Before They Were The Byrds

Editor’s note: This is the first in a four-part series about the early days of America’s country rock sound. Here’s rock historian Doug Morgan.

There is a musical genre you may be familiar with called "Americana," a form of music made up of equal parts–OK, maybe not so equal in some cases–of folk, country, bluegrass, and blues with a dash or two of Texas Swing thrown in for good measure. But back in the early 70's, it was sinply "Country Rock", with its roots in three traditional rock bands, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and The Grateful Dead. I won't go into The Dead. Their story is nearly as complex as the band itself, and we'll save the Buffalo Springfield for later. But let's just say it all started with The Byrds.

Back in 1967, The Byrds were in trouble. David Crosby had left to take up with Stephen Stills and Graham Nash, and Gene Clark left the group, rejoined and left again, leaving a band made up of Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman. Knowing that wouldn't work very well, the remainders took on Gram Parsons from The International Submarine Band, with Kevin Kelley taking the fourth role. Parsons almost immediately made his musical force known, and into a Nashville studio they went (with Clarence White in tow), and in October of 1968 out popped the "Sweetheart Of The Rodeo" LP.

Sweetheart of the Rodeo promo – 1968

Remember, The Byrds started out as a folkish rock band, so this country-ish record was not a real stretch for McGuinn. AND the LP is generally accepted as the first popular Country-Rock LP. (Well, sort of… it didn’t sell well, only reaching the mid-70s on the Billboard Hot 200.) The counterculture fan base found the country-ish sound alienating, but there was outright hostility from the country audiences. It got so bad, country radio personality Ralph Emery severely lambasted it on his popular syndicated radio show.

By then, Parsons had left the band, not wanting to play on a tour of South Africa, and Hillman left, disenchanted after the tour. From here, The Byrds wobbled on until 1973 before pretty much expiring.

In the meantime, ex Byrd Gene Clark teamed up with banjo player Doug Dillard to form Dillard and Clark...

The Dillard and Clark backup band included ex-Byrd Chris Hillman along with "Sneaky" Pete Kleinow on slide guitar, and Bernie Leadon on various string instruments. So now, you're looking at the core (minus Doug Dillard) of the Flying Burrito Brothers.

Next: The Flying Burrito Brothers take off

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