Hillbilly Highway – Speckled Bird Burritos

by Sheldon Birnie

I’ve been turned onto a lot of great artists over the years by just flipping through the stacks of used records, waiting on something to catch my eye. Generally, it’s not a complete shot in the dark, but a compelling cover can easily sway a $20 purchase one way or another.

When I was out in Victoria last week, I stopped into the Turntable, a tiny little record shop tucked into Fan Tan Alley in Chinatown, by the harbour. The place is barely bigger than a closet, but it is packed with great old rock and roll records, weird garage albums, and a good little folk and country section. I’ve never been able to visit most record stores without dropping a little cash — or credit — on a slab or two, but this place gets my dollar every time.

I had my eye out for some Ian Tyson — solo stuff, or Great Speckled Bird — after chancing upon his classic Canadiana country album Cowboyology on a visit last year. That record’s definitely changed the way I look at western tunes, and particularly those dealing with aspects of rural life. Tyson is definitely a forefather of dudes like Corb Lund and Tim Hus, hell, even of guys like Neil Young and Gordon Lightfoot. When last he passed through the Peg, I had only ever heard “Four Strong Winds” and paid the listing no mind. If I’m lucky to get the opportunity again, I won’t pass it up.

But I found no Tyson on my last trip. Instead, I came across a posthumous Gram Parsons / Flying Burrito Brothers release featuring a slough of country classics, and a few duets with Emmylou. I snagged it up, and have been digging his take on Ol’ Hag’s “Sing Me Back Home,” which I first heard by way of Dylan years ago, and the classic boozer “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down” since.

Parsons is often credited with launching the alt-country genre when masterminding the Byrd’s country-rock crossover Sweetheart of the Rodeo, as well as his subsequent work with the Burrito Bros and as a solo artist. He’s also partially responsible for the decidedly country bent of many of the Stones early 70s tunes, such as “Honky Tonk Women” and “Wild Horses,” as he and Keith were partying hard together in those days. In fact, the Burrito Bros were the first to release “Wild Horses,” on Burrito Deluxe, as the Stones were holding off on that gem until the rest of Sticky Fingers was ready to drop.

But Parsons and Tyson could share that crown between them. Late in Ian & Sylvia’s career as a duo, they recorded a pair of albums in Nashville — Full Circle and Nashville — that anticipated the country-rock sound of Sweetheart of the Rodeo. As Parsons left the Byrds and got the Burritos rocking, Ian & Sylvia made the switch to their country-rock jam band Great Speckled Bird. The two bands even toured together on the famed Festival Express that crossed the Great White North in the late 60s, alongside the Band, the Grateful Dead, and Janis Joplin. The caravan, loaded on booze, dope, pills, and pure LSD, stopped in the Peg on Dominion Day for a wild night at the Winnipeg Stadium.

Sadly, Parsons is long dead, though Tyson still rides, occasionally, out onto the Highway. Luckily, the Road goes on forever, and the Party never ends. There are always new blood itching to carve up a piece of the pie, and there are always people who need hurting songs to get them through the night. 

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