In 1978 or so my relatives in Germany sent me a budget Byrds compilation lp. I didn’t know anything about the band as I was nine years old but I was immediately taken by their harmonies, the intricacies of the melodies and how they seemed to effortlessly move into and out of various styles of music. Over the years I learned more about The Byrds and saw the impact their influence had on country rock, the new traditionalist movement as well as the alt-country uprising of the 90’s. The record that cemented their standing in this space was 1968’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo which upon release was not heralded as the genre influencing masterpiece it is hailed as today. Instead it spent 10 weeks on the chart, hitting #77 and was notable for being the lowest charting album, at the time, for the band. It is interesting how some albums need time to breathe and time for people to look past the moment to discover what many casually disregarded upon initial release.
That being said, I was beyond excited when I saw Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman were touring to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Sweetheart of the Rodeo. What made it even better is they were being backed by Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives, who, if you didn’t already know, is the baddest band in the land. Their superb musicianship and reverence for the genre made them the perfect accomplices for this undertaking. I had high hopes and I can’t remember the last time I was this excited to go to a show.
McGuinn and Hillman came out with Marty and the band – Chris Scruggs on bass, Kenny Vaughan on guitar and Harry Stinson on drums, and went right into the Dylan penned “My Back Pages” and the show was off and running. The band was tight, the harmonies were spot on and you could see the joy on the faces of the performers. The first set consisted of songs from their catalog and built to the second set of material that would focus on Sweetheart of the Rodeo. What I didn’t expect was the format the show would take. In between songs McGuinn and primarily Hillman would talk about what was going on with the band at the time and what went into the recording process. Since so many bands just take the stage and plow through whatever album they are commemorating it provided informative and sometimes comedic insight into to their creative process and made for a far more intimate setting than I expected.
Marty Stuart took lead vocals on “A Satisfied Mind”, the 1955 #1 hit by Porter Wagoner and I think it signaled this was more of a partnership with Hillman and McGuinn than just a supporting role. Hillman was talking about writing his first song “Time Between” and bringing in guitarist Clarence White to play on it. Marty had lived with Clarence’s brother Roland White (famed mandolinist who was also in attendance) and had a close connection with Clarence’s legacy and his family. In one of those “I’m not crying, it’s dusty in here” moments it turns out that Marty was playing Clarence’s guitar. It was an incredible Ryman happening as Stuart acknowledged the moment with a call out to Clarence’s daughter who was in attendance. After entertaining the capacity audience with “Old John Robertson” and “Wasn’t Born to Follow”, both from The Notorious Byrd Brothers, they talked about playing the Grand Ole Opry for the first and only time when they were in town recording Sweetheart of The Rodeo. Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home”, was next and the band was met with thunderous applause, a far cry from the boos, heckles and tweets they received when they played that same song on the same stage some fifty years earlier. McGuinn stood there after the song ended with a sly smile on his face, relishing and soaking in the moment. Rounding out the first set with “Mr. Tambourine Man” the band followed McGuinn’s 12 string Rickenbacker jangle and the crowd leapt to their feet as the final notes faded. If the first set was any indication, we were in for a treat when the band returned for the second set.
Marty Stuart and His Superlatives opened round two with a rave up of “Country Boy Rock & Roll”. They immediately went into “Time Don’t Wait”, a stellar cut from their Mike Campbell produced 2017 release Way Out West, which pays homage to the country rock The Byrds helped usher in with their boundary shifting work. And now it was time for Hillman and McGuinn to rejoin the band for the main event : songs from Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
They threw a curve and jumbled up the album’s order and started off with “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” and immediately had the crowd in the palm of their hands. The harmonies were spot on and you could tell they were having a good time. Marty Stuart stepped out on mandolin during “Pretty Boy Floyd” and just plain tore it up. I remember thinking to myself that you don’t bring Marty and his band along for the ride if you want them to stand in the shadows. It was standout moment in an evening filled with standout moments. Hillman followed that up with a story about Gram Parsons joining the band and a beautiful rendition of Parson’s “Hickory Wind” complete with amazingly mournful pedal still by Chris Scruggs. Continuing the portion of the show that recounted tales of Gram Parsons was Haggard’s “Life in Prison” which is the second song they were supposed to play on the Opry in 1968 before Parsons disastrously broke protocol to play one of his songs for his grandmother, a long time Opry listener. As they worked though songs like “Nothing was Delivered”, ”Blue Canadian Rockies” and “You’re Still on My Mind” the voices strengthened and the playing remained razor sharp. One of my favorite moments was “You Don’t Miss Your Water” with four-part harmonies from Hillman, McGuinn, Stuart and drummer Harry Stinson. Chris Scruggs took another opportunity to show off (in the good kind of way) on pedal steel and the combination delivered what may have been the standout performance of the night. Given the Ryman setting, “I Am a Pilgrim” hit the perfect note before closing with a revisit of “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” to close the set.
