For a few years in the 1960s, the Byrds were a great American rock’n’roll band; maybe, the great American band. They popularized the 12-string electric guitar, sang in complex, indescribably beautiful harmonies, and did interpretations of Bob Dylan’s songs that even people who thought they didn’t like Dylan could love. The band’s first five albums stand easily beside the best music of the time, and members of the band wrote terrific songs with strong melodies that still sound fresh.
Since the Byrds broke up in 1973, the group’s music hasn’t suffered the narrowly focused overexposure that classic-rock radio imposes on many artists. Unfortunately, that lack of radio play has also kept the surviving Byrds from cashing in on big comeback tours, as many less influential but more widely played bands have been able to do.
Many of those popular bands were influenced by the Byrds. The country-rock sounds of the Eagles and Crosby, Stills & Nash owe something to the paths charted by the Byrds early on. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers covered Byrds tunes in their live shows, and Petty recorded a version of “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better,” a Gene Clark tune from the Byrds’ debut album, on his 1989 solo recording, Full Moon Fever. I hear hints of the Byrds in R.E.M., especially on the band’s early records.
The Byrds went through several personnel changes in their history, but guitarist and singer Jim McGuinn was a constant.
James Joseph McGuinn III was born in Chicago, Illinois, in June 1942. His parents, Jim and Dorothy, were journalists who published Parents Can’t Win (1947), a parody of Dr. Benjamin Spock’s very popular The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care. McGuinn (who would later use the first name Roger) went to the Latin School of Chicago, a private school, and in his teens became a fan of rock’n’roll and country music. In 1957, McGuinn began studies at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, established earlier that year by Dawn Greening and folk musicians Frank Hamilton and Win Stracke.
McGuinn studied banjo and guitar at the Old Town School. “I learned a lot there,” he told Guitar World in 2020. “There would be about 12 people in a class, and it was really fast learning. [Hamilton would] give you a picking assignment every day. I’d go home and work on it, and we’d get another one the next day. Gradually, I got all these picking styles.”
Soon, McGuinn started playing in local clubs. One evening, he jammed with the Limeliters, a hugely popular folk group at the time. The group asked him to audition for a position in the touring band. McGuinn got the job, but was a few months shy of finishing high school. When he graduated in June 1960, the Limeliters sent him a plane ticket for a flight to Los Angeles, California. Since McGuinn wouldn’t turn 18 until July, the Limeliters first sent a letter for his parents to sign, granting permission to tour with the band.
McGuinn played and recorded with the Limeliters in Los Angeles, and it was during that time he first met David Crosby, according to David Fricke’s liner notes for the 2001 release of The Preflyte Sessions. He moved on to the Chad Mitchell Trio, another folk group, and stayed with them for two years. In 1962, when the band was playing at the Crescendo in West Hollywood, singer Bobby Darin encouraged McGuinn to move to New York City and try his hand as a songwriter. McGuinn stayed in NYC for a year and a half, writing for Darin’s publishing company and playing sessions with Judy Collins, Simon & Garfunkel, and other musicians.
He also played in coffeehouses, and included some Beatles covers in his sets. He returned to Los Angeles in the summer of 1964 and got a regular job as an opening act at the Troubadour folk club. He had kept the Beatles songs in his setlist, and one evening he was approached by another folkie who was also a Beatles fan: Gene Clark.
Harold Eugene Clark was born in 1944 in Tipton, Missouri, a small town about a half-hour from the state capital, Jefferson City. His parents and their 13 children moved to Kansas City when Clark was a boy. His father taught him to play guitar and harmonica. In his teens, Clark played in local rock bands, and formed a folk group when the Kingston Trio became popular in the early 1960s. When Clark graduated high school, he joined a local folk group, the Surf Riders, who were the house band at the Castaways Lounge in Kansas City.
Clark was appearing with the Surf Riders in August 1963 when he was hired by The New Christy Minstrels, a large ensemble whose folk music rivaled the Kingston Trio’s in popularity. A number of musicians who later became famous passed through their ranks, including Kenny Rogers, Kim Carnes, and Barry McGuire. Clark stayed with The New Christy Minstrels for two years, appearing on two of the ensemble’s LPs. Inspired by the rock music of the Beatles, he left The New Christy Minstrels and moved to Los Angeles, where he met McGuinn and David Crosby.
David Van Cortlandt Crosby was born in Los Angeles in August 1941. His father was a highly regarded cinematographer, and his parents were both from prominent, well-connected East Coast families. Crosby attended schools in California but got his diploma through a correspondence course, albeit from the prestigious Cate School. He appeared in musicals while in high school, and studied drama at Santa Barbara City College when he graduated, but dropped out when he became interested in music. He met folk musician Terry Callier and performed with him as a duo in Chicago. They headed to New York City in what turned out to be an unsuccessful search for a record contract.
Crosby recorded a solo session in 1963, with Jim Dickson producing. Later that year, he joined Les Baxter’s Balladeers, a folk quartet that included his brother, Ethan. However, Crosby thought the group was too conservative and soon moved on. In 1964, while visiting Callier in Chicago, he went to see singer Miriam Makeba, who was in town performing. McGuinn was playing in her band, and Crosby reconnected with him.
