As far as I’m concerned, Sweetheart of the Rodeo is the Byrds’ version of the Velvet Underground’s Squeeze. To wit: both are albums released by non-veteran (read: inconsequential) members of the band (Gram Parsons in this case, who joined in just before the recording of Sweetheart and proceeded to comandeer the band to do his bidding and proceeded to leave right after), both are albums that doesn’t sound like the band at all and both are albums released under that band name anyway for name recognition (because no one’s heard of Gram Parson’s previous outfit, International Submarine Band). Of course, unlike Squeeze, Sweetheart of the Rodeo has enjoyed being inducted into the canon; Rolling Stone gives it the absurdly high ranking of #120 on their 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. It shouldn’t be praised, though: this reeks of “[genre] for people who don’t like [genre]” and “music that’s been praised because of its influential/important qualities rather than the actual music.”
As expected by a band known for speeding up Bob Dylan songs, the two best cuts from Sweetheart of the Rodeo are the sped up Bob Dylan songs: “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” with the only melody on the album worth noting and a trot-like drumming in the choruses that makes it feel like you’re actually out in the country, and “Nothing Was Delivered,” if only for its choruses; the only part of the album that contains any semblance of the “rock & roll drive” that Rolling Stone spoke about. (Both songs are available on The Basement Tapes.) The rest of this album is non-stop complacency and steel guitars that’s both more several minutes longer (32 minutes, as opposed to the usual 20-some) and more mid-tempo (making it feel even longer) than any Byrds album that proceeds it.
But the worst part is that the liner notes of the 2003 reissue state clearly that “Parsons convinced McGuinn to drop his plan for a new Byrds concept album – a double LP covering the whole of American musical history, from traditional folk and classic country to rock & roll and the new dawn of the Moog synthesizer – and go all-country.” By description alone, McGuinn’s vision would have been influential/important in itself, a rock album with proto-electronic elements that looked ahead to the 70s instead of looking ahead to the next year as Sweetheart did, would have been the most interesting Byrds album after 5th Dimension and would have been the most influential Byrds album after Mr. Tambourine Man.