Gram Parsons

TrackAlbum
Still Feeling BlueGP
A Song For YouGP
The New Soft ShoeGP
Kiss The ChildrenGP
Return Of The Grievous AngelGrievous Angel
Brass ButtonsGrievous Angel
$1000 Dollar WeddingGrievous Angel
Love HurtsGrievous Angel
In My Hour Of DarknessGrievous Angel
Brand New HeartacheSleepless Nights

Gram Parsons photo 2

 

 

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Gram Parsons playlist

 

Contributor: Dave Stephens

Part One: Cosmic American Music

Won’t you scratch my itch sweet Annie Rich
And welcome me back to town
Come out on your porch or I’ll step into your parlour
And I’ll show you how it all went down
Out with the truckers and the kickers and the cowboy angels
And a good saloon in every single town

The words that introduced Return Of The Grievous Angel, the lead-off track on Gram Parsons’ second solo album Grievous Angel but not one that really played to his greatest strength. Gram could do Sad. Gram could do Real Sad in the way that Merle and George could. Okay, he didn’t have a record of years in detention and jail or of drunken benders (though had had his moments with controlled substances) but he could deliver and you welled up and that’s what mattered. And he did it n times better than any rock kids inspired by Sweetheart Of The Rodeo or The Gilded Palace Of Sin (and those rock kids included Roger McGuinn who’d taken Gram in and allowed him to take over his band).

An example:

Take a listen to a song that’s neither one of Gram’s own compositions nor does it have more explicit country/Nashville origins. Kiss The Children (from GP) comes from an unusual source. The writer was the late Rick (sometimes Rik or Ric) Grech, who first came to prominence in the Leicester-based group Family, moved to Blind Faith, then Traffic, then played with umpteen other bands, did a lot of session work, and popped up in the US in time to co-produce GP with Gram (see also footnotes). While not renowned for song writing, Grech had authored songs for several of the groups he’d worked with plus those on an album produced under his own name.

A mournful fiddle sets the tone and by the time Gram has got through a couple of sentences or so, the savvy listener has made a pretty accurate guess as to the full content of the title line, though it doesn’t appear for the best part of a couple of minutes.

Just remember little darlin’ that I love you
And kiss the children for me please, before you go

Call me cynical if you like and maybe there was a sliver of that but singing sad songs is important in the world of country music and always has been. In spite of Gram’s mastery of the idiom and, make no mistake, his various bands matched him every step of the way, he has never been accepted by the country music establishment as evidenced by his continuing lack of-membership of the Country Music Hall of Fame.

GP and Grievous Angel were released on January 1973 and January 1974 respectively with the second posthumously, and can be considered with some justification as two parts of a whole. The musicians involved were largely the same consisting of the core of the Elvis Presley Vegas band: James Burton, guitar, Glen D. Hardin, piano and Ronnie Tutt, drums supplemented with Al Perkins on pedal steel (and a little Buddy Emmons on GP) and Byron Berline on fiddle. There were more but those were the key players. Key also was Emmylou Harris on backing vocal. Prior to hitching up musically with Gram, Emmylou had been a little-known folk artist with relatively modest awareness of country but Chris Hillman saw her performing and, recognising potential, recommended her to Gram. The latter who was on the lookout for a female accompanying singer – he’d previously worked with Hillman himself in back-up role in the Burritos – took her on board and gave her a crash course on his kind of music. That it worked so well is a massive credit to both artists; to anyone outside the Nashville diehards the pairing is talked about in the same breath as Porter & Dolly, George & Tammy and Conway & Loretta.

The magnum opus – GP/Grievous Angel – kicks off in as cheery a manner as you’ll hear throughout the ‘set’. The song is Still Feeling Blue and composer Gram’s words closing the first verse – “And when you’re gone the hours go so slow / and now I’m still feeling blue” – echo those of Buddy Holly on Peggy Sue – “If you knew Peggy Sue / Then you’d know why I feel blue”. I’m almost certain that there was no conscious usage of similar wording; there are after all, only so many ways one can express moods and a reusable shorthand is bound to creep in to popular music in general. However the comparison is of use in that, while the songs probably have more differences than similarities, it was the bitter sweet/upbeat but resigned stance that appeared in so many Holly performances that threads its way through this one, from the jaunty fiddle which is omnipresent throughout to the duetting dobro and steel on the break, to that magnificent middle eight which we only get to hear once (and more on middle eights later).

Still Feeling Blue is followed immediately by Let’s Sweep Out The Ashes In The Morning, another perky sounding item but Gram’s very first words inject a sombre note: “We know it’s wrong to let this fire burn between us”. That said and given that the narrative is playing out in real time, he’s looking forward to one more night of sin as Smiley Lewis might have put it, or:

So we’ll let the flame burn once again until the thrill is gone
Then we’ll sweep out the ashes in the morning

The male & female vocalist pairing on the performance is an echo of the original 1968 release from husband and wife act, Carl Butler and Pearl, but Ms Harris plays a bigger role than Ms Butler and my, doesn’t she do it well, taking the lead on one verse prior to Gram joining her for the final two lines. And in spite of the couple’s promises the listener is left far from convinced that the fire will be extinguished and a new broom will appear in the morning (mixing that metaphor a little). So, melancholy, morality and weakness, some of the key components of country music, delivered with total conviction, another of its attributes.

