When Roger McGuinn phoned into Rolling Stone earlier this week, he was just a few hours away from playing his first Byrds concert in over a quarter century. Well, sort of. His current run of shows may include his fellow Byrd Chris Hillman and they may be playing the group’s most beloved album, 1968’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo, straight through in honor of its 50th anniversary in addition to a whole other set of Byrds classics, but they aren’t billing this precisely as a reunion. Instead, it’s the rather wordy “Byrds Co-Founders Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman along with country music legend Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives celebrate the 50th anniversary of Sweetheart of the Rodeo.”
We spoke with McGuinn about how the tour came together, the history behind Sweetheart of the Rodeo, his memories of working with Gram Parsons, the final time they saw each other and why he’s unwilling to bring David Crosby into the fold and make this a full Byrds reunion.
Let’s go all the way back to the start. What inspired you to change up the Byrds sound so much in 1968? You’d just had a lot of success with “My Back Pages” and “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star.” Most bands would have just stuck with a winning formula.
Well, we dabbled in country music as early as the Turn! Turn! Turn! album with “Satisfied Mind” and Chris Hillman came from a bluegrass background and I came from folk. To me, country music was part of folk music. We always listened to Earl Scruggs and all the country guys, so it wasn’t a real stretch. And then I think it was a reaction to the psychedelic thing after “Eight Miles High.” Everybody was doing psychedelic music and it was like, “Enough. It’s time to go back to country and cool down.”
Did anyone at your label or management try to tell you it was a mistake to change sounds like that?
No. Nobody at the label ever told us anything. They were very, very permissive at Columbia Records. I don’t even know if they knew what we were doing. I think they just said, “It’s time to go into the studio again and see what happens.”
You’d just parted ways with a bunch of band members. Did you ever worry the group might be over before Gram came in?
Well, it did get pretty thin when [David] Crosby was gone and Kevin Kelley and Chris Hillman and I tried to go on the road as the Byrds. We needed the rhythm section, and it didn’t really work. So that’s when we got Gram Parsons. I wanted to hire him as a piano player, but it turned out he was like George Jones in a sequin suit and we just didn’t know it yet.
Tell me your first memory of meeting Gram Parsons.
He came to our rehearsals. Chris Hillman had met him at a bank in Beverly Hills and brought him around. I asked him to play some piano and he played a little Floyd Cramer–style piano. I said, “Well, this guy’s got talent. We can work with him.” Then he started singing country songs to us and his love of country music was infectious and that got us fired up on it. I remember going out to Nudie, the rodeo tailor in San Fernando Valley, and getting some cowboy gear. I bought a Cadillac Eldorado and I stared driving the freeways of Los Angeles listening to country music like Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton and Jerry Lee Lewis. And I really liked it. I loved it so much that we decided to go to Nashville and record the album.
How quickly did you realize that Gram Parsons was even more talented than you initially thought?
It was right away, within a week.
I’ve heard various stories about why his lead vocals were taken off a bunch of the songs. What happened?
Well, he was signed to Lee Hazlewood with the International Submarine Band and we didn’t know that when we began recording and they threatened to sue us. And so we recorded over a couple of his tracks and then finally resolved it before the album came out. And so he was on some of the tracks and I was on the others. When we did the box set, they put him on the tracks that he sang on.
What’s your first memory of hearing “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” when Dylan sent over the Basement Tapes demo?
Oh, I loved it. I loved the chord changes and the melody. Of course, it’s obscure poetry and you really can’t tell what he’s talking about. I don’t think he even knew what he was talking about. I remember we made a single out of it and took it to Ralph Emery at WSM Radio in Nashville and asked him to play it on the air. He put it on a preview turntable and played about 10 seconds worth and said, “I’m not going to play that.” And we said, “Why not?” And he said, “Well, what’s it about?” He was used to songs telling a story. And I said, “I don’t know, man. It’s a Bob Dylan song.”
Then Bob mentioned you by name in his remake of the song a few years later.
Yeah, that’s because I reversed the lyrics. I said, “Pack up your money and pick pick up your tent” and he’d written, “Pick up your money and pack up your tent.”
How did Gram’s presence change the group dynamics?
He encouraged us to go more country. I mean, we dabbled it in before, but Gram was just so excited about it. He was just in love with country music. I talked to Jim Stafford, a guy he knew growing up in Winter Haven, Florida, and he said that Gram wasn’t originally into country music. He was initially like a Kingston Trio guy doing folk music and then he did rock & roll. Country was a recent development when we met him. He had just jumped into it, but he got so into it that it was infectious. We picked up on his enthusiasm and he made us love it too.
When the album was done, did you think it was going to be a big hit or did you worry about it?
We didn’t know. We weren’t really thinking commercially. We were just thinking about music, just doing what we wanted to do. But we didn’t expect it to do as badly as it did [laughs]. But in retrospect, I can see the politics of it. I think rock & roll people were like, “Wow, man, that’s country music!” and then country people were like, “These hippies are invading our territory!”
I imagine many of your fans bought it thinking there would be songs like “So You Wanna Be a Rock N’ Roll Star.”
Yeah. And especially coming after “Eight Miles High,” which was considered psychedelic.
How disappointed were you when it didn’t do well?
It was disappointing, definitely. It’s never good to put out a record and have nobody like it. I think it peaked at Number 77 on the Billboard 100, which is not so bad. At least it got in the Top 200. I remember walking into a country station in L.A. and it had a long hallway and I saw the Sweetheart cover pinned to a bulletin board at the end of the hall. I went, “Great, they’re playing it.” And then I walked down some more and saw that in magic marker is said, “Do not play, this is not country.” Even in L.A. they had an attitude about it.
