How to Go from Rock to American Heritage Music (1 of 4): Sweetheart of the Rodeo

The Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo

This is post 1 of 4 in the series How to Go from Rock to American Heritage Music.

OK – so I wasn’t really a hard rocker or metalhead, but my gradual discovery of American heritage music was a revelation that caused a transformation in me. I found that much of the music in America today is part of a continuum that reaches back to Colonial America and stretches across the Atlantic Ocean to the Old World. American heritage music includes, but is not limited to, traditional folk songs, fiddle tunes, ballads (both Old and New World), sea shanties, railroad and cowboy songs, Appalachian, ragtime, spirituals, work songs, minstrel, blues, jazz, jug band, rhythm and blues, old-time, country and western, bluegrass, and rock & roll.

Being on this journey has deepened my understanding and appreciation of many genres of music, new and old. The music connects me to the strength and beauty that have emerged from the often troubled history of the United States. I believe that it can do the same for you. I’m still traveling down this path of discovery, and I am happy to point out some of the highlights that I find along the way, if you care to join me by reading this blog. This is American heritage music. This is your birthright. Own it.

The Beatles were my first love musically, and most everything I listened to was influenced by them. I was one of those “I like all kinds of music, except country” people. Upon hearing Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love album (1987), I commented that it was “too country” for me. Now I own and play seven different banjos and write a blog called American Heritage Music. The album that opened the door for me was The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo.

It was sometime around 1990, and I was in college. I liked The Byrds, but I was primarily familiar with their hits. Although we were squarely in the CD era, my housemate (future Rambling String Band bassist Chris DeAngelis)  had a turntable and a massive record collection. Stumbling upon Sweetheart of the Rodeo, I dropped the needle and found that it wasn’t the rock (or folk/rock) music that I was expecting, though the title and cover may also have clued me in to that. It was country music. I didn’t know much about country music, but I knew this much – I did not like country music. But I liked Sweetheart of the Rodeo. A lot.

The album was largely the vision of Gram Parsons, who was a member of The Byrds only for the recording of this one album. There were contributions by Nashville session musicians, including Lloyd Green on pedal steel guitar, John Hartford on banjo, fiddle, and acoustic guitar, and Clarence White on electric guitar, who become a full-time member of the band following Parsons’ departure.

Gram Parsons
Gram Parsons

Today, with the popularity of Americana music and artists like Wilco, Ryan Adams, and Jason Isbell, all roads lead back to Sweetheart of the Rodeo. As the first country rock album by a major artist, it essentially launched the genre of Americana music decades before that term would be used. From Pure Prairie League to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, to the Eagles and beyond, the influence of Sweetheart is well-documented and can be easily heard.

But this story and blog is not about what came after Sweetheart of the Rodeo. It is about what came before. (see Americana: How Country and Roots Music Found a “Brand New Dance” for what came after). The album included songs written by Bob Dylan (“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and “Nothing Was Delivered”), another one of my favorite artists at the time. There were a few songs penned by Gram Parsons (“One Hundred Years from Now” and “Hickory Wind,” co-written by Bob Buchanan). One song was written by Merle Haggard and another by soul singer and songwriter William Bell.

It was the songs written by three other names that really started me on my journey backwards in time to the roots of American music: “The Christian Life”by the Louvin Brothers, “Pretty Boy Floyd” by Woody Guthrie, and “I Am a Pilgrim” by Traditional.

Continued in part 2 of 4. Sign up to receive future posts by email using the box on the right.

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Author: Matthew Sabatella

With vocals, guitar, banjo, harmonica, and mountain dulcimer, Matthew Sabatella brings to life music that is woven into the fabric of the United States. For nearly two decades, he has followed the threads of traditional folk song, revealing a tapestry of music created by American colonists, pioneers, sailors, lumberjacks, immigrants, '49ers, farmers, mountaineers, slaves, soldiers, cowboys, railroaders, factory workers, and activists. Performing both with the 5-piece Rambling String Band and as a solo artist, Sabatella tells his own story of discovery while digging deep into his repertoire of folk, old-time country, fiddle tunes, Appalachian music, ragtime, blues, spirituals, railroad and cowboy songs, work songs, sea shanties, Old World ballads, bluegrass, and more. Audiences engage with the strength and beauty that have emerged from the often troubled history of the United States. He has recorded and released three albums with the Rambling String Band in their Ballad of America series. This is American heritage music. This is your birthright. Own it. Visit http://www.matthewsabatella.com for more.