If tracks number one and two were conventional (but very well executed) country in anyone’s eyes, as indeed was much of GP’s content, number three, A Song For You, was anything but. As such it formed part of a loose triptych of songs and performances which were far more experimental than anything Parsons had produced to date; the other two being She and The New Soft Shoe. After taking on board the slowness of the song’s pace and the gentle playing of the backing instruments – acoustic guitar, distant pedal steel and fiddle and later, swelling organ – the first thing that strikes the listener is the fragmentary nature of the melody, the construction of which is based on little more than two lines. The closest comparison that I can think of is Dylan’s Positively 4th Street. While the moods of the songs are totally different, the minimalism/repetitive nature of the tune in each case pushes the lyrics more to the forefront and increases their intensity.

Although there are clues in the chorus – “So take me down to your dance floor / And I won’t mind the people when they stare” – the first two verses packed with biblical allusion and troubling poetic images (which the man himself has said refer to his original homeland), tell us little of what the song is actually about. Verse 3 comes to the point:

I loved you every day and now I’m leaving
And I can see the sorrow in your eyes
I hope you know a lot more than you’re believing
Just so the sun don’t hurt you when you cry

Gram’s ultimate sad song perhaps.

Melodically, She, another slowie, is also unusual in that it sounds much more like a show tune than anything coming from Nashville or Bakersfield. Indeed, it’s only the middle eight which provides any form of anchor into country soil. The song is a tribute to a southern lady and “Oh, but she sure could sing”. I’m full of admiration for this concoction but I don’t love it so it’s not in. However, The New Soft Shoe is and that’s in spite of AllMusic’s Mark Deming referring to it as one of two songs which were “a bit too oblique for their own good” and other writers categorising it (or him) as an enigma. They might have cause for these comments; the song contains three verses with each addressing different cameos of American history, the first being the making of cars by E.L. Cord “forty or fifty years ago”, the second, something else entirely, etc. None of which worries me too much because the end result musically is terrific. Country instruments are present but the end result is basically seriously good easy listening, and I mean very, very good. Why can’t more easy listening be this good? The images flash by and while connections might not have been clear-cut, one’s left with the feeling that Gram could write damn good tunes, and perform them.

Mind you, if we’d waited we’d have found out what Gram was getting at. The Complete Reprise Sessions released in 2006 contained an explanation from the man. Apparently E.L. Cord was ripped off by a banker and/or a lawyer, “The song basically is about people being ripped off”. This clip has the brief monologue.

Grievous Angel offers little of the obliqueness present on GP with the possible exception of $1000 Wedding though it could be that our lack of clear understanding of that song is because the five minute number we have was edited down from a nine minute draft (information indirectly from the Ben Fong-Torres biography of Gram). It’s narrated in third person but this could be a disguised, jilted would-be groom. There’s a lot that’s happened and it’s sung as if the person(s) Gram is singing/talking to – much of it is in semi-conversational mode – is/are already privy to that information. But for the listener, who’s not in on what has transpired, questions continue to swirl around: did she not turn up? did she die and is that why there’s also apparently a funeral going on? what is the $1000 thing all about? why are there no flowers? Some commentators have stated that the song relates to Gram’s potential marriage to Nancy Ross (which didn’t come about though he’d fathered a daughter by her), is that the case? The site “Please Explain The Lyrics Of $1000 Wedding” might (or more likely, might not) help. None of this can take away from the fact that highly emotional events have been and possibly still are occurring right before our eyes. Musically, the song sits in that hinterland between country and deep soul that was occupied by Gram and few others.

And why ain’t there one lonely horn and one sad note to play
Supposed to be a funeral
It’s been a bad, bad day

Brass Buttons, in comparison, is entirely lacking in any need for a magnifying glass to decipher its message(s). A paean to a lady largely by recall of her apparel. Sentimental? Yes. Maudlin? Probably. Delightful? A strong yes. A number of critics believe that the song was written about Gram’s mother and who am I to disagree. Just let it flow.

The other selections from Grievous Angel virtually pick themselves. Who would leave out Return Of The Grievous Angel and In My Hour Of Darkness? Both were joint compositions and, according to Wiki, both were written during the actual sessions with the first of the pair coming from an unusual source:

Boston poet and Gram fan Tom Brown attended one of his concerts, saw the man afterwards and gave him a poem which, with some revision and the addition of music, turned into “Return”. Could Gram have done otherwise with the near mythological narrative Brown had spun around the central figure in the verse (“Twenty thousand roads I went down”, a truncated version of which line later became the title of one of the many biographies of Gram) and the romantic return from his travels? In their “20 Best Gram Parsons Songs” Uncut (see later) describe the track as “a free-flowing torrent of a song, lit up by Glen D. Hardin’s gorgeous piano”.

In My Hour Of Darkness was written with Emmylou. The theme of the song is amplified in the version in the Return To Sin City tribute DVD released in 2004. A black gospel choir dressed startlingly all in the brightest of reds set the tone and Susan Marshall does full justice to the pair’s lyrics. Approximately two thirds in after what you think is going to be the final “Oh Lord, grant me vision oh, Lord grant me speed”, Ms Marshall calls for more, more speed and it all turns into one of those righteous kick up the skirts holy rolling affairs with ex-Cricket Glen D. Hardin evoking Jerry Lee in his piano swoops and the camera panning around to aging rockers Burton and Richards looking chuffed to be part of it all. What Gram had managed to do with this song was drill down through soul – see examples in the second section – into the bedrock of black church music. His sometimes ambivalent attitude to religion would seem to have crystallised. There’s even a cameo of the man himself in verse #2.

