I must admit I was taken aback when I chose to write about this disc and found out that it was released in 1979, several years later than I recalled, thinking I’d bought it in the first full flush of my discovery of Parsons. A false memory then but it’s indelibly linked these days to my conversion from prog rock to a more roots based music, kick-started by Neil Young which led to CSN&Y and The Byrds in the early seventies. The Byrds inevitably brought up Parsons but by the time I bought ‘Grievous Angel’ (in Listen Records in Paisley) he had already got up and died. Nevertheless I went on to get ‘GP’ along with a great introduction to The Flying Burrito Brothers on a tremendous two disc compilation called ‘Close Up The Honky Tonks’. This was in 1974 and, in my mind, whenever I pulled this album out for a listen, it took me back to those days. Thinking back on it now, I must have been the weird guy ignoring punk and still buying country music in 1979.
Anyhow, I recall when chancing upon this record I was quite intrigued. An unknown Gram Parsons album? Not really. On perusal of the sleeve notes I noted that the album had previously been released as The International Submarine Band. Bingo! Here, in my hands, was the legendary ‘Safe At Home’, one of the first country rock albums, recorded just before Parsons joined The Byrds and released on Lee Hazlewood’s LHI Records. At the time that was an impossible album to find and this facsimile was like finding the Holy Grail. So I of course, bought it.
Parsons started The International Submarine Band while at Harvard University in 1965 and fellow band mate John Neuse claims to have turned Parsons on to country music, in particular, the Bakersfield sound. Relocating to Los Angeles the band recorded several singles and changed personnel while never making any waves. However, a girlfriend of Lee Hazlewood (riding high on his collaborations with Nancy Sinatra) saw the band and persuaded Hazlewood to record them. By now the band comprised of Parsons, John Nuese, Bob Buchanan, Jon Corneal and Chris Ethridge (the latter two to appear later in Parsons’ career) along with J.D. Maness on pedal steel and Earl Ball on piano (both of whom appeared on The Byrd’s ‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’). Before the album was released Parsons jumped ship after being invited to join The Byrds and it just kind of withered on the vine. There were repercussions as LHI Records claimed that Parsons was still under contract to them leading to his vocal contributions to ‘Sweetheart Of the Rodeo’ being cut from most of the songs.
Undoubtedly one of the first country rock albums, ‘Safe At Home’ finds Parsons almost fully fledged. His distinctive voice is all over the songs as he delves into Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash while his original songs, ‘Luxury Liner’ and ‘Do You Know How It Feels To Be Lonesome’ forecast his later brilliance. His delivery of ‘Satisfied Mind’ just oozes soul and the band just get on with the job, sounding like a garage version of The Burritos especially on the superb mash up of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ and ‘That’s Alright Mama’. It’s a short listen, around 26 minutes long and, on this album, the sound is a bit too tinny, a touch too bright. The sleeve notes state that it was “remixed for stereo,” suggesting that Shiloh Records were working from a mono copy of the original which was released in both mono and stereo.
This particular Shiloh Records release was an import back in the days, never getting a UK release. You can nab a copy on Discogs for around £10 but if you hanker after an original copy of the International Submarine Band album be prepared to shell out around £50. It has been reissued numerous times on CD but it seems that a Sundazed reissue is the one to go for, around £25 on online stores.