Gram Parsons tribute notes
If you're reading this, chances are I don't have to tell you that Gram Parsons was the subversive Harvard-educated hillbilly who invented country-rock in the mid-Sixties with the prototypical International Submarine Band before perfecting it with the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and on a pair of extraordinary solo albums before fatally overdosing in 1973 at a mere 26. While the Eagles polished Parsons' country-rock to a multiplatinum sheen, his original vision was hell-bent, haunted, and heart-wrenching. He called it Cosmic American Music, and the fact that the term fits this batch of interpretations as well as it fit the original recordings is a testament to the enduring quality of the songs themselves.
by Bud Scoppa (April 1999 edit)
The A&R department of Almo Sounds, which came up with the premise for this collection, felt the only way to make the definitive Gram Parsons tribute album was to convince Harris, Parsons' last and most supportive partner, to put it together; they were right, as this album so emphatically demonstrates. (And speaking of rightness, don't forget that Almo is owned and headed by Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, for whose A&M label the Burritos recorded.)
I'll confess to asking myself, "Why didn't I think of that?" when I heard about Almo's coup. I'm an A&R guy myself, and as a longtime rockcrit I'm proud to have written rave reviews of both of Parsons' solo albums for Rolling Stone, as well as having collaborated with Emmylou on the Parsons/Burritos compilation album Sleepless Nights while working at A&M in the mid-Seventies. On top of that, I've seen firsthand what Emmylou Harris did with and for Gram Parsons, in life and legacy.
Allow me to share a pair of unforgettable experiences which illuminate my point. The first occurred in the spring of 1973 at Max's Kansas City, the Manhattan rock club best remembered as the hangout for downtown trendoids like the Warhol crowd, the Velvet Underground, and the New York Dolls (whom I was working with at the time as a neophyte label guy for Mercury Records). Parsons and his touring band the Fallen Angels, featuring Harris, a then-unknown young singer whose lovely voice had graced Parsons' solo elpee GP, released earlier that year, were playing the club that night, and I decided to pop by while they were loading in.
When I emerged from the subway and spotted the tour bus - you couldn't miss it, not with those giant painted letters spelling "GRAM PARSONS" across its flank - parked in front of too-hip Max's, I was delighted by the culture-clash hilarity of the juxtaposition (in retrospect, maybe rednecks and chickpeas do go together). As I stepped inside and climbed the stairs from the restaurant area to the club room on the second floor, I was greeted by a gregarious Parsons, who seemed more robust and lucid than he'd been when I'd last interviewed him the year before (hanging out with the Stones during that period apparently could be damaging to your health and welfare). In his typically gracious way, Gram introduced me to his beautiful and soft-spoken new partner. In so many ways they were as different as night and day, but Gram and Emmylou immediately seemed like a match set.
And, as I found out later that evening, boy, they sure could sing. Watching the two of them, eyes closed, around a single microphone gave me the overlapping sensations of being in church and gazing through the window of a lovers' bedroom. "Love hurts," they sang in crystalline harmony, "Love scars/Love wounds and mars/Any heart not tough/Or strong enough." It was the first time I saw Emmylou and the last time I saw Gram.
The second experience occurred at A&M Studios in Hollywood while Emmylou and producer/engineer Hugh Davies were organizing and mixing the previously unreleased multitrack recordings that would comprise Sleepless Nights. Listening to the title track (like "Love Hurts," a Felice & Boudleaux Bryant ballad recorded during the sessions for Grievous Angel, Parsons' final album), she expressed displeasure with her vocal performance on the duet. She asked Davies to set up a mic and turn down the lights - she was going to try to beat it. For anyone else, such a move would've seemed like tampering with history; for Harris, it was a mission.
I felt like an interloper as Emmylou sang with Gram, dead two years now, in the darkened studio. Her performance wasn't a performance at all, it was a seance. I could have sworn he was in the room. Needless to say, she nailed it.
A quarter of a century later, Emmylou and her long-gone partner remain inextricably connected. And that is the spirit resonating from this remarkably cohesive album, on which Harris inspires - and sometimes joins - an impressive array of singers and players spanning three generations, from Gram's Byrds/Burritos cohort Chris Hillman, fellow Burritos alums Chris Etheridge and Bernie Leadon, and Sweetheart pedal steel player Jaydee Maness, to such modern-day inheritors as Wilco and Whiskeytown (who once challenged A&R suitors with a Parsons pop quiz and walked out if their questions weren't answered correctly). In between are the likes of Elvis Costello, the Pretenders, Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench, and veteran steelmeister Greg Leisz (k.d. lang, Matthew Sweet). And speaking of generations, the legendary producer Glyn Johns has a hand in four of these tracks, while his multitalented son Ethan played on two and produced one of his own.
The 13 songs chosen by the contributors include a pair from the Byrds' 1968 milestone album Sweetheart of the Rodeo, three from the Burritos' 1969 debut The Gilded Palace of Sin, one from 1970's Burrito Deluxe, a pair from 1973's GP, and four from Grievous Angel, released in early '74, a few months after Parsons' death. The remaining song, and lone non-original, is "Sleepless Nights."
Parsons joined the Byrds in 1968 and immediately became the driving force behind the band's sudden excursion into traditional country music, Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The seemingly effortless manner in which the 21-year-old newcomer took the wheel of this great and purposeful California band and steered it straight toward the mythopoetic South bespeaks the boldness of Gram's vision. Surprisingly, strong-willed Byrds founder/leader Roger McGuinn went along for the ride.
"We hired a piano player," McGuinn said in a 1969 Fusion magazine interview, "and he turned out to be Parsons . . . a monster in sheep's clothing. And he exploded out of this sheep's clothing - God! It's George Jones! In a big sequin suit! And he's got his guitar and sidemen accompanying him. He took it right into the eye of the hurricane . . . and Raaaaaooow -came out the other side. It was Japanese."
The two songs selected from Sweetheart reveal the sturdiness of Parsons' writing, which accommodates reverent and irreverent interpretations equally well. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings' spare, spooky rendering of "Hickory Wind" sounds as old as the hills that inspired the song, while Wilco takes liberties with "100 Years From Now," languid and bittersweet in its original Sweetheart form, recasting it as a flat-out Seventies-style boogie worthy of, say, Lynyrd Skynyrd.
The Flying Burrito Brothers took the defiant attitude of the Rolling Stones, then soaked it in moonshine. "Our approach is that we're a rock & roll band that sounds like a country band," Parsons explained in 1970, and his assessment was accurate. The Gilded Palace of Sin (the cover of which shows Parsons in a Nudie suit adorned with marijuana leaves, fittingly) stands as a masterpiece of both original rock & roll and American roots music. Centered around the doleful, nasal harmonies of Parsons and Hillman and the brash, stinging drone of Sneeky Pete Kleinow's heretical pedal steel, the music of Gilded Palace was a revelation, at once timelessly orthodox and eerily alien, like country music from a parallel universe.
This bold sound framed a batch of marvelous songs: among them, the archetypal "Sin City," faithfully recreated here by the surprisingly well-matched team of Emmylou and postmodernist visionary Beck Hanson (in his Beck-to-basics mode, so to speak), and the dangerously tearful "Juanita, " carressingly presented by Harris and the soulfully virtuosic Sheryl Crow.
The Burritos' (and Parsons') romantic extremes are most vividly presented in the album's centerpiece, "Hot Burrito #1." The track is suffused with the unbearable vulnerability of Parsons' singing and in lines such as "I'm your toy/I'm your old boy/And I don't want no one but you to love me/I wouldn't lie/You know I'm not that kind of guy." In the hands of the Mavericks, led by coffee-voiced Raul Malo, "Hot Burrito #1" is transformed into a buoyant midtempo beauty, with the unlikely appropriation of a clattering drum machine providing momentum and contrast on their otherwise melodious reading of the song. This unexpected element undoubtedly would've pleased Parsons, who delighted in unlikely juxtapositions.
On "High Fashion Queen," the lone entry from the spotty follow-up Burrito Deluxe, it's poignant to hear the voice of Hillman, who wrote the song with Parsons, as the remake opens, while his duet partner, Steve Earle (who seems finally to be winning his battle with the personal demons that have long threatened his own life and career) sounds like he belongs right beside the living legend he's singing with.
In 1970, following the release of Burrito Deluxe, Parsons had a bad motorcycle crackup and in its wake he started downing pills in excess of suggested dosages. According to Hillman, he became so spacey and irritable that he was impossible to work with, and the other Burritos were forced to can their visionary founder.
Parsons wasn't finished, though, not by a long shot. After pulling himself together, he called on Davies, who was Merle Haggard's producer, and members of Elvis Presley's stage band; at the same time, he located the ideal singing partner in Harris, who was then living in the Washington, D.C., area. Stabilized by Emmylou's pure voice and dignified bearing, Gram recorded the wonderful solo albums GP and Grievous Angel, each more genteel than the Burritos' work, but haunted and frayed, still, by the particular devils - and angels - Parsons inevitably conjured up.
Parsons' two solo albums contain the most complex and resonant songs of his brief career, and it's intriguing to hear what a half-dozen interpreters find in the six songs they've selected. One surprise is provided by the marvelous individualistic talent Lucinda Williams, who, supported by a spot-on harmony vocal from David Crosby, simply takes over "Return of the Grievous Angel," making it sound like it belongs on her own brilliant 1998 spiritual travelogue Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Another is the Cowboy Junkies' textural reinvention of "Ooh Las Vegas," which combines the trippiness of the Byrds' "Eight Miles High," the atmospherics of Harris' Daniel Lanois-produced classic Wrecking Ball, and the soundscapes of trip-hop experimenters Portishead.
Performances of utter naturalness are turned in by Chrissie Hynde and Emmylou on GP's "She," by the team of ex-Lemonhead Evan Dando and Juliana Hatfield on the gut-wrenching "$1000 Wedding" from Grievous Angel, and by Whiskeytown, led by precocious youngster Ryan Adams, on the autobiographical GP track "A Song for You." And the elegiac "In My Hour of Darkness," which closes Grievous Angel, is revisited by the Rolling Creekdippers, a one-off alt country supergroup featuring Victoria Williams, her present partner and former Jayhawks co-leader Mark Olson, Buddy and Julie Miller, and Nashville iconoclast Jim Lauderdale.
Sleepless Nights, released in 1976, contained nine tracks recorded by the Burritos in early 1970, and three Gram & Emmylou duets from the Grievous Angels sessions. Choosing wisely, Elvis Costello delivers a stark, gorgeous rendition of "Sleepless Nights" that allows the intense longing so eloquently expressed in the song to shine through unencumbered by extraneous embroidery.
By the time Grievous Angel was released, Gram Parsons was dead. It took Harris' emergence as a country star, still singing Parsons' songs, to bring his accomplishments into view. And it took another generation of bands and artists who revere his music to ensure that Parsons' legacy would live on. The Stones' "Wild Horses," directly inspired by Parsons, stands as both epitaph and prophecy: "I have my freedom/But I don't have much time . . . Let's do some living/After we die."
- International Submarine Band: Safe at Home (LHI, 1968)
- Byrds: Sweetheart of the Rodeo (Columbia, 1968)
- Byrds: The Byrds (Columbia/Legacy box set, 1990)
- Flying Burrito Brothers: The Gilded Palace of Sin (A&M, 1969) and Burrito Deluxe (A&M, 1970)
- Gram Parsons: GP/Grievous Angel (Reprise two-in-one CD, 1973-74)
- Gram Parsons/Flying Burrito Brothers: Sleepless Nights (A&M, 1976 compilation)
See the rest of our Gram tribute
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