Back in Los Angeles, Crosby saw McGuinn and Clark singing together in the bar at the Troubadour. David Fricke tells the story in his liner notes for The Preflyte Sessions: “Crosby overheard McGuinn and Clark harmonizing, sat down with them, uninvited, and pitched in.” McGuinn was aware of Crosby’s reputation for “outspoken, headstrong” ways, as he told Fricke, “but his harmonies were really good.” McGuinn, who loved flying and aeronautics, named the new trio the Jet Set.
Crosby also had a line on a recording studio and producer. “David said, ‘I know this guy who has a recording studio we can use for free,’” McGuinn remembered. “That was all I needed to hear.”
Jim Dickson was Crosby’s “guy who has a recording studio.” Dickson, who had produced albums by Hamilton Camp, Odetta Holmes, the Dillards, and humorist Lord Buckley, also took on management of the Jet Set. He convinced Elektra Records to take a chance on a single by the trio: “Please Let Me Love You.” In an attempt to connect the Jet Set to the British Invasion, the label released the single in October 1964, credited as the Beefeaters.
No one would mistake the song for British rock. The folk element is strong in the tune, which McGuinn and Clark wrote with Harvey Gerst, a friend of McGuinn’s. The drums pull the song in a rock’n’roll direction, and the occasional “Oh yeah” hints at the Beatles, but the single tanked. Crosby knew Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and asked for his opinion. “You’re not quite there yet,” Wilson told him.
In October, around the time the Beefeaters single was released, Dickson recruited Chris Hillman to play bass and mandolin with the trio. Hillman was a member of a bluegrass quartet that Dickson had been managing and recording. Born in December 1944 and raised in San Diego, California, Hillman started playing guitar in his teens. He began taking mandolin lessons at 15, and played with folk and country bands locally before replacing a member of the Golden State Boys, a bluegrass quartet that rechristened itself the Hillmen when he joined.
When the Hillmen broke up, Dickson suggested Hillman join the Jet Set. Hillman remembers that drummer Michael Clarke was already working in the studio with McGuinn, Clark, and Crosby when he joined. McGuinn later told an interviewer: “We saw Michael [Clarke] on the street, and he just looked right.”
Michael James Dick was born in June 1946, in Spokane, Washington. As a teenager, he had hitchhiked to California to become a musician. He preferred to use the last name Clarke, and the spelling helped fans to avoid confusing him with Gene Clark.
The group had been recording as a trio with session musicians, but began working as a quintet after Hillman and Clarke joined. Over the next three months, until the end of 1964, they would record at World Pacific Studios, where Dickson had free rein. McGuinn started playing a Rickenbacker 12-string electric guitar after seeing George Harrison using one in the film A Hard Day’s Night. He also used a Gibson 12-string acoustic on recordings.
The recording sessions at World Pacific helped the Jet Set to cohere as a band and develop songwriting skills. The music from those sessions would show up on later albums, including . . . In the Beginning (1988), Preflyte (1969), and The Preflyte Sessions (2001). Sundazed Records released The Preflyte Sessions as a two-CD set comprising 40 tracks, and a two-LP set with 28 tracks. Both releases show the Jet Set in various stages of development, and include songs that appear on the Byrds’ major-label debut. The Turtles recorded “You Showed Me,” a Clark-McGuinn track from the World Pacific sessions.
Dickson knew Bob Dylan and obtained a demo copy of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which would soon appear on Dylan’s album Bringing It All Back Home (1965). The Jet Set recorded two versions of the tune: one with electric guitars and one acoustic. Musicians and other LA tastemakers would drop by Jet Set sessions, and during one of them, Dylan and his friend Bob Neuwirth visited. The group played their version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “All I Really Want to Do” (which did not appear on any of the Preflyte releases). Neuwirth said, “Hey, man, you can dance to it!” Dylan responded, “Good!”
McGuinn’s 12-string electric guitar is the focal point of the electric version. McGuinn’s unique 12-string sound was the result of adding compression to the signal from his Rickenbacker guitar and his use of a fingerpicking style he learned on the banjo. “The Rickenbacker 12-string with the aid of electronic compression in the studio gave us the distinctive ‘jingle jangle’ sound that we would later be known for,” McGuinn told an interviewer.
Dickson had many connections in the music industry and brought McGuinn, Clark, and Crosby to the attention of Benny Shapiro, a club owner and talent manager. Dickson took them to Shapiro’s house, where they sang live to a backing tape. Shapiro’s young daughter came out of her bedroom to say how much she liked the music. Shapiro knew Miles Davis and called him about the Jet Set, and Davis recommended the band to Columbia Records. The Jet Set signed a record deal with Columbia on November 10, 1964.
The group decided a more rock’n’roll name was in order. Over a Thanksgiving dinner, they settled on “the Byrds.” The new name was consistent with McGuinn’s interest in flying, and the variation in spelling was reminiscent of the Beatles. In January, the Byrds were in the recording studio with producer Terry Melcher, who didn’t think that anyone but McGuinn had enough studio experience to play on the band’s first single, “Mr. Tambourine Man.” He brought in members of the Wrecking Crew—the group of crack LA session musicians who have appeared on countless hit records—to provide the backing for McGuinn’s guitar.
