By James Calemine
“In my hour of darkness,
In my hour of need
Oh Lord grant me vision
Oh Lord grant me speed.”
–“Return of the Grievous Angel”
A veritable writer once said, “Death is a great career move.” No finer example exists of this statement than the life of Gram Parsons. Arguably, Parsons contends as one of the saddest singers of all time. Rhino Records’ release of Parsons’ final two albums, GP and Return of the Grievous Angel–along with some incandescent outtakes–prove Parsons’ musical legacy continues long after he died at the age of 26 from a morphine and tequila overdose in Room 8 at the Joshua Tree motel on September 19, 1973.
Co-producer Emmylou Harris wrote about this release in the opening paragraph of the 45 page booklet: “This collection brings back so many memories for me, of a special time and especially of Gram, an extraordinary young man who, more than anyone else, changed my life and set me on a wondrous road I never would have found by myself. The finished albums GP and Grievous Angel long ago took their place in history, but the alternate takes and overdubbed rough mixes can now be heard for the first time, and I am deeply grateful to the folks at Rhino for unearthing these treasures.
The story of his recorded music ends here, but the genius and soul of Gram Parsons will, thankfully, live on far beyond his tragically short life.”
Parsons’ musical foundation rested upon traditional country music, and he wanted longhairs truckers, kickers, and cowboy angels hearing the same music. “I dream of soul, country, a cosmic—what I call cosmic American music,” said Parsons in the late 60s describing his intention to blend soul, country, gospel, and rock and roll into one glorious sound in a time when music was categorized into divisions. His musical influence has spread far and wide over the years, reaching musicians such as Keith Richards, Emmylou Harris, Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle, Elvis Costello, R.E.M., the Eagles, Tom Petty, and the Black Crowes. This Rhino release sounds improved with digital re-mastering that allows unheard qualities on Parsons’ last two landmark records, as well as bare-boned outtakes.
Born Cecil Ingram Connor III in Winter Haven, Florida, on November 5, 1946, his maternal grandparents owned one third of Florida’s orange groves. Young Gram’s father “Coon Dog” Connor kept musical instruments around their house located in Waycross, Georgia. Gram’s fascination with music behooved his father to encourage such an inclination. “Coon Dog” drove his son to the Waycross Auditorium in 1956 to see Elvis Presley perform. As the story goes, young Gram met Presley backstage, and shook hands with his idol. The next day young Gram decided he’d pursue music for the rest of his life. Growing up in Waycross, Georgia, Gram learned to hunt and fish, but music occupied most of his time.
Stanley Booth, author of True Adventures of the Rolling Stones and Rythm Oil, another Waycross native (whose mother taught Parsons in elementary school), wrote a review about Parsons’ band the Flying Burrito Brothers’ album the Gilded Palace of Sin for Rolling Stone in 1969 where Booth described the small Georgia town, in an area the Seminole Indians called “Land of the Trembling Earth”: “Waycross, population approximately 20,000, is located 60 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, 36 miles from the Florida state line, about 15 minutes via alligator from the Okefenokee Swamp, close to the heart of Wiregrass, Georgia, a territory which may well be the deepest part of the Deep South. Memphis, Birmingham, Atlanta are Southern; but they are nothing like Waycross. People around Waycross think of Atlanta the way you and I think of the moon—a place which, though remote, might possibly be visited by us or our children.”
During the Christmas holidays in 1959, when Gram was 12, his father committed suicide. Gram’s family history became a depressing tale of alcoholism, money, mental illness, and death. Gram and his sister Avis moved to Florida with their mother. Gram’s mother soon married a man named Bob Parsons who adopted Gram and his sister whereby they changed their names to Parsons. Gram plunged into music. He attended Bolles High School, a prep school in Jacksonville, Florida, where he played with various musicians. He formed his first group, the Pacers, at age 14. The day Gram Parsons graduated from high school his mother died in a hospital after a long struggle with alcoholism. Nauseating sorrow founded on family tragedy at such a young age remained a cornerstone for Parsons’ music.
