Interview: Christian Parker Follows The Spirit Of The Byrds For ‘Sweethearts’ Joined By Earl Poole Ball And JayDee Maness

Singer/songwriter and guitarist Christian Parker recently released Sweethearts: A Tribute To The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo. It’s a cover album of a very different stripe that reimagines all of the songs on that seminal Country-leaning album, but also brings in a couple more songs that Parker thought fitting, and the entire project was kick-started by two of the original players on that album, pianist Earl Poole Ball and pedal steel player JayDee Maness, joining in.

Parker, who doesn’t usually do a lot of covers, has had a lot of experience as a live performer to cultivate his versatility. He was originally interested in working with several Byrds songs from across their catalog when Earl Poole Ball prompted this new focus on Sweetheart of The Rodeo. With several other Byrds songs already in the can, Parker, Ball, and others have now also completed songs from a wider selection of Byrds music that will be released in 2024, titled Change is Now.

When The Byrds recorded Sweetheart of the Rodeo, they explored their appreciation of other artists by including their own covers of The Louvin Brothers, Merle Haggard, and Cindy Walker, and in the same spirit of participation and invention surrounding songs you love, Christian Parker took up the challenge for this new album Sweethearts. I spoke with him about the philosophy around the album, his view of the historical context of the original album, and what challenges he faced approaching the material in a new way.

Hannah Means-Shannon: Did you decide to record some Byrds songs generally and then focus in on Sweetheart, or was Sweetheart always the target?

Christian Parker: We were recording a Byrds project and had already started working on the earlier 12-string guitar stuff, and I asked Earl Ball if he’d play on “Life in Prison” and he played on that. That was a little over a year ago. Then we thought about getting him on again in the Fall, then right around Christmas of last year, I said to him, “Why don’t we do another song from Sweetheart?” And he said, “Why don’t we do the whole album? I’d love to do the whole album. I said, “…Okay…” So it wasn’t as if we put the other Byrds songs on hold, but we stopped recording other songs from the catalog and focused on The Sweetheart of the Rodeo album. I added three songs onto that, so we were in the studio heavily from December to April.

We actually just finished the second Byrds volume, called Change is Now, which is a lot of Gene Clark material, 15 songs. I didn’t think I’d ever do two tribute albums, but here I am and I just did! We’ve had a lot of fun doing it.

HMS: To me, that seems pretty fast. Having heard Sweethearts, I had assumed it took some soul-searching to decide on these interpretations, so I’m really impressed that you found your way into them so quickly.

CP: Well it’s quite a range of stuff. We’re looking at possibly releasing it in January of 2024, and it’s definitely different to me. I’d always covered songs like “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and I’d covered “Hickory Wind” at coffee houses. Those kinds of songs tended to pop up, being more like sing-a-longs for people. But otherwise, I had to really think about it. I hadn’t played songs like “Pretty Boy Floyd” or “Bluegrass”.

Once I got into it more, I realized that I needed to find ways to sing these songs without being cliché, since I’m not a Southern guy with a Southern accent. I had to find that little bit of swagger in the sound, though, for it to be believable. That was the challenge to me, but I realized that I needed to stop over-thinking it.

HMS: So for you, the vocal choices gave you the biggest cause for thought?

CP: Yes, because you’re singing with all this pedal steel, and Earl playing the Honky Tonk piano. It couldn’t be any more Honky Tonk, really. Once I’d done that, I fell in love with that style. I came to feel that, in some ways, that style was easier than some of this other Byrds material, like songs that have a lot of falsetto. I was struggling to get that, too, but again, I just had to calm down and eventually I got it. The fun part has been taking some of these songs that were off the beaten path for the second volume.

Now, for Sweethearts, we stuck to the program, but we added a couple of songs, like “Drugstore Truck Drivin’ Man”, which was actually not on the Sweetheart album, but the one that came after it. But it always sounded like it should have been on Sweetheart because it was pretty much the same sound.

HMS: Do you know of any particular reason that they didn’t?

CP: I think they wrote it in the Fall of 1968. I was actually born in the summer of 1968, and the record Sweetheart of the Rodeo came out on August 30th of 1968, so it’s 55 years. They did a 50-year reunion with the remaining Byrds so this record has had some coverage. Actually, this record wasn’t very highly regarded when it came out in 1968, from what I’ve heard, but it was kind of like Star Trek. Nobody watched it in the 60s, but in the 70s, it took off!

HMS: I get the impression that people at the time weren’t sure that something dealing with Country music could be stylish or cool because it felt partly old-fashioned. Then there was the slow-burn whereby The Byrds made it cool.

CP: Exactly! It launched The Flying Burrito Brothers. After Hillman did that record, he left the band and ran off with Gram Parsons. Earl’s told me tons of stories about all that and he’s writing a book about it. He went out to LA in 1964. He was out there selling sewing machines and he met JayDee Maness, who played on a couple of tracks on that record. Earl’s all over Parson’s album, The International Submarine Band, so’s JayDee.

I think McGuinn’s original idea was to do a World music collection, and when it ended up as a bunch of “California hippies” going to Nashville, the record executives, there wondered why they wanted to make a Country record. That’s what “Drugstore Truck Drivin’ Man” was written about, Ralph Emery dissing them. Gram Parsons ended up being like another George Jones. He was never really an official member of The Byrds, and wasn’t going to stick around, but he sang quite a few songs on Sweetheart of the Rodeo, because he really had the style. But Parsons was already in another contract, so Roger McGuinn ended up having to re-sing some of Gram’s songs.

But this record, looking back, is really the one that launched Americana and Country Rock. I think that’s where it all comes from, and that’s why I wanted to do it. It was almost like Sgt. Pepper was to Pop. I also think there’s an appetite for it now. I think this music is making a little bit of a comeback.

HMS: How was it working with Earl? Did you feel that he helped you discover the right sound?

CP: I started to find that every time that Earl suggested something, he was right. That was nice for us, to have another set of ears on it. He was able to hear things that we weren’t hearing because we were used to the songs. He was really positive and wants to do more. He’s getting up there [in age] now, but he wants to do things. I don’t want to be a tribute artist or be labelled as the guy who does Byrds tribute albums, but I’m trying to figure out what else we could do in Cosmic Country or Cosmic Americana. I feel like that’s the style that Earl really fits in.

HMS: I know you’ve been a busy man, having released two previous albums of older personal material just before this. On the other hand, that’s a good counterbalance to what you’ve done since then.

CP: Every Passing Mile was mostly new material created when everyone was hunkered down during Covid. It gave me something to work on. I knew that I had the Best Kept Secret record, which was actually a record that I’d started 18 years before and put on the shelf. I always thought about those songs and they sounded like they were from the same vein. I wanted to see what I could do with them. Some of the vocals on that record were actually recorded in 2002. Then I had to sing all the rest of them, and I added all the production to it. When I was doing that, I found that I started writing again. I was surprised to find soon after that I had two albums.

For me, I have a hard time writing songs and being Christian Parker the songwriter and doing what I’ve just done with this Byrds material. I feel like I can only do one of those two things at a time.

HMS: That’s understandable. Both are intricate processes. It’s wonderful that Earl was able to give feedback on Production. To me, one of the biggest differences between the original music and your version seems to be how clearly the instrumentation is picked out and how much space each instrument gets.

That’s not purely about technology, but those are decisions that you’ve made to bring all that musicality forward in the songs. I feel like there’s a really good balance between vocals and instrumentation and that gives a fuller feeling than the original, almost an orchestral feel at times.

CP: Yes, and the stand-up bass was a big part of this, too. I’m surprised The Byrds didn’t use it. There’s just so much more warmth that it brings, and it’s very bouncy. You can hear it in “Drugstore”, you can hear it in “Nothing Was Delivered.” There are tons of songs that use it. There are only two songs with electric bass, “Hickory Wind” and “One-Hundred Years from Now.” We tried to make sure that you could hear every little part, though, like that the piano and pedal steel were cutting through. The formula that I used for acoustic guitar, which were all usual chords, was to play one open and capo it and transcribe it. I would play two acoustics and have two mics on each take.

HMS: I think when we hear music a lot, and a lot of people have listened to Sweetheart of the Rodeo a lot, we just accept it as it is and stop thinking about how idiosyncratic it is and was at the time of release. We get blind to it. But I’m sure that you experienced that weirdness close up. Your versions seem sensitive to that, and even as you were changing that, you kept those weird elements and spotlight them a little more than we might otherwise notice.

CP: That makes sense. “Hickory Wind” was one of the only ones that I took more liberty with. It wasn’t that I didn’t like Gram Parsons’ version, but I have near-perfect pitch, and I can hear that it’s out of tune on that recording. You’ll hear how out of tune the violin and the piano are on the first few seconds of that song. I asked Earl, “What were you guys thinking?” He said, “It was very chaotic and disorganized Chris, what can I tell you?” [Laughs]

But I didn’t notice that when I was a kid. It was a little dissonant sounding. But I asked myself, “What’s my version of this song, as Christian Parker?” I wanted to keep the elements and the flare, though. I wasn’t sure how “Satisfied Mind” was going to come across when I sent it to Earl, since I was singing a lot lower than I usually sing. The guy mastering it said it didn’t sound like me! It was great to get the feedback to everyone involved.

HMS: Something that occurred to me is that, originally, on Sweetheart of the Rodeo, there were some cover songs where the guys are embracing playing other peoples’ songs in their own way. That’s something that’s even more typical of Country music than Rock or Pop, I think. It always has been. The fact that The Byrds did it on that album re-suggested to the public that bands ought to do that, and the whole spirit of your project here feels in keeping with that.

CP: You nailed it. That’s exactly the way that I thought about it. That’s the way that I looked at it. That was my appreciation from a distance regarding their album. That’s what these guys were doing. My father’s still alive, and he’s in his 80s. He always wanted me to do something a little more Country-ish. He listened to it, and he said, “Some of it was good, and some I didn’t recognize.” I had to explain to him what we were just talking about, that there’s a Merle Haggard song, there’s a Louvin Brothers song, there’s Johnny Cash, there’s Bob Dylan. He liked the pretty and the sappy songs, like “Hickory Wind”! Anything with violins on it. They are emotive and he relates to them.

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