Still Flying

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Those who already own the box set might be hesitant to fork over additional cash for the reissues. Still, for die-hard Byrds fans, there's considerable enticement to own this latest batch, which includes The Notorious Byrd Brothers, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde and Ballad of Easy Rider. Each boasts much-improved sound quality and contains previously unheard bonus tracks and rare additional artwork.

"When they assembled the box set, they didn't have the multitrack masters for all of it," McGuinn says. "They were using third-generation two-tracks that were played almost until they were worn out. So the sound quality is much better on these reissues. And the Super Bit Mapping technology they have now is much better than the 16-bit technology they used for the box set. The end result is that the [new CDs] are much more like analog. They are warmer and fuller-bodied."

And this time, McGuinn had direct input into the reissue process. "[Columbia/Legacy] forgot to involve me in the last group," says McGuinn with a tense giggle. "And then they made the mistake of saying that I had been involved and I had to deny it, because I wasn't -- Oops! Somebody forgot to call Roger! -- so they called me up."

Actually, says McGuinn, there wasn't much for him to do. He made a few minor changes here and there in the liner notes, but otherwise left the music to stand or fall on its own. The period covered by the four rereleases was a rather messy one in Byrds history. Indeed, there were plenty of moments when it seemed that McGuinn's stubborn resolve was all that held the group together -- or even worse, that the Byrds were a band in name only. By the time Ballad of Easy Rider was released in 1969, Byrds founders Gene Clark, David Crosby and Chris Hillman had left, prime C&W catalyst Gram Parsons had come and gone and everyone else key to the band's inception -- and its evolution -- had vanished. Everyone, that is, aside from McGuinn, who carried on under the Byrds name with various help until 1973.

But while the late '60s might have paled in comparison to the more concentrated brilliance of the Byrds' early years, the period was no less interesting for its lack of cohesion. And it did yield 1968's Sweetheart of the Rodeo, an invaluable "how-to" manual for the country-rock movement of the 1970s, the roots-rock underground of the '80s and its scrappier alt-country counterpart of the '90s -- not to exclude, of course, its influence on the commercial twang Nashville commonly calls country music nowadays.

"At the time [Sweetheart] came out, nobody liked it," says McGuinn. "The country people thought we were a bunch of hippies trying to make fun of them, and the rock audience thought we had sold out to the enemy. Guess that's the price you pay for being a visionary."

Substituting the weepy ebb and flow of a pedal-steel guitar for the Rickenbacker's chimelike precision, the Byrds might as well have been another band completely, and for the most part, they were. Sweetheart saw the group's lineup augmented by a gaggle of Nashville session men, and its direction -- once largely decided by McGuinn's dual obsession with the Beatles and Dylan -- spun due south by the country alliance between Hillman and Parsons, who later went on to form the Flying Burrito Brothers.

"It was all so new to me," recalls McGuinn. "Even though I had dabbled with it on earlier Byrds albums, I'd never got into the lifestyle of it -- going to Nashville and getting into the whole country thing. People thought we were putting them on, but we were so sincere about it. Chris Hillman [a bluegrass mandolin player before he joined the Byrds] had been going in that direction, and when he found Gram as an ally, the two of them balanced it in that direction, and I was happy to go along with it."

Happy, really? "Well, if you want to get into all that stuff, there was kind of a power struggle there," admits McGuinn. "That's always kind of ugly in a band. Gram wanted to make us his country band, and I didn't want that to happen. But we remained friends through all of it. We played pool, drank beer, rode motorcycles together and had a good time."

While acknowledging Sweetheart's groundbreaking reputation, McGuinn says that if he had to pick a favorite among the new reissues, it would be 1968's The Notorious Byrd Brothers. It's the most blatantly experimental of the four discs and, as such, often sounds the most dated. Nevertheless, McGuinn sees its studio indulgences (Moog synthesizer, phase-shifted horns, tape loops, electronically altered vocals) as innovative for their time.

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Hobart Rowland