The Byrds’ Expansive Universe

If you’re a fan of excellently crafted folk-rock and you’re not spinning Bidin’ My Time, Chris Hillman’s first album in over a decade, you have to change this. Featuring fellow former Byrds Roger McGuinn and David Crosby, the nostalgia-kissed collection very much is a meditation on The Byrds’ unique legacy. When you really think about it, the breadth of recordings linked to everybody who passed through the Byrds between 1964 and 1973 is downright astonishing—in addition to those already mentioned, there’s Gene Clark, Gram Parsons, Clarence White, and roughly a half-dozen others.

Crosby, for example, is a key link between the folk-rock boom of the ’60s and the following decade’s singer-songwriter movement. After all, on top of co-founding the supergroup CSN(Y), he produced Joni Mitchell’s debut, Song to a Seagull, and provided harmonies to Jackson Browne’s masterfully minimal 1972 self-titled album. At the same time, cosmic American music pioneer Gram Parsons—who helped turn The Byrds into a country-rock outfit with 1968’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo—was equally active, helming two pivotal groups in the International Submarine Band and The Flying Burrito Brothers (the latter with Hillman and original Byrds drummer Michael Clarke). He also partied hard with Keith Richards and, as legend has it, sings backup on “Sweet Virginia,” the drunken, shit-kicking anthem from Exile on Main St. Even a lesser known Byrd like Kevin Kelley—who filled the drummer’s chair for most of 1968—really got around. Before joining The Byrds, he played with the Rising Sons, an absurdly ahead-of-their-time blues-rock act co-founded by Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder, while afterwards he appeared on The Yellow Princess, an album from American primitive guitarist John Fahey, and did some recording with the mystical, singer-songwriter visionary Judee Sill.

As one would expect, such an expansive lineage reaches clear across the rock music spectrum, yet as our playlist captures, there are several central themes running throughout The Byrds’ universe. Revisit their original albums (even the spotty ones have moments of sheer brilliance), and what you’ll notice is the music rests upon a cluster of overlapping tensions: tradition versus futurism, earthiness versus the cosmic, simplicity versus virtuosity. After all, here is a band that within a span of 12 months in the 1968 zone explored abstract synthesizer music (“Moog Raga”) and covered The Louvin Brothers’ Southern gospel tune “The Christian Life.” Yet oftentimes these tensions can be found in a single song, like how their landmark version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” wraps pastoral folk balladeering in the crisp, soaring aesthetic of the jet age or the way the late guitar genius Clarence White shades the John Coltrane-inspired psych-rocker “Eight Miles High.” Check the live version from 1970’s (Untitled) with mind-bending solos grounded in his scorching bluegrass picking.

Jump to the seemingly endless network of solo albums, projects, and guest appearances spawned by The Byrds, and the very same tensions pop up. The epic “Some Misunderstanding,” from Gene Clark’s 1976 spiritual masterpiece No Other, sounds like country-rock—if it were recorded inside a black hole. Though not nearly as dark and brooding, The Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Sin City,” one of the landmarks of cosmic American music, also achieves a sublime balance of rootsy twang and spacey splendor. And then there’s a piece like “Have You Seen the Stars Tonite” from Paul Kantner and the Jefferson Starship’s seriously underrated Blows Against the Empire; it may only be tangentially related, yet it does feature Crosby’s high, ghostly voice and ethereal strum in service of a song that uses folk-based music as jumping off point for some galactic-scale rock.

Over 50 years after The Byrds first took to flight, these tensions still grip them. Simply check out the sublime version of Gene Clark’s early composition “She Don’t Care About Time” on Hillman’s Bidin’ My Time. Everything about Hillman’s version—his dusty, time-weathered voice, the simple, heartland arrangement and throwback guitar jangle—reflect a man looking back on life and embracing his mortality. And yet, if you dig into Clark’s esoteric poetry, it’s a whole other story: This isn’t a mere love ballad; it’s a near-religious meditation on the infinite and universal. Perhaps the reason why The Byrds have meant so much to us through the years is this singular ability to, however tenuously, bring the earthbound and heavenly closer together, even if only for a song.