Classic Americana Albums: The Flying Burrito Brothers “The Gilded Palace of Sin”

A&M, 1969

It’s been a couple of months since Jim Finnie’s wonderful article on ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’, in which he acknowledges a debt to Martin Johnson’s excellent piece on ‘Ballad of Easy Rider’. What better excuse than that to complete a trilogy of late ‘60s classics by returning to a record which hit the shelves between those two releases; namely ‘The Gilded Palace of Sin’.

As Jim notes, The Byrds made a controversial and divisive choice to pursue a country sound on ‘Sweetheart’, which would ultimately lead to founding members Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman going separate ways. While McGuinn recruited new members and set about penning ‘Dr. Byrds & Mr Hyde’ and ‘Ballad of Easy Rider’, Hillman followed Gram Parsons in quitting The Byrds to form The Flying Burrito Brothers.

Sweetheart’ proved drastically less successful than The Byrds’ previous work, reaching only No. 77 on the Billboard chart. ‘Gilded Palace’ was far less successful even than that, selling only about 40,000 copies in its first run and peaking at No. 164 on the Billboard chart. Both are now, of course, widely considered ground-breaking records, inspirational to generations of future artists and wholly worthy of inclusion in any Americana classics collection.

Released in February 1969, just six months after ‘Sweetheart’, ‘Gilded Palace’ captures a brief period in which Parsons and Hillman were sober and disciplined enough to pursue their shared love of bluegrass and country – something they never had the opportunity to do with such freedom while in the company of McGuinn.

Gilded Palace’ opens with two songs jointly credited to Parsons and Hillman, the catchy and upbeat ‘Christine’s Tune’ followed by the more reflective and sombre ‘Sin City’. As well as showcasing the powerful combination of their voices in harmony, the sound that immediately leaps out is the renegade pedal steel playing of “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow. An accomplished player, Kleinow shunned the authentic Nashville style deployed to such marvellous effect by Lloyd Green on ‘Sweetheart’ in pursuit of a more unique sound, using unorthodox tunings and running his instrument through a fuzz-box as though it were an electric guitar.

In fact, the absence of a lead guitarist on ‘Gilded Palace’ is one of the things that sets this record apart and makes it such an inspirational and original piece, leaving more space for pedal steel to cut through as the dominant melodic instrument. This stands in contrast to ‘Sweetheart’ where Green and Clarence White trade licks, the latter using his pioneering modified B-bender Fender Telecaster to imitate the pedal steel.

Following the opening pair of songs come the album’s only non-originals; ‘Do Right Woman’, a soul song made popular a few years earlier by Aretha Franklin, and ‘Dark End of the Street’, another soul number which James Carr had a hit with in 1966. The inclusion of these songs and the way in which they are re-imagined in a country setting is testimony to the vision of Parsons in particular in taking genres and influences far from the traditional sphere of country music and making them his own.

A trio of Parsons/ Hillman compositions follow in the form of ‘My Uncle’, ’Wheels’ and ‘Juanito’, each of which further burnish the credentials of The Flying Burrito Brothers as the originators of a sound that would evolve to become, as Gram put it, (much to Hillman’s bemusement) ‘Cosmic American Music’. These songs absolutely encapsulate the spirit of the record – imperfectly perfect embodiments of a sound that had hitherto only existed in the mind of Gram and his compadres.

Up next, bass player Chris Ethridge demonstrates his importance to the album on two of the record’s most beloved songs, ‘Hot Burrito #1′, a tender ballad, and ‘Hot Burrito #2′, a melodic rocker, which are both Parsons/ Ethridge compositions. The album closes with ‘Do You Know How it Feels’ and ‘Hippie Boy’, the latter offering a lighthearted reflection on the dichotomy that defined Parsons’ career: a country boy with a big heart, so capable of drawing the affection of traditional country music lovers, while simultaneously a long-haired, drug experimenting rebel who on the face of it would stand to represent everything those same people would distrust.

And perhaps therein lies the beauty and brilliance of The Flying Burrito Brothers and ‘Gilded Palace’ in particular. A record born of its time, under-appreciated upon its release but now considered an outright classic that both the country traditionalists and the progressives of the late 60s counter-culture movement would consider one of their own.

4 Comments

  1. I always find it amazing that certain albums have a relevance that lasts more than 50 years, particularly when you look at the background to the actual recording sessions. Good shout about Sneaky and I have often wondered what would have happened if Clarence White had joined the Parson/Hillman Burritos. This, Sweetheart and The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark are the ground zero of Americana.

    • Thanks, Martin. And totally agree with you on Gilded Palace, Sweetheart and Dillard & Clark being the places where it all started!

  2. I love Gilded Palace and Sweetheart of the Radio, but I’ve never heard that Gram Parsons left the Byrds because of musical differences with McGuinn. The country direction that the band took on Sweetheart of the Rodeo was largely driven by Gram. From what I’ve read, Gram’s decision to leave the Byrds was either a) ego-driven; he wanted to join the Rolling Stones, or b) noble; he refused to play in South Africa when the band left to do some shows there.

    • No doubt that the country direction pursued on ‘Sweetheart’ was driven by Gram, which hopefully comes across in the article. I agree that Gram’s ambition and the South Africa debacle are widely accepted factors in his departure, which on reflection I could have brought out in the article. However, I’ve also read that McGuinn was always more sceptical about taking The Byrds in that direction and that when ‘Sweetheart’ flopped his scepticism hardened.

      As McGuinn once famously said of Gram: “He turned out to be a monster in sheep’s clothing. And he exploded out of that sheep’s clothing. Good God! It’s George Jones in a sequin suit!” This would seem to indicate some misgivings on McGuinn’s part about the country direction and is perhaps consistent with accounts that suggest McGuinn wanted to pursue a psychedelic sound on the band’s sixth record, but was eventually persuaded by Gram and Hillman to “go country”.

      That being said, I’ve also read more recent interviews with McGuinn in which he speaks fondly of Gram’s time in the band, and of his own passion for country music. And of course, McGuinn and Hillman reunited only recently for a series of shows in which they played Sweetheart in full!

      I suppose we’ll never know for sure why Gram quit The Byrds, but I think it’s fair to say there’s evidence of musical differences among band members, which I guess is almost inevitable in a band with strong characters.

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