Today is the fortieth anniversary of Gram Parsons’s death in Joshua Tree, CA, a death famously followed by two funerals, after the coffin containing his body was stolen from LAX by his road manager so that he could be cremated in the desert (as previously agreed, apparently). Relatives got the partially incinerated body back, and completed the job (as it were) in Florida. There’s even a rather uneven film about it: Grand Theft Parsons.
When Parsons died, he’d never had a hit record. He was a too-rich young man from the South, who loved country music, fancied being a rock star, and who threw much of his talent away with the drugs and booze he could readily afford. Not much to admire, you might think.
Parsons’s fame rests on five albums: the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, the Flying Burrito Brothers’ Gilded Palace of Sin and Burrito Deluxe, then the solo GP and Grievous Angel (the latter two cut with the top session musicians his money could afford). All of them contain a mix of his own songs and covers of classic country and sometimes soul. His own compositions, written in the country-rock idiom he helped invent, are suggestive, even enigmatic, vignettes of American life, love, faith, betrayal and death. “$1000 Dollar Wedding”, perhaps my personal favourite (though I change my mind all the time) tells a story of death and tragedy, a wedding transformed into a funeral, but what, exactly, has happened? We have to invent a lot of that for ourselves. “Sin City”, recorded with the Burritos, also tells a story of something. What? Evangelism? Conflict between money and faith? “The scientists say, it will all wash away, but we don’t believe any more ….” And other songs depict childhood, nostalgia and loss: “Hickory Wind” (recorded with the Byrds and re-recorded on Grievous Angel), “Brass Buttons”, in which he remembers his mother. None of them have dated.
With the covers – my favourite is “Streets of Baltimore”, but let me put in a word for his version of Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home” on the posthumous collection Sleepless Nights – Parsons managed to get a rock audience to listen to music that was unhip and uncool but which he loved. Thanks to him the Louvin Brothers’s songs are more widely known than they otherwise would be, and countless people have listened to Merle Haggard and George Jones, who wouldn’t have. His selection of songs also managed to make other connections between different genres: the inclusion of the Moman/Penn numbers “Do Right Woman” and “Dark End of the Street”, soul hits for Aretha Franklin and James Carr respectively, is a case in point.
Without Parsons, the history of rock music would be very different. The first and most obvious influence is on the Stones: without his friendship with Keith Richards, it is doubtful whether their greatest album, Exile, would ever have been recorded. Country rock, as it developed after Parsons’s death had its bad side: the Eagles took the Parsons model and turned out mostly saccharine-inflected commercial products, which haven’t lasted. Without Parsons, though, the alt-country/Americana revival that took place from the mid-80s wouldn’t have happened, at least not as it did. No Steve Earle, no Uncle Tupelo, no Gillian Welch, no Ryan Adams, maybe no Lucinda Williams or Cowboy Junkies …. I won’t expand the list.
I wasn’t aware of Parsons’s music directly, when I was growing up, but I’d head of him. I’d heard of him because Emmlylou Harris and her Hot Band were touring, appearing on the Old Grey Whistle Test, and getting rave reviews in the Melody Maker, circa 1976. And those reviews would always mention Parsons, with whom Harris had sung on his two solo albums, GP and Grievious Angel. Parsons hadn’t discovered Harris, but he had found a place for her in his music as she did for his songs in much of her later output, keeping it alive in the public consciousness for others to rediscover. Her greatest work, on the albums Elite Hotel and Luxury Liner, is full of Parsons’s compositions, and her best song “Boulder to Birmingham” is her meditation on his stupid stupid end. Harris is a fine musician and a great singer, and on those records (as well as the last two Parsons ones) her voice has the those wonderfully delicate inflections quality that she’s known for. But listening to her versions against Parsons’s (“Sin City” for example), there’s no doubt that his are superior. He brings a greater edge and a conviction to the music, whereas her arrangements are often too slow and the records are overproduced. (For all that, they are still great records.)
Anyway, I love Gram Parsons. On this anniversary listen to his “cosmic American music”. If you just don’t get it, listen again.
Here’s Emmylou Harris’s memorial, it brings me tears every time: