Back in 1968, when Sweetheart of the Rodeo was released, the Byrds were a few years removed from their last Top 10 hit.

They had also gone through some lineup turmoil in recent years that left only Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman remaining from the original quintet. Plus, the country-flavored album sounded nothing like the jangly folk-rock that made the band one of the most popular American acts during the Beatles’ reign of the pop charts at the time.

Little surprise then that Sweetheart stalled outside of the Top 75 on the albums chart. But in the years since its release, this project has become a landmark record in the evolution of country-rock, with ties to everything from the Eagles to the traditional country movement of the mid ‘70s to the rise of alt-country and Americana music over the past couple of decades.

McGuinn and Hillman, the two surviving members who played on Sweetheart of the Rodeo, are now on the road celebrating 50 years of that milestone album. (Both singer-songwriter Gram Parsons and drummer Kevin Kelley, the other two official members of the Byrds at the time, have both died.) The duo was joined by Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives at the Akron Civic Theatre last night, paying tribute to the album as well as some of the Byrds’ other classic tracks.

The two-hour show began with a look at some earlier songs that led to their trip to Nashville and toward Sweetheart of the Rodeo. It all started, appropriately enough, with a cover of Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages” before McGuinn, Hillman, Stuart (who played a guitar once owned by another late member of the Byrds, Clarence White) and his group worked their way through pre-Rodeo Byrds songs like “Mr. Spaceman,” “Old John Robertson” and “Wasn’t Born to Follow” that were influenced by country music. (You can see the set list below.)

They then played all of the classic 1968 album, though not in order. The set started and ended with “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” the Dylan song that opens the record and the only single to reach the chart (it peaked at No. 74). In between was the heart of the tour: 10 songs that helped shape and define country-rock, including expert renditions of “Hickory Wind,” “One Hundred Years From Now,” “The Christian Life” and “I Am a Pilgrim,” all sung by McGuinn and Hillman. (Parsons had originally recorded lead vocals on several of the album’s tracks, but when he left the Byrds before the LP was released, all but a couple of them were replaced with McGuinn singing.)

McGuinn and Hillman told stories along the way, sharing their thoughts on Parsons and playing snippets of other artists' songs – like the Beatles – that helped steer them toward country. Because the music comes more naturally to Stuart and his band in 2018 than it did to the Byrds in 1968, the Sweetheart songs sounded warmer and cozier onstage than they do on record.

The five-song encore included two more Byrds classics – “So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star” and “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)” – as well as a mini tribute to the late Tom Petty, a fan of the band who produced solo albums by McGuinn and Hillman. (The day before the show marked the first anniversary of Petty's death.) The emotional “Wildflowers” was especially stirring, evoking the spirit of Sweetheart of the Rodeo. It served as a fitting postscript to the concert’s central theme and a poignant reminder to the album’s lasting influence.

Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Akron Civic Theatre, 10/3/18
"My Back Pages"
"A Satisfied Mind"
"Mr. Spaceman"
"Time Between"
"Old John Robertson"
"Wasn't Born to Follow"
"Sing Me Back Home"
"Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man"
"Mr. Tambourine Man"
"Country Boy Rock & Roll"
"Time Don't Wait"
"You Ain't Goin' Nowhere"
"Pretty Boy Floyd"
"Hickory Wind"
"Life in Prison"
"One Hundred Years From Now"
"Nothing Was Delivered"
"Blue Canadian Rockies"
"The Christian Life"
"You're Still on My Mind"
"You Don't Miss Your Water"
"I Am a Pilgrim"
"You Ain't Goin' Nowhere"

Encore
"So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star"
"American Girl"
"Wildflowers"
"Runnin' Down a Dream"
"Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)"
 
 

1968's Best Rock Albums