The Byrds entered 1971 heading in opposite directions. As a live unit, there’s no question that the band was at its career apex. The Clarence White-Gene Parsons-Skip Battin rhythm section was massive. If anything, Roger McGuinn was the musical weak link, a disturbing trend that would replicate itself in the studio. I will diatribe later about McGuinn’s abandonment of the songwriting and bandleading process. However, let’s focus on White’s 1971, a promising and underappreciated year of achievement, with lots of Byrds work, a handful of studio sessions, and a most welcome reunion.
JANUARY 1971: KENTUCKY COLONELS REUNITE
On the evening of January 15, the Kentucky Colonels reunited at Clarence’s house, the first time the original group was together since flirting with folk-rock back in the fall of 1965. Sadly, Scotty Stoneman couldn’t make it, but Byron Berline ably sat in on fiddle. Yeah, life’s pretty good when Byron Berline is your Plan B. I kept the pre-song banter because I think the nervous energy is palpable.
Kentucky Colonels – Shuckin’ The Corn
January 15, 1971
Nervous energy meet freight train of bluegrass. Roland kills it on mandolin and little brother Clarence is right with him. CW sounds like he’s capoed way up the neck, so his guitar (1:27-1:36 and 2:05-2:15) acts like a second mandolin. And yet, I can’t decide if Mack’s dobro (1:17-1:27) or Latham’s banjo (1:37-1:56) is my favorite part of the performance. Stunning. And that’s just the first song.
L-R: Leroy “Mack” McNees – dobro, vocals
Roger Bush – bass, vocals
Clarence White – guitar, vocals
Billy Ray Latham – banjo, vocals
Roland White – mandolin, vocals
On the original cassette from which this bootleg matriculates, Leroy McNees is said to have typed: “It was the first time together in six years and the last.” Clarence’s death in 1973 was lamentable for many reasons, but that it effectively closed the book on the Kentucky Colonels remains a minor tragedy. The original Colonels, for all of their individual influence, virtuosity, and Hall-of-fameocity only enjoyed 2-3 years of sustained greatness: 1963-65. The bluegrass festival circuit that would’ve nourished their reputation, legacy, and pocketbooks was in its infancy when the window closed, so they never enjoyed a second wave of semi-popularity, if not outright popularity. Damn shame.
Byrds – Jamaica, Say You Will
Royal Albert Hall, London
May 13, 1971
Clarence sings lead on “Jamaica,” a Jackson Browne tune that appeared in inferior form on Byrdmaniax. I like Clarence’s vocal here substantially more than on the album and Gene’s drumming and Levon Helm-esque background vocals are very sympathetic. Not crazy about McGuinn’s falsetto, but all things considered this is a solid rendition.
Byrds – Mr. Spaceman
Royal Albert Hall, London
May 13, 1971
“Mr. Spaceman,” of course, goes back to 1966’s Fifth Dimension album and holds a special place in Byrds lore for being their first country-rock song, predating “Time Between” and “The Girl With No Name” by 6-7 months. And I didn’t say country, because I know they took a shot at Porter Wagoner‘s “Satisfied Mind” in 1965. “Spaceman” was originally dumbed-down Buck Owens, but White smarts it up here with his mesmerizing playing, especially in the first verse, from 1:09-1:29, and during the outro. Which is to say, the whole damn song.
JUNE 1971: BYRDMANIAX
The Kentucky Colonels reunion actually occurred against the backdrop of the Byrdmaniax sessions, which took place throughout January. This is when The Byrds went in the opposite direction of monstrous. While the formal dust-up regarding this album came during mix and production — ye olde Melcher’s Folly (video below) — it’s not like McGuinn and cohort came strutting into the studio with a highlight reel. There was nothing Terry Melcher could’ve done as producer or band manager, short of mass hypnosis, that would’ve disguised this turd taco. Unfortunately, Melcher did not opt for hypnosis. He opted for the “Children Are Our Future” backup singers.