The crowd was on its feet stomping, clapping and hollering for more when the group quickly returned to the Ryman stage. The opening notes of McGuinn’s 12 string tipped his hand as the band launched into “So You Wanna Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”. All these years later it is my favorite Byrds song and I was smiling so hard my face hurt hours after the show. It was a perfect moment of jubilation and those in attendance were on their feet as the McGuinn and Hillman held court, performing one of rock and rolls most iconic songs. But where do you go from there? Interestingly enough they paid tribute to long time friend Tom Petty with not one but three songs. McGuinn joked that the first time he heard “American Girl” he didn’t remember writing the song as the band kicked off the song as naturally as if it were one of their own. Hillman talked about working with Petty as he started to strum the opening notes to “Wild Flowers” which took on a whole new meaning with Petty’s passing. Marty Stuart is as fine a mandolin player as you will ever hear and his playing was the perfect complement to the moment. Taking the next slot, Stuart stepped forward and tackled “Running Down a Dream”. Drummer Harry Stinson, out from behind his set and playing a snare drum on a sling with brushes, joined guitarist Kenny Vaughan and Stuart in an almost perfect bluegrass harmony all the while Stuart took the lead guitar part and turned it into a mandolin master class. By the time they finished my hands hurt from clapping and my throat was sore from yelling for more. But there was one more song left, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” which is probably as perfect a closing number as you could want. The vocals were crisp and McGuinn’s and Vaughan’s guitars were magnificent as the night came to a close.
As I mentioned before, I had high expectations and they were easily surpassed. McGuinn and Hillman were personable and warm on stage. The stories were interesting and relevant to the music they were sharing with the audience, who hung on every word. Given their experience on the Ryman stage fifty years ago this had to seem like a personal victory, sort of an “I told ya so” but without any malice. Stuart and his band showed why they are so highly regarded and I doubt the evening would have been as poignant had any other musicians taken on the monumental task of playing with McGuinn and Hillman. This was as good a concert as I have ever seen and I so grateful to have been a part of this amazing evening of music celebrating one of rock and roll’s most influential bands.
Read our earlier review of Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives, here: Show Review: Marty Stuart & the Fabulous Superlatives Provided a Music History Lesson and Mesmerized the Crowd at Birchmere
Tour dates are here, see if they are coming to your area!
|Oct 15||Durham, NC||Durham Performing Arts Center||More Info >|
|Oct 21||Atlanta, GA||Byers Theatre||More Info >|
|Oct 28||New Brunswick, NJ||State Theatre||More Info >|
|Oct 30||Munhall, PA||Carnegie Music Hall Of Homestead||More Info >|
|Nov 9||Dallas, TX||The Majestic Theatre||More Info >|
|Nov 10||Austin, TX||Austin City Limits Live||More Info >|
|Dec 1||Bristol, TN||Paramount Center For The Arts||More Info >|
|Dec 3||N. Bethesda, MD||Strathmore Hall Theatre|
|Dec 15||Clearwater, FL||Capitol Theatre||More Info >|
|Dec 17||Ponte Vedra, FL||Ponte Vedra Music Hall||More Info >|
|Dec 19||Ft. Lauderdale, FL||Parker Playhouse|