Another young man safely strummed his silver stringed guitar
And he played to people everywhere, some say he was a star
But he was just a country boy, his simple songs confess
And the music he had in him so very few possess
In my hour of darkness, in my time of need
Oh Lord, grant me vision, oh Lord grant me speed

Mind you Gram didn’t need the House Of Blues Gospel Choir; he’d got Linda Ronstadt helping out Emmylou plus that trusty steel guitar and a fiddle. Ample.

And Love Hurts. Which actually very nearly didn’t make the ten. It wasn’t on my first cut list prior to doing any revisiting of the actual tracks, which I guess has to be because I’m in that Don & Phil can-do-no-wrong grouping particularly when one of more of the Bryants has anything to do with the composing. But as soon as I heard Gram in the LH headphone with Emmylou on the right, I was sold again (and Al Perkins’ superb steel work didn’t do the performance any harm either). For the record since several reports seem to get this wrong, Boudleaux Bryant is the only member of the pair credited. Also for the record, the Everlys haven’t gone down in my brain; I’m happy with the coexistence of both versions.

I can’t leave Grievous Angel without some mentions. The medley of the Louvins’ Cash On The Barrelhead and Gram’s own Hickory Wind didn’t help itself by the addition of fake applause (though whether that was fake applause on top of a studio take or a genuine live take seems to depend on who you read). The version of Hickory Wind is considerably slower and more pained than the one appearing on Sweetheart Of The Rodeo and had that applause not been there I might have gone for this take rather than the original. And I’m not at all averse to Gram & Emmylou getting into dancing mode on Cash On The Barrelhead, a track which is probably more suited to the added pseudo acclaim. Indeed, there are far too few uptempo tracks across the GP/Grievous Angel pairing, a situation I haven’t helped by going almost exclusively for the weepies. So let’s at least give a heartfelt mention for Ooh Las Vegas, a number for all guitar players out there and quite a few others too.

On completion of the sessions for Grievous Angel, Gram set off for Joshua Tree National Park, a place where he regularly went for relaxation which usually included the taking of a variety of drugs. The following events occurred:

On September 19, 1973, he overdosed on morphine on top of large amounts of tequila in the Joshua Tree Inn in the Joshua Tree National Park in California. The autopsy also found traces of amphetamines and cocaine in addition to the morphine. A couple of months earlier Parsons had attended the funeral of guitarist (and ex-Byrd) Clarence White who died after being struck by a drunk driver on July 15, 1973. At the funeral he made a pact with roadie Phil Kaufman that whoever died first should have their body burned out in the desert. In order to carry out his part of “the deal”, Kaufman together with friend Michael Martin stole the coffin and body from Los Angeles International Airport, took it to Joshua Tree Park and set light to the coffin/body after pouring gasoline over it. The pair were subsequently arrested and fined. What remained of the body was buried in New Orleans in line with the wishes of Gram’s stepfather, Bob Parsons.

It fell to Gram’s widow Gretchen to oversee the release of the sessions which became Grievous Angel. The working title had been Sleepless Nights after another track that had been cut and the credit was originally going to be “Gram Parsons with Emmylou Harris”. Gretchen had Sleepless Nights removed from the album and changed the title and credit; she also had the sleeve image changed since the original featured both Gram and Emmylou. The number, a slow tearjerker written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant would have fitted in well on the album but that evidently wasn’t Gretchen’s priority.

It eventually saw the light of day along with a couple of other tracks cut at the sessions plus a number of previously unreleased Flying Burrito Brothers’ tracks. The album was entitled Sleepless Nights and it was released in 1976. One of the other two “GA” sessions tracks was also penned by the Bryants but unlike “Sleepless” it wasn’t a new song but dated back to the Everly Brothers first (eponymous) album released in 1958. I have to admit to a little sentiment entering the frame with my selection of this track. Not only did I buy that LP at the time (and it was the second LP I ever bought), but I’ve subsequently come to realise that LP was a legitimate contender for first country rock album. In addition, the Gram & Emmylou version of the number appeared on Warm Evenings, Pale Mornings, Bottled Blues 1963–1973, the Raven compilation of Gram’s work (and the first career-embracing comp to be released). It was the first Gram CD I bought. But regardless of all that, the original was good (and fits perfectly any definition of country rock or even alt-country, just imagine the Jayhawks singing it). This is Gram and Emmylou on Brand New Heartache:

There’s more than one live album available from Gram’s solo period but the best is still the first. Gram Parsons And The Fallen Angels: Live 1973 was released in 1982. It contained a recorded-for-radio-broadcast concert of Gram & Emmylou plus a band he’d flung together (and christened the Fallen Angels) because Elvis’ band wasn’t available due to Elvis duty. Given that the tour was largely undertaken to promote GP it’ll not be a surprise that most of the numbers on its set list come from that album. What’s perhaps more surprising is that the band perform the songs pretty well considering who was missing in terms of support musicians.

Among those tracks that hadn’t appeared on GP was Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man, a number that had been written jointly by Roger McGuinn and Gram in London in May 1968 shortly before Gram left the Byrds. The song was about Nashville DJ Ralph Emery and his hostility towards the band shown when they appeared on his WSM radio programme. The Byrds themselves had cut the number on the album Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde in 1969 (and in my view it’s one of the better tracks on what isn’t one of the Byrds more glorious albums). This is Gram, Emmylou and the Fallen Angels. Slower, slurry, but at the same time more deliberate. They meant it all right.