Byrds – My Destiny
Recorded January 9, 1971
I think “My Destiny” is one of the hidden gems on Byrdmaniax. Clarence doesn’t have a very good voice yet, but by the time he hits that last chorus, he’s singing his ass off. I actually think the production is understated, especially relative to the rest of the album. It certainly isn’t any more gussied up than other mainstream country songs of the era. Would it help if I said that Sneaky Pete Kleinow was playing the pedal steel? That it was written by Helen Carter of the Carter Family and covered by both Johnny Cash and Wanda Jackson in the 1960s? And that when Helen died in 1998, Marty Stuart — caretaker of Clarence’s B-Bender, btw — sang “My Destiny” at her funeral?
My love for CW noted, “My Destiny” shouldn’t be the fifth best song on any album. At heart, it’s a deep cut, meant to be surrounded by better songs that elevate its status by relation. But those other, better songs are on a different Byrdmaniax in another universe where folly is not an option.
I’m certain most of what Parsons says is true. Byrdmaniax certainly suffers from Melcher’s production choices, no doubt fueled by heroic cocaine and booze consumption. But, like I said earlier, it wasn’t like McGuinn gave him a stack of gold records in-waiting. If anything, Rog left songwriting duties to others: Battin, White, Parsons, Jackson Browne (“Jamaica, Say You Will”), and Art Reynolds (“Glory Glory”), the same guy responsible for “Jesus Is Just Alright.” In that sense, Byrdmaniax was like a poor man’s Ballad Of Easy Rider, which also featured mostly non-McGuinn material, but that material was better and more tailored to the talent on hand.
And they couldn’t even get the bluegrass song right.
The Making of Green Apple Quick Step
“My Destiny” and “Green Apple” are good songs that fought (and lost to) bad production values. In that respect, another hidden gem is McGuinn’s “I Trust,” though you might have trouble believing that if you listened to Byrdmaniax.
Byrds – I Trust [Excerpt]
Recorded October 6, 1970
Is there anything about those 17 seconds that makes you wanna hear the previous 3 minutes? This is why arrangement and production matter. The album version sounds like it can’t wait to turn into Foreigner. Those choral backup singers? Awful. Even Clarence’s playing is perfunctory. The song itself is pretty good and easily McGuinn’s best offering on the LP, not that that’s saying much. However, hearing “I Trust” in concert is a revelation. This is what Byrdmaniax could’ve been. An album that reflected the dynamic and occasionally ferocious live act.
Byrds – I Trust
Royal Albert Hall, London
May 13, 1971
This version from the consistently excellent Live At Royal Albert Hall album jumps out of the speakers. White (panned right) unleashes his usual spectacular twang, Parsons and Battin push, fill, and prod the folk ballad into rock territory, and McGuinn sings as if his balls were on fire. Who knows, it was the early ’70s, they may have been. From about 1:06-1:30 and during the shitkicker reprise from 3:33-4:13, Clarence is as perfect a sideman and soloist you’ll hear from this era. Any era, really.
THE SESSION MAN RAG
As in years past, Clarence appeared on several recording sessions, including his third straight Arlo Guthrie album, Hobo’s Lullaby.
Arlo Guthrie – Mapleview (20%) Rag
Hobo’s Lullaby, 1972
Recorded May-July 1971
Clarence White – acoustic lead guitar
Byron Berline – fiddle
Doug Dillard – banjo
Arlo Guthrie or Jim Dickinson (?) – piano
Roger Bush – acoustic bass
Jim Keltner – drums
White kicks things off with his usual monster riffage and offers an understated solo from :47-1:01. Really though, this track is all about the ensemble, and it features a veritable Mount Rushmore of progressive bluegrass. White, Berline, Dillard, and Bush all helped bridge twang and rock in the late ’60s and early ’70s and you’d be hard-pressed to find four more significant figures in west coast bluegrass circa ’72. Add in the mighty Jim Keltner on drums and either Arlo or Jim Dickinson on piano — it could be either, but my money is on Guthrie — and you have two minutes of instrumental bliss.
