As far as I was concerned, Gram Parsons ruined The Byrds, the best American rock ‘n roll band of the mid-1960s. Sure, the warning signs had been there for a couple years. Roger McGuinn’s chiming 12-string Rickenbacker had gradually given way to gently strummed country-tinged hippie anthems on Younger Than Yesterday and The Notorious Byrd Brothers, but it was Gram Parsons who masterminded the coup d’etat, hijacking my favorite band when he joined in 1968, and taking them completely over the country cliff.
Sweetheart of the Rodeo, the official death certificate, was a full-fledged piece of honky-tonk hokum, replete with weeping pedal steel and songs about prison cells, Jesus, mama, empty bottles and broken hearts. I could not believe that it was The Byrds. I played it a few times upon its release, hoping that my disdain would pass, then gave up in disgust, vowing to never buy a Byrds album again. It was all Gram Parsons’ fault, and I wanted nothing to do with his clichés and his hillbilly version of reality. I was too cool for that.
A few years went by. I had just started college when Gram Parsons died of a drug overdose at the ripe old age of 26. I was a couple hundred miles away from home in a town I didn’t know, and the transition to my new life was not going well. The DJ on the campus radio station dutifully reported Gram’s demise and the strange events that surrounded his funeral, then played “Hickory Wind,” one of the songs from Sweetheart of the Rodeo. I listened, and I heard something I hadn’t heard before:
It’s a hard way to find out that trouble is real
In a faraway city with a faraway feel
That didn’t sound like a cliché. It sounded like my life. And this time I heard the soulfulness and the world-weariness that had been masked by my uncritical rejection of all things country. And so I pulled out my barely used copy of the album and played the song. And then I played it again. I played it again and again, probably eight or nine times in a row. And by the end of that little repetitive mini-concert, I was ready to admit that I was wrong.
I love that song. I love that album, although it took me a while, in my desperate attempt to be cool, to admit it. It launched what has now been a 33-year love affair with Gram Parsons and his music. In a bizarre twist, somebody stole Gram Parsons’ coffin and burned it in the Joshua Tree desert. The irony isn’t lost on me. Like the
I had some catching up to do, and so I caught up – an album with the International Submarine Band, several gems with The Flying Burrito Brothers, two stunning solo albums featuring duets with a very young Emmylou Harris. Those six albums – the shockingly sparse output of a too-short life – opened up a whole new world for me. From the music of Gram Parsons I learned about The Louvin Brothers and The Stanley Brothers, Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. And always Emmylou. It was the real shitkickin’ deal, as raw and as soulful as life itself turned out to be, and I eventually figured out that I didn’t have to be a coal miner or a truck driver to relate to it. I just needed to be alive, and awake enough to witness the searing beauty and heartbreak.
A few months ago Rhino Records released The Complete Reprise Sessions, just about every note Gram Parsons recorded during his short tenure with Reprise Records. The two solo albums, GP and Grievous Angel, are there, along with a couple dozen more alternate takes and bonus tracks.
Listening to those songs now, remastered, placed in a new context, I remember all over again what drew me to Gram’s music. His voice is weathered, imperfect, cracked, much like the life he lived. And he wrote some dazzling lyrics, this country bumpkin who also happened to be a Harvard dropout – the kind of hardscrabble poetry that still resonates with loss and regret and hard-won peace. You can hear it in “Return of the Grievous Angel,” one of those impossibly lovely duets with Emmylou:
I remember somethin’ you once told me
And I’ll be damned if it did not come true
Twenty thousand roads I went down down down
And they all led me straight back home to you
Gram Parsons was obsessed with the notion of home; something he never really experienced in his short life. The sole International Submarine Band album is called Safe at Home. Hickory Wind was calling him home. The grievous angel returned from his wanderings and found home. So maybe it’s only fitting that I call his music home. In all my musical wanderings, I keep coming back to Gram Parsons. This is where I started my exploration. And I’ve never found a better place to visit.
The Byrds – Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968)
It wasn’t the first country-rock album, but it may be the best. Where performers like Bob Dylan dabbled in country music, Gram Parsons dove in headfirst. These are truckstop jukebox anthems, and they’re great.
Gram Parsons – GP/Grievous Angel (1972/1973)
For those who don’t want to spring for the 3-CD Reprise collection, this single CD contains both of Gram’s solo albums. It’s transcendently great country rock music, features some of the finest country duets (with Emmylou Harris) ever recorded, and it’s a bargain.