In the book High Fidelity Nick Hornby makes Gram Parsons’ ‘Return of the Grievous Angel’ one of the top 5 side one, track one’s of all time. In doing so he confirmed Parsons’ status as ‘legendary’ and a name to drop. My colleague Jim Finnie wrote an excellent discussion of Parsons’ part in The Byrds’ ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ back in August, and one of the comments made afterwards was that “nothing GP was involved with did [sell well]– but its influence… on other musicians was huge and continues to this day”. In much the same way that everyone who bought the first Velvet Underground album formed a band, it seems that Parsons spoke to musicians but not necessarily always to the casual listener. So, if you are going to try to his music, where should you start?
Fortunately, there is an easy point of entry. Rhino Records’ ‘Sacred Hearts & Fallen Angels: The Gram Parsons Anthology’ takes you from his early days with The International Submarine Band through to the end of his career. What it highlights is that the quality of his music is directly related to the quality of his collaborators. This may not be a startling revelation, and as Jim pointed out Parsons’ motives for joining or forming a band could be more than a little self-serving. The Anthology does a good job of plucking out the best songs from ‘Sweetheart…’ as it also does for The International Submarine Band’s sole L.P. To be honest I can take or leave the ISB material, ‘Knee Deep in the Blues’ which was originally left of their album ‘Safe at Home’ and the original of ‘Luxury Liner’ are the most interesting songs, but I’ve felt no particular need to seek out their complete album. The Flying Burrito Brothers are given over half a CD running time and this includes nearly all of what you might want of their music with Gram. If you get to like The Burritos music, then their own anthology ‘Hot Burritos! The Flying Burrito Brothers Anthology 1969–1972’ is worth investigating.
When Parsons went solo, he did so in good company. Recruiting James Burton and other members of Elvis Presley’s band he also formed the most important musical relationship of his life. Emmylou Harris was recommended to Parsons by ex-Burrito and Byrds’ colleague Chris Hillman. The combination of their voices is one of the most sublime in pop, country, or rock music. His final studio album, ‘Grievous Angel’ was to have been credited to ‘Gram Parsons with Emmylou Harris’ and to feature a photograph of the two of them on the cover. Parsons’ widow Gretchen relegated Harris to a back cover credit despite the album being almost wholly duets. When Parsons died in 1973 Harris spent a considerable part of the next few years nurturing his legacy, taking on his band and performing his songs.
But for Harris’ efforts though, would Parsons merit more than a footnote in country rock today? I think so. In pointing out the route to the blend of country, rock, soul, and blues that we now call americana, he did as much as anyone to move the music forward. He embraced the cliches of country music while subverting them at the same time. The Nudie suit decorated with cannabis plants that he was often pictured wearing for instance, and his use of brass instruments. In the end his legacy may be as a guide and director for others rather than in his own music.
Having said that ‘Sacred Hearts & Fallen Angels: The Gram Parsons Anthology’ should be in every record collection and then you can pick and choose the bits that speak to you. There are lots of poor-quality live albums on sale. I suggest checking them out before spending your money.
Something you should certainly do is read, ‘Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music’. David N Meyer goes into exhaustive detail about Parsons, the man, his music, and the legend. It is a fascinating read.