The Byrds had already recorded “Mr. Tambourine Man” twice during the Preflyte sessions, so the arrangement was already in place. McGuinn had changed the time signature from the original 2/4 of Dylan’s version to the “common time” used in most rock songs. He also suggested cutting the song to a single verse, with two repetitions of the chorus. The original song ran to four verses and five choruses, which would have pushed the single well over the three-minute limit imposed by AM radio.
McGuinn created the baroque-sounding intro for the song, which he played on the 12-string electric guitar. A British band, The Searchers, had already made prominent use of the 12-string guitar, but it came to define the Byrds even more. But it wasn’t just McGuinn’s guitar that made the Byrds sound so distinctive. Melcher may not have had confidence in the studio abilities of the rest of the group on their instruments, but only McGuinn, Clark, and Crosby could have sung the transporting harmonies on “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
The Wrecking Crew also played on the single’s flip side, “I Knew I’d Want You,” a tune Clark had written. Columbia held the single for release until April 12, 1965, and it went to number 1 in the US and the UK. The music press described the Byrds’ music as “folk rock” because it featured Dylan songs and traditional folk tunes with rock instrumentation. They weren’t the first band to do so; The Animals had a massive hit a year earlier with a rock version of “House of the Rising Sun,” a traditional folk song that had appeared on Dylan’s debut album.
Melcher was confident that “Mr. Tambourine Man” would at least be a minor hit when he brought the Byrds into the studio in March 1965, a little more than a month before the single’s release. The group insisted they were ready to record, and Melcher began to believe that the other musicians could find their way around the studio. The Byrds had also grown more adept at playing what was, for them, an unfamiliar style of music. “A lot of our contemporaries . . . had sort of been playing rock and roll in high school,” Hillman noted in an interview. “We came from a completely different background.” The Byrds had to become more comfortable in the studio, but McGuinn, Hillman, Clark, and Crosby also needed to figure out how to rock after being immersed in bluegrass and folk.
The Byrds worked on their debut album through the rest of March and April. Session musicians were only used for the two songs that appeared on the single, but the assumption that the Wrecking Crew played on the entire album persists. Hillman insists you can hear the difference between the sessions: “You gotta put [the album] on, you know it’s us because it’s all kinds of weird stuff going on. That’s not session players on the first album.”
Columbia Records released Mr. Tambourine Man in June 1965. The album included three additional Dylan songs, but Melcher was impressed enough with “I Knew I’d Want You” that he had the Byrds record two more of Clark’s songs and two that Clark and McGuinn wrote together. The album is rounded out by a Jackie DeShannon tune, one by Pete Seeger, and the WWII-era hit, “We’ll Meet Again.” Columbia released the Dylan song “All I Really Want to Do” as a single just before the album’s release. It reached number 40 on the charts in the US but gave the Byrds a second top-10 hit in the UK.
The Dylan interpretations are fresh and vital, but the surprise of the album is the strength of the band’s own songwriting and arrangements. Clark’s “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” is the album’s second track and it confidently follows “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Crosby plays the opening chords firmly to start the song, with McGuinn’s 12-string joining him to fill out and brighten the sound. Clark handles the lead vocals, with Crosby and McGuinn adding harmonies in counterpoint during the verse and joining Clark for the rich three-part harmonies of the chorus.
While the Byrds were being called folk rock, “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” and the other Clark and Clark-McGuinn tracks on the album lean hard in the direction of rock’n’roll. McGuinn’s 12-string chimes through the McGuinn-Clark song “You Won’t Have to Cry,” and the harmonies are pretty, but the rhythm guitars punch hard and the backbeat is pure rock.
The mid-tempo ballad “Here without You” also rocks convincingly, in large part because of Clarke’s drumming. He had successfully transferred his abilities with other percussion instruments to the drums, and his playing throughout Mr. Tambourine Man and other Byrds albums is noteworthy for its understated simplicity and taste. Hillman was also finding his way in a style of music that was new to him, but his background in bluegrass gave him the musical skills he needed to let him transition into rock.
Seeger’s “The Bells of Rhymney” definitely stays close to the folk-rock genre, and the group’s version of “We’ll Meet Again” shows how the Byrds could adapt other genres to the folk-rock style, adding a touch of humor. It’s worth noting, however, that Mr. Tambourine Man led to the Byrds being compared to British Invasion bands, and that comparison is valid because of the harder rock’n’roll of the group’s original tunes.
The Byrds re-entered the recording studio soon after the release of Mr. Tambourine Man to work on a second album, starting with something to follow up the band’s first two singles. Melcher was again producing, and the band’s first idea was to record a version of Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” After several takes, the Byrds and Melcher decided against releasing the song as a single. Another Dylan tune, “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” does appear on the group’s second LP, Turn! Turn! Turn!, but the group didn’t feel it was strong enough to make an impact on the singles charts.
