Ballad of Easy Rider was the Byrds’ eighth album, though released only four years after their first. It's shocking to really grasp how far they’d traveled in just four years! Not only was the band onto its fifth lineup iteration—Roger McGuinn being the sole original member—they had also progressed through nearly as many genres: folk rock, psychedelia, country.
Easy Rider was the second album in the Byrds’ “late” period, in which the band was made up of McGuinn, Clarence White, Gene Parsons, and John York. Their first foray was the (self-admitted) uneven Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde, which was hurriedly put together and saw the band aiming in too many musical directions—an especially interesting thing to note considering McGuinn wrote, co-wrote, or arranged seven of Dr. Byrds’ ten songs and was the sole lead singer (unlike every other Byrds album).
Easy Rider is a far superior record, perhaps due to the band’s return to the fundamentals of how the old Byrds functioned: everybody wrote, everybody sang, and Bob Dylan’s name pops up in the songwriting credits a couple times. Though McGuinn took lead vocals on many of the tracks, he only wrote one song (with a little help from Dylan)—the stellar title track. And while none of the new Byrds were as distinct songwriters as Gene Clark, David Crosby, or Chris Hillman—nor as extraordinary at harmonizing as Crosby or Hillman—they still brought strong material. The album’s second half turns into a straight-up country record highlighted by a string of great tunes: “There Must Be Someone I Can Turn To,” “Gunga Din”—both featuring drummer Gene Parsons’s smooth tenor up front—and McGuinn’s other standout track, a cover of Woody Guthrie's “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos).”
It’s these two Parsons tracks that really announce that this is a “new” Byrds—not a bunch of charlatans merely trying to cash in on other people's legacy. Much the same as when Gram Parsons (no relation) joined for Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Gene's is a voice that does not sound like “the Byrds.” It’s too deep, too smooth, too serene. The Byrdsian harmonies are not there to cushion it; you wouldn’t know it was the Byrds if I didn’t tell you. When Gram joined up for Sweetheart, the resulting sound rubbed me the wrong way. Though I love the record, it doesn’t feel like a “Byrds” album to me. The country sound there feels more like a costume—“We’re country!”—rather than an influence they absorbed into their own aesthetic, as on the more subtly layered Notorious Byrd Brothers or some of Hillman’s contributions to Younger than Yesterday. Yet when Gene takes the lead on Easy Rider, it doesn’t bother me the same way. Perhaps it’s simply due to the fact that by now I’m used to the idea of someone coming into the band and making them sound entirely different.
Of course, with Hillman now out of the band and McGuinn the only original member left, there’s nothing to do but expect something entirely different! I wonder how this lineup’s critical legacy would have been received if they had shed the Byrds moniker and branded themselves something else. While you can hear a few connections to the Byrds of the past—it feels like a more natural follow up to The Notorious Byrd Brothers than the two records in between—they really are a whole other beast. The twelve-string is by now long absent, the harmonies are still there but they’re no longer the defining element, and Clarence White’s clean country picking is all over the record, shifting a dynamic of the band’s sound to a totally different place. It's funny to think that this album outsold both Notorious and Sweetheart, yet today gets lumped in with the "late, no good stuff" that anyone other than hardcore fans pass right over. It's actually a pretty terrific album.
It’s worth noting, too, that the bonus tracks on the reissue make it even better. I’m usually not a big fan of extras like live cuts, studio outtakes, etc. I like processing a record for what it was, for what the band wanted you to hear. Most bonus tracks are at best interesting to hear a couple times, at worst a lot of clutter that muddles an album’s greatness. On Easy Rider, though, I’m glad to have the alternate takes. The non-album versions of “Oil in My Lamp” and “Tulsa County” are both better than the versions that wound up on the official release. Had these versions gotten in, Easy Rider would have been a far more “country” album—and an excellent one at that!—which would have made the transition into the album’s second half, when Parsons makes his appearance, slightly less jarring. Also included is a great Jackson Browne cover, “Mae Jean Goes to Hollywood,” an instrumental that really shows off White’s virtuosic playing, and the country jam “Way Behind the Sun.” Had any of these tracks made it on instead of the cloying sea shanty “Jack Tarr the Sailor” or the Fifth Dimension-y “Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins” that awkwardly closes the album, Easy Rider might have been regarded as one of the all-time great Byrds albums, if not all-time great country albums.
- The Byrds: Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)
A couple related posts: the Rising Storm just did its own Easy Rider post not too long ago, and here's the Easy Rider-era post from the Adios Lounge's exhaustive multi-part look at the career of Clarence White.