From the sleeve notes to Warm Evenings, Pale Mornings, Bottled Blues 1963–1973 written by Glenn A. Baker:

“When 85 of the world’s leading rock journalists, experts, commentators were polled in 1987 to determine the Top 100 Albums of the rock years, a Gram Parsons LP (which had reached #195 upon release in 1974) (Grievous Angel – DS) was ranked at position 44, ahead of such major works as Electric Ladyland, Moondance, Music From Big Pink, Aftermath, John Wesley Harding, Ziggy Stardust, L.A. Woman, Pearl, The Velvet Underground and Phil Spector’s Christmas Album.”

 

Part Two: Context, History and …
“In South Carolina there are many tall pines”

He was born Ingram Cecil Connor III on November 5, 1946 in Winter Haven, Florida but young Gram spent more time at the Connor family’s other residence in Waycross, Georgia. His mother Avis was the daughter of a citrus magnate so unlike most budding rock stars Gram was never in need of a dollar or two. However, in other ways his upbringing wasn’t the happiest. Both his parents were alcoholics and his father committed suicide two days before Christmas 1958. His mother then married Bob Parsons from whom Gram got his surname.

At the ripe old age of 9, Gram attended an Elvis Presley concert in Waycross which would seem to have stirred up latent musical interests. In an interview quoted in Bud Scoppa’s sleeve notes to the compilation Sacred Hearts & Fallen Angels, Gram stated “On our local radio station . . . I would get country music mixed with some rockabilly. I like some of the country music . . . especially The Louvin Brothers, (and) I always listened to rock & roll and black gospel music.” Bud goes on to say, “By (the) age of 11, he’d written his first song, Gram Boogie.”

He learned both piano and electric guitar and played in (initially school-based) bands. By 1963, he’d got himself into a folk trio called the Shilohs (sometimes written as Shilos) who were based at that time in Greenville, South Carolina. The group who were modelled on Kingston Trio lines, cut tracks at the radio station of the Bob Jones University in Greenville. After Gram’s emergence under the spotlights these tracks and others from the mid to late sixties found their way on to albums. Both The Early Years Vols. 1 & 2 and Another Side Of This Life: The Lost Recordings Of Gram Parson 1965-1966 are worth exploring. The former has had a complex history with the original Volume 1 containing only those Shilohs tracks just mentioned. Later versions (up to a box set) cover a much wider period going up to a couple of numbers from a group called the Like that he was in, plus two from himself with actor and (hopeful) singer Brandon deWilde. These are of particular interest since they consist of an early run at the Penn/Moman soul classic Do Right Woman plus the first known recorded take on Gram’s Hickory Wind. The full box set also contains an interview with Gram plus a DVD of four numbers recorded live with Emmylou and the Fallen Angels in Liberty Hall, Houston, Texas in 1973. Another Side focuses more on solo Gram just after the Shilohs split in 1965. With a few self-compositions and tracks authored by Buffy Sainte-Marie, Fred Neil (the title track and more), Tim Hardin and Tom Paxton it shows very typical folk cum singer/songwriter influences for the time.

Gram spent a short spell at Harvard University from 1969 on and it was while he was there that his love of country music was rekindled. We’re told that Merle Haggard was the catalyst but he had plenty of help from a man called John Nuese, then working with a band called the Trolls, who was a major turn-on to country for Gram. The two formed a group called the International Submarine Band. A couple of singles followed: The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! (an instrumental) / Truck Driving Man and Sum Up Broke / One Day Week. From a distance of over half a century none of these sides sound remarkable or much like country or country rock, other than Truck Driving Man.

But you certainly couldn’t say that about the band’s first, and only, album, Safe At Home. It had come about because Suzi Jane Hokom, who at the time was the girlfriend of Lee Hazlewood, saw the boys rehearsing and persuaded Lee to cut an album with them for release on his record label, LHI Records. I should explain that by this stage the ISB had upped sticks and moved, not once but twice, first to New York, then to L.A.; in addition, three of the group were about to split leaving the ISB reduced to Parsons and Nuese. No matter, they were joined before too long by Chris Ethridge on bass guitar and for the sessions a mate of Gram’s, Bob Buchanan – co-writer of Hickory Wind – was used on guitar and vocal and Ms Hokom laid on some fine session guys including Jay Dee Maness on pedal steel.

The LP probably didn’t deserve to be as good as it was; certainly the preceding singles wouldn’t have given any idea of what was to come. It had four Parsons compositions, three of which were very good indeed and the only one that didn’t quite hit that level, Strong Boy, wasn’t at all bad. The critics usually go for Luxury Liner which was certainly a precursor of country rock with performance direct from the country but lyrics and melody much more aligned to rock, and decent rock at that. I’ve gone instead for album opener Blue Eyes, a very straightforward sounding but actually cleverly constructed country ditty which you could well imagine one of the big names in the field having a sizable hit with in the country chart:

The final of the threesome, Do You Know How It Feels To Be Lonesome is to these ears, the best of the lot. A theme that might have been borrowed from The Great Hank and a melody that just seemed to flow totally naturally. Add in the man’s voice and the only reason that it’s not in my ‘second ten’ is that Gram liked the song so much that he recut it for The Gilded Palace Of Sin and there’s a part of that which slays me each time I hear it, so it’s coming, but later.

Add in to the Parsons originals some fine covers of songs from Haggard, Cash, Porter Wagoner and more – take a listen to the ISB tackling I Still Miss Someone – and Safe At Home turned out to be a good album and one that might well have had claims on being the “first country rock” or at least country with rock attitude album if not for the facts that (a) hardly anyone heard it at the time and (b) the sessions dragged on and its release was delayed to Spring ’68 not too many months before another LP (from a household name group this time) appeared and critics rushed to give it that country rock label (but note my earlier comments on the country rock thing). Could Gram care? Not really because he was on that other LP which of course was Sweetheart Of The Rodeo from the Byrds.