Paul Siebel – Pinto Pony
Jack-Knife Gypsy, 1971
Clarence was too busy to take on much non-Byrds work in ’71, but Paul Siebel‘s “Pinto Pony” is definitely worth mentioning. From Siebel’s overlooked Jack-Knife Gypsy LP, it features White and friend/guitar protege, Bob Warford, trading leads on what sound like dueling B-Benders. In fact, Warford owned the 2nd B-Bender ever made, so this might be the first studio effort to feature both guitars. A great bluesy western a la Ian Tyson or Butch Hancock, the song also includes David Grisman on mandolin and Buddy Emmons on pedal steel.
NOVEMBER 1971: FARTHER ALONG
The Byrds closed out 1971 with the release of Farther Along, easily the most underappreciated album in the band’s catalog. This isn’t that bold a statement. Over time, the band’s discography has been thoroughly analyzed, distilled, and more or less appropriately evaluated. Despite its imperfections, Farther Along has better depth than it’s credited with having and is probably the band’s most sustained studio effort since Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde, released nearly 3 years earlier (February 1969). Would I love to see “America’s Great National Pastime,” “Antique Sandy,” and “So Fine” replaced with actual good songs? Sure. But that only makes Farther Along a disappointment relative to greatness. Relative to The Byrds catalog heading into 1972, Farther Along is a flawed, but worthy closing statement, with 4 legitimately excellent songs and 3 are below. The other is “Precious Kate,” a beautiful earthquake song that sounds like it was written with Jeff Tweedy in mind.
Byrds – B.B. Class Road [Guitar Solo]
Farther Along, 1971
Recorded July-August 1971
One thing Farther Along accomplished that the 3 previous albums did not was remembering to rock. “Tiffany Queen” and “B.B. Class Road” are not great songs, but allowing the band a chance to cut loose with Big Dumb Riff is rarely a bad idea. So, it’s not “Like A Rolling Stone.” Who cares? Sure, no one needs an album’s worth of “B.B. Class Road,” but any time you give Clarence White an opportunity to cut loose with 30 seconds of sweet Tele bliss, count yourself lucky.
Byrds – Bristol Steam Convention Blues
Farther Along, 1971
Recorded July-August 1971
More Byrdgrass, a welcome tradition by this point.
Byrds – Bugler
Farther Along, 1971
Recorded July 22, 1971
If Farther Along is mildly underrated, “Bugler” is astonishingly so. The country-rock “Old Shep” was the third Byrdsong about a dog (joining “Old Blue” and “Fido”) and it features a great vocal by Clarence. White also adds a tasty mandolin overdub and Parsons plays subtly effective pedal steel guitar. If any song demonstrated that White was ready to go solo, this was it. A total heartbreaker. FYI, “Bugler” was written by Larry Murray of Hearts And Flowers, satellite players in LA’s late ’60s/early ’70s folk-country-rock scene.
Byrds – Farther Along
Farther Along, 1971
Recorded July 25, 1971
“Cheer up my brother, live in the sunshine
We’ll understand it, all by and by”
Another definitive Clarence moment. Great harmonies, great mandolin part (again Clarence), just solid country gospel down the line. I suppose this is why I defend Farther Along. The 2 best songs are White’s and it’s a toss-up whether “Bristol Steam” or “Precious Kate” is 3. It’s totally CW’s album, so by casually dismissing it, folks are missing out on the elevation of his game to solo levels, dammit!
Still, it was probably best that The Byrds imploded following the release of Farther Along. They were a great live band, but if McGuinn didn’t give a shit anymore, what was the point for the other Byrds — other than the payday?
