The Byrds are a legendary band that always seemed to be falling apart. After their initial success, Gene Clark first left to seek his fortune elsewhere, followed soon by David Crosby. The Gram Parsons whirlwind swept in then swept out, taking Chris Hillman with him. By the late 60s, Roger McGuinn was the only original member left, but he had put together a solid lineup with ace guitarist Clarence White and the crack rhythm section of Skip Batten and Gene (no relation to Gram) Parsons. This outfit wasn't out to change the world, they just wanted to make good music. Ballad of Easy Rider carries a laid back, country-folk vibe that would soon come to dominate pop music. But the tunes on this album are as good as any in the band's formidable catalog and the playing is always clear and sharp, never lazy.
Like most Byrds albums, writing contributions come from several band members mixed with a selection of covers and traditional songs. The title song, however, comes from McGuinn himself and is the album's best known song. The theme from the iconic movie, and supposedly co-written by an uncredited Bob Dylan, the song is both simple and infectious. "Fido" is a slice of country funk penned by former band member John York. With a nice little percussion breakdown in the middle, it's a cool jam session condensed down to a neat 2:40. The band tackles a pair of traditional folk tunes with "Oil in My Lamp," a catchy sing-a-long, and the sea chantey "Jack Tarr the Sailor." They also turn in a nice pair of country covers with "Tulsa County" and a beautiful rendition of Vern Gosdin's "There Must Be Someone (I Can Turn To)."
The oddest track on the album just might be "Jesus Is Just Alright." The band takes a short, little gospel song and gives it a trippy, psychedelic backing, the only real bit of psychedelia on the album. The Doobie Brothers would score a hit with their version a few years later, but the Byrds' take is the one to hear. Every incarnation of the Byrds has turned to Bob Dylan's songbook for inspiration and this album is no different. This fantastic version of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" ranks as one of their best Dylan covers. They also take on Dylan's hero Woody Guthrie with a moving take on "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)." McGuinn's mournful vocal is one of his most powerful performances. Gene Parsons proves his songwriting chops as well with the catchy, relaxed vibe of "Gunga Din." The album concludes with a short tribute the Apollo astronauts "Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins." While lacking the hits of their early career, Ballad of Easy Rider is a strong entry in The Byrds' catalog. It's an overlooked classic well worth checking out.
- Adam Reshotko