Gram Parsons

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After spending most of 2007 on this blog discussing my favorite albums, this year I want to spend time with my favorite musical artists. Instead of starting with an obvious choice like Bob Dylan, Paul Westerberg, or Johnny Cash, I want to start begin with Gram Parsons, the artist pretty much credited with the birth of County-Rock and the grandfather of alt-country.

I recently finished reading 20,000 Roads – The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music. This book takes a pretty straight-forward, unsympathetic biographical look at Gram Parsons, his art, and his controversial death. I would highly recommend it for anyone interested in the life of Gram Parsons. In addition I rented the documentary Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel which is a slightly more sympathetic look at Grams life and is basically a shorthand version of the book in video form.

I’m not going to go into a lengthy recap of what’s in those two sources, but just to say that Gram was born in a quite wealthy family headed by a Florida orange baron. Growing up in Florida and southern Georgia, Gram was exposed to country music and hit NYC in the mid 60’s with a musical vocabulary that was closer to George Jones than John Lennon. Parsons eventually found his way to Los Angeles to pursue a musical career. What I found most interesting about Gram Parsons is that when almost all of his cohorts were into psychedelia and blues-based rock, Gram was into the Louvin Brothers and Buck Owens. Remember this was in the late 60’s when there was a wide cultural chasm between conservative, racist, Nashville and free-love, dope smokin’ L.A.

After creating a classic country album with the International Submarine Band, Parsons was hired by the Byrds, at the time one of the most popular bands in the country, to record an album. From this collaboration in 1968 came Sweetheart of the Rodeo. While at the time not well received or a big seller, its influence has grown exponentially over the last 40 years (ranked 117 by Rolling Stone’s top 500 albums) and is cited by many as the ur-text behind such musical movements as Country Rock, New Traditionalism, and Alt-Country. Interestingly Grams’ lead vocals were removed from the original album release. At the time it was revealed because of contract issues with Parsons’ label. Since then Roger McGuinn has admitted that he chose not have Parsons’ vocals on the album because he didn’t want to share the spotlight with GP. Today you can get the album with both the originally released and Parsons-sung tracks. Listening to both versions, one can understand McGuinn’s concerns. Parsons’ versions are much richer than the McGuinn sung songs.

The Byrds with Gram Parsons played the Grand Old Opry (almost exactly 40 years ago 03.13.68). The Byrds were the first long-haired rock band to play the Opry and were not received well. Parsons in his typical self-promoting, iconoclastic manner, substituted at the last minute his own song -- Hickory Wind -- as the second performed song instead of a Merle Haggard cover, much to the consternation of the Opry powers. It caused a big stink at the time, but today the Opry lists the performance as number 33 out of the 80 greatest Opry performances. (An event completely passed over by the Gram Parsons documentary. I don’t know why, it’s a pretty compelling chapter of the Parsons mythology).

Parsons hung out with the Rolling Stones a lot during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s and definitely wanted to be part of the band. There is some proof that he at least collaborated on the song Honky Tonk Woman (if not exactly wrote it) and Gram’s influence on the Stones, especially Keith Richards, is all over Exile on Main Street. At this time Parsons was in a band called The Flying Burrito Brothers and released a minor classic album Gilded Palace of Sin.

It was at this time that Parsons came up with what he called his Cosmic American Music which is a cross between country, southern boogie, and psychedelica. It was a hybrid sound that was too country for mainstream rock, too psychedelic for country. During his time with the Flying Burrito Brothers, Parsons also went out and got the band members Nudie suits which were garish suits worn by many of the country stars of the day. Parsons’ was a white suit with every conceivable drug imprinted on the jacket, flames at the bell bottoms, and a huge southern cross on the back. Jeff Tweedy wore a similar Nudie suit on SNL over the weekend (03.01.08) – an obvious homage to Gram Parsons. At the end of this post is a You Tube video from the Flying Burrito Brothers that shows quite clearly the Nudie suits and a pretty good example of Cosmic American Music.

In the early 70’s Parsons released two solo albums: GP and Return of the Grievous Angel which typically can be purchased on one CD today. At was at this time that Gram “discovered? Emmy Lou Harris and their duets are the high points of each album. Both albums have original songs written by Parsons and covers of classic country songs. Each album, along with Sweetheart, should be in the library of any country music fan (and by country I don’t mean what’s being passed off as country on K-102).