Byrds – Farther Along
The Byrds brand would limp along for the next year or so, but 1971 ends the formal recording period. And what are we left with? Perhaps the only first-ballot Hall of Fame band of its generation that failed to produce a single bona fide, beginning-to-end classic album. EVERY album has dead spots. I think much of that has to be laid at the feet of ostensible bandleader, Roger McGuinn. Take a look at his official songwriting contributions on each album, beginning with his last strong effort, Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde:
Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde – Recorded October-December 1968
Old Blue (traditional, arranged Roger McGuinn)
Child Of The Universe (Dave Grusin & Roger McGuinn)
Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man (Roger McGuinn & Gram Parsons)
King Apathy III (Roger McGuinn)
Candy (Roger McGuinn & John York)
Bad Night At The Whiskey (Roger McGuinn & Joseph Richards)
Ballad Of Easy Rider – Recorded June-August 1969
Ballad Of Easy Rider (Roger McGuinn)
Untitled – Live stuff recorded February-March, 1970; studio stuff recorded May-June 1970
Lover Of The Bayou (Roger McGuinn & Jacques Levy)#
Chestnut Mare (Roger McGuinn & Jacques Levy)#
All The Things (Roger McGuinn & Jacques Levy)#
Just A Season (Roger McGuinn & Jacques Levy)#
Hungry Planet (Skip Battin, Kim Fowley, & Roger McGuinn)
Byrdmaniax – Recorded June-October 1970; January-March 1971
Kathleen’s Song (Roger McGuinn & Jacques Levy; leftover from Untitled sessions)#
I Wanna Grow Up To Be A Politician (Roger McGuinn & Jacques Levy)#
I Trust (Roger McGuinn)
Pale Blue (Roger McGuinn & Gene Parsons)
Farther Along – Recorded July-August 1971
Tiffany Queen (Roger McGuinn)
Antique Sandy (Roger McGuinn, Skip Battin, Gene Parsons, Clarence White, and Jimmi Seiter)
# songs written with Jacques Levy for the aborted 1969 country-rock opera, Gene Tryp. Take away those songs — since they weren’t written with The Byrds in mind, necessarily — and McGuinn averaged one song per album on their final FOUR albums!!! It’s fair to say that McGuinn spent more creative energy on Gene Tryp than he did on any of the individual Byrds albums between 1969-73.
So, why isn’t he properly skewered for this egregious oversight in band management? White, Battin, and Parsons were a dynamite rhythm section and if you asked them to collectively produce 6-7 songs for an album, 4 of them would be good, guaranteed. All McGuinn had to do was come up with 5-6 songs per year — an album side, essentially — and only 3 of them needed to be first rate. And he didn’t come close to that. He could’ve collaborated with any of the other Byrds, but it rarely happened. “Antique Sandy,” “Pale Blue,” and “Hungry Planet” are the only Byrds songs that feature either White, Battin, or Parsons as co-writer with McGuinn. And other than “Tiffany Queen,” Roger never came close to writing a song that took advantage of Clarence White’s facility as a rock guitarist. It’s as though he didn’t realize White, Battin, and Parsons were in his band. Or, he didn’t care. And to either point, I call bullshit.
Before we haul ass to 1972 in the Dodge Challenger, dig this footage of The Byrds in Belgium. Recorded 5 days after the Royal Albert Hall show, the band brings the heavy wood. An amazing historical artifact. Ladies and gentlemen: THE BYRDS!!!
BYRDS LIVE IN ’71
Forest National Hall, Belgium
May 18, 1971
1. Lover Of The Bayou
2. You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere
3. Truckstop Girl (Clarence: lead vocal)
4. Baby, What You Want Me To Do
5. Soldier’s Joy (Clarence/Roger acoustic duet)
6. Pretty Boy Floyd (Roger – lead vocal, acoustic guitar; Clarence – acoustic guitar; Gene – banjo; Skip – electric bass; Jimmi Seiter – bongos)
7. Take A Whiff (Clarence – lead vocal, acoustic guitar; Roger – acoustic guitar, harmony vocal; Gene – harmonica, kick drum & hi hat, harmony vocal; Skip – electric bass; Jimmi Seiter – tambourine)
8. Jesus Is Just Alright
9. Mr. Spaceman
Can't wait to dive into this. For now I just want to say that Pinto Pony is a great tune. I love that whole record.