When is the last time you remember seeing Gram in person?
He left after the South Africa disaster. [The group made an ill-advised decision to play South Africa in 1968 and Parsons quit in protest.] When we got back to the States he joined Chris in the Flying Burrito Brothers and I used to go down to the house they rented in the Valley and hang out with them. I was just blown away with the material they were coming up with for the first record. Then Gram would come over to my house and play pool. We had motorcycles and we’d ride together. We were still friends.
The last time I saw him was at Clarence White’s funeral. Let’s see, Clarence got killed on July 14th, 1973, I believe. It was the day after my birthday and he’d been to my birthday party. Clarence came up to me and said, “Hey, we should work together. It doesn’t have to be the Byrds or anything.” And I said, “OK, let’s do that.” And then the next day he was run over.
Anyway, we were in this limousine at Clarence’s funeral and I remember Gram saying, “I never want this to happen to me.” And it didn’t [laughs]. But I think that was the last time I saw Gram. It was at Clarence’s funeral. [Parsons died of a morphine overdose two months later.]
Let’s jump ahead to the present. What spurred this new Sweetheart of the Rodeo tour?
It was a few months ago. We were traveling in Argentina, sitting in the airport and I said, “Let’s do something about this Sweetheart anniversary.” We wanted Chris to have something fun to do because had a tough year.
With Tom Petty dying?
Tom died and then his house got burned up in a fire.
Did you call Chris yourself?
Yeah, we called Chris and asked him if he’d be interested and then we pitched the idea of getting Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives to back us up, which was a perfect fit because Marty’s got Clarence’s guitar and when it’s played on the Sweetheart songs, it just makes a lot of sense.
Was Chris stunned by the offer?
He was all for it. He jumped at it.
Are you playing the album in sequence?
No, it’s out of sequence, but it’s all of the songs. The first half is the songs we did in the Byrds that led up to recording in Nashville like “Satisfied Mind,” “A Girl With No Name,” “Time Between” and “Mr. Spaceman.” This is just to show that we were dabbling in this stuff before Gram came around. Then we talk about Gram and what an influence he was. The second half is all the songs from Sweetheart plus other stuff that Marty Stuart does. Then we’re gonna end with a tribute to Tom Petty.
Are you going to encore with early songs like “Tambourine Man” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!”?
Yeah, we’ll do the rock & roll stuff with “Tambourine Man” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and then “American Girl,” “Running Down a Dream” and “Wildflowers.”
Who will sing lead on the songs Gram originally sang?
We’ll take turns. I think Marty and Chris are doing most of them.
You have three shows right now and then a long break. Why did you decide to schedule it that way?
Marty is on a tour with Chris Stapleton and it’s big hundred-thousand seaters. He can’t get out of it. He was signed onto it before we even pitched this Sweetheart thing. He’s got a contract.
Are you going to add more dates?
Yeah, there’s still flexibility, though I feel it should end by the end of 2018 because 1968 to 2018 is a 50-year span. It don’t want it to be a permanent thing.
So there’s no chance of more dates next year?
There are people involved who would like it to continue, but I feel that’s not really the right way to go.
I read an interview with Chris where he said that David Crosby was initially very angry when he heard about this. Is that right?
David got some misinformation. He though that Chris and I were mounting a Byrds tour without him. Once Chris explained it to him, he was fine with it.
I guess you’ve made it clear by now that this isn’t a Byrds reunion.
It’s not the Byrds. This isn’t a Byrds tour. It’s a celebration of Sweetheart of the Rodeo‘s 50th anniversary with Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives. It’s not the Byrds.
In the future, are you at all open to the possibility of Byrds shows with David?
I really don’t want to. I kind of cringe at these old groups that get back together just for the money.
Is there any part of you that thinks, “Well, Chris wants this. David wants this. All the fans want this. I should just suck it up and do it for them?”
David is the most vocal about it. Chris is sort of on the fence. He’ll go either way. But I’m really happy doing what I do. I do a one-man show. It’s a two-hour thing with a 20 minute intermission. I tell stories. People say to my wife they like the stories best. Then they go, “Oh, I liked the songs, too.”
A lot of people do reunite their old bands just for the money. I suppose if it’s not in your heart …
It’s not in my heart.
You speak with David on Twitter all the time. It’s clear you still have a good relationship.
That’s fun. We’re Twitter buddies and I try to encourage him with his solo stuff. I say, “David, you don’t need the Byrds. You don’t need to be in any band.” He filled Red Rocks a few weeks ago. There’s a picture of him from behind with Red Rocks totally full. That’s a big venue. [Note: He was opening up for the Avett Brothers.] He’s doing great with his Sky Trails tour. He’s going to Europe in the fall. I’m all for him doing his solo stuff. He should stick with that.
Some people are under the impression you guys don’t get along.
No. No. We’re friends. We’re friends.
I know you have different takes on religion and politics. That doesn’t hurt the friendship?
No. Not at all [laughs].
Do you have any anxiety about going onstage in a few hours for the first show?
There’s always a little bit of anxiety, but that’s something you professionally kind of deal with. We did rehearse yesterday for about five or six hours. We feel pretty good about it.
I guess if the Byrds never do anything again, this is a nice chapter even if it’s not technically the Byrds.
Yeah. It’s a nice dessert.