Let’s backtrack a little. In January 1968, the Byrds released The Notorious Byrd Brothers which was loved by the critics and probably triggered Roger McGuinn’s concept of an LP (or set of LPs) which encompassed multiple (or even all) aspects of American popular music: folk, rock, country, soul, jazz etc. In order to do this he needed to widen the Byrds sonic range and the idea of taking a pianist on board seemed to be a good idea, so …

“We hired a piano player, 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.” (Roger McGuinn in Fusion magazine in 1969).

Quite how Roger’s dream of an all-embracing view of American music chimed with Gram’s more cosmic vision which seemed to start with country music, take on board a soupçon of southern soul and sufficient rock to keep the critics on side, we’ll never know, but Sweetheart is what came out the other end (and Gram persuaded Roger to cut the album in Nashville). Chris Hillman was probably in seventh heaven. At last he got a chance to get the mandolin out; he’d been trying turn the other guys onto the possibilities of country rock for years.

I should pause at this point and state that there’s already a fine Toppermost in place on the Byrds authored by Colin Duncan, from the early days when such documents rarely stretched beyond a page. Colin stuck to the ten selections limit and it’s that plus the length convention that would probably have resulted in lack of mention for Sweetheart and any later albums.

For many, me included, Hickory Wind was the best track on the album notwithstanding the fact that McGuinn had managed to get hold of two country-ish numbers from Bob Dylan from the as yet unheard Basement Tapes sessions. In an excellent Wiki feature on the number, the author uses a long quote from noted Byrds biographer Johnny Rogan. This is part:

“What really makes the song, however, is Parsons’ aching vocal performance, set against a superb steel guitar backing (from the great Lloyd Green – DS), whose whining combines with his yearning voice to create a mood of unbearable poignancy.”

Chris Hillman is also quoted: “It’s his (Parsons’) signature song, just as I’ll Feel A Who Lot Better is Gene Clark’s signature song. If Gram had never written another song, Hickory Wind would have put him on the map.”

In South Carolina there are many tall pines
I remember the oak tree that we used to climb
But now when I’m lonesome, I always pretend
That I’m getting the feel of hickory wind

Yet another pause, this time to air the subject of replaced/overdubbed or otherwise changed lead vocal on Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. Any Byrds or Parsons fans will be aware of the dispute between Columbia, the Byrds’ label, and Lee Hazlewood who argued that Parsons was still contracted to LHI. It resulted in Columbia having McGuinn put his own vocal on some of the songs for which Gram originally sang lead. I say “some” because the process wasn’t complete: three songs, Hickory Wind, You’re Still On My Mind, and Life In Prison were left with the Gram vocal untouched. Many fans of both the Byrds, possibly, and Parsons, definitely, found this far from satisfactory but had to wait until 1990 when the original takes with Gram on lead were released in the 4CD set, The Byrds (Box Set).

One of the tracks to reach us in 1990 featured Gram, the Byrds and the Nashville guys covering Memphis soul singer William Bell’s You Don’t Miss Your Water (Till The Well Runs Dry). I say “the Byrds” in terms of who was doing what on this track but in fact the main people you hear are Gram plus Earl P. Ball on piano and Jay Dee Maness on pedal steel. And those guys managed to do something that hardly anyone had done convincingly before: conjure up a country version of a black soul number but coming from the white side of the tracks. In 1990 this might not have sounded so unusual but in ’68 it certainly was. Black artists like Solomon Burke and Arthur Alexander had turned country songs into what got termed country soul but from the white side, only the occasional Elvis or Charlie Rich made country soul out of that coming together of black and white music and emotions.

Of the songs on which the Parsons’ vocal had remained intact, You’re Still On My Mind might have been an outside contender. While definitely country it still had the sort of sound that you would associate with someone like Warren Smith or Carl Perkins on Sun, not rockabilly but strong hints of the blues. Which probably shouldn’t come as a great surprise; the other JC track on Safe At Home was Folsom Prison Blues which segued into Elvis’ That’s All Right, both of course being Sun tracks. The original of the number came from a relatively obscure country cum rockabilly artist, Luke McDaniel – this is it. Note the echo; it could almost have come from Sam Phillips.

Sweetheart Of The Rodeo was released in August ’68 to decidedly mixed reviews. It also achieved the lowest sales of any Byrds album to date, so fans too weren’t exactly ecstatic over its contents and the Byrds didn’t gain any new fans from the country music audience. Opinions have changed over time and for a spell it was regarded as the first country rock album ever. Even that opinion has changed as Safe At Home with its earlier release date and The Gilded Palace Of Sin with more integrated rock content have come to be viewed as alternate challengers for that crown (see earlier comments). The Wiki article on the album contains a perceptive comment from journalist Matthew Weiner writing in Stylus magazine – “Sweetheart remains a particularly fascinating example of two musical ships passing in the night, documenting both Parsons’ transformation into a visionary country-rock auteur and a pop band’s remarkable sense of artistic risk.”

Maintaining his approach of leaving a band before the album in which he appeared was released, Parsons departed from the Byrds in July that same year. He made his exit when the group were in London for a gig at the Albert Hall, stating that he refused to go to South Africa with the rest of the band for an imminent tour due to the apartheid regime. It’s often claimed that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who he’d met on an earlier Byrds trip to London, influenced Gram in this decision. It’s also claimed that the refusal to go to South Africa was an excuse; he wanted out anyway. There are probably elements of truth in both those statements.

