Sunday, November 11, 2012

Music Sunday: The Gram Parsons Edition

Had he not died of a drug overdose in a motel room at Joshua Tree National Monument in 1973, Gram Parsons would have turned 66 years old last Monday. This leaves open the question of whether or not he would have found wider success as a musician and songwriter, had he lived longer. Oh, he was in bands that were known, including some time spent as a member of The Byrds. He was a founding member of the Flying Burrito Brothers. But his solo career never really took off. He only recorded two solo albums, "GP" and "Grievous Angel". "GP" did not make the charts at all,and "Grievous Angel", released after Parsons's death, only rose to 195 on the album charts.

So, why am I even bothering to devote a Music Sunday post to Gram Parsons?

Parsons might not have been what anyone would consider a star in his 26 years of life. He is, however, considered by many to be the father of country rock and alt-country, even though he is said to have hated the term "country rock" and preferred to call his vision of music "Cosmic American Music". Well, it was the late 1960s and early 1970s, and lots of things got called "cosmic". But, silly-sounding genre name and all, Parsons is seen today as an incredibly influential figure in music. Several tribute albums have been recorded and tribute festivals have been held in his honor. A number of books have been written about him and his life and death have inspired both a play and a film. There is a feature-length documentary about his life and music. This is a lot of noise after the fact generated on behalf of a drug-addicted singer and songwriter who died at the age of 26.

I'd say that constitutes having had an impact.

It has been said that one either "gets" Gram Parsons and his music, or they don't. I do, apparently. I didn't know his work when he was alive, but I remember the news reports in the wake of his death, when a friend of his stole his body and took it out to Joshua Tree to cremate it, as had apparently been Parsons's wishes. This all caused quite a sensation at the time. To my knowledge, however, I had never heard his music until a few years ago, after I read one of the books about him and sought out his work to see what all the shouting was about. Now, I've never been a huge country music fan, but I like what has become known as country rock. But even though a lot of his solo recordings sound more country to me than rock, I immediately connected with the music.

One of the first bands Parsons was in was The International Submarine Band, which he helped form while he was a student at Harvard University for about ten minutes. The band made one album, "Safe at Home", which didn't sell very well. One of the songs on that album was "I Still Miss Someone", a cover of a Johnny Cash song from 1958:

Parsons moved to California, The International Submarine Band broke up, and he ended up spending a few months as a member of The Byrds during the time they were recording "Sweethearts of the Rodeo", which has been called the first country-rock album by a recognized act. It caused quite a stir at the time and is considered a classic today, although at the time a lot of music fans didn't quite know what to make of it and it only went to number 77 on Billboard's album chart. Due to conflicts and legal issues, some of Parsons's vocals were taken off the record, but his influence remained evident in the song choices on the record. Two of the songs there were either written or co-written by Parsons.

After his short stint with The Byrds, Parsons founded The Flying Burrito Brothers with Chris Hillman, another member of The Byrds. Again, while the band's work during Parsons's time with them gained notice, their albums didn't sell well. Also, Parsons's interest wandered again and, after differences with other band members (including the fact that Parsons was spending a lot of his time hanging out with members of The Rolling Stones), Parsons left, having recorded just two albums with the band. Part of the legacy of that time was a performance at the infamous free concert headlined by The Stones at Altamont Speedway in California in 1969.

The second of those two albums, "Burrito Deluxe", includes a cover of the Rolling Stones song "Wild Horses", although it is difficult to call it a cover in that the version on the album was actually released before the Stones released their version on "Sticky Fingers", a year later. I prefer Parsons's version:

After leaving the Flying Burrito Brothers, Parsons pursued his solo career. About that time, he had been introduced to Emmylou Harris, and some of her first recorded work was on Parsons's two solo albums. My favorite of the songs on those two albums is their cover of "Love Hurts", on "Grievous Angel":

Also from "Grievous Angel" is this song, "Las Vegas" co-written by Parsons and Ric Grech, proving that Parsons could do upbeat just as well as he could do melancholy:

One could say that Gram Parsons pissed his life and talent away. But, handicapped as he was with substance abuse issues that were endemic in his family (both his parents were alcoholics; his father committed suicide and his mother died from alcohol-related issues, both by the time Parsons graduated high school), maybe he did the best he could with what he was given. It was a pitifully small about of work that he left behind, but it was enough to help jump-start a whole genre of music.

And that isn't trivial.

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