After a short stint in a group called the Shilohs, he left the south to study theology at Harvard. Parsons didn’t stay long at Harvard where he flunked out. He formed a group called the International Submarine Band in New York. Parsons initiated the group’s relocation to California. In December of 1967, the International Submarine Band released their only album, a solid country record titled Safe At Home. A short time later, Parsons met Chris Hillman in a bank. Hillman played bass in the Byrds and invited Parsons to a rehearsal later in the evening.
In 1968, Parsons joined the Byrds, a band that already enjoyed success from their Rickenbacker sound and Dylan-esque material. Parsons persuaded Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman to record a country record in Nashville. In a 1969 interview Parsons spoke about his relationship with the group. “I convinced the Byrds that they should be doing country music instead of trying to write their own Bob Dylan material.” Parsons’ power of suggestion persuaded this famous band that country music served as the bedrock to any and all American music. Parsons soon realized he came closer to his vision of inoculating jaded hippies to the unadulterated country music culture. Parsons wrote great songs like “Hickory Wind” and “One Hundred Years From Now” for the Byrds’ neglected album Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
International Submarine Band record executive Lee Hazlewood complained Parsons violated his contract and threatened legal action on Parsons’ latest musical endeavors with the Byrds. Consequently, Parsons’ vocals only appeared on two Sweetheart of the Rodeo songs. It was not until the 2003 re-release of the album on Columbia Records did his original vocals parts emerge. Sweetheart of the Rodeo debuted at #77 on the Billboard charts.
Ironically, Sweetheart stood as the Byrds’ worst selling album, yet it marked the highest chart position Parsons would ever attain. When the Byrds performed at the Grand Ol Opry, Parsons committed the cardinal Opry sin by dedicating an original song (“Hickory Wind”) to his grandmother in the audience.
Later that year Parsons met the Rolling Stones in London. He also met his future road manager, Phil Kaufman (who later burned Parsons’ corpse in the desert). Keith Richards advised Parsons against performing with the Byrds in South Africa due to apartheid. Soon, Parsons left the Byrds and became hypnotized by the wicked vortex of the Rolling Stones. In the 2006 documentary on Parsons, Fallen Angel, Keith Richards spoke about Parsons’ charisma: “He could touch a chord in people. We call it ‘high & lonesome’—it’s a certain melancholy. It’s a beautiful pain. He had that to the max…”
After leaving the Byrds, Parsons played gigs around Los Angeles with J.J. Cale, Fred Neil, Leon Russell, Delaney & Bonnie (Parsons appeared briefly on Motel Shot), and Jesse Ed Davis. Soon Chris Hillman also departed the Byrds. Hillman and Parsons mended fences and formed a band called the Flying Burrito Brothers. They developed a strong bond and quickly wrote seminal songs like “Sin City”, “Devil in Disguise”, “Juanita”, and “Wheels”. Burrito bassist Chris Ethridge co-wrote two unforgettable songs with Parsons, “Hot Burrito #1” and “Hot Burrito #2”. These songs all appeared on the Burrito’s first album, The Gilded Palace of Sin. Ethridge later said of Parsons, “He had a soulful, almost ‘help me’ voice. He had a voice that when he would sing it was almost like he was asking for help…”
Parsons took the Burritos to Nudie of Hollywood who made sequined cowboy outfits for artists like Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Porter Wagoner and Buck Owens. Parsons’ remarkable suit included embroidered naked girls, flames, a cross, pills, and cannabis sativa plants. In the 2006 DVD Fallen Angel Manuel Cuevas–who worked on the original Nudie shop–explained what Parsons wanted when he hired them to make these suits. “The idea of the suits was a take off from country music. We talked for months, working different ideas on how they wanted to look. What he was transferring to me in the form of ideas for making the suit was the actual way he wanted to die—from the flames, to the cross, to the marijuana, to the pills, and to the girls.” A strange foretelling…
The Burritos gigged in bars around Los Angeles. In the mad summer of 1969 the Rolling Stones rented Stephen Stills’ Hollywood hills home to rehearse for their upcoming tour of the United States. Parsons kept time with the Stones during their visit to California to repay their hospitality the Stones showed them in England. In Stanley Booth’s indelible book The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones he wrote about meeting Gram Parsons for the first time in Los Angeles while Booth stayed at Still’s house with the Stones: “One of the others, with dark frosted pale gold and a classic country and western outfit from Nudie the Rodeo tailor, I remembered seeing him on television and record covers—he was Gram Parsons, and he came, so I’d heard, from my hometown, Waycross, Georgia, on the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp. We had not met, but I had reviewed his band the Flying Burrito Brothers’ new album, The Gilded Palace of Sin. I had no idea he knew the Stones. Seeing him here, finding another boy from Waycross at this altitude, I sensed a pattern, some design I couldn’t make out, and I got up to speak to Gram parsons, as if he were a prophet and I were a pilgrim seeking revelation.”
