A Song for You

Someone once said of Gram Parsons that "his sadness was like his image." That he "should have played the blues." Had he been born a poor black sharecropper's son, he probably would have.

Instead, Parsons, born Cecil Ingram Connor, was a trust-fund baby, part of a wealthy Southern family replete with a history worthy of the most tortured melodrama. During his 27 years, Parsons tried his hand at almost every kind of music, yet he's best remembered as a progenitor for a uniquely singular style.

Much like the late '60s' premier musical alchemists, The Band, Parsons had an unspoken feel for what's often referred to as "white soul music." Transcending the limitations of sheer mimicry, Parsons sought to create something genuinely new out of traditional country, R&B and rock 'n' roll. Parsons saw this potential hybrid with a distinctly clear vision, even giving it a name: "Cosmic American Music."

While his reputation as a genius has become a tad inflated over the years, there is no denying that Parsons was a genuinely gifted artist, with an irrefutable charm and a voice capable of conveying the most delicate nuances of human emotion (see "Hot Burrito #1"). There's also little doubt that in his work with the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, Parsons served as a catalyst, influencing the music of Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, and in effect altering the course of popular music. Alas, for the masses, Parsons' life is little more than a curious footnote in rock 'n' roll history. His death is especially tragic when one considers that Parsons might actually have hit it big as part of country's mid-'70s "outlaw movement" had he only lived a few more years.

A small multimedia cottage industry has sprung up around Parsons since his death. In addition to the parade of official and unofficial releases, tribute albums, fanzines and memorial concerts, Parsons has an entire museum (in the guise of a bed and breakfast) dedicated to him in his home state of Florida. Parsons' legacy has also received a healthy boost from a recently reissued biography, Hickory Wind: The Life and Times of Gram Parsons, by former Rolling Stone writer Ben Fong-Torres. Former Long Ryders singer and longtime Parsons scholar Sid Giffin has also contributed with his treatise Gram Parsons: A Musical Biography.

Last year, California-based Sierra Records also made the first Parsons video release available -- a 20-minute concert performance from a stop during his 1973 solo tour. The quality of the tape is less than perfect, but the rare chance to see this legend (as well as a youthful, tambourine-banging Emmylou Harris) is worth every squinting moment.

Apart from the critical myth-making and visual curios, the only way to really understand and appreciate Parsons is to become familiar with his musical oeuvre. For the uninitiated, the best overall sampler is an Australian import from Raven Records, titled Warm Evenings, Pale Mornings, Bottled Blues: 1963-1973. This comprehensive omnibus brings together tracks from almost every period of Parsons' career, including his early folk material as a member of The Shilohs. Warm Evenings also collects material from the International Submarine Band, the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, his two solo efforts and one cut from his Live 1973 album.

Although at last count there were literally dozens of Burrito Brothers collections available (generally as expensive imports, since the music of the Byrds, Burritos and Parsons is massively popular in Europe and Scandinavia), the best starting point is A&M's Farther Along: The Best of the Flying Burrito Brothers. The set contains nearly all of the material from the group's seminal debut, Gilded Palace of Sin, and its follow-up, Burrito Deluxe, as well as hard-to-find covers and oddities. But be forewarned. There have been a number of inferior albums released under the name Flying Burrito Brothers that don't feature Parsons, Chris Hillman or, for the most part, any other original group members.

The Flying Burrito Brothers' third record, an attempt at a "pure, honest country album," was cut short in mid-1970 when Parsons left the group. Some of the demos the band recorded earlier that year with producer Jim Dickson surfaced on an A&M collection released in 1976. Billed as Gram Parsons/The Flying Burrito Brothers Sleepless Nights, the set includes nine ragged-sounding covers featuring the Burritos' second lineup (which included future Eagles guitarist Bernie Leadon).

The album (currently in print as an import) is worth owning if only for a trio of previously unreleased songs cut with Emmylou Harris during sessions for Parsons' 1973 swan song, Grievous Angel, which was released posthumously. The duo's ethereal harmonies positively sparkle on a pair of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant cuts ("Brand New Heartache" and "Sleepless Nights") as well as the Louvin Brothers classic "The Angels Rejoiced Last Night."

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Bob Mehr
Contact: Bob Mehr