Cosmic American Muse

More than 25 years after his death, the spirit of Gram Parsons rides high with a new tribute album

Make no mistake: If the man did not invent country-rock, he certainly made it a brand name. But Parsons was country-soul if anything. He was crazy not just about Merle Haggard and Hank Williams and Tom T. Hall and the Louvin Brothers and men far more obscure, but about Stax soul sides. Here was a man who took "Do Right Woman," a hit for Aretha Franklin, and turned it into his own anthem -- and without a drop of irony, without giving it the old wink-wink that comes any time a man sings a song penned for a woman. His "Dark End of the Street," also from the Burrito Brothers' perfectly imperfect 1969 album Gilded Palace of Sin, is equally mesmerizing -- soulful without being "soul," painful but only because it's shot through with absolute truth.

"Gram had a great insight into old R&B and all these really maudlin R&B ballads, like 'Dark End of the Street,'" says Hillman. "And we would do them country. That was interesting. He had that knowledge and feel of country from the Louvin Brothers, and while he didn't know bluegrass or anything else, it was all one big bag to me. He knew the music, I knew the music, and that's where we got together. We understood it. Man, it took me years to get David Crosby to understand the steel guitar was just as vital an instrument as sitar."

Chris Hillman was as real a musician as Gram Parsons ever met, a mandolin player raised on Flatt and Scruggs who, as a teenager, even shared stages with the likes of Vern Gosdin. He was a founding member of the Byrds, the man often cited as being second in command to front man Jim "Roger" McGuinn. It goes without saying that any man who played on "Turn! Turn! Turn!," "Eight Miles High" and "Mr. Spaceman" and who co-wrote "So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star" deserves his rightful place among the most important figures in the history of rock 'n' roll. But in 1968, he was just trying to keep the band together: David Crosby and Gene Clark had left the group, and drummer Mike Clarke was on his way out, to be replaced by Chris Hillman's cousin Kevin Kelley.

High fashion king: Gram Parsons in his famed Burrito-era Nudie suit.
High fashion king: Gram Parsons in his famed Burrito-era Nudie suit.

Chris had met Gram at the end of 1967 in a Beverly Hills bank; they were drawn to each other because, well, they looked and dressed nearly identically, according to an interview Parsons once gave. Though no one can recall exactly how Parsons joined the band, he ended up playing on and writing for what might be the most essential Byrds record, Sweetheart of the Rodeo. As Hillman likes to point out, the Byrds had clearly slouched toward Nashville on earlier records. But Parsons helped push them on to the Grand Ole Opry stage -- even though Roger McGuinn would later go in and replace Gram's vocals with his own overaccented twang. Only later, when Columbia Records released the Byrds boxed set in 1990, would Parsons' vocals resurface.

"Ya know, I didn't think Sweetheart was that good," Hillman says. "As a commercial record it wasn't, but that wasn't the point. I think it's funny that all those years you were thinking that Roger replaced Gram's voice and it wasn't as good. But after I heard Gram's vocals put back on them on the boxed set, it wasn't any better. Roger looked at it like an acting thing, and he almost overacted with the accent. Still, it's a bunch of kids learning how to play country, and it worked because we meant everything."

Sweetheart was released in August 1968; by February 1969, Hillman and Parsons and Chris Ethridge and Sneeky Pete Kleinow released their debut record as the Flying Burrito Brothers. And Gilded Palace of Sin remains among the Most Important Records ever made: It's true, without it there would likely be no Wilco, no Cowboy Junkies, no Dwight Yoakam, no Steve Earle, and so on. It's an archetypal country record -- so much sin, so much salvation, so much pedal steel -- performed by a kid who dreamed of shaking his ass in Chocolate City. This is where Jeff Tweedy of Wilco found his role model, in the guise of a white boy who wanted to sing like Otis Redding but could never quite reach the middle notes, much less the high ones.

Still, Wilco's "One Hundred Years From Now" on Return of the Grievous Angel is the song that sounds most like the Burritos: It's sloppy and stunning, a beautiful mess. And it's not a little appropriate that Tweedy's reedy voice not only approximates Parsons', but also that of his good friend Keith Richards. It's a startling, revelatory moment on a disc full of them: Beck and Emmylou Harris' duet on "Sin City," Chrissie Hynde and, again, Harris performing "She," Lucinda Williams and David Crosby ripping the guts out of the title song, and Chris Hillman and Steve Earle's roiling "High Fashion Queen." Hillman gives his old friend a proper send-off -- no tears, just a push and a wave.

Do not think Hillman doesn't have fond memories of Gram Parsons; he does, a thousand of them. He just wishes he had more. One of the last times they saw each other was in 1972 at a birthday party for Hillman. Chris had to kick Gram out: He was too drunk, too unruly. They would later meet and make peace, but never rekindle their friendship. Imagine the frustration of making two of the greatest albums of the rock era with a man, then never being able to say hello to him again, much less goodbye.

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