After staying awhile with Keith Richards, Gram returned to L.A. and set about getting a band together. Chris Hillman was getting increasingly unhappy in the Byrds: the South African tour had been a disaster and he had issues with business manager Larry Spector’s handling of the band’s finances. After some fisticuffs with Spector, he stormed out of the Byrds on September 15 and was in no way averse to rejoining Parsons on his country crusade. Sneaky Pete Kleinow for the pedal steel role was an obvious choice; both Parsons and Hillman had previously attempted with no success to get McGuinn to take him into the Byrds. Chris Ethridge on bass was another shoe-in given his earlier role in the ISB. In addition, having a fully competent bass man on board allowed Hillman to focus on guitar and mandolin. For a variety of reasons finding a drummer who would stay proved more difficult; several names occupied the drum stool on The Gilded Palace Of Sin but they settled down with another ex-Byrd Michael Clarke on Burrito Deluxe.

I’m going to pause again, this time to give credit to Peter Viney for his Flying Burritos Topper which tells you most of what you need to know about the band – I only say “most” because Peter’s essay was also from those early days when brevity was a virtue – and he conveys it very well. He covers the entire period of the band’s existence; I only go as far as Parsons’ departure. To avoid repetition I’ve attempted to move away somewhat from Peter’s selections though personal preferences had to come into the process.

There were only two covers on Gilded Palace, both written by Dan Penn and Chips Moman, and both in the style pioneered by Gram and the Byrds on Sweetheart with You Don’t Miss Your Water. Do Right Woman was a retake of an interpretation we’ve already come across back in Gram’s late folkie days. It was immediately followed by James Carr’s Dark End Of The Street; note the Parsons/Hillman harmony singing, a feature of this album and forerunner of the Parsons/Harris duets on GP and Grievous Angel. The Burritos’ version has to be among the better takes of the song and it should come as no surprise that Peter included the track in his ten. The core of the LP consisted of six numbers written jointly by Gram and Chris. But right at the very heart of Gilded Palace were two numbers written by Gram with Chris Ethridge, and according to Bud Scoppa in the Sacred Hearts & Fallen Angels anthology, both during the same writing session.

Hot Burrito #1 and Hot Burrito #2 were two of the best songs Gram had written or co-written and they inspired two of his greatest performances. Don’t take anything away from the band either; they were with him every step of the way with Sneaky Pete picking up almost his every word on #1 and contributing positively incandescent fuzz guitar on #2 and Gram’s own organ accompaniment a vital component of the arrangement. Both tracks could be loosely described as country soul but with Gram & band involved in both the interpretation and the writing.

I’m your toy, I’m your old boy
But I don’t want no one but you
To love me
No I wouldn’t lie
You know I’m not that kind of guy

You better love me, Jesus Christ

In Uncut’s Top Twenty Gram Parsons tracks that they listed on 26 June, 2015, Hot Burrito #1 was at #4, two Grievous Angel tracks, Brass Buttons and $1000 Wedding were at numbers 2 and 3 respectively. Hickory Wind claimed the top spot.

The Parsons/Hillman tracks were all excellent helping to make the LP one of those when your spirit lifts a little at the start of every track, no matter how often the album is played. Sin City has to be one of the most striking tracks. According to Chris Hillman whose words were documented in the Sacred Hearts & Fallen Angels notes: “… part of the inspiration for Sin City was the band’s then manager, Larry Spector ‘who robbed us and whose office was on the 31st floor. We were taking a risqué jab at everything – the earthquake, the bad manager, the Vietnam War. That was a fun thing to do and it was writing itself.’” Fun, maybe, but the performance comes across as an amazing mix of one of those hellfire preachers that the southern states of America specialises in coupled with a laconic almost stoned delivery from the singalong pairing of Gram & Chris (all too predictable but none the less pleasing for all that country melody and some fine picking from the entire band). I say predictable but the final line deserves an essay of its own: Three Phrase Punch Lines In Country Music, possibly. You’re Still On My Mind and Kiss The Children had such phrases too.

On the 31st floor
A gold plated door
Won’t Keep Out the Lord’s burning rain

Juanita was another of the Parsons/Hillman numbers. An unusual song wherein the main melody line seems to be a transplanted middle eight, but it worked. According to Chris Hillman, the lyrics told a true story. A 17-year-old “in a dirty old gown with a conscience so clean” has attempted to give the metaphorical kiss of life to the no-good narrator but he doesn’t give her credit until she’s gone. A sad song and a waltz. But such things went together as Richard Thompson once told us: “One step for sighing, and two steps for crying / Waltzing’s for dreamers and losers in love”. On the subject of middle eights, it’s the one in Do You Know How It Feels which makes the performance stand apart from the Safe At Home version. It’s taken in jaunty Texas Shuffle mode, at odds with the lyrics though perhaps picking up the recall of “the happiness of love”, maybe to give the impression of “heck, I’m trying”. Anyway, I like it.

Like Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, The Gilded Palace Of Sin didn’t sell well at the time but it was extremely well received by the critics; perhaps Sweetheart had softened them up. Its reputation hasn’t declined; in 1997, Sid Griffin, chronicler of Parsons’ life and no mean musician himself, stated in the notes to The Gilded Palace Of Sin/Burrito Deluxe twofer release on CD, “The Gilded Palace Of Sin is quite simply indispensable to anyone serious about collecting post-WWII popular music.”

