Town Hall, Sept. 24, 2018 (Photo: May Pang)
The current Roger McGuinn/Chris Hillman tour with Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives, in observance of the 50th anniversary of the Byrds’ landmark album Sweetheart of the Rodeo, is leaving audiences ecstatic, thanks mainly to its inspired pairing of the two Byrds co-founders and Stuart’s band.
As Sweetheart is recognized as a seminal precursor to country rock, Stuart is surely among its foremost beneficiaries, as manifest in his 1990 country hit “Hillbilly Rock,” and his cover of Reno and Smiley’s 1956 bluegrass country hit “Country Boy Rock ‘n’ Roll,” which he and his fabulously superlative band (guitarist Kenny Vaughan, drummer Harry Stinson and bassist Chris Scruggs) performed to lead off the second set of last Monday night’s second of two shows at Town Hall.
Stuart acknowledged his debt to both Byrds and Sweetheart outright on the next song, “Time Don’t Wait,” from his acclaimed current album Way Out West: Besides taking the instrumental opening form The Byrds’ hit “Eight Miles High,” it evokes The Beatles’ “I Feel Fine” and Buck Owens’ “Buckaroo”—with Vaughan playing a Rickenbacker guitar matching McGuinn’s vintage trademark 12-string.
The show had started appropriately with “My Back Pages,” the Bob Dylan song that was a 1967 Byrds hit, McGuinn immediately getting applause for his jangly guitar break, with Hillman, whose later musicianship focused on guitar and mandolin, reclaiming his Byrds bass role.
As McGuinn explained, the concert, while presenting the Sweetheart album, would also examine his and Hillman’s Byrds back pages, and so it did: Hillman noted that the group had broached country music as early as its second album Turn! Turn! Turn! (1965), which included the Porter Wagoner signature “Satisfied Mind.”
Here Hillman turned it over to Stuart to sing, as Stuart had not only recorded it as the lead track of his 2003 Country Music album, but had given Wagoner one last “victory lap” by producing the Country Music Hall of Famer’s last album in 2007 and taking him out on tour before he died that year.
Meanwhile, McGuinn said that The Beatles’ cover of Buck Owens’ “Act Naturally” had given The Byrds license to record country music, and the first part of the Sweetheart show also included other preceding country-flavored Byrds outings like “Mr. Spaceman” (their 1966 hit now seen as an early country rock excursion) and the Gerry Goffin-Carole King tune “Wasn’t Born to Follow,” from their 1968 album The Notorious Byrd Brothers, which Peter Fonda had placed in the Easy Rider soundtrack. Sweetheart of the Rodeo was the next Byrds album, and featured new member Gram Parsons alongside McGuinn and Hillman, with instrumental assistance from country instrumental virtuosos including Lloyd Green, John Hartford, Roy Husky, Clarence White and Earl Poole Ball.
The album, Hillman noted, made use of Parsons’ “energy and ambition and love of country music,” all of which were on glorious display at Town Hall. Parsons’ classic “Hickory Wind” earned one of the show’s biggest crowd responses, and for it and other Sweetheart songs, Scruggs had switched to pedal steel, with Vaughan taking his bass spot.
Hillman sang “Hickory Wind,” and when he sang “Old John Robertson,” Stuart switched to mandolin (he also played mandolin, and sang, on the album’s bluegrass cover of “Pretty Boy Floyd”). But the format remained flexible throughout, with much mixing up of instruments and vocal parts among the performers.
As for guitars, Stuart and Vaughan, both monster players alone or doubling together or separately with Hillman and McGuinn, were most exciting, though “Mr. Tambourine Man,” the Byrds’ breakthrough Dylan cover of 1965 which closed the first set, was marked by the glistening McGuinn guitar riff bookending the song’s body. Dylan, in the middle of recording his famous Basement Tapes, also contributed two songs to Sweetheart, “Nothing Was Delivered” and You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”—the latter performed twice, the second time as a Pete Seeger-style Hillman-McGuinn guided singalong to close out the second half.
"You Ain't Goin' Nowhere"
“We were always big fans of Pete Seeger,” explained McGuinn. Having inducted Tom Petty into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2016, he then prefaced first encore “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” the Byrds 1967 hit that Petty covered with the Heartbreakers on his 1985 album Pack Up the Plantation: Live!, by noting that “nowadays, people say it’s a Tom Petty song.” After he sang Petty’s “American Girl,” which he recorded on his 1977 Thunderbyrd album, Hillman related how Petty convinced him to record his acclaimed album Bidin’ My Time, which Petty also produced last year and from which he then sang “Wildflowers.”
After a mostly acoustic country version of Petty’s “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” the show ended with the Byrds’ hit version of Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” and while it was McGuinn and Hillman’s show, once again Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives had made possible an unforgettable victory lap, at least in their guise as The Byrds.