McGuinn suggested they try a Seeger song instead. He had played “Turn! Turn! Turn!” with the Limeliters, and had made the arrangement of the song that Judy Collins recorded in 1964. McGuinn’s 12-string and lead vocals were again at the center of a Byrds single, and the seemingly effortless but intricate harmonies help underscore the song’s spiritual message. Seeger had adapted the lyrics from the Book of Ecclesiastes, and they resonated with a generation that was part of a growing civil rights and anti-war movement. The soaring vocals convey the urgency and hope expressed in the last verse—especially in the closing line:
A time to gain, a time to lose
A time to rend, a time to sew
A time for love, a time for hate
A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late
It’s immediately apparent that in the months since the recording and release of Mr. Tambourine Man, the Byrds had gelled as a group. Hillman was by then a melodic and fluid rock bassist, and Clarke easily handles the switch to a samba beat during the verses. Columbia released “Turn! Turn! Turn!” on October 1, 1965. The single went to number 1 in the USA and Canada and rested solidly in the top 40 in other countries.
Turn! Turn! Turn! hit the shops in December 1965. Like its predecessor, the album contains a mix of Dylan covers, folk tunes, and songs by band members. It also includes an early example of the Byrds’ interest in country music: a cover of “Satisfied Mind,” a hit for Porter Wagoner in 1955. Hillman encouraged the group to do the song, and McGuinn’s guitar lines have just the right amount of twang to give it a country-music feel while still staying true to the Byrds’ style.
McGuinn rearranged a song that the group had recorded as the Beefeaters a year earlier, changing the title from “Don’t Be Long” to “It Won’t Be Wrong.” The new recording started the opening guitar riff with more force, and Crosby’s rhythm guitar plays alongside McGuinn’s arpeggios to fill out the arrangement.
Clark contributed three tunes, including the beautiful mid-tempo ballad, “If You’re Gone.” McGuinn’s sparkling 12-string gives the song its harmonic structure, adding a drone note throughout that brings a haunting touch. McGuinn repeats this trick on one of the few Byrds tunes that Clark sings with no other vocal accompaniment.
The group’s version of Dylan’s “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” convinced the songwriter that his work was in good hands with the Byrds. According to Johnny Rogan’s liner notes for the 1996 CD release of Turn! Turn! Turn!, Dylan told McGuinn, “Up until I heard this I thought you were just another imitator, but this has got real feeling to it.”
Many folk singers, including Dylan, had recorded and performed “He Was a Friend of Mine,” an old folk tune that was a lament for a dead friend. McGuinn adapted the lyrics as a memorial to John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated two years earlier. Tracks like “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” the group’s interpretation of Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” and “He Was a Friend of Mine” captured the political and social currents that were growing in the mid-1960s. As a result, the Byrds’ second album resonated deeply with young music fans. Because of the sincerity of the performances and the strength of the group’s own tunes, Turn! Turn! Turn! captures a moment in time but doesn’t sound dated.
By the time the Byrds went into the studio to record their third album, Clark had left the band. His prominence as a songwriter led to higher royalties, which created some tension with the other band members. In addition, Clark enjoyed performing but did not like touring. Unlike the flying enthusiasts McGuinn and Crosby, he was afraid of air travel. He was also irritated that McGuinn’s lead vocals were featured on the A side of singles, relegating his songs to side B.
The group continued as a four-piece, but with a new producer. Dickson was still managing the Byrds and had asked Columbia to pull Terry Melcher, hoping to take over production himself. Columbia instead assigned the job to Allen Stanton, an executive and producer with the label.
Clark was around for three tracks on Fifth Dimension, which Columbia released in July 1966. Four months earlier, the label had released “Eight Miles High” as a single. It reached number 14 on the US charts, and number 24 in the UK. The single might have moved higher up the charts, but radio programmers removed it from airplay because of its presumed references to drugs. The writing of the song was actually inspired by the band’s flight to England for a tour in 1965. The tour did not go as well as the group had hoped; there were problems with sound equipment, and McGuinn and Clarke came down with the flu. The band’s performances were sloppy as a result. It didn’t help that the British press was hostile because the Byrds had been marketed as America’s answer to the Beatles.
Clark, Crosby, and McGuinn cowrote “Eight Miles High,” although the bulk of the work was Clark’s. Crosby had brought a tape of sitarist Ravi Shankar’s music on the tour bus, and the group was also listening to John Coltrane. Coltrane was an admirer of Shankar, and both musicians influenced McGuinn’s 12-string guitar solos on “Eight Miles High.” Clarke’s jazz-influenced drumming brings a sophisticated touch to the song, and Hillman’s opening fuzz-bass line is rock solid. The vocal harmonies carry the airy, easy melody along and contrast beautifully with the harder-edged instrumentation.
McGuinn stepped up as a songwriter on Fifth Dimension: seven of the album’s tracks list him as writer or cowriter. “5 D (Fifth Dimension)” is the most Dylan-influenced of them, and “Mr. Spaceman” is another example of the Byrds’ early ventures into country music. The Crosby-McGuinn collaboration “I See You” is one of the strongest tracks on the album, but Fifth Dimension is not as consistent as the first two Byrds LPs. “Hey Joe (Where You Gonna Go)” lacks the garage-rock energy of other recordings of the song, and two tracks, “Captain Soul” and “2-4-2 Fox Trot (The Lear Jet Song),” are filler.
