The Byrds, 'Sweetheart of the Rodeo' (1968)
A Sixties landmark every bit as epochal as Sgt. Pepper's or The Velvet Underground & Nico, the Byrds' 1968 masterpiece pretty much invented the notion that longhaired rock guys could play country music with dedication, skill and emotion. The band had dabbled a little with country in the past but by adding Georgia-born Gram Parsons to their lineup in 1967 they went all in, recording in Nashville and following Parsons' notion of "Cosmic American Music" towards a sound that seamlessly incorporated Dylan ("You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," "Nothing Was Delivered"), the Louvin Brothers ("The Christian Life"), Woody Guthrie ("Pretty Boy Floyd"), George Jones ("You're Still on My Mind"), Merle Haggard ("Life In Prison") and Stax soulman William Bell ("You Won't Miss Your Water") into a honky-tonk-steeped music played with rock & roll drive. The most stunning moments are "Hickory Wind," Parsons' loving remembrance of home, and "One Hundred Years From Now," which pushes beyond traditionalism and reverence into their own heraldic vision of country-rock. "Would anybody change their mind?" they sang, wondering towards a future where America's class and regional biases melted into high-harmony bliss. Taking that vision to the Grand Ole Opry after Sweetheart's release, they learned how far their utopian ideas were from reality when a condescending audience booed them off the stage. J.D.