By Eric Hisaw
(Nov/Dec 2011/Vol. 4 – Issue 6)
Exiting this mortal coil at the tender age of 26, Cecil Ingram Connor, known to the world as Gram Parsons, left behind an impressive, if brief catalog. Two fine solo efforts, a pair of influential albums with the Flying Burrito Brothers, a disc with the dead-on-arrival International Submarine Band, and major contributions to an album by the Byrds make up the entirety of music released in Parson’s short lifetime. None of the six albums were received with much commercial or critical praise at the time of their release. Like the Velvet Underground or the 13th Floor Elevators though, time and distance have been very kind to the Parsons legacy, allowing us to see an artist with a deep and affecting charisma who has proven to be a guidepost to innumerable musicians who have followed in his rhinestone spangled footsteps. If only a few thousand people bought the albums during his lifetime, many of them went on to write and record their own songs. Some followers, like Glenn Frey of the Eagles, took elements of GP’s sound to the masses, while others like Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello formed their own distinct cults of appreciation. His music remains a cornerstone of Americana and country rock music to this day, with his songs covered on countless recordings and played every night of the week in clubs and honkytonks around the globe.
In late 1968, after a series of dust ups left both Gram Parsons and original member Chris Hillman out of the Byrds, the two, along with former Johnny Rivers bass player Chris Ethridge, began taking stabs at forming a band. Parsons told journalist Chuck Casell that the goal was to form “a hot country group that we could provide material for that would be famous, with ideas for classic songs that everyone would record.” By the time pedal-steel guitarist Sneaky Pete Kleinow was recruited and the Flying Burrito Brothers’ debut album was recorded, Parsons could not have known how close he’d come to reaching his goal. The Burritos’ Gilded Palace of Sin (1969) is an unlikely masterpiece of stellar material, gut-wrenching performances and unique and almost deranged instrumental work. The band’s outlaw intentions were freely stated right on the cover art, which pictured them outfitted in gaudy suits tailored by Nudie, standing stoned and rebellious with beautiful models in the California desert. Parsons and Hillman take an Everly Brothers-like approach on most of the songs, strumming away on their guitars and singing in impossibly high harmonies. Ethridge meanders around on the bass, laying down lines more associated with Motown or Stax, while Sneaky Pete defines psychedelic pedal-steel guitar with an array of fuzz-tone licks that more often sound like a Memphis horn section than a Nashville country record. Together it’s the sound of a unit hitting on all cylinders, believing in every lick and lyric.
The songs were conceived in a house Hillman and Parsons shared in the outer Los Angeles hills called Burrito Manor, where the two wrote together daily. Side one opens with the up-tempo jangle of “Christine’s Tune” (later known as “Devil in Disguise”), then downshifts to the gritty apocalyptic waltz of “Sin City” before boldly taking a turn towards R&B with the recent Aretha Franklin hit “Do Right Woman” and James Carr ballad “Dark End of the Street” (both from the formidable writing team of Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham) and winding up with the bluegrass-flavored, anti-war “My Uncle.” When you think it’s bound to be all downhill from there, side two hits the high-water marks: “Wheels,” an ode to motorcycles and dangerous living, followed by “Juanita,” a gorgeously dramatic waltz about loneliness and the saving grace of love. Parsons takes solo vocal turns on a pair of tunes co-written with Ethridge and the mysteriously titled “Hot Burrito #1” and “Hot Burrito #2.” “#1,” also identified at times as “I’m Your Toy,” is one of Parsons’ finest moments, with a stirring, soulful vocal that bends and gently breaks at all the right times. Recycled from the Submarine Band, “Do You Know How it Feels to Be Lonesome” is the album’s most country western moment. Only the mock gospel “Hippie Boy” sounds inessential, though it does contain some hilarious lines. Overall, listeners expecting a traditional country western album are likely to find the record jarring and disjointed, the vocals sounding like the hillbilly Chipmunks on acid, the instrumental work messy and unfocused. But make no mistake: Gilded Palace of Sin is as essential a piece of late ’60s West Coast rock ’n’ roll as any.
