May 12, 2006

 

The music he had in him so very few possessed

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I've been a huge Gram Parsons fan since my friend Mike turned me on to him about 1994. At the time all I knew was that he had briefly been a member of The Byrds and with some Flying Burrito group or something. I didn't even know he was dead. He is now one of my musical heroes.

I've considered that Gram fandom may be somewhat of an acquired taste, as he wasn't a top-notch guitarist and his vocals were what I'd deem passable. But the young man had some music in him, and like too many before and since, his bottle rocket of a life is one of those that explodes "what if?" all over your musical soul.

Part of his legacy lives on among hardcore fans in the relatively small catalog he produced with the International Submarine Band, The Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, and the Fallen Angels. But the more potent aspect of what endures from Gram is his influence on dozens of the world's most famous musicians.

First hand and most famous is certainly his relationship with the Rolling Stones, particularly Keith Richards. They hooked up in Europe in 1968 just as Gram split from The Byrds because he didn't want to tour in apartheid South Africa.


A Cobainish-looking Parsons at one of the famous Sky Rock festivals of the late 60s

The following year Gram and the Burritos would open up the fateful Stones show at Altamont (you can catch their truncated performance of "Six Days on the Road" in the film Gimme Shelter). Gram would visit Richards and the Stones in France while they were recording the epic Exile On Main St.. His contribution to Torn and Frayed and Sweet Virginia (two of my fave tunes on Exile) is speculation, but the influence is unmistakable. Other influential aspects widely attributed to Gram are the open D & E tunings of several songs on Beggars Banquet, the "Nashville tuning" of Wild Horses, and songs like Dear Doctor, Country Honk, and Dead Flowers.

Richards says that he never copied Parsons, but qualified that by saying, "Things rub off - it's not really a matter of nick that lick or take that thing, it's like osmosis. We osmosed a lot."

The pair also shot up heroin a lot. One apocryphal story is that they once set up comfy barber chairs out under a starry sky in Joshua Tree National Monument for an all-night session. Sadly, Richards was the only one who was able to escape the final result of most unabated addictions.

The Stones-Parsons connection is probably the most famous, but the most intense relationship in Gram's short 26-year life (musically and purportedly otherwise) was with country chanteuse Emmylou Harris. Introduced by fellow Byrd and Burrito Chris Hillman, Gram and Emmylou cast a spell on one another. The result was some of the finest duet work, country or otherwise, ever recorded or performed, from the traditionalist We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes in the Morning to their haunting rendition of Love Hurts. For several years after Gram’s death Emmylou had at least one song on each of her albums that seemed to have an indirect reference to her relationship with him. She continues to carry the torch of his “Cosmic American Music” to this day.

Other artists influenced by Gram can be heard on the Return of the Grievous Angel tribute album released in 1999, a fantastic effort that is easily in my Top Ten Most Listened To Albums. So good, in fact, that I prefer a couple of the tracks to the Gram originals, such as the Crissy Hynde – Emmylou duet on She and Wilco’s raucous One Hundred Years From Now.

Another one would be Evan Dando’s uptempo version of Thousand Dollar Wedding. The former Lemonheads lead man is an obvious Gram freak, having covered Brass Buttons, Gram’s tribute to his alcoholic mother, on their first major label album Lovey, as well as recording Streets of Baltimore and playing a host of Parson’s songs on his recent solo acoustic tours.

And although I am a huge Gillian Welch fan, I have to give the nod over her version of Hickory Wind to alt-country rockabilliers BR5-49, with Gary Bennett and Chuck Mead turning in a harmonization for the ages. The song is on their self-titled 1996 debut on Arista, which I highly recommend as an example of bearing the twangier side of the Parson’s spirit.

I look back on my daze through college and smile to think that I HATED country music. You may already know that the Grateful Dead began the change in disposition on that, but Gram was the one who brought me to a love of the old school stuff, the Hanks (Williams and Snow), the Louvin Brothers (whose Satan is Real album cover is a kitsch classic) and Merle Haggard. As far as the pop crap what comes out of Nashville these days (the Alan Jacksons and the Montgomery-Gentrys) I still HATE country music. But any guy who could get Mick Jagger to practice a Texas twang has got to be checked out.

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