Gary Usher produced the Byrds’ fourth LP, Younger than Yesterday, which Columbia released in February 1967. Usher had worked with the Safaris and other surf groups and had helped Clark with his debut album, Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers, released just before as Younger than Yesterday.
Hillman helped fill the void left by Clark’s departure, writing four tunes for Younger than Yesterday. With McGuinn, he cowrote “So You Want to Be a Rock ’N’ Roll Star,” the first single released from the album. McGuinn’s opening 12-string guitar arpeggio gives way to a now iconic riff. Clarke’s hard-charging drums are accompanied by percussion by Daniel Rey, aka Big Black. South African jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela plays improvised melody lines throughout the song.
Hillman’s voice joins McGuinn’s and Crosby’s as the third part of the trademark Byrds harmony. The harmonies on “So You Want to be a Rock ’N’ Roll Star” are grand and majestic and carry a giddy joy that offers an ironic contrast to the lyrics, which cast a jaundiced eye toward the music business. “Sell your soul to the company,” the Byrds sing in one verse, “who are waiting there to sell plasticware / And in a week or two, if you make the charts / the girls’ll tear you apart.”
The Byrds were realizing that attaining stardom was easier than maintaining it. “So You Want to be a Rock ’N’ Roll Star” and “My Back Pages,” the second single from Younger than Yesterday, were the last Byrds singles to reach the top 40. However, in 1967, albums were becoming more important commercially and Younger than Yesterday made the top 40 in the albums charts.
Hillman’s “Have You Seen Her Face,” the third single from the album, didn’t light up the charts, but it should have. McGuinn’s razor-sharp guitar leads and cutting rhythm guitar—on six-string this time around—give the song its form, but it’s Hillman’s sure sense of melody and his ability to write a great hook that make it so memorable. “Thoughts and Words,” another Hillman song, is a wonderful slice of 1967 psychedelia that also should have enjoyed chart success.
According to the liner notes to the 1996 CD reissue of Younger than Yesterday, “Renaissance Fair” was Crosby’s song, with some help from McGuinn. The result is magical. The notes of McGuinn’s fingerpicking on the intro create a tapestry of sound, and Hillman’s melodic bass lines circle around the other instruments, in stunning counterpoint to McGuinn’s arpeggios. The beauty of Crosby’s pastoral imagery is conveyed in the gloriously lovely vocal harmonies.
Crosby’s “Everybody’s Been Burned” is one of his best songs, and “Why,” another collaboration with McGuinn, closes Younger than Yesterday on a confident note. It was the strongest Byrds album yet. Only one song on the album, Dylan’s “My Back Pages,” had not been written by band members, and their own tunes stand confidently beside it. Usher used studio effects, such as channel phasing and the reverse tape guitar solo on “Thoughts and Words,” to give the recording a contemporary, psychedelic sound.
At some point in 1967, Jim McGuinn was going through a spiritual journey with the Subud spiritual movement and changed his name to Roger McGuinn. He left the movement after ten years, but kept the name, which is how he is listed on subsequent Byrds albums.
By the time the Byrds shot the cover for The Notorious Byrd Brothers, Crosby was out of the band, and when it was released in January 1968, so was Clarke. Crosby had argued about song choices—he wanted the Byrds to do their own material, and his songs in particular. And when the band appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival on June 17, 1967, Crosby pontificated onstage between songs, sharing his opinions on the Kennedy assassination and the benefits of LSD. His behavior irritated McGuinn and Hillman, and they fired him in October 1967.
Tensions in the band had caused Clarke to walk out during the recording of The Notorious Byrd Brothers. He was also dissatisfied with the direction of the band, which he felt was becoming less commercial. Session drummers Hal Blaine and Jim Gordon took over the drum parts for roughly half the album. Clarke returned to the studio, but by the end of 1967, McGuinn and Hillman told him he was no longer a Byrd.
Given the circumstances of its recording, it’s surprising that The Notorious Byrd Brothers sits comfortably with the group’s best work. Usher’s innovative production techniques gave the album a fresh sound, and the songwriting by Hillman—usually in collaboration with McGuinn and/or Crosby—was as strong as on any Byrds album so far. Crosby appears on eight of the album’s 11 tracks, Clarke on five. Session musicians helped out, including guitarist Clarence White, who added tasty country licks to songs on Younger than Yesterday and would in time become a member of the Byrds.
For the first time, a Byrds album did not open with the sound of McGuinn’s 12-string guitar. “Artificial Energy” begins with a horn arrangement. Usher fed the vocals by McGuinn and Hillman through a Leslie speaker for a swirling effect that, along with Hillman’s slamming bass line, helped reinforce the song’s ominous message about the dangers of amphetamines. The album deftly moves into a gentle arrangement of one of two tunes by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, “Goin’ Back,” which uses an understated string arrangement and Red Rhodes’s pedal-steel guitar to evoke a sense of wonder and wistfulness about adulthood and memories of youth.
Hillman’s “Natural Harmony” is trippy and mystical, putting the Byrds in the midst of the psychedelic movement in music while maintaining their identity. Crosby’s “Draft Morning,” cowritten with McGuinn and Hillman, is a powerful anti-war statement that Usher made even stronger by dubbing in the sounds of a military band and gunfire. “Wasn’t Born to Follow,” the second Goffin-King song on the album, expressed the independence of the youth movement in the ’60s so well that it appeared in the soundtrack to the film Easy Rider the following year.