Faced with the task of holding a band together when a big part of their identity was getting stoned and rejecting societal mores proved difficult for Parsons and Hillman. Enlisting Hillman’s rhythm section partner from the Byrds, Michael Clarke, as a permanent drummer, the band found a member equally dedicated to chaos. Touring in support of Gilded Palace was reportedly a shaky affair, with Sneaky Pete claiming he “could not remember one performance that the original band did where I was not embarrassed to tears.” Ethridge jumped ship, returning to his career as a studio musician and going on to play with everyone from Arlo Guthrie and Ry Cooder to Bill Withers and Willie Nelson; his departure sent Hillman back to his Byrds postition as bass player. Local L.A. hotshot guitarist and future Eagle Bernie Leadon was brought in as a stabilizing force, and the second version of the Burritos began work on the follow-up album. With a solid lead guitar player and Hillman’s less adventurous and much more solid bass work, these Burritos support Parson’s Stones influenced numbers with confidence and play the gospel tinged country tunes with spirit. Though often characterized as a total failure by the band members, 1970’s Burrito Deluxe has aged well. “Older Guys,” “Cody Cody” and “Down in the Churchyard” are more fine Parsons/Hillman tunes with great harmonies and clever lyrics. An early song of Parsons’, “Lazy Days,” kicks off the album with a great groove. Covers of Harlan Howard’s “Image of Me,” Dylan’s “If You Gotta Go” and the traditional gospel number “Farther Along” remind us of Parsons’ great gift of turning other people’s songs into standards. “High Fashion Queen” is a lyrically poignant song set to a rapid-fire rockabilly pace that Hillman has often criticized for being recorded at too quick a tempo. “Man In the Fog” is a psychedelic polka with a big vocal chorus from the pens of Parsons and Leadon. Leadon is a bit less successful with “God’s Own Singer,” though, and the closing cut of the Stones “Wild Horses” is a controversial track. Parsons’ friendship with Keith Richards had begun driving a wedge between him and the band. To some, his take on “Wild Horses” is an identity crisis in action; to others it’s a lovely, emotionally raw ballad rendered with a kind of sensitivity the mighty Stones could never find in themselves. Either way, it’s there for the listening now in all it’s ragged, tuning-challenged glory.
Parsons and Hillman’s partnership was not destined to last long after Burrito Deluxe. An acrimonious split saw Hillman move the Burritos in a much more subdued direction, cutting a decent self-titled album (1971) with new kid Rick Roberts taking most of the lead vocals, and a really good 1972 live album Last of the Red Hot Burritos, with contributions from bluegrassers Country Gazette and the formidable Al Perkins taking over lead guitar and pedal steel. Meanwhile, it would take Parsons a few years of soul searching to release his first solo album. There were many starts and stops, and projects with Keith Richards, Merle Haggard and guitarist Jesse Ed Davis never saw the light of day. He did sing on albums by Delaney and Bonnie, Steve Young and Fred Neil, and spent enough time at Richards’ house in France during the cutting of the Stones’ Exile On Main Street that he may well be on tape somewhere in the mix.
By 1973 a focused and prepared Parsons pulled together a deal with Warner Brothers and a stellar crew of session players mostly associated with Elvis Presley’s touring band. His solo debut from that year, GP, comes roaring out of the gate with “Still Feeling Blue,” mixing dobro and banjo with some tough pedal-steel work. The distinctive female voice of Emmylou Harris gracefully glides over the top of the chorus. On the next song, “We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes,” the as yet unknown singer is promoted to full duet partner, her powerful vibrato-laden soprano dancing around one of Parsons’ finest straight country vocals. The rest of the album mixes the familiar sounds of country music — played with finesse far beyond the Burritos’ grasp — with some of Parsons’ most cosmic concepts. “Song For You” is an airy stream of conscience rendered with beautiful sensitivity, Byron Berline’s fiddle and Glen Hardin’s organ blending tastefully. “Streets of Baltimore,” a recent hit for Bobby Bare, gets its most classic take, with James Burton’s soulful guitar fills taking it in and out of the confines of Nashville-style country music. “She,” a song Parsons wrote with Ethridge, finally gets its due recording, and makes us wish they’d have come up with more music together. Side two has Parsons and Harris taking on the George Jones/Gene Pitney hit “That’s All It Took,” then moving into more abstract territory with “The New Soft Shoe” and the dark “Kiss The Children.” The J. Geils Band R&B rocker “Cry One More Time” is a very cool track but an odd choice, especially in light of how much louder Barry Tashian’s vocals are than Parsons’. “How Much I Lied” is dark confessional folk rock, while the closer, “Big Mouth Blues,” rocks us out on a Chuck Berry riff and a less-than-autobiographical lyric about growing up in a “little bitty tar hut.” Between the ugly split from the Burritos and the long lay off, the beauty, grace and power of GP had to come as a surprise to Parsons’ followers. Here all the elements are in place, though a much different place than before, with great songs, expressive vocals and inspired instrumental accompaniment.
Parsons and Harris took to the road to promote the album, playing legendary shows in Texas at the Houston Colliseum and the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin. Returning to the studio in the summer of 1973 with many of the same players used on GP and a strengthened chemistry between the singers, they began work on 1974’s Grievous Angel, which would prove to be Parsons’ final effort. In many ways a companion piece to his previous disc, Grievous Angel mixes traditional country sounds and themes with Parsons’ trademark loftier concepts and deeply personal confessions. Again it is an album packed with classic material that, just as Parsons hoped for, has been covered by an endless stream of country-rockers. “Return of the Grievous Angel” is his cosmic road story based on a poem by Thomas Brown and supported with a great James Burton guitar break; “Hearts On Fire” and “Love Hurts” showcase the harmonies; and “Ooh Las Vegas” is the prototype for the hot-pickin’ country sounds Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stuart and others would have success with in the ’80s. “Brass Buttons” is a delicate tribute to Parsons’ mother, and “$1,000 Wedding” is a bad-boy confession over a sweet melody. “Medley Live from Northern Quebec” is a gloriously fun faux “live” track doubling the Louvin Brothers “Cash on the Barrelhead” with Parsons’ “Hickory Wind.” The LP closes with “In My Hour of Darkness,” a tribute to three departed friends, actor Brandon DeWilde, guitar legend Clarence White and Parsons’ mentor at Harvard University. The track would prove prophetic, as Parsons himself would not live to see the release of the album. He passed away from a toxic combination of substances in the California desert on Sept. 18, 1973, in room 8 of the Joshua Tree Inn. (In 2006, Rhino Records released The Complete Reprise Sessions, a three-disc set comprising remastered versions of both GP and Grievous Angel along with a generous selection of alternate takes.)
Parsons’ seminal albums as a solo artist and a Flying Burrito Brother were preceded by recordings with the International Submarine Band and a very short-lived lineup of the Byrds. The Byrds had revolutionized Southern California rock ’n’ roll by blending the songs and stylings of Bob Dylan with Beatle-esque rhythms and the eclectic 12-string guitar of Roger McGuinn. As the band endured line-up changes, bass player Hillman, picked up by the band from his career as a bluegrass mandolinist, began to contribute to the songwriting. The result was fantastic country rock songs like “The Girl with No Name” and “Time Between,” featuring the aforementioned Clarence White, who’d made a name for himself in the bluegrass Kentucky Colonels, on electric guitar.
Meanwhile Parsons had come to California from the East Coast, where he’d formed the International Submarine Band at Harvard University, cutting a couple of singles to little fan fair. Once firmly ensconced in Los Angeles, Parsons hooked up with super producer Lee Hazlewood’s LHI label and cut the album
Safe at Home with the members of the Submarine Band who survived the trip. As Hazlewood sat on the project, Parsons and Hillman crossed paths in a Beverly Hills bank and in a quick turn of events Parsons joined the Byrds, which was then down to only two original members. Legend has it McGuinn wanted to record an ambitious, 22-song album tracing the history of American music into the future. Instead, Hillman and Parsons influenced the direction to down-home country music. Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968) is a somewhat unfocused effort with McGuinn, Hillman and Parsons each competing for the spotlight in a set that is made up of four old-time folk songs, two as yet unheard Dylan songs, two contemporary honky-tonk covers, a countrified take on a Stax soul number and two Parsons originals. The Dylan and Parsons songs are the most enduring. Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhwere” is an often-covered classic and “Nothing Was Delivered” a very cool dark and humorous track, while “Hickory Wind” and “One Hundred Years From Now” are two of Parsons’ most enduring originals, a tribute to his Southern heritage and a slice of late ’60s social commentary.
Once Hazlewood got wind that Parsons was in the Byrds, his interest in the International Submarine Band came back to life. Safe at Home was released almost simultaneously as Sweetheart. This disc is all Parsons in his youthful glory. It kicks off with the very cool “Blue Eyes,” announcing to the world the singer will “go get myself stoned” when things aren’t working out right, and is followed by a treasure trove of classic country covers and a trio of solid tunes: “Luxury Liner,” “Strong Boy,” and Parsons’ original pass at “Do You Know How It Feels to Be Lonesome.” Though it doesn’t deliver quite the punch that the Burritos’ debut would the following year (let alone be canonized on the level of the Byrds’ Sweetheart), the lone International Submarine Band album is an essential piece of the Parsons puzzle.
As with followers of fellow cult artists like Alex Chilton, Gene Clark and Roky Erickson, the Gram Parsons fan will most likely become obsessive and opinionated and constantly be on the look out for more. Thanks to the efforts of super fans like John Delgatto and Marley Bryant as well as Parsons’ daughter Polly, there is no shortage of posthumous Parsons-related releases to discover. Sleepless Nights collects three outtakes from Grievous Angel mixed in with the Burritos doing eight hard-country covers and a sloppy but cool take on the Stones’ “Honky-Tonk Women.” Rumor has it these were cut as an attempt at the Burritos doing a straight country album, but Hillman rejects that theory, claiming these were more like warm ups and work outs. The album cover, with Parsons leaning against a vintage Thunderbird outside a burrito stand on a neon-lit L.A. street, is worth the price alone. Gram Parsons and The Fallen Angels Live 1973 is taken from a radio broadcast featuring the band Parsons and Harris took on the road in support of GP. Six songs from that album are represented as well as covers of Dallas Frazier’s stellar “California Cottonfields” and the trucker anthem “Six Days on the Road.” Parsons does his own take of a song he and McGuinn wrote about Nashville DJ and notorious critic Ralf Emery called “Drug Store Truck Driving Man.” Harris takes a solo turn on “Country Baptizing,” and the pair duet on a preview of their Everly Brothers cover, “Love Hurts.” It’s a great document of the legendary tour. The playing is sloppy and loose compared to the rock-solid work on GP, but it’s fun and has a great spirit.
A live tape of the early Flying Burrito Brothers opening for the Grateful Dead was dug out of the vaults and released in 2007 as Gram Parsons with the Flying Burrito Bros Live at the Avalon Ballroom 1969. The double disc includes two shows from April 4 and 6; the set lists are similar, loaded with classic country covers worked up Burrito style, a few early rock ’n’ roll numbers, a Delaney and Bonnie tune and a few of the songs from Gilded Palace. It may strike some as a “had to be there” kind of thing, with the playing loose and chaotic and the vocals drifting out of tune at times, but overall the band sounds nowhere near as bad as Sneaky Pete had claimed. The choice of cover material is excellent, especially the George Jones song “She Once Lived Here” and the Willie Nelson classic “Undo the Right.”
Parsons’ early musical life as a folky in the Greenwich Village-mold was revealed to the world at large by the disc Another Side of this Life, released in 2000. Comprised of a few standards, several Fred Neil covers and a few originals, including “Brass Buttons,” which would be reprised on his final LP, these tapes sound almost nothing like the high lonesome country rocker, but are very cool solo acoustic performances in the folk vein. A Burritos compilation called Farther Along pieced together most of the two official releases and some of the stuff from Sleepless Nights, but it was Rhino Records’ 2001 double-CD package Sacred Hearts and Fallen Angels: Anthology that did the best and most complete job of compiling the best of Parsons’ work in one place, with great photos and informative liner notes.
There are also many tributes to Parsons available that are worth searching out. In 1999 Almo Records released an album called Return of the Grievous Angel featuring the Pretenders, Beck, Cowboy Junkies, Elvis Costello, Lucinda Williams, Whiskeytown and more doing songs from across the Parsons catalog. Hillman pairs up with Parsons fan Steve Earle to reclaim “High Fashion Queen” back to its proper tempo. A less star-studded but no less heartfelt tribute, Conmemorativo: Tribute to Gram Parsons, featuring independent acts appeared in the mid ’90s. Another grand tribute was the 2004 concert organized by Polly Parsons and Sin City Social Club maven Shilah Morrow and released on DVD as Return to Sin City. The show features Lucinda Williams, John Doe, Jim Lauderdale, Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle and many more alt-country luminaries, with the most unforgettable highlight of the night being Parsons’ old pal Keith Richards dueting with Norah Jones on “Love Hurts.” 2004 also saw the release of the documentary Fallen Angel by director Gandulf Hennig, with revealing interview clips from Ethridge, Leadon and Richards. Also of note is the movie Grand Theft Parsons, starring Christina Applegate and Johnny Knoxville in a comedy caper based on the shenanigans surrounding the theft and attempted burning of Parsons’ casket by friend Phil Kauffman.
But possibly the greatest and most authentic tribute to Parsons’ legacy are the recordings of his songs singing partner Harris released at the beginning of her own solo career. Including at least one Parsons-written or related track on each of her first eight albums, she did more to keep his music alive than anyone. Standouts include “Oooh Las Vegas,” “Sin City” and “Wheels” from 1975’s Elite Hotel, “She” and “Luxury Liner” from ’77’s Luxury Liner, and “Grievious Angel” and “Juanita” from 1982’s Last Date. Also, though the chances of finding it are very slim, singer-songwriter and musicologist Sid Griffin compiled a fantastic book about Parsons, simply titled Gram Parsons: A Music Biography, containing fascinating interviews with important characters from every part of the artist’s life. Easier to locate are Ben Fong-Torres’ conventional bio, Hickory Wind; John Einarson’s Hot Burritos, which tells Chris Hillman’s side of the band’s story; Twenty Thousand Roads, by David Meyer; and Grievous Angel: An Intimate Biography of Gram Parsons, by Polly Parsons with Jessica Hundley.
