In theory, the focus of Saturday night's "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" show at ACL Live was to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the country album that brought Southern California folk-rock greats the Byrds to Nashville in 1968. But in some ways, that anniversary was just a convenient excuse for six musicians to deliver two hours of splendid American music that transcended time, place and genre.
Byrds co-founders Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman have a history together that put them in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, along the way heavily influencing a young Marty Stuart. About 15 years their junior, Stuart now has an ace band, the Fabulous Superlatives, who were perfect for the role of re-creating the sounds on the "Sweetheart" album.
The ensemble played all 11 of the album's songs in the show's second set, mixing originals by McGuinn and Hillman's late Byrds mate Gram Parsons with country arrangements of tunes by Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Cindy Walker and others. Pedal steel solos by Chris Scruggs, usually the Superlatives' bassist, set the tone for a stretch that was heavy on honky-tonk twang.
Good as the "Sweetheart" material was, a nine-song introductory first set may have been even more special. Bookended by the Byrds' classic folk-rock versions of Dylan's "My Back Pages" and "Mr. Tambourine Man" — the latter a No. 1 single for the fledgling band in 1965 — the opening hour included pre-"Sweetheart" songs that signaled how the Byrds already were dipping into country territory in their early days.
Stuart got in on that act, too, taking the lead vocal on "Satisfied Mind," a 1955 country chart-topper for Porter Wagoner that the Byrds recorded on their second album. The McGuinn/Hillman co-write "Old John Robertson," from 1968's "The Notorious Byrd Brothers," further connected the dots. And the Carole King/Gerry Goffin classic "Wasn't Born to Follow," which ended up in the cult-classic film "Easy Rider," bridged the country and psychedelic leanings that commingled in the Byrds' late-′60s work.
Stuart and his band — multi-instrumentalist Scruggs, guitarist Kenny Vaughan and drummer Harry Stinson — got their own short spotlight at the start of the second set, just before the "Sweetheart" stretch. Excellent singers in addition to their instrumental talent, they gathered around a single microphone up front for their recent song "Angels Rock Me to Sleep," a special request from Hillman dedicated to victims of the current Southern California wildfires.
Highlights of the "Sweetheart" portion included Parsons' "Hickory Wind," sung beautifully by Hillman; the upbeat honky-tonker "You're Still on My Mind," which Hillman prefaced with a shoutout to Austin pianist Earl Poole Ball, who played on the track on "Sweetheart" back in 1968; and another Dylan classic, "You Ain't Going Nowhere," which they reprised at the end of the set with a crowd sing-along.
Perhaps even better, though, was the encore. All three tour participants had ties to the late rocker Tom Petty: McGuinn had been friends with him since 1976, Hillman's album of last year was produced by Petty, and Stuart's band worked with Petty guitarist Mike Campbell on their latest record. Each took turns paying tribute.
McGuinn got it rolling with "King of the Hill," a song he and Petty co-wrote in the 1980s that rang out like a classic Byrds (or Heartbreakers) tune with the full support of Hillman, Stuart and the Superlatives. Hillman brought things back down with a lovely acoustic delivery of Petty's "Wildflowers." And Stuart's band wowed the house with a mandolin-powered jam on "Runnin' Down a Dream." Those three tunes begged for their own Petty-themed show by this ensemble sometime in the future.
In the end, it was back to the beginning. After they'd hit No. 1 with "Mr. Tambourine Man," the Byrds had another chart-topping single later in 1965 with "Turn! Turn! Turn!", a Biblical passage Pete Seeger had set to music in the 1950s. That proved the perfect song with which to send everyone home, flying high.
This night wasn't exactly about the Byrds, with co-founder David Crosby not present, and Stuart's band playing such an integral role. But on the other hand, it very much was. McGuinn and Hillman hadn't toured together for decades, yet the musical respect they still have for each other was very apparent, especially in the stories they bounced back and forth with each other throughout the night. Will we see this again? Perhaps not. Which was why it felt sublime just to be there.