Parsons was a big druggie and his music suffered greatly because of it. It’s really sad, who knows what else he could have created if he wasn’t so fucked up all the time. Parsons died of a drug overdose in 1973 before Return of the Grievous Angel was released. His body was stolen by some friends before it could be shipped back to his family in Florida. They took Parsons’ body and burned it at Joshua Tree National Monument in a drink and drug-fueled fiasco. His unfortunate cremation only added to the mythology and Parsons’ influence has grown exponentially since his death. Without Parsons it is unlikely we would have had Uncle Tupelo and Whiskeytown and countless other kick-ass beer soaked country rock bands.

Must Have Albums: Byrds - Sweetheart of the Rodeo (with bonus tracks); Parsons - GP; Return of the Grievous Angel.

For Fans: International Submarine Band – Safe at Home; Flying Burrito Brothers – Gilded Palace of Sin.

For Completists: Flying Burrito Brothers – Burrito Deluxe; Gram Parsons – Early Years; Live 1973.

Books: 20,000 Roads – David Meyer

Movies: Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel (Stay away from Grand Theft Parsons, it's trash)

Musical Influences: Buck Owens - Greatest Hits; Ray Charles -- Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music; Louvin Brothers – Satan is Real; George Jones - Essential George Jones

Musical Progeny: The Eagles, Poco, Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown, Lucinda Williams

39 Comments

Free - Great overview of the life and times of Gram Parsons. An excellent tribute album was released in 1999 that is worth checking out for anyone who might be unfamiliar with Parson's work. The following musicians play on the album:

"She" - The Pretenders with Emmylou Harris

"Ooh Las Vegas" - Cowboy Junkies

"Sin City" - Beck with Emmylou Harris

"$1,000 Wedding" - Evan Dando & Julianna Hatfield

"Hot Burrito #1" - The Mavericks

"High Fashion Queen" - Chris Hillman & Steve Earle

"Juanita" - Sheryl Crow with Emmylou Harris

"Sleepless Nights" - Elvis Costello

"Return of the Grevious Angel" - Lucinda Williams & David Crosby

"One Hundred Years From Now" - Wilco

"A Song For You" - Whiskeytown

"Hickory Wind" - Gillian Welch

"In My Hour of Darkness" - The Rolling Creekdippers

Nice write-up, sir. I first discovered GP after a conversation with The Jayhawks' Mark Olson. They used to play "Hickory Wind" in their live shows when they were still finding their "wings", if you will. (They were the Friday night slot at the 400 Bar way back when.) I had several long, wonderful, barstool-conversations with the guy. In addition, then-drummer Norm Rogers was the daytime bartender at the time.)

I have have everything on your list, save for the Early Years Live, disc. And I'll second the recommendation for the compilation LP above. A fine collection.

Oh, and Sweetheart of the Rodeo is great, no matter who helms the mic.

Dag. I can't edit my mistakes here. Warts and all, baby. Warts and all.

(You're bookmarked.)

I probably should have included the Jayhawks under musical progeny, that's an obvious one, problem is where do you stop.

I agree Sweetheart is great, even without the Parsons vocals but imho the Parsons vocals are so superior, that I have those only on my i-pod so I can hear Sweetheard "the way it was meant to be heard" in 1968. :o)

While his music is very different, Ben Harper has a fine collection of "nudie suits."
http://www.swer.net/en_fash_nudie.html

I just read about the Emmy awards nominations. Steve Carell ought to get an Emmy for "The Office"!

Thanks for that interesting write up on Gram Parsons, one of my all time idols.
Best wishes from Melbourne Australia.
Andre Camilleri, singer/songwriter
http://andrecamilleri.com

I love country and western and the video was awesome I grew up on John Cash and Porter Wagner. I also watched the funerals and how very sad they we're.

Why start with Gram Parsons, although he is very much respected I would have wanted you begin with Johnny Cash. Why you may ask? I just love him he is the true king or at least my mom says so.

Yay, I second the Johnny Cash vote above!

- Fritz G

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