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Instructions: How to change a 4 star album to 5
on April 25, 2015
The original Sweetheart of the Rodeo is a 5 star album only because of its historical importance and influential impact. Musically it was 4 stars, and even that might be a bit generous. With all the material that the Byrds recorded at the sessions, it could have easily been as great an album as its reputation would indicate. Personally, I blame the producer, he's the one on the team that is supposed to wear the pants and make the tough decisions. BUT do not be dismayed- we live in a blessed musical age with easy access to bonus tracks and the digital capacity to re-arrange things according to our own liking.
I will show you all you need to do to create your own perfect Sweetheart album, one that would be 5 stars and rank with the greatest of the greats.
First buy this wonderful legacy edition, and then arrange the tracks thus:
ALBUM SIDE ONE:
1. You Aint Goin Nowhere - this Dylan classic with Lloyd Green's pedal steel intro was and is the only way to start the album and is one of its highest points
2. I am a Pilgrim - a well chosen traditional song sung by Chris Hillman. no change from the original yet.
3. The Christian Life (Gram Parsons vocal) - when I fist got Sweetheart and heard McGuinn sing this, I thought "this isn't country, it's a bad parody of country". Then I read the liner notes where McGuinn says "my singing on The Christian Life was a parody of country singing". Whether Parsons' was prevented from having too many lead vocals on the record because of contractual restrictions, or, as Tom points out in his excellent review, it was really McGuin not wanting to cede too much control to Parsons, there was still no excuse for putting Roger's version of this one on the finished album when there were much better songs in the can. Now we can replace the album's low point with a much improved (and more sincere) Gram Parsons version. The second rehearsal from CD two may be the best version, if you have the technology to eliminate the nearly full minute of false starts. Selecting a Louvin Brothers song to cover gives the Byrds extra bonus points in cool.
4. You don't Miss Your Water (Gram Parsons vocal) - it's not that i don't like McGuinn's version, I just suspect that it was Parsons' idea to cover this country/soul nugget. Plus I think we begin to hear Gram's ragged, world weary vocal style beginning to blossom here. Plus it makes a nice lead-in to the soul songs he would cover with the Burritos.
5. Pretty Polly (electric version) - If you had something this awesome, why would you release much weaker songs like McGuinn's "Christian Life" or Parsons' "Life in Prison"? Some might make a good argument for the acoustic version of Pretty Polly found on CD2 which has some great changed lyrics, but I just like the sound of that Rickenbacker coupled with this old British folk song. Put it here so it can sit right next to the other "pretty" person on the record:
6. Pretty Boy Floyd - with lines like "As through this life you travel, you meet some funny men / Some rob you with a six-gun, some with a fountain pen" this Woody Guthrie tune has to stay.
7. Hickory Wind - the glaring, glorious exception *(see track 11 below)
ALBUM SIDE TWO:
8. Lazy Day - I know they were going for a country feel, and this one is more rock'n'roll, but it gives the album a boost of energy. Plus, with this song included, the album could have been a forerunner of both counrty-rock AND southern rock. I'll take the more electric version heard on CD one of this legacy edition.
9. One hundred Years From Now (ROGER McGUINN vocal) - that's right, I'm keeping the McGuinn version of this Parsons penned song. Gram fanatics might call me a heretic, but I think Roger's vocal is a little better. Plus I like the group camaraderie that a McGuinn vocal implies.
10. Blue Canadian Rockies - Blueberry Hill was the first Gene Autry song to be covered by a rock'n'roll artist, I'm guessing that this was the second. (wait- I'm forgetting Elvis Here Comes Santa Claus)
11. You're Still on My Mind - here is the cold hard truth- as a general rule, and with some glaring, glorious exceptions (see track 7)*, Gram Parsons was not that good at covering or writing pure, unadulterated country songs. Nobody loved to sing country classics more than Gram, but his true strength lie in writing and singing the "cosmic American music" that he became known for. Sweetheart of the Rodeo was burdened by two attempts by Gram at pure country. Again, I'm calling out Gary Usher the producer on this one. With songs like Reputation and Pretty Polly available, it shouldn't have happened. So why am I keeping this on my 5 star version? Alongside the additions and changes I have made to the track order, this one is a nice, lighthearted piece that fits in nicely- with some terrific bar-room piano playing by Poole Ball. But "Life in Prison" was one honky-tonk Gram Parsons' song too many, so it's out.
12. Reputation - this one should definitely have been on the original album. compare its rythym and the dobro infused intro to Elvis' "Clean up Your Own Back Yard" released the following year. Also, there is a great acoustic demo version Gram recorded a couple of years earlier on another Parsons' compilation.
13. Nothing Was Delivered - not really the greatest Dylan song ever, and not one of the strongest cuts on the record, but I'm keeping it.
14. All I Have are Memories - with only 11 tracks on the original album, drummer Kevin Kelly really got the shaft when this one was cut. If you insist that the album must begin and close with a Dylan cover, just consider this an encore or a coda. If you prefer the instrumental, you also have that option.
Next, with the original album, tracks released on the anthology, and the "Naked" version, we can make the ultimate version of the album "Let It Be"!...