on the underside of the bridge on the guitar.
THC: By 1968, when the “Notorious” album came out, the Byrds’ music had moved steadily from folk-rock to psychedelic rock. I know you’d experimented with other genres, but basically, you’d moved toward psychedelic music. So the country sound of “Sweetheart” was a big departure. Why did you want to change what you were doing?
RM: I think we all got burned out on psychedelia. It became too much — too much sound, too much noise — and we wanted to get back to something simple. And then Gram Parsons [country-rock singer-songwriter who played with the Byrds for a short period in 1968] came along, and he was a catalyst to doing it.
THC: Why do you think Gram ultimately left the Byrds?
RM: I think he enticed was by [Rolling Stones guitarist] Keith Richards. He and Keith really became good friends. I think Gram probably thought he could be one of the Rolling Stones by doing that [leaving the Byrds and spending time with Richards].
THC: He thought he was going to join the Stones?
RM: I mean, he stepped up from the International Submarine Band [Parsons’ previous project] to the Byrds. And then: from the Byrds to the Stones.
THC: How do you feel about that?
RM: I think it’s amusing. But, you know, I always liked Gram. He was a charismatic individual. He had a lot of enthusiasm, and that’s why we all fell in love with country and recorded “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.” We were friends even after he left and was in the Flying Burrito Brothers with Chris [Hillman]. He’d come over to my house and play pool, and we’d ride motorcycles together, so I didn’t hold anything against him. We got along great.
THC: A lot of critics and music historians credit “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” with inventing the country-rock genre. When you were recording it, did you feel like you were doing something novel?
RM: No, we didn’t. We didn’t think of what the perception would be at all. We just wanted to make an album of country music, and I think the fact that we had been playing rock and roll bled over into it. It wasn’t really an intentional combination of country and rock. And as far as inventing a genre goes, Gram had done an album with the International Submarine Band [“Safe at Home”], and that predated “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” if you want to find the first country-rock album. But I guess we were the first well-known rock band to record a country album.
THC: What if we go even more granular: Who was the first well-known rock band to record a country-rock song? I think that might also be the Byrds, with “Mr. Spaceman,” right?
RM: I have to say, I got the idea for “Mr. Spaceman” from Ringo’s Buck Owens song, “Act Naturally.” The Beatles did it before the Byrds. They had “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” too.
THC: “Sweetheart” didn’t sell very well when it came out, did it?
RM: It bombed. People didn’t get it. The country people didn’t get it, and the rock people didn’t get it, and then about 40 years later, everybody got it.
––Staff writer Alasdair P. MacKenzie can be reached at email@example.com.
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