Thursday, September 26, 2013

Gram Parsons - GP and Grievous Angel

In his all-too-short career, Gram Parsons became highly influential, though never realized any real compensation for his trail-blazing during his lifetime. He started with the International Submarine Band (some tracks are available on the 2-CD set of Sweetheart of the Rodeo), moved on to the Byrds and then the Flying Burrito Brothers (with fellow Byrd Chris Hillman) before going solo. After an aborted attempt at a debut, he spent some time with Keith Richards in France (adding his influence to the Rolling Stones music) before returning to America and creating two of what are now considered to be ground-breaking albums, now compiled on one CD.

Teaming up with Emmylou Harris to create some sweet country harmonies, Gram recorded his debut, GP, with studio session men, including folks from Elvis' early band, such as James Burton, and rockers like Barry Tashian (from the Remains!) and Rick Grech (from Blind Faith), among many others. He set about to create what he called "Cosmic American Music", a blend of C&W, pop, rock, soul and whatever else he could think of! While to my untrained ears this sounds pretty straight country, apparently at the time this was a pretty major revelation - combing the energy and rhythms of r'n'r with traditional C&W sounds. This is all pretty strong, but highlights for me include the beautiful ballad "She", the sax-driven C&W-mixed-with-r'n'b take on the J.Geils Band's "Cry One More Time", Emmylou Harris' vocals on George Jones' "That's All It Took", "Kiss the Children" with its similarities to "City of New Orleans", and Parsons' "How Much I Lied".

Grievous Angel was the follow-up and was released after Gram's untimely death from an overdose in Joshua Tree, which brought him legendary status. He again recruited session men (James Burton, again, among others) and Emmylou Harris (who, according to Wikipedia was supposed to get co-credit on this album, but Gram's wife didn't care for their relationship), to make more of his "Cosmic American Music". While he didn't have a lot of material going into this project, he still managed to create a strong, cohesive record. The (sorta) title cut, "Return of the Grievous Angel" was written in the studio and is a terrific song, with a wonderful melody that Harris harmonizes with to great effect. The ballad, "Hearts on Fire", was authored by non other than Walter Egan, who had the horrific hit in 1978 with "Magnet and Steel". Tom T. Hall (of "Harper Valley PTA" fame) contributes the upbeat country of "I Can't Dance", "Brass Buttons" dated back to Parsons' mid-60's folkie days, while "$1000.00 Wedding" had already been recorded by Gram in the Flying Burrito Brothers.

There are a couple of faux live cuts here: his raucous cover of the Louvin Brothers "Cash on the Barrel Head" and one of his songs from Sweetheart of the Rodeo, "Hickory Wind". There is a take on the Everly Brothers' "Love Hurts" (a couple of years before Nazareth had their hit with this) done as a quiet ballad, with more fantastic harmonies from Emmylou and very effective pedal steel playing. "Las Vegas" (co-written with Grech) owes more than a little musically to "Viva Las Vegas", but is still a cool, bouncy number about the city of sin. The finale is "In My Hour of Darkness" (credited to Parsons and Harris), a sad ballad with a big, chorale chorus.

As always with talents like this, his early death makes us wonder what he could have done with more time on this planet. As it is, we have to make due with what he left behind and that, my friends, is pretty darned special.