Usher used various studio effects to create a recording that was contemporary without being opportunistic or trendy. The album was among the first to use the Moog synthesizer, which is featured on several tracks. It was also the first Byrds album that didn’t include a Dylan song, but the songwriting was so memorable that it’s hard to understand why The Notorious Byrd Brothers only reached 47 on the album charts in the US. It did hit number 12 in the UK, however. “Goin’ Back,” the single from the album, only got to 89 in the charts.
With only McGuinn and Hillman remaining from the original lineup, the Byrds needed to bring in new members. They hired drummer Kevin Kelley, who had played with Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder in Rising Sons, and began touring as a trio. They soon realized they would need a fourth member. The band was by that time managed by Larry Spector, who was also managing a young LA musician, Gram Parsons.
Gram Parsons was born in Florida in 1946 to great wealth and privilege, but his childhood was filled with tragedy. His father died by suicide when Parsons was 12, and his mother from cirrhosis the day Parsons graduated from high school. Parsons was in rock’n’roll and folk bands when he was a kid, played music in New York City in his late teens, and attended Harvard for a semester. He formed a group while in the Boston area: the International Submarine Band. The band moved to Los Angeles, where it recorded an album for LHI Records, which was owned by producer and songwriter Lee Hazelwood.
Parsons was initially hired by the Byrds as a pianist, because he had claimed to be able to play jazz piano. McGuinn’s vision for the next Byrds album had been for it to be a survey of American music that would take in bluegrass, folk music, jazz, rock’n’roll, and more. Instead, Parsons, who had developed a passion for country music, began pushing the group in that direction. Hillman, whose roots were in bluegrass and country, was enthusiastic about the idea and thought it might help expand their declining commercial fortunes. Usher agreed, and soon McGuinn was also onboard. Columbia released Sweetheart of the Rodeo in August 1968.
The album resulted from sessions in Nashville and Hollywood. In Nashville, the Byrds recorded eight tracks with help from local session players. One of the songs was a version of a Dylan tune that the singer hadn’t yet released, but which was part of the legendary Basement Tapes. The Byrds gave “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” a straight-on country-and-western reading. For the second LP in a row, a Byrds album did not commence with the sound of McGuinn’s 12-string. Lloyd Green’s pedal steel announces “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” and McGuinn plays a six-string acoustic guitar. Hillman sings harmony and Green gets a lengthy solo that leaves no doubt that the Byrds are fully embracing country music.
The instrumentation on “I Am a Pilgrim,” a traditional hymn, leans in to old-time music. John Hartford plays fiddle on the track, Roy M. Huskey plays bass, and McGuinn gets to demonstrate his banjo skills. Hillman had suggested covering the tune and takes the lead vocals. Parsons is the featured singer on the deeply moving ballad “Hickory Wind,” which Parsons cowrote. Green’s weeping pedal steel and Hartford’s evocative fiddle are the perfect background for Parsons’s tale of life’s disappointments and memories of an idyllic childhood.
The Byrds returned to Hollywood to record seven additional songs. One of the songs Parsons brought to the sessions was “You’re Still on My Mind,” an obscure song by Luke McDaniel about the perils of alcohol. Earl P. Ball’s honky-tonk piano and Jay Dee Maness’s pedal-steel guitar play ironically against Parsons’s reading of the sad tale. Ball and Maness bring a lively air of country swing to Parsons’s interpretation of Merle Haggard’s “Life in Prison.” Both songs carry a hint of the strain of country music that originated in Bakersfield, California, where Buck Owens and Haggard began their careers. Ball and Maness had played on many of their sessions.
Sweetheart of the Rodeo closes with Dylan’s “Nothing Was Delivered,” from the Nashville sessions. McGuinn’s lead vocals are ably supported by sweet country harmonies by Parsons and Hillman. Eleven tracks from the two sessions were selected for the final album, and Parsons had sung lead on six of them. However, Hazelwood said Parsons was still signed to his label, so McGuinn redid the lead vocals on three of those tracks.
While the Byrds were in Nashville, they played at the Grand Ole Opry. The conservative country audience took exception to the long hair of the band members, and an appearance on Nashville country-music station WSM with famed DJ Ralph Emery was also disastrous. Emery mocked the band and at first refused to play an acetate of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” Parsons and McGuinn later wrote a song about the incident: “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man.”
The Byrds were especially hurt by their Nashville experiences because they were respectful of country music and played it with care. The album got strong notices but did not bring the group back to the upper reaches of the album charts, topping out at number 77. Two singles from the album also failed to make the top 40, but time has shown that the band’s impulses, encouraged by Parsons, were right. Sweetheart of the Rodeo is now recognized as one of the Byrds’ finest, and an important record that brought country music to the attention of rock fans.
By the time the album was in stores, Parsons had left the Byrds. His excuse was that he didn’t want to accompany them for upcoming performances in South Africa because of that country’s apartheid policies. (The Byrds had only agreed to appear there if they could play to integrated audiences.) McGuinn and Hillman attributed Parsons’s departure to a desire to have a more dominant position in the band. He was also eager to hang out with Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, with whom he had recently become acquainted.