Parsons embodied just about every rock ’n’ roll myth imaginable. Growing up in a Tennesse Williams worthy family of Southern dysfunction, he pursued his muse with confidence and authority until the trappings of the lifestyle turned to self abuse and his star was shot down all too young. To best appreciate the work he left behind, it’s essential to step beyond the myth of him being “the father” of country rock. In fairness to his contemporaries, an incredible body of country and blues-based music was created by musicians associated with the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Leon Russell, and Delaney and Bonnie in Southern California in the late ’60s. But Parsons was most definitely an important cog in that wheel, and his impact on future generations is undeniable. Simply put, nobody before or since has shown rock audiences the rough beauty and sensitive soul of country music quite like Parsons did. His original songs endure as classics but his greatest legacy is the way he brought out songs from all over the map and proved that the music of Buck Owens, Dan Penn, Little Richards, the Louvin Brothers and Merle Haggard could blend together seamlessly. It’s pretty much impossible to imagine Americana music as we know it today existing without the blueprint he left behind.
MR. RECORD MAN’S TOP 5 OTHER COSMIC AMERICAN CLASSICS
Gram Parsons released only six albums (solo and otherwise) during his lifetime, and all of them should be considered essential. So in lieu of leaving one of them out, allow us to instead spotlight our five favorite non-Parsons picks from the Southern California Country Rock Era worth seeking out in addition to the complete GP collection.
1. Dillard and Clark, The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark (1968)
About the same time that the Burritos were forming, another ex-Byrd, Gene Clark, was pairing up with bluegrass musician Doug Dillard, who’d made a considerable name for himself with his family band, to create a wholly unique blend of psychedelic lyricism mixed with deft traditional bluegrass picking. Stand out tracks include “Train Leaves Here this Morning,” “Out on the Side” and “She Darked The Sun.” Dilliard & Clark had future Burrito Bernie Leadon on board and also got help from Chris Hillman on mandolin.
2. Linda Ronstadt, Linda Ronstadt (1971)
The big-eyed girl on the cover with the hoop earrings could really sing. This is but one of many fine albums Ronstadt delivered early in her career, mixing honky-tonk standards like “Crazy Arms” and “I Fall To Pieces” with R&B stompers like “Rescue Me” and progressive folk material by Jackson Browne, Eric Kaz and Neil Young. Musicians associated with the Eagles and the Burritos play with Nashville session guys and Muscle Shoals swampers.
3. Emmylou Harris Elite Hotel (1975)
Ms. Harris’ second album proved to be her finest effort, covering three songs associated with Parsons and carrying on with the great musicians he’d used on his two solo albums. Stunning takes on the Beatles’ “Here There and Everywhere” and Buck Owens’ “Together Again” solidify Emmylou’s reputation as one of the most moving ballad singers of our time.
4. Rick Nelson, In Concert: The Troubadour, 1969 (1970)
Early rock ’n’ roll teen idol and TV star Ricky Nelson comes into his own on this live set from the Troubabdour. Pulling together the best of his rockabilly material with songs by Eric Anderson, Tim Hardin and Bob Dylan, Nelson is solidly backed by his edgy and tight country-rock group featuring future Eagle Randy Meisner on bass and former Buckaroo Tom Brumley on pedal steel.
5. Gene Clark, Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers (1967)
Full disclosure — I’m extremely partial to the work of Gene Clark, maintaining that he wrote the best songs in the Byrds and made several strong solo albums. This one came before Sweetheart of the Rodeo and before Dylan’s Nashville Skyline. Run out of the band by McGuinn and Crosby, Gene is supported by his Byrd mates Hillman and Michael Clarke as well as the undisputed MVP of California country rock, guitarist Clarence White, on this disc that blends ’60s jangle with firmly countrified songwriting. Standouts include the often covered “Tried So Hard,” “Keep On Pushin’,” and the driving “So You Say You Lost Your Baby.” Future country star Vern Gosdin and his brother Rex, former bandmates of Hillman’s, provide steady back-up vocals that may not merit co-billing but are always right on.