The Byrds, during the not-so-Great Folk-Rock controversy, attempted to qualify their own individual transition by saying: “If only one line of ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ (which they had just recorded) gets through to the kids it’ll have been worth it.” The Byrds had all been Folkies and their subscription to Dylan’s new method of “getting the message across” (something Dylan himself denied trying to do) was of no little significance. What Barry McGuire, Jody Miller and the Byrds were doing was sacrilegious to the hard-core Folkies. Not only were they put down severely at first by Sing Out! and Broadside, the Bibles of the Guthrie generations, but to some, like Randy Sparks, former leader of the New Christy Minstrels and Back Porch Majority, what they were singing (as ascribed to McGuire’s “Eve Of Destruction”) was “fodder for the communists.” Folk-Rock, such as it was, made the “Folks” uptight.
In light of the former faux-pas, it is suggested that no purist C&W fans listen to Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, the Byrds’ latest transition. The Yin-Yang cycle of the musical flow continues to hold true. From straight, unamplified Folk, to Folk-Rock, to Rock, to Acid-Rock to semi-C&W-Rock, to affectedly-straight C&W — the next step appears all too obvious. But what we’re confronted with at the moment is the current product.
The new Byrds do not sound like Buck Owens & his Buckaroos. They aren’t that good. The material they’ve chosen to record, or rather, the way they perform the material, is simple, relaxed and folky. It’s not pretentious, it’s pretty. The musician-ship is excellent. (They had to practice before playing the Grand Old Opry.) The songs are, with the exception of the Dylan tracks “You Ain’t. Goin’ Nowhere” and “Nothing Was Delivered,” all standard ballads. “Blue Canadian Rockies” is an old Gene Autry tune, “Pretty Boy Floyd” was written by Woody Guthrie, “Life In Prison” is a Merle Haggard number and their arrangements of “The Christian Life” and “I Am A Pilgrim” (not the Merle Travis version) are in the traditional C&W storytelling vein.
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“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” is the finest cut they’ve done since “Old John Robertson” on the Notorious album. But its really more standard Bob Dylan than standard C&W. Buck Owens or Charlie Pride would never refer to Genghis Khan in a song. (Even Johnny Cash will sound a little silly singing it.)
Dylan has found his corner of C&W to relax in. With “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” he proved he could master any Folk or Rock idiom, and with “Nowhere” — he’s identified himself as a valid songwriter in a medium that he’d apparently spurned long ago. The Byrds are gallant interpreters of his lyrics — “My Back Pages” was probably their most genuine effort. The other Dylan-penned track, “Nothing Was Delivered,” starts out innocently enough with steel guitar backing, but following the first “are-you-true-to-me” verse it breaks into a rock chorus worthy of Sonny and Cher, It’s plain enough otherwise, and does the job.
The dedication to simplicity is reflected best on “I Am A Pilgrim,” a really sweet song rearranged by Roger (Jim) McGuinn and Chris Hillman. It includes only one minor repeated guitar run and the rest of it is reminiscent of Dylan’s uninspired folk-strumming of “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” days.
“Blue Canadian Rockies” is a particularly nostalgic track for all old Gene Autry fans. To hear that “the golden poppies are bloomin’/’round the banks of Lake Louise” brings back visions of Ol’ Gene and his horse Champion loping along the prairie.
“Rockies” sounds much more honest than their rendering of Merle Haggard’s “Life In Prison,’ a much more citified contemporary song. The Haggard tune sounds too professional, too well laid out and unsympathetic with the plight of the unfortunate guy who murdered his girl-friend. It would be better to listen to Haggard himself do this — it’s not that much better but at least it’s honest.
The Byrds have made an interesting album. It’s really very uninvolved and not a difficult record to listen to. It ought to make the “Easy-Listening” charts. “Bringing it all back home” has never been an easy thing to do.