Gram fell in close with Keith Richards, and influenced the Stones a great deal. Richards mentioned in Fallen Angel, “Gram Parsons is the only guy that could make every chick in the audience weep, which is a rare quality.” Parsons asked the Stones if the Flying Burrito Brothers could perform at Altamont for a free show the Stones were giving in San Francisco at the end of their tour in December which was captured in the Maysles Brothers’ gritty film Gimme Shelter. Altamont ended the love and peace era in December of 1969 with murder, madness, and darkness.
Years ago Mick Jagger said of Gram: “I knew Gram quite well. He was one of the few people who helped me sing country music. Before that, Keith and I would just copy off records.” The Stones allowed, in a rare gesture, the Burritos to cover “Wild Horses”, a song the Stones recorded in Muscle Shoals on that 1969 tour and later appeared on their 1971 Sticky Fingers album. By 1970, bands like the Grateful Dead, the Band, the Stones, Neil Young, David Crosby, the Riders of the New Sage, and even Bob Dylan incorporated country music into their repertory. Stones fans began noticing more country songs like “Country Honk”, “Dead Flowers”, and “Sweet Virginia” appearing in their music. However, none of these aforementioned bands possessed the acute sensibility and lucid vision of country music like Gram Parsons.
Parsons used a motorcycle accident as an excuse to distance himself from the Flying Burrito Brothers. They recorded a follow-up to the great The Gilded Palace of Sin, but the group ran out of steam. “The second album was a mistake,” Parsons later remarked. Once Parsons quit, or was fired from, the Burritos he spent months during 1971 living with Keith Richards at his home in the south of France while the Stones recorded Exile On Main Street. The Burritos forged on without Parsons for a while. Richards and Parsons talked about Keith producing Gram’s first solo album, however due to the Stones’ touring schedule Richards backed out.
Backstage in 2004 at the Gram Parsons tribute concert, Keith Richards spoke about Parsons, “He taught me the finer points of country music…the difference between Bakersfield and Nashville, for example. Because I never knew there was one. And he introduced me to an amazing area of musicians—country pickers like James Burton and Al Perkins, who worked with the Stones on Exile On Main Street. When you’re playing with somebody for a few years, things rub off that you’re not really aware of immediately. It’s not sort of a matter, like ‘I nicked that lick’. It’s almost like osmosis, and we osmosed a lot!”
Parsons’ trust fund allowed him to keep time in such rarefied rock and roll air. After a dissolute period at Richards’ Nellcote home, Parsons returned to the States with the intention of recording a solo album.
Perhaps the most significant occurrence in his life that year was meeting a young singer named Emmylou Harris.
This new Rhino Collection contains Parsons telling the story of how he met Emmylou: “I was just lucky. I was in Baltimore…the Burritos had two more gigs to play as the Flying Burrito Brothers—one was in Charlotte and one was in Baltimore. They called me in New Orleans and asked me if I’d like to come up and play the last couple of gigs with em’ and I said sure—why not? Byron Berline was there and a bunch of guys who played bluegrass were there and I thought it would be fun. Chris (Hillman) happened to mention to me—when I was there—‘y’know we were in Washington a while back and I heard this chick singer.’ He said she’s nothing but a folk singer, but she could probably be developed into a real good country singer. He didn’t know she was from Birmingham, Alabama, and probably knew more about country music than both of us did.
“It took a little bit of getting together. I called her up and she said ‘sure, c’mon down.’ I met her at the train station, and she took me over to her house and we sat in the kitchen and I knew (after) the first duet. I was thinking to myself, ‘Okay, let’s see if she can cut it or not. I thought of one of country’s hardest duets I could think of to do which was “That’s All It Took”, and she just sang like a bird. I said, ‘Well, that’s it.’ And I sang with her the rest of the night and it just kept getting better and better. When I’d look at her—she has fantastic eye contact. She can sing anything you’re doing in perfect harmony as long as you look at her. If you raise your eyebrows—if you’re going up on a note—she goes right up with you in perfect pitch. She’s beautiful…”
Emmylou told Sid Griffin, author of Gram Parsons: A Music Biography, “I never heard things in music, the things I hear now, until I worked with him. And, even though I had done some country and western, I wasn’t aware of what he had inside of him as an artist, what he possessed. Yet, the first time we sang together, our voices seemed to blend together pretty well, even though I hadn’t done a lot of that, duet singing.”
Parsons wanted Merle Haggard to produce his next batch of songs he planned to record, but the collaboration never materialized. Parsons recruited seasoned veterans James Burton, Ronnie Tutt, and Glen D. Hardin–who worked with Elvis and Ricky Nelson—as well as Al Perkins, Byron Berline, Barry Tashian, to play on the sessions, which bring us to this essential Rhino collection.
In a 1972 interview Parsons gave insight into his musical direction at the time, “I’ve never really had the freedom I needed to let my music go in the direction I have in my head. That’s why I’m no longer in a band. I believe in music that can reach anybody regardless of the labels. Rock and roll has probably contributed to the creation of more musical prejudices than it has broken down, and I hope what I do destroys those and other prejudices.”
Produced by Emmylou and James Austin, this 3 CD Rhino collection called Gram Parsons: The Complete Reprise Sessions(2006) contain Parsons’ two last mythical solo releases GP, and Return of the Grievous Angel; the third CD contains previously unissued alternate versions as well as unheard interviews with Parsons. This collection provides a clear sonic distinction. Digital re-mastering brings out un-noticed qualities in old recordings.
Parsons recorded and completed GP by October 1972. His opening track “Still Feeling Blue” reiterates his mode of operandi based on traditional country music. On these recordings he drifted away from the Burrito and the Byrds flirtations with rock, soul, psychedelia, and R&B by focusing on his deep country roots. “We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes”, in Harris’ words, “was the first real classic duet that we did together…”
Track 14 on disc one contains an interview with Gram where he reveals “A Song For You”, “is really a love song…having to do with an area sort of like the one I came from—the South, sort of the swamp area as somebody who just can’t stick around too long.”
On the next track Parsons illuminated the cryptic verses and characters in the “New Soft Shoe”, based around E.R Cord who built beautiful cars and was swindled by lawyers and bankers. “The song is basically about people getting ripped off,” Parsons emphasized.
Bonus tracks from the GP CD contain these interviews as well as a lighthearted Q & A with DJ Maxine Sartori on radio station WBCN. Parsons’ southern manners allow fans another chance to hear his soft-spoken voice since few audio interviews with him exist. A killer version of Emmylou, Gram, and Fallen Angel N.D. Smart singing the old Burritos’ tune “Sin City” live on the radio, as well as an ethereal “Love Hurts”, rank as vital lost treasures in Parsons’ musical legacy.
Parsons began visiting the desert in the late 60s. He found the area surrounding the Joshua Tree National Park very peaceful, and he often visited when he wanted to escape craziness in L.A. In July 1973 Parsons gave of one of his last interviews to Crawdaddy magazine where he mentioned, “I spend a lot of time up at Joshua Tree in the desert just looking at the San Andreas Fault and I say to myself, ‘I wish I was a bird drifting above it…’”
Despite a nagging drug and alcohol dependency, Parsons gathered a group of musicians he called the Fallen Angels–including Emmylou Harris–and hit the road in early 1973. These shows can be heard on Gram Parsons & The Fallen Angels Live 1973 which preserves great live versions of “Country Baptizing”, “Drug Store Truck Driving Man”, and “Cry One More Time”.
