Good morning. It’s 9:30 a.m. in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on Monday, March 8, 2021.
I woke up with this song by The Byrds stuck in my head, from their 1968 album Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The album represented a huge tonal shift for The Byrds, who first found success with feel-good folk-pop hits like “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!”
The album’s iconic cover is taken from “The American Cowboy Rodeo,” a 1932 poster by Joseph Jacinto Mora. Mora’s family moved from Uruguay to the United States in 1880. After studying art and working at newspapers on the East coast, Mora moved to California and became something of a Renaissance man of the West: a sculptor, painter, cartoonist, author, historian and cowboy who lived with the Hopi and Navajo in Arizona before marrying and settling in San Jose.
Columbia Records seemed as confused as anyone else about The Byrds’ country turn with Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The record company’s marketing team tried their damnedest to get The Byrds’ old fans on board with their new sound. Despite their best efforts, the album was a commercial flop upon its initial release, the least successful of any Byrds album.
The 1997 remaster of Sweetheart of the Rodeo includes a hidden track at the end of the album, a cheesy radio spot produced by Columbia Records for the album’s release. In the clip, a man and woman who sound like two Mickey Mouse Club understudies talk excitedly about THE BYRDS’ new ALBUM! “That’s not the Byrds!” the man says in disbelief after hearing one of the country-fied tracks off of Sweetheart. “OK, listen to this one!” the woman says. “See? It IS the Byrds! They’re doing Dylan!” “Play another one,” the man says, still not convinced.
“The Christian Life” is ostensibly about the narrator, Gram Parsons, “heeding God’s call” and rejecting temptation from his friends:
My buddies shunned me since I’ve turned to Jesus
They say I’m missing a whole world of fun
I live without them and walk in the light
I like the Christian life
The whole album is firmly tongue-in-cheek — that’s the way I hear it, at least. Listen to Parsons’ fake drawl in the song’s refrain: “Others find pleasure in things I despiiiise / Iiii liiiiike the Christian laaaahf.”
I don’t think Parsons is trying to convert the listener to Christianity with this song. Like the sequins on Parsons’ well-loved Nudie suits, the album is reflective, holding up a mirror to white mainstream culture of the time. It’s a way for The Byrds to clown on their own fans: aging mods who lived in houses bought with GI Bill money that Black veterans never saw, who watched Laugh-In, voted Nixon, went to church every Sunday, and didn’t think too hard about any of their life choices. Squares, in other words.
I might be giving Parsons too much credit. The album is also a genuine ode to old school country music, and on the surface it is a legitimately great country album. But when I listen to Sweetheart of The Rodeo, I hear more than just a country album. I hear pedal steel guitar twangs echoing off canyon walls. I hear the hollow fantasy that white Americans sell ourselves every day, every beat predictable, every chord sticking to the formula. It sounds like the creative suffocation that whiteness demands, that capitalism demands. But isn’t a little sacrifice worth it? Hey, at least we’re comfortable. And at the end of the day, that’s all that really matters… right?
When Parsons sings, I hear a quiet “fuck you” to the very people responsible for his success, and not a little self-loathing. I hear a coded “fuck you” to the record executives who had, for the first time, figured out a way to profit from the American counterculture by marketing it back to young people —all without actually listening to what their young artists like Parsons were saying. What good’s a friend who wants you to fall?
Thanks for reading, I hope you have a good week.