Friday Night with Guitar George: Gram Parsons Edition

Gram was a very natural singer–he really understood country music, but he was a child of the sixties, so he had one foot in the rock world and one foot in the southern country world.
–Emmylou Harris

As the above quote from Emmylou Harris suggests, Gram Parsons’ life is a study of contrasts. Although born into a wealthy family, Parsons endured the tragedy of his father’s suicide when Gram was nine, and on the day of Gram’s high school graduation, his mother died of alcohol poisoning. A gifted songwriter and excellent lyricist, Parsons built a very impressive resume yet never experienced widespread fame. Gram was blessed with a charming, likeable personality but carried with him a host of deeply troubling internal demons. His life was tragically cut short, but not before he had almost single-handedly changed the shape of American music. His may not be a household name, but you have been listening to the legacy of his influence your entire life. Every time you hear a song by the Eagles, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Pure Prairie League, Dwight Yoakum, Emmylou Harris, among many others, you are hearing the fruits of Parsons’ vision to create a completely new form of music. In the typical psychedelic parlance of the times, Parsons named it “Cosmic American Music”, but you and I know it as “country rock”.

By age fourteen Parsons was performing regularly. By age twenty he was recording an album (Safe at Home) with his group The International Submarine Band, after which he nested with the Byrds just long enough to help create the game-changing classic album Sweetheart of the Rodeo before moving on to form the Flying Burrito Brothers with fellow Byrds alum Chris Hillman. Amidst this whirlwind schedule Parsons managed to spend some time hanging out with the Rolling Stones while Keith Richards was writing “Wild Horses”, and again three years later when the Stones were sequestered in Keith’s basement while recording Exile on Main Street. (Mick Jagger finished the lyrics to “Wild Horses” but the basic musical framework came from Gram via Keith). But perhaps the most important item on Parsons’ resume was recruiting the talents of a beautiful young songstress named Emmylou Harris.

Chris Hillman introduced Gram to Emmylou in 1972 when she was playing folk music in small clubs in Washington, D.C. Harris and Parsons quickly struck up a friendship that progressed to a musical partnership when Gram asked Emmylou to join him in the recording studio. The result was GP, Parsons’ first solo album, released in 1973 featuring Emmylou’s impeccable harmony vocals. Along with a handful of veteran musicians, Harris and Parsons then toured together as the Fallen Angels and began recording what would be the classic Grievous Angel. Unfortunately, Parsons did not live to see the album’s January 1974 release, having died of a drug and alcohol overdose in September 1973, less than two months before his 27th birthday. So prominent were Emmylou’s contributions to the album, it was originally planned to be marketed as a joint release, with Harris and Parsons both pictured on the cover. Parsons’ widow, understandably jealous of Emmylou Harris, had Harris’ name and picture removed from the album cover, leaving us with the iconic picture of Parsons’ face floating in a field of blue, perhaps appropriate for someone with ethereal aspirations yet resigned to calling himself a fallen angel.

Grievous Angel was very well received by critics and musicians but failed to be a commercial success. Fortunately, it garnered attention from some of the aforementioned artists that were beginning to emerge from the soon-to-be burgeoning California country rock scene, plus the album gathered a faithful cult following helped in part by Emmylou’s covers and live performances of Parsons’ songs. These factors proved to be just enough to land Grievous Angel at a disappointing #425 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s “500” list. As such, it was discussed by @garland_angst and @KylesLife27 in Episode 8 of The 500 series on Braves General Store, and by @ohkiv in the June 2nd episode of Beyond the 500.

In real time Parsons was always one step ahead of his recordings: ISB’s Safe at Home was released after his departure from the band, Sweetheart of the Rodeo did not hit shelves until Gram had already moved on from the Byrds to form Flying Burrito Brothers, and Grievous Angel was released posthumously. Grimly appropriate, his death was forty-seven days too early for Parsons to be included in the 27 Club, of which he would be an exemplary member. Fortunately, much of Parsons’ unreleased recordings were preserved and made available on posthumous collections, the best of which is Another Side of this Life, which was recorded when Gram was only nineteen and is linked hereI strongly recommend that you check it out. Pay particular attention to the musically and lyrically mature “November Nights”, the rich vocal tones of “Zah’s Blues”, and the hauntingly understated cover of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Codine” [sic], a song choice that was sadly prophetic of Parsons’ untimely death.

For tonight’s featured video, I chose this little gem of a 1969 time capsule—“Christine’s Tune (Devil in Disguise)”, the first song on Flying Burrito Brothers’ first album. There are several reasons why you should not watch the video: the vocals are lip-synced, the outfits are cheesy, Chris Hillman looks like a 70’s porn star, nobody is taking it very seriously but trying to look like they are, Parsons busts out laughing at one point, and the on-screen narrative notes are annoying and pretentious. But in keeping with Parsons’ dichotomous nature, these are the exact same reasons why you should watch the video. Have fun with it.

As for The Gilded Palace of the Sun, the album from which came “Christine’s Tune”, its popularity among fans and critics alike landed it at an impressive #192 on Rolling Stone’s list. When Bennet and Kyle get to that portion of The 500, I will do a FNWGG feature on the unsung hero of the album, the extremely talented (albeit unorthodox) steel guitarist, Sneaky Pete Kleinow.

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  1. […] Sainte-Marie “Cod’ine” I discovered this bone-chilling song while working on my essay about Gram Parsons, who sang a relatively quiet, understated version of it. The original song (whose title is written […]

  2. […] The musical synergy here at the Store has been a lot of fun lately. A couple of weeks ago, I requested that Papa Brown, aka Guitar George, write about Gram Parsons. Wow, he did not disappoint. It’s a beautiful description of a beautifully tragic life. Read about it right here. […]

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