Cosmic American Muse

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

Chris Hillman knew Gram Parsons perhaps better than anyone, or at least as well as anyone could know a wealthy young man dedicated to living fast, loving hard, dying young, and leaving a beautiful memory. It was Hillman who brought Parsons into the Byrds in 1968; and it was Hillman who walked away from the Byrds a while later to form the Flying Burrito Brothers with the man he believed to be his kindred spirit, someone with whom he shared a passion for ancient country reveries. Parsons and Hillman lived together in Los Angeles' Valley, wrote together, drank together, listened together -- and, yes, invented together, helping to create that bastard stew called "country-rock," though Parsons himself always despised the term, wanting to vomit at its mere mention. "Country-rock plastic dry-fuck," he once wrote in a letter to a friend. "Excuse the strong language."

Given all that, it's to be expected that Hillman recall his long-dead friend through the romantic's gauze-covered lens. That's what friends do, protect the memories of those no longer here to defend themselves. But Hillman refuses to do so: There are too many memories, too many bad ones and too many sad ones, to speak of Parsons only in the most glowing, golden terms. Fact is, Parsons put Hillman through hell. Gram disappointed Chris far too many times, showing up late for gigs . . . or, too often, never at all. Worse, Gram wasted his talents, drank them up and shot them away until he was nothing more than a 27-year-old corpse set afire by friends atop the Joshua Tree monument in the California desert.

At the time of his death on September 18, 1973, Gram Parsons wasn't a commercial success. But fame and prestige matter little to those who turn dead men into tragic-hero myths. It's actually better that way, easier to turn a failed ghost into a legend, since he's not here to ruin it with success. That's why Gram Parsons is the subject of his second tribute album in six years, Return of the Grievous Angel, featuring no less than Elvis Costello, Wilco, Beck, Sheryl Crow, Steve Earle, the Cowboy Junkies, the Mavericks, and, of course, Parsons' soul mate Emmylou Harris. And that's why Chris Hillman -- no less a "pioneer" than his old friend, no less important no matter what the footnotes read -- gets to appear on the record as just one more special guest paying homage to the dead legend. This, despite the fact that Hillman co-founded the Flying Burrito Brothers with Gram and co-wrote several songs most associated with Parsons, among them "Sin City" and "Juanita."

"Death brings on icon status, doesn't it?" says Hillman. "I'm not talking about Gram, but the most mediocre are elevated to a status that would never have been there had they remained alive, and it's okay. It's human nature. We have so many historic misquotes and completely rewritten things in history. I always felt that way about the Doors. We were around them, and they weren't that great; as a musician, I didn't get it. But when Jim Morrison died, they were living icons. But that happens. I get that all the time: 'Don't you feel bad you don't get the same respect as Gram?' Look, he's not alive. I am. I don't want to trade places with him."

The difference between Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman is the difference between Gram Parsons and most mortals: Parsons' story, from the moment of his birth, is the stuff of which William Faulkner novels and Tennessee Williams plays were made. It's rich in tragedy: Half his family, wealthy folk from central Florida, went nuts, and only the family dog didn't die of alcoholism. It's loaded with celebrity names, especially the likes of the Rolling Stones. It's one cliché piled upon the next until Parsons' tale reads like a primer on how not to live one's life, unless you want to be famous and dead. You've heard the story a million times, even if you never knew the name attached to it.

The great irony of Parsons' legacy is that he left behind a handful of astonishing songs and many more that weren't quite as sublime as the breathless history books have led us to believe. He appears on only six official releases -- one record with the International Submarine Band, the Byrds' 1968 masterpiece Sweetheart of the Rodeo, two Flying Burrito Brothers albums, and two of his own -- and a handful more made up of slapdick outtakes and other errata elevated to grand status by those who insist he's the link between Hank Williams and, oh, Dwight Yoakam or Jeff Tweedy. And for every "Sin City" or "Juanita" or "Hot Burrito #1," there are myriad raggedy, slipshod performances neither rich nor romantic, only sad. Listen, if you can, to the wrenching 1973 live disc he cut with the Fallen Angels shortly before his death; it sounds as though he's singing from the bottom of a grave.

"I guess I am struck and have been the last couple of years at just how rough it was and how off-the-cuff it was," says Michael Timmons of the Cowboy Junkies, whose somber and ethereal rendition of "Ooh Las Vegas" is Return of the Grievous Angel's emotional center. "Especially the solo records. They're all about emotion and capturing the spirit of the moment. You just don't hear that anymore on albums. That's why he was a big influence on us, because it's all emotion. You don't hear calculation."

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.

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.

"Initially, the music was first and foremost with Gram, and that's when it was fun to work with the guy," Hillman recalls. "He was pretty regimented, as much as he could ever be. We were writing in the daytime. He was asleep when I started 'Sin City,' and I woke him up, so it wasn't the all-night songwriting episodes you hear about. It was like a nine-to-five job. But then he started to get overshadowed by the other stuff. He had been seduced by the glamour he hadn't really earned yet. He had jumped in the limo before he earned it. And he got confused by what he was going to be -- a country singer or an R&B singer.

"But Emmy once said that Parsons existed on another plane. He had this amazing sense of humor and dry wit. That was magical about him. The Nudie suit alone he had made says it all. It was tongue-in-cheek trailer-court country. And it was weird."

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