McGuinn and Hillman hired Clarence White as a full-time member of the Byrds to fill the hole left by Parsons. He had played on the group’s previous three records and made significant contributions. White suggested Gene Parsons for the drum seat, so Kelley was let go. By the end of 1968, Hillman had left to form a new group with Gram Parsons: the Flying Burrito Brothers. McGuinn hired session bassist John York, who had toured with Gene Clark, to take Hillman’s place.
Bob Johnston, who had worked with Dylan and Johnny Cash, produced Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde, released in March 1969. The album included a tune McGuinn wrote with Gram Parsons about their experience with DJ Ralph Emery, “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man,” and a Bob Dylan–Rick Danko song from the Basement Tapes sessions, “This Wheel’s On Fire.” McGuinn is in good voice, and White’s guitar work is often dazzling, but the album is the work of a band rebuilding. It charted at 153, the lowest of any Byrds album.
Terry Melcher returned to produce Ballad of Easy Rider, which appeared in November 1969, just a few months after the counterculture film phenomenon, Easy Rider. The title track, sung by McGuinn, appeared in the soundtrack. The soundtrack helped raise the Byrds’ visibility, and Ballad of Easy Rider put them back in the top 40. The album includes a good balance of traditionals and new songs. “Jesus Is Just Alright” would be a hit for the Doobie Brothers in 1972. A version of Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” features a fine vocal harmony arrangement that doesn’t quite capture the glory of the original Byrds lineup but is enjoyable on its own terms.
Melcher produced (Untitled), released in the fall of 1970. The album introduced a new bass player, Skip Battin. The two-record set devotes one LP to songs from two live performances, and the other LP to studio recordings. The live set showed the Byrds to be a potent live band at that point. A 16-minute version of “Eight Miles High” gives McGuinn and White room to improvise, and they both deliver. “Chestnut Mare,” a single taken from the studio sides, stalled at 121 on the charts, but the song has grown in popularity to become one of the great Byrds singles.
Ballad of Easy Rider and (Untitled) returned the Byrds to the charts and led to an intense touring schedule. The band recorded Byrdmaniax during scattered recording sessions that took place over several months in the fall of 1970 and winter of 1971. The Byrds returned to the road after the sessions were completed, and Melcher overdubbed string and horn arrangements. The band hated the results and asked Columbia Records to halt the release so the album could be remixed. The label refused. When Byrdmaniax was released in June 1971, it was met with the worst reviews in the band’s history. Critic Mark Deming’s later assessment is fairer: “Not an awful album, but Byrdmaniax is hardly the pleasure it could have been in the hands of a more tasteful production team.”
A mere five months after Byrdmaniax, the Byrds produced the final album of the McGuinn-White years. Farther Along is a very strong album of 1970s country rock that completed the band’s run on a high note. After the album’s release, the Byrds went back on tour again.
By early 1973, Gene Parsons and Battin were out of the band, and McGuinn disbanded the Byrds in February. The following month, Asylum Records released an album titled Byrds.
In the summer of 1972, David Geffen had offered the lineup of the Byrds that had recorded the band’s first two albums a generous contract for a reunion album. The album was recorded during October and November, with Crosby producing, and released on Geffen’s label, Asylum Records, in March 1973. In order to avoid some of the conflicts the group had experienced before, they had approached the sessions as a loose affiliation of musicians, in a manner similar to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Indeed, Byrds is listed as the album’s title, but it is credited to Gene Clark, Chris Hillman, David Crosby, Roger McGuinn, and Michael Clarke on the front cover and disc label. The result is an album that feels scattered.
Clark’s four performances on Byrds are the strongest, especially on the two tunes he wrote. Hillman, Crosby, and McGuinn do good work, and Clarke’s drumming is straightforward and unfussy, but Byrds ends up sounding like an album assembled from various solo works. It received lukewarm reviews, but when I listen to it, I end up agreeing with Clark, who told an interviewer in 1977: “I am disappointed in that album. Some of the harsh criticism is unjust, because, if you listen to it carefully, the album isn’t that bad, but it just hasn’t got the punch that it could have had if we’d taken the time.”
Roger McGuinn’s eponymous first album appeared three months after Byrds. Over the next few years, McGuinn would release four more solo albums. The best of them, Cardiff Rose, was produced by Mick Ronson. McGuinn had met Ronson when both guitarists were touring with Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975. McGuinn, Clark & Hillman formed in 1977 and released an album in 1979. McGuinn, Clark & Hillman charted well, but Clark quit during the recording of a second album. A third album followed, but both were poorly received.
In 1991, McGuinn released Back from Rio, his first solo release since 1979 and a strong return to form. Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, and other members of Tom Petty’s band give sterling support to McGuinn, and other guests include Elvis Costello, Tom Petty, David Crosby, and Chris Hillman. Since 1995, McGuinn has maintained a website devoted to folk music. Folk Den posts a new song each month, performed by McGuinn. He received a Grammy nomination in 2002 for Treasures from the Folk Den, a compilation of some of the Folk Den recordings. He continues to tour solo.
