This will be a place for essays and commentaries on the Byrds and related musicians. Here is the first essay. It is about Jonathan's objections to country music and his surprising embrace of the Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, etc. If you don't like the later Byrds or the "country rock" sound (or don't think you will) then you should read this.
By Jonathan Bennett
The other day my mom heard the music of Gram Parsons coming from my brother David's stereo. She questioned him about his newfound interest in country and western and couldn't believe that he could possibly enjoy that type of music. The thing is, neither of us enjoys country and western music. In fact, we've both probably listened to country radio a total of ten minutes in our whole lives and that was only when briefly when scanning the radio dial on long trips. I still maintain this: I don't like country; I like the Byrds, Gram Parsons, Gene Clark, and the Flying Burrito Brothers, and so forth, but not country.
David and I, like most others, came to appreciate this sound via the rock side of the spectrum. My first album (a cassette) was Bon Jovi; my second was U2's "Joshua Tree." I listened to U2, the Cure, REM, as well as the music pop and rock radio fed their listeners. Consequently, I loathed country music. Liking it threatened one's credibility. I associated the genre not only with trucks, tractors, and hillbillies, but also ignorance, racism, and conservatism. On top of that, the music lacked any edge. It seemed filled with overproduced, hackneyed songs performed with an overdone twang matching no known geographical region. Lyrically, the songs appeared just as trite. Tunes about jukeboxes, tractors and mud running alongside saccharine breakup ballads seemed too over the top. Finally, these songs were always loaded with pedal steel. Whenever I heard pedal steel, I automatically prejudged the song and consequently dismissed it. The Byrds and Gram Parsons, however, changed everything.
The first thing the music of the Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, and Gram Parsons did for me was to show that country music could have an edge. A fine example is when the Byrds played the Grand Ole Opry. Not only were they stoned, but also, at the last minute, Gram Parsons decided the band was going to play his "Hickory Wind" and not a Merle Haggard song. It's not surprising that their reception by the Nashville establishment was cool. Parsons was hanging out with the Rolling Stones, using drugs, wearing Nudie suits, and even used the word "bitch" in one of his songs. The latter day Byrds, like Gram, appeared unkempt and had long hair. Gram refused to tour South Africa for political reasons. Finally, Parsons lived the rock lifestyle to its fullest and died young.
More importantly than their image, however, the music possessed an edge. The songs themselves are absolutely spectacular. Musically, they are much more than typical country. Instead of a single snare drum, these guys had rock drumming. They featured electric bass, electric guitar, and in the case of the Flying Burrito Brothers, Sneaky Pete Kleinow's "fuzz" steel guitar. Lyrically, this type of music addressed issues related to everyday life, especially Americana; it could hardly be called urban or cosmopolitan. Still, the songs go beyond country stereotypes to appeal to the basic human experience stripped of any externals. Songs like "Hickory Wind" touch all of us, even if we've never lived in South Carolina. Who couldn't feel a bit homesick hearing Gram and the Byrds croon: "It's a hard way to find out that trouble is real, in a far away city with a faraway feel. But it makes me feel better, each time it begins: calling me home, hickory wind?"
These guys were good songwriters too and their original songs are extremely enduring and reflect the spirit of the times. Gram Parsons probably spoke for many bored 60s teenagers when he wrote in "Blue Eyes:" "Money don't get me down, but I can't make it last. I bite my nails and if that fails, I go get myself stoned. But when I do, I think of you and head myself back home." In "My Uncle," perhaps the first country protest song, the Flying Burrito Brothers lament about the draft: "So I'm headin' for the nearest foreign border. Vancouver may be just my kind of town; cause they don't need the kind of law and order that tends to keep a good man underground." This is hardly standard country fare. Musically, the originals embrace different styles. "Hickory Wind (Byrds)" could be taken for pure country, while the fuzz guitar on "Wheels (FBB)" is reminiscent of rock music. "In My Hour of Darkness (GP)" is a hymn, while "She (GP)" is a gospel-soul ballad culminating in the lead character exclaiming "Hallelujah!" "Hippy Boy (FBB)" is spoken word and "Cody, Cody (FBB)" features excellent harmony and sounds like an early Byrds song with steel.