I bought Byrdmaniax when it came out and buried it in a deep dark hole. THANKS for introducing me to My Destiny! Byrds in Belgium, too…
Always loved “Bugler”. Best song about a dog ever and that's from a cat lover!
What a terrific commentary on one of my favorite bands and their weird unwinding in the seventies. You're a close listener, I'm not. But, it was edifying to hear your smart parsing. That the Byrds were a great live band fairly close to the end is certified by all the small touches and at times virile psych-sturm accessible in the various boots, and regular releases.
I wonder what kind of comp you'd arrange were you to put together the best of the studio work strung between Untitled and Farther Along?
With a magic wand, I'd charge somebody with resurrecting the band's 8 track Byrdmaniax set downs sans Melchor's daft grotesques.
It's worth pointing out, as I'm sure you already know, that McGuinn buries some good songs with whack production on his solo albums. Probably some of those songs were available and held back in 1971.
Hey, ever think about giving the same treatment to Moby Grape?
Part II of the Forest National Hall gig is pretty funny – Roger straps on the wrong guitar and has to change back, then Clarence breaks a string, so no solo, and Gene covers with vocals, but they get it together in the end.
An excellent analysis of a critical Byrds year. White is my favorite as well and I have always maintained that the '69-'71 lineup was the best overall. It's a shame that somehow Clarence's playing on all the records was either restrained or buried in the mix. A classic example is the difference between the live version (esp. Royal Albert Hall) of I Trust and the album version. This is why I practically jumped for joy when I first read about the release of Live at the Fillmore 1969. Finally, there was an official document of Clarence's genius in that period.
I, like every Clarence White fan, still desperately awaits the release of anything from the Warner Bros. solo sessions.
hey don't forget McGuinn wrote All the Things on Untitled as well.
He also did co-write another song with a band member on Pale Blue – co-written with Gene Parsons.
David, thanks for the heads up. Not sure how I overlooked All The Things or Gene's credit on Pale Blue. What really bothers me is that I somehow forgot to include Lover On The freaking Bayou, which was the first Byrds song that made me say to myself, “Hot damn. This is The Byrds?!?! Who the hell is this guitar player?” Bad Lance.
Man I am up WAY too late hooked on this…
Clarence was a magician. The Palladium show in Hollywood was one of the most astonishing musical performances I have ever seen – York said “fierce” in describing Clarence's solos, but by this time it wasn't just fierce – you'd swear he could play one note and drill a hole through concrete. I knew incredible blues-rockers at that time that were simply afraid to be on stage with the guy (and he was possibly the most polite, unassuming, communicative and friendly “rock star” I've ever met).
(have to toss in one correction, verified by Warford – It's Clarence alone on Siebel's Pinto Pony; Warford plays his bender stuff on Uncle Dudley. The tonal differences are a dead giveaway as well, as Bob has always…since the Ronstadt Days…played the White Tele he got from Clarence (that Clarence played on “Sweetheart) Through a Vibrolux Reverb modded by Red Rhodes – and an EH LPB-1 booster plugged into the amp, always with a slightly dirty, biting, distinctive tone. He still plays exactly the same rig (I think he may have changed strings)…
OK Jim, now you're just rubbing it in … HAHA! Nah, love it man. Thanks for the heads up on Warford. In fact, now you've got me headed back to the lab. Again, totally jealous of you. I hope you're happy now LOL.
Thanks, great stuff!
I have a copy of the Earl Scruggs family and friends. The linernotes says it’s Randy Scruggs playing lead guitar on Nothin’ to it.
I always loved Lazy Waters as much as Bugler and Farther Along. Those three are worth the price of admission in my book.