Gene Clark released a well-regarded solo album in 1967, the year after he left the Byrds. Clarence White, Michael Clarke, and Chris Hillman were among the musicians who helped out with Gene Clark and the Gosdin Brothers, which has as strong a country influence as Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Doug Dillard played banjo on the sessions, and he and Clark recorded two albums together. The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark (1968) is a country-rock masterpiece. Clark went on to record several more solo albums throughout the ’70s and ’80s, and two, White Light (1971) and No Other (1974), are among rock’s greatest but least known records.
Clark struggled with drugs and alcohol for years after he left the Byrds. He was inducted with the rest of the original group into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in January 1991, and died five months later at age 46.
David Crosby went on to massive fame with Crosby, Stills & Nash and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. He recorded four successful studio albums with Graham Nash and released nine solo albums between 1971 and 2021. The highest charting and best of them was the first, If I Could Only Remember My Name, but a flurry of activity beginning in 2014 yielded some good music and consistently good reviews. Crosby’s appetite for drugs was as legendary as his irascibility. In 1985, he was jailed for nine months on drugs and weapons charges in Texas. He contracted hepatitis C, which required a controversial liver transplant in 1994. Crosby continued to record and perform until January of this year, when he died at age 81 from complications of COVID-19.
Michael Clarke played on recordings by Dillard & Clark, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Gene Clark, and Firefall. For six years, beginning in 1987, he toured with a lineup calling itself the Byrds, featuring Skip Battin and John York. McGuinn, Hillman, and Crosby attempted to stop Clarke’s group from using the name but were unsuccessful. Clarke died of liver failure in 1993. He was 47.
Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman started the Flying Burrito Brothers, but Parsons left after two albums. He then embarked on a solo career and had just finished sessions for his second album when he died in Yucca Valley, California, after taking a combination of alcohol and morphine. Nearby Joshua Tree National Park was one of Parsons’s favorite places, and he had told his manager, Phil Kaufman, that he wanted his ashes to be scattered at the park’s Cap Rock when he died.
Parsons’s body was at Los Angeles International Airport, waiting to be sent to New Orleans, where his stepfather had arranged for a funeral. Kaufman and a friend borrowed a hearse, stole the body, and took it to Joshua Tree. They doused Parsons’s body with gasoline and set fire to it, but they were arrested before they could scatter the ashes. Parsons’s remains were buried in Metairie, Louisiana.
The Parsons legend threatens to overshadow his accomplishments. Sweetheart of the Rodeo is the last indisputably great Byrds album. The two Flying Burrito Brothers albums he appeared on, along with his two solo recordings, are pillars of the “cosmic American music” he was eager to create—a combination of rock, folk, country music, and southern soul. Had he lived past the age of 26, it’s likely his accomplishments would have been even greater.
Clarence White’s dazzling guitar work is the greatest pleasure of the later Byrds albums. He was struck by a drunk driver while loading equipment after a gig, just a few months after the final Byrds lineup ended. He was only 29, but his talent is documented on the numerous session recordings he made during the previous ten years. He played on records by the Everly Brothers, Randy Newman, Jackson Browne, and many others. His work is also on albums by the Kentucky Colonels, the band he had been playing with when he joined the Byrds.
Chris Hillman pioneered country rock with the Byrds and continued in that direction with the Flying Burrito Brothers, which he kept going for two more albums after Gram Parsons left. He played with Manassas, a group Steven Stills started in 1971 during one of CSNY’s breakups, and its debut is one of Stills’s strongest records. Hillman formed the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band with songwriter J.D. Souther and ex–Buffalo Springfield member Richie Furay, but the trio broke up after two albums. In addition to his stint with McGuinn, Clark & Hillman, he was in demand as a session musician throughout the 1970s.
In 1985, Hillman established The Desert Rose Band with Herb Pedersen and John Jorgenson. The group recorded five albums and was Hillman’s most successful venture after leaving the Byrds. He continued to record, both as a solo artist and in collaboration with others, after The Desert Rose Band broke up in 1993, and Hillman still plays extensively, sometimes appearing with McGuinn. Tom Petty co-produced Hillman’s well-received 2017 solo release, Bidin’ My Time. Hillman’s memoir, Time Between: My Life as a Byrd, Burrito Brother, and Beyond, also met with good reviews.
All the Byrds albums are available in expanded editions, remastered in 20-bit resolution in the late ’90s and early 2000s. For a change, the bonus material is worthwhile. The first six Byrds albums were as good—and as influential—as any music of the mid-to-late 1960s, and as deserving of praise as records by the Beatles, the Stones, and many of the other great bands of the era. Ballad of Easy Rider is the strongest of the band’s ’70s albums, and the others have their strengths, but the Byrds’ moment had passed by the time Sweetheart of the Rodeo had been released. Even that album’s influence didn’t develop until much later.
The Byrds may have been doomed by the strong personalities of the band members, or because of the way the group formed and developed. Unlike many other bands of the era, they didn’t come up together under trying circumstances; several of the Byrds already had well-established careers when the group first formed. Once they gathered momentum, though, the Byrds stood at the pinnacle of the rock hierarchy, however briefly. It was a glorious moment.
. . . Joseph Taylor