Roger McGuinn and Marty Stuart perform at the Jefferson Center in Roanoke, Virginia, on Oct. 10, 2018. (Photos by Chester Simpson; Words by David Edwards)
There were two overriding themes to the Sweetheart of the Rodeo concert at Roanoke’s Jefferson Performance Center recently — a theme of Americana music and a theme of Tom Petty.
Perhaps one of the endearing qualities of the Sweetheart of the Rodeo album, the sixth album by rock icons The Byrds, is that it brought to the mainstream what would eventually become Americana music. Sweetheart of the Rodeo is an Americana gem. It includes songs written by a diverse group, many of which have become legends. Sweetheart includes songs by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Charles and Ira Louvin (AKA the Louvin Brothers), Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, Merle Travis, William Bell, Luke McDaniel, Cindy Walker, and Gram Parsons. Gram was a pivotal person in the creation of country rock and the catalyst that led to making the Sweetheart of the Rodeo album.
Out of tragedy often comes greatness. Such is the case with the Sweetheart of the Rodeo concert. In fact it was Tom Petty’s untimely death on Oct. 2, 2017, that eventually lead to the Sweetheart of the Rodeo tour. Roger McGuinn of The Byrds knew his friend and former bandmate Chris Hillman was hurting after the death of Tom Petty. So, he gave him a call, hoping to cheer him up. Out of that conversation came the idea for the Sweetheart of the Rodeo tour to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their groundbreaking album.
Through a genuine effort to play authentic country music, the album alienated many Byrds’ fans in 1968 due to its departure from the familiar Byrds’ sound. Country music rejected the album, saying it was a bunch of “long hairs” trying to play country music. As with many artistic triumphs, appreciation comes with time.
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On Oct. 10 in Roanoke, Virginia, the crowd showed their appreciation from the moment the band took the stage. The band seemed to enjoy performing with each other and for the Roanoke audience. Several times between songs, Chris Hillman, Roger McGuinn, and their special guest Marty Stuart would lock arms on stage. The concert opened with Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages.” It seemed to resonate with the audience and set the tone for the evening. Roger then sang “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”
One of the many highlights of the evening was the stories told between the songs. These stories often gave insight into the songs and provided the camaraderie on stage which created an intimacy not often found in rock concerts.
Is there any more recognizable musical sound than that of Roger McGuinn’s 12-string Rickenbacker? From the moment we first heard the opening cords of Mr. Tambourine Man in June 1965, the sound of Roger’s 12-string Rickenbacker was forever etched in our psyche. It was an instant flashback, when midway through the first set, Roger played the first few chords of “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Roger then played a demo of how Mr. Tambourine Man originally sounded and then shared how it was reworked into the version we all know.
Chris Hillman told the story behind his song “Old John Robinson.” The song is about an eccentric former actor from the small Southern California town where Chris grew up. And one of the best anecdotes preceded the song “Drug Store Driving Man.” The song is about Ralph Emery at WSM and his shunning of The Byrds and their music.
After a brief intermission, we were treated to a couple of songs from Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives. The first was a song with Roanoke roots, “Country Boy Rock & Roll,” by Don Reno, Red Smiley, and the Tennessee Cut-Ups. It featured some outstanding guitar work by Kenny Vaughn.
The band then launched into the Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Marty Stuart’s bass player, Chris Scruggs, switched to the pedal steel guitar, which flawlessly echoed the pedal steel on the album. Chris added the bass. Marty added an additional authentic layer to the music by playing the late Clarence White’s original Fender Telecaster. (Clarence was a former Byrds’ bandmember that played on the Sweetheart album.) The guitar used Clarence’s innovative B-Bender, which mimicked the sound of a pedal steel guitar.
The stories continued throughout Sweetheart — like Chris’ story about when he first heard “Blue Canadian Rockies.” He was watching an old cowboy movie, and the actor was sitting on his horse twilling his lariat while singing the song with the Rocky Mountains in the background. Roger shared a story about his plan to play the banjo part on “Pretty Boy Floyd” until John Hartford said, “Son, you better let me play that.”
The vocals and harmonies were excellent throughout the concert — especially Chris’ solo vocals. His voice was strong and clear all evening, and never better was his singing of the Gram Parson’s classic “Hickory Wind.” Harry Stinson, the Superlatives drummer, provided the high harmony.
But all too soon, the last note of Sweetheart was played and band left the stage.
Don’t leave yet, we want more! The applause grew loud, and the band retuned to the stage. For the first time on the tour, they played “King of the Hill” – a song Roger co-wrote with Tom Petty — a song that appeared on Roger’s Tom Petty-produced album, “Back from Rio.” Playing solo on the mandolin, Marty did a beautiful version of the Tom Petty classic “Wildflowers.”
And then we heard the familiar jingle jangle of the Roger’s Rickenbacker 12-string. It was time for the ’60s anthem “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” which closed out the show.
To everything there is a season; let’s hope there is another season for this band to play in Roanoke. Meanwhile, you can catch this fabulous show elsewhere. If you’re in DC on Dec. 3, catch the Sweetheart of the Rodeo Tour at the Strathmore Music Center. Buy your tickets online.
Here are some pictures of Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman of The Byrds and Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives at the Jefferson Center in Roanoke, Virginia, on Oct. 10, 2018. All photos copyright and courtesy of Chester Simpson.