Album #2, Burrito Deluxe, was OK as a country rock album but it lacked the sparkle of Gilded Palace. Gram seemed to have lost interest. The Parsons/Hillman compositions didn’t match those on the first set and Chris Ethridge had left so there were no Parsons/Ethridge beauties to drool over. It’s as if Gram had finished his first one with the band and said “this is where I normally leave, isn’t it?” but not got round to doing so until Deluxe had been completed. I dithered a lot over my sole choice from the album but eventually Wild Horses just had to be in. Mick had sent a master of the number to Gram and the Burritos’ version on Deluxe actually emerged before the Stones cut on Sticky Fingers, It’s more subdued than the Stones cut missing the striking intro and Mick’s idiosyncratic vocal but it’s more natural sounding with an approach that matches the lyrics.

Peter was right to be broadly dismissive of the Burritos’ tracks on 1976’s Sleepless Nights but I’d make an exception for one track. Gram and the boys’ version of Sing Me Back Home was one of their better covers and has the pathos you hear in the Haggard original and the interpretation from the Everlys which brought the song to a much bigger audience. Of course, Merle plus Don & Phil were amongst Gram’s biggest heroes. “Make my old memories come alive”.

I felt that another song from that album would be a suitable closer. It’s from the Gram & Emmylou portion: Charlie and Ira Louvin’s The Angels Rejoiced Last Night.

In the words of Stanley Booth in his review of The Gilded Palace Of Sin in “The Rolling Stone Record Review” in 1969:

“Gram Parsons is a good old boy.”

 

Gram Parsons photo 1

 

Footnotes

1. Gram had originally hoped for Merle Haggard to produce GP and, according to David Meyer’s Parsons’ biography “Twenty Thousand Roads” (as reported in Wiki) the two musicians got on well when they met. Again, according to Wiki, Haggard cancelled on the afternoon of the first session which was a crushing disappointment to Gram, but what he did was rope in someone he’d met in the UK, Rick Grech, to assist. The version of this story which appears on the sleeve notes to Warm Evenings, Pale Mornings, Bottled Blues 1963–1973 differs somewhat but it’s worth reproducing:

“After being offered a job by Poco and invited back by the Byrds, Gram drifted off to London to follow Keith Richards around on tour, and it has been suggested, pick up a few of his habits. Keith mumbled something about producing a Parsons album for Rolling Stones Records but nothing happened and Gram hung out with Rik Grech of Family and Blind Faith in a Sussex cottage and got fat. He came back to L.A., married Gretchen Burrell, whom he’d met at the Stones mountain ranch in 1969, and set about recording his first solo album. Co-produced by himself and Grech, GP featured three members of Elvis Presley’s road band.” etc. etc.

2. The line “So take me down to your dance floor and I won’t mind the people when they stare” in A Song For You has echoes of the earlier song, Do You Know How It Feels (To Be Lonesome) – “Did you ever try to smile at some people / And all they ever seem to do is stare”. Did Gram have a particular thing about people staring at him? It’s hard to resist the rejoinder that the clothes he sometimes wore must have made staring almost inevitable.

3. While by and large I’m not addressing the topic of covers in this essay – there are a lot – the one from Lucinda Willams on A Song For You from the Return To Sin City tribute concert does deserve attention. Great as the original is, I feel that this one is at the same level; the pain, if anything is even more raw.

4. The self-composed song Brass Buttons is known to date back to an earlier era of Gram’s existence when he saw a future for himself as a folkie. The early incarnation can be found on the album of material from the mid-sixties timeframe, Another Side Of This Life: The Lost Recordings Of Gram Parsons. The title track, Another Side Of This Life is a cover of one of the better-known songs from Fred Neil.

5. In 1971, an LP from Fred entitled Other Side Of This Life was released. Since Fred at this juncture was no longer recording, the album consisted of unreleased live tracks and studio leftovers. Among the latter was Ya Don’t Miss Your Water on which Gram supplied back-up vocal. See also my Fred Neil Toppermost.

6. In 2002, an article appeared on the net claiming that the song Hickory Wind was written by a blind folk singer from Greenville, South Carolina called Sylvia Sammons with Bob Buchanan contributing an extra verse. The lady was interviewed and she stated that she wrote the song and performed in venues in Greenville at the time when Gram was performing there with the Shilohs. Both Bob Buchanan and Chris Hillman rebutted the claim. The latter said: “As far as I know Gram and Bob Buchanan did indeed write ‘Hickory Wind’. As unstable as Gram was in my brief time with him on this earth, I sincerely doubt he was a plagiarist in any of his songwriting endeavors unless his co-writer Bob brought him the idea” (source Wiki). Wiki also goes on to say:

“Calling her claim further into doubt, it appears that in a 1993 Orlando Sentinel article, a woman with the same name, Sylvia Sammons, stated she was a blind, 42 year old folk singer from a small town in North Carolina, who had been performing “for 12 years on the coffeehouse circuit,” or since 1981; this would have made her aged 12-13, living in a different state, and nearly 20 years away from her first performance on “the coffeehouse circuit” at the time she later claimed to have written the song”.

7. The song You’re Still On My Mind was written and recorded by Luke McDaniel under the name Jeff Daniels. Luke/Jeff was from Laurel, Mississippi and he started recording in 1952 at the age of 25. He was lucky or talented enough to have a hit in New Orleans with his very first record, Whoa Boy (which makes sense when you listen to the first verse). In 1956, after encouragement from friends Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins he sent a demo tape to Sam Phillips at Sun Records which led to a number of tracks being recorded. Unfortunately, a contract dispute resulted in Luke’s departure and no records being released (though the tracks eventually emerged in compilations via Charly Records). The Sun tracks were mainly in a rockabilly vein. (And I’d add that I only found out about Luke’s Sun connection after writing the text in the main section.) You’re Still On My Mind was released in 1959 on the Big Howdy label out of Bogolusa, Louisiana. Flip it and you would have found Switch Blade Sam, an entertaining rocker. The single came out under the Jeff Daniels name but composers for both sides were listed as L. McDaniel and R. Smith. Luke McDaniel had another claim to fame. He was co-writer (using the alias of Earl Lee) of Buddy Holly’s Midnight Shift.