The decision to use other people's songs is also important and speaks volumes about the character of an artist. This is another reason why these guys are so important. Admittedly, the groups do record some country standards, such as "Sing Me Back Home" and "The Christian Life." However, they mix in different styles too. When covering Bryant songs, Gram Parsons sings in his best blue-eyed soul style. The Flying Burrito Brothers' choice of two Dan Penn songs for "Gilded Palace of Sin" showed both bravery and insight. Penn was a Rhythm and Blues singer who "sang more black than Elvis Presley." Although the fusion of R'nB and country is nothing new (think Elvis), to add fuzz steel and slightly twangy vocals threatened to blaze new paths.
Rejected by the establishment, the Byrds and other country rockers sometimes took jabs at that very establishment. When the Byrds received an unenthusiastc reception from prominent country DJ Ralph Emery they lampooned him in "Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man" singing: "He's a drug store truck drivin' man, he's the head of the Ku Klux Klan." The tongue in cheek singing of "The Christian Life" is also at least slightly ironic. Hearing Gram Parsons (and especially Roger McGuinn) sing: " My buddies tell me that I should've waited; they say I'm missing a whole world of fun; but I still love them and I sing with pride, I like the Christian life!" is amusing.
Of course, then there is the issue of pedal steel. I discovered that the weepy pedal steel is actually a beautiful (if not sometimes overused) sound. In the Burrito's R and B inspired "Dark End of the Street" the pedal steel gives this tale of illicit love a chilling quality. It plays off the rock guitar and drumming nicely for a great effect. Pedal steel can also make a sad song even sadder. The beautiful "New Soft Shoe" (GP) achieves its pathetic quality through the steel combined with the wistful lyric: "Did you ever hear a song that's hard to even play?" I don't think I ever disliked pedal steel. It's just that practically every country song contains it and it's easy to hear pedal steel and immediately tune out.
In conclusion, the music of the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons, Gene Clark, and so forth doesn't really fit neatly into what most of us think of as country music. There is a good reason for this: it's not. Classifying their music, even 30 years later is still difficult. Country rock is the most common term used, but many in the movement, including Gram Parsons himself, have eschewed this designation. Like any label, "country-rock" falls far short in describing this great music. Sure there are country elements and rock elements, but this leaves out the soul, rhythm and blues, folk, and other influences in this music that is truly multifaceted. Gram Parsons toyed with the name "Cosmic American Music," but that doesn't say a whole lot either. It's better just to listen to the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers and Gram Parsons and give their sound, whatever you may call "it," a chance. As someone who dislikes country, but loves "it" I advise putting aside all preconceptions and ideas and just listen to the music. If you have many of the same objections as I do to country music, I'd advise checking out these artists. You just may discover that you like them and like them immensely. If I, one with "credibility" and a dislike of country music can, you can too.
Recommendations for first time listeners:
*If you must buy one collection pick up: Sacred Hearts and Fallen Angels: the Gram Parsons Anthology, a 2 disc set from Rhino. It contains a sampler of Parsons material with the International Submarine Band, the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers and his solo material.
*For the Byrds, check out "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" or any of their later albums. However, after "Sweetheart" the albums are of uneven quality, although there is some good music there.
*For the Flying Burrito Brothers you'll want to buy Hot Burritos, a 2-disc anthology of their music. If you're not ready for 2 discs, check out Farther Along, the one disc greatest hits.
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Disclaimer: Jonathan and Davidís Byrds Page (at www.byrdsnet.com) is not in any form whatsoever associated with, or represents The Byrds, Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman, David Crosby, Gene Parsons, John York, or the Estates of Michael Clarke, Gene Clark, Skip Battin, Gram Parsons, Kevin Kelly, Clarence White or any others in or around the band. We act in no way for The Byrds or any of their personnel. We only publish information by fans, intended for other fans.