Parsons became more focused for his final recording session. He gathered many of the same musicians from GP—as well as Bernie Leadon, Emory Gordy, and Herb Pederson—to play on Return of the Grievous Angel. Sessions began in Los Angeles during July of 1973. By month’s end, Parsons completed his final musical statement. An original composition, the title track, opens this legendary record containing quicksilver lyrics: “Billboards and truckstops pass by the grievous angel/Now I know just what I have to do.”
“Hearts On Fire” displays Parsons and Harris’ vocal harmonies in all their timeless glory. “Brass Buttons”, a tune dedicated to his mother contends as perhaps the oldest original composition on the album along with “Hickory Wind”.
“$1000 Wedding” brings a tear to your eye on any evening with the right amount of drinks and dim lights. By the time he sings the line “Why don’t someone here just spike his drink/why don’t you do him in”—you’re lost in a sad tale which seems painfully personal; a Parsons gem. The Boudleaux Bryant song “Love Hurts” sounds sorrowful as it did 30 years ago. Emmylou revealed, “There’s something so achingly beautiful about Gram’s voice and the blend of our voices on “Love Hurts”. There was something magical about that song. We had started doing it in the shows prior to the recording of Grievous Angel, so we had it down.”
The final track, “In My Hour of Darkness” seems to signal an end, but no one knew this would be Parsons’ last song. In the Rhino booklet, guitarist James Burton revealed his thoughts about Gram after finishing this album, “He was so deep into the music when we were recording Grievous Angel that I didn’t see that side of the man. It was really unfortunate, very sad.”
Various songs from the sessions, “Brand New Heartache”, “Sleepless Nights”, and “The Angels Rejoiced Last Night” did not make the album (but appear on disc three of this Rhino collection). Emmylou’s favorite song from the Grievous Angel sessions was “The Angels Rejoiced Last Night”.
Parsons called Emmylou from Joshua Tree late in the summer to inform her “Angels Rejoiced” would not make the album, “He knew I’d be disappointed,” said Emmylou, “but he said ‘It’s really good and it will be on the next album.’ And, of course, there was not another record.” It was the last time Gram and Emmylou ever spoke.
He died a few weeks later on September 19, 1973. Phil Kaufman stole Parsons’ body from the L.A. airport (enroute to burial in New Orleans) and burned the body at Cap Rock near Joshua Tree. Return of the Grievous Angel was released in January of 1974 which set Gram Parsons’ legend in eternal motion.
The bonus tracks on this Grievous Angel CD remain essential because James Burton believed some of the outtakes actually sounded better than the official versions on the album. An unearthed instrumental rendition of “Return of the Grievous Angel” (take three) sounds great. These outtakes prove why Parsons fell in love with Emmylou Harris’ voice. This mighty Rhino volume coincides with the year of Parsons’ 60th birthday, and proves his work will forever endure the test of time.
One final track illuminates Parsons’ philosophy on pigeonholes between pure country and country rock, “I think pure country includes rock & roll. I don’t think you have to call it country-rock any more than you have to call something folk-rock. You can call it rock & roll—or you can call it country music. I just don’t like the label country-rock.
“I was brought up in the south and I never knew the difference between Negro gospel music and country music. It was all just music to me. I knew the difference in the sound, and the difference in how to play it. I was taught how to play music by black people, but I was never aware that one was called gospel or rhythm & blues, or blues & rhythm–as it used to be called. The other was country & western. I never understood that. I’ve never been able to get into the label country-rock; it just doesn’t make sense to me. How can you define something like that? I just say it’s music. Either it’s good or it’s bad. You like it or you don’t…”
(Photograph credits: Barry Feinstein, Ginny Wynn, Dominique Tarle & Andre Nathanson)