8. Neither Parsons nor Hillman invented the name The Flying Burrito Brothers, it was already in place. The Wiki feature on the band tells us:

“Ian Dunlop and Mickey Gauvin, formerly of Gram Parsons’ International Submarine Band (ISB), founded the original Flying Burrito Brothers and named it after Parsons informed them of his new country focus. This incarnation of the band never recorded as such, and after heading East allowed Gram Parsons to take the name.”

9. In 1981, the Burritos’ Sin City was included in the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Country Music. It can be found on the album The Smithsonian Collection Of Classic Country Music, Vol.4.

10. The song Sing Me Back Home has ‘form’ in the Parsons story. In March 1968, in between the recording of Sweetheart Of The Rodeo and its release, the Byrds played the Grand Ole Opry. They opened with Sing Me Back Home during which they were heckled and booed by the ultra conservative audience. That same audience was then handed an even bigger reason for their dislike/hatred when, instead of performing the number the m/c Tompall Glaser had announced, Parsons dedicated the band’s next number to his grandmother and launched into Hickory Wind. The attitude of Nashville DJ Ralph Emery – he initially refused to play an acetate of their forthcoming single You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere – referred to in the main text is further evidence of the hostility towards the band from the country establishment.

11. In the process of putting together the non-solo section of this essay I generated an extra ten tracks to represent this period which I hope should gradually have come clear while reading.

12. Cosmic American Music? Google it. You might find the No Depression view on the subject.

13. I mentioned the DVD of four numbers recorded live with Emmylou and the Fallen Angels in 1973 that is contained in The Early Years box set. It’s on YouTube and this is it:

 

 

Gram Parsons photo 3

Gram Parsons (1946-1973)

 

Gram Parsons official website

Gram Parsons Discography

The Gram Parsons Fan Site (archived)

Sid Griffin’s Gram Parsons Connection page

Gram Parsons (Find A Grave)

“Nudie and the Cosmic American” by Elyssa East (January 2016)

Emmylou Harris official website

Sweetheart Of The Rodeo (Wikipedia)

The Gilded Palace Of Sin (Wikipedia)

Gram Parsons biography (AllMusic)

Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

TopperPost #915

7 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Nov 3, 2020

    Thanks for this brilliantly comprehensive piece Dave. Might have to have ‘Streets of Baltimore’ in my Top 10 though.
    On another point I see Merle as more of a key influence than maybe comes through here. Have always thought that the Gram/ Emmylou partnership owes a lot to the Merle/ Bonnie duets. But maybe I would say that.

  2. Rob Webb
    Nov 4, 2020

    Superb piece on Parsons, Dave. I’m not a particular country fan but I’ve loved those songs ever since picking up a compilation with liner notes by Elvis Costello, released in the wake of Almost Blue. Soon hoovered up all I could find by Parsons, ISB, Burritos, and even bought a 7 inch of Return of the Grievous Angel which had a different edit to the album version. Have a fondness for that Fallen Angels live album too. Your post is sending me off to relisten to it all over again.

    • Dave Stephens
      Nov 4, 2020

      Many thanks for your comments gentlemen. Andrew, I did give Merle 4 name checks; was that not enough? I should add though that I bow to your more comprehensive knowledge of Merle & Bonnie. Rob, in reference to your plan to dust off those albums, I think someone once said “that was my plan from the very beginning”!

  3. David Lewis
    Nov 6, 2020

    The only comment to make generally is ‘Thanks Dave’. It’s a wonderful article – possibly your best so far.
    Hickory Wind is intriguing me. To me it sounds like Gram had a large hand in it, but the other case is probably worth chasing up. Thanks again!

    • Dave Stephens
      Nov 6, 2020

      Thanks David. On the Hickory Wind issue, I felt it was something I couldn’t completely ignore. I’ve subsequently been exchanging mails with Andrew on the subject. Ms Sammons seems like a very genuine lady which inevitably has the effect of making people including self, feel more supportive. Of course the topic of plagiarism has whirled round the head of the Blessed Bob for decades.

    • Ilkka Jauramo
      Nov 8, 2020

      Country music is many things. When you drove thru Joaquin Valley to Los Angeles in the 80s and 90s you heard somewhere in the outskirts of Bakersfield on the car radio: “This is the last chance to hear REAL COUNTRY”. And it was!
      Country music is Appalachian mountain hymns, Bob Dylan’s ‘Nashville Skyline’, mainstream country of Jim Reeves. Gram Parson is none of them, neither EmmyLou Harris. They come closest to Jim Reeves – musically, but not politically, for sure.
      Once more I gave Gram Parson a chance today … a fair chance, mainly because my banjo picker friend from the old Band gb times told me so (Hickory Wind).
      But no. It did not open this time either to me despite I am a country style hippie from the late sixties. With that said: a great piece of American music history by Mr Stephens. Thanks anyway, I did my best to understand.

      • Dave Stephens
        Nov 9, 2020

        I tried, and from what you’ve told me, you tried. Maybe that’s all we can do.

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