Gram Parsons, or as 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die describes him, “Keith Richards’ citrus-heir drug-buddy”, is remembered as a country-rock pioneer. While this description is certainly apt, I was generally a little taken aback by his music at first – it’s certainly not country-rock as sanitised bands like the Eagles and the Counting Crows have produced, but is much more rooted in traditional country.
Parsons started his career in the International Submarine Band, then joined The Byrds as a pianist, whom he quickly influenced into a country direction. He and Chris Hillman then left The Byrds after Sweetheart of the Rodeo and formed The Flying Burrito Brothers – it’s doing Hillman a disservice to list the Flying Burrito Brothers on this page, even though it makes thematic sense, because the Burritos were very much a Parsons and Hillman collaboration.
After the Burritos petered out, Parsons recruited Elvis Presley’s backing band, found Emmylou Harris in a folk club and recorded a couple of solo albums, before overdosing at Joshua Tree Memorial. His career is short, and often erratic – he sounds often disinterested during a lot of Burrito Deluxe – but he wrote some great songs, and also launched the career of Emmylou Harris, who very much continued his legacy of a classy country and rock crossover.
Gram Parsons Album Reviews
The Gilded Palace of Sin – The Flying Burrito Brothers
The Flying Burrito Brothers were formed by Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman after they left the Byrds, to pursue Parsons’ vision of “Cosmic American Music”. It took me a long time to appreciate The Gilded Palace of Sin – although it’s classified as country-rock, it has a lot more traditional country than the more commercial artists like the Eagles who followed in Parsons’ wake. There are elements of rock, ‘Hot Burrito #2’ is cranking and “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow’s fuzz toned Pedal Steel gives the album some edge, while there’s soul in the covers of Aretha Franklin’s ‘Do Right Woman’ and James Carr’s ‘Dark End of the Street’, but the dominating impression is Hillman and Parsons harmonising over acoustic guitars.
Thematically it’s often traditional – ‘Sin City’ is all Biblical fire and brimstone – or firmly based in the 1960s, with the draft avoidance of ‘My Uncle’ and the Chicago riots documented on ‘Hippie Boy’. But if you can get past all of this, there are a ton of great songs on Gilded Palace and it’s rightfully considered a classic of its genre. Bassist Chris Ethridge penned ‘Hot Burrito #2’, a phenomenal rock/country hybrid, while there’s beautiful acoustic material like ‘Sin City’ and ‘Juanita’.
It’s not flawless, and it’s arguably more dated to a specific time than any of Parsons’ other projects, but The Gilded Palace of Sin is still a seminal piece of country-rock.
Burrito Deluxe – The Flying Burrito Brothers
Despite its quality, The Gilded Palace of Sin wasn’t a success, and Chris Etheridge quit the band. He was replaced by future Eagle Bernie Leadon, who pushed Hillman to bass, while former Byrd Michael Clarke was recruited as the drummer. The resulting album is much more conventionally country rock than its predecessor – it’s much less idiosyncratic and dated, and much more unified.
Burrito Deluxe sounds like a good album while it’s on, but the songs just aren’t there this time; Parsons was disinterested in the band after the first failure, and was much more interested in hanging out with The Rolling Stones. The most memorable track is the cover of The Stones’ ‘Wild Horse’, released before the Stones’ own version – it sounds similar, but Parsons is a lesser singer than Jagger, so the Stones’ version is superior. Elsewhere, Burrito Deluxe is just a nice sounding country-rock record with no memorable songs.
The Train Song is a non-album single from the same era:
GP – Gram Parsons
After his stints in The International Submarine Band, The Byrds, and The Flying Burrito Brothers, GP was the beginning of Gram Parsons’ solo career. Parsons recruited Elvis Presley’s backing band, and grabbed folk singer Emmylou Harris from a folk club to sing harmony with him. Parson’s strength on GP is for tender ballads, emotionally affecting pieces such as ‘A Song for You’ and ‘The New Soft Shoe’ which he delivers with his engagingly creaky tenor, backed exquisitely by Harris’ gorgeous harmonies.
Parsons is less convincing on the uptempo covers like ‘That’s All It Took’ and ‘Cry One More Time’ (an obscure J Geils Band album track), and the album feels two paced with Parsons’ excellent country ballads sharing space with dispensable sounding covers. The highlight of GPis the sweet gospel of ‘She’, co-written with Chris Etheridge.
Parsons’ posthumous followup, Grievous Angel, is a more satisfying record, but you can find them together on one CD, and there’s still plenty to enjoy on GP.
Grievous Angel – Gram Parsons
Gram Parsons’ second album was compiled and released posthumously after his heroin overdose at the Joshua Tree memorial. It’s similar in feel to GP with Emmylou Harris again prominent, and the same backing band – it’s got the same mix of covers and originals, but his time the originals feel even deeper and more accomplished than before. The quality of the best work on Grievous Angel underlines what a tragedy Parsons’ death was, as ‘$1000 Wedding,’ ‘Return of the Grievous Angel’ and ‘Brass Buttons’ reach a new level of sophistication for Parsons.
‘$1000 Wedding’ is particularly excellent, with nicely understated lyrics; “And where’s the flowers for the girl, she only knew she loved the world/And why ain’t there one lonely horn, just one sad note to play.” This time the covers fit in better with his originals too: the cover of the Louvin Brothers’ ‘Cash on the Barrelhead’ is fun, while the album’s highlight is arguably the cover version of ‘Love Hurts’; Parsons and Emmylou Harris’ gentle duet is beautiful, a revelation if you’ve only heard Nazareth’s version. The whole album and Parsons’ career finishes with the elegaic and prayer-like ‘In My Time Of Darkness’.
Grievous Angel is Parsons’ best album, correctly regarded as a country classic.
Ten Favourite Gram Parsons Songs
Love Hurts (cover)
Hot Burrito #2
Return of the Grievous Angel
In My Time of Darkness