Decline of the Grievous Angel: Mapping Gram Parsons's Struggle for Recognition in His Time and in Ours
Commercial sales eluded the country legend in his lifetime, and now the Rock n Roll and Country Halls of Fame continue to snub him.
Autumn, 1973. Los Angeles International Airport. Using the name “Jeremy Nobody,” Phil Kaufman, friend and producer to the just deceased country rock legend Gram Parsons, made off with the musician's coffin, driving it deep into his loved Joshua Tree National Park. According to Parsons’s friend, he was obeying his final wishes. To any sober person, he was stealing a corpse in a borrowed hearse. Kaufman and an accomplice dragged Parson' remains into the desert, doused them with five gallons of gasoline, and . In death, Gram Parsons glowed brightly, but his Hall of Fame-worthy musical career wouldn’t ignite for another couple of decades.
Gram Parsons has continually been snubbed by both the Country and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame even as protégés like Emmylou Harris have been inducted and won numerous Grammys. It's a crime. Parsons’s work, a melding of country, rock, blues, soul, and folk most acutely focused on intertwining country and psych-tinged rock, was wholly unique. In Parsons’s mind, he wasn’t performing “country rock”—he was creating “Cosmic American Music.” He would continue to refine it until his death.
Though Parsons would draft an early blueprint for the sound on Safe at Home, the first (and only) album by his short-lived International Submarine Band, his first big break came when Chris Hillman, bassist for the Byrds, recruited him to join the band in 1968. It didn’t take long for Parsons to push the band strongly in a country direction during the recording of the same year’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Though it is now common practice for big rock bands to "go country," in 1968 it wasn't. Sweetheart of the Rodeo gave many audiences a first glimpse at what Parsons was angling for, but Gram would abruptly leave the band before he made a year in the roster.
After finding their way back to Los Angeles post-Byrds, Parsons and Chris Hillman formed the Flying Burrito Brothers and released the 1969 album The Gilded Palace of Sin. Listening to Chris Hillman describe the crowds at their small shows, you can imagine the power of Parsons on stage:
“There were a lot of guys out here in California in the late 60s – singer-songwriters like Glenn Frey, John David Souther, Don Henley,” remembers Hillman. “All these guys would come watch The Flying Burrito Brothers play. I remember Glenn would come and sit in the audience and watch us.”
“The greatest legacy of the Flying Burrito Brothers and Gram is we were the alternative country band. We couldn’t get on country radio and we couldn’t get on rock radio! We were the outlaw country band for a brief period.”
Watching them perform the amazingly titled “Hot Burrito #1” is like watching worlds collide. The sound is mostly country, but hazy psychedelics slide a drug rug over everything. The performance opens with Parsons staring deeply into the camera; it’s almost as if he’s pleading the case for his beloved Cosmic American Music. With the androgynous good looks, genuine country sound, and hippie clothes, it’s easy to see why neither country nor rock fans at the time knew how to react to Parsons's Burritos. By the time the second album Burrito Deluxe came out in 1970, Gram was already pursuing a solo career.
Years on, both Burrito albums would influence whole generations of musicians—see the alt-country movement of the 80s and 90s—but at the time they faced little reassuring commercial success. (One wonders whether financial success might have proved useful in arguing Parsons’s Hall of Fame status decades later.) As a solo artist, Parsons hoped for a change of luck. What he didn’t pivot away from was drugs—initial sessions were filled with cocaine and heroin but not much music. Hillman eventually suggested Parsons go see a young folksinger named EmmyLou Harris perform live.
In Parsons’s short life, helping shape Harris’s career may have been the greatest achievement. Before meeting Parsons, the young singer was recovering from a divorce and facing a lack of direction. When Parsons invited her to join his recording sessions for his 1973 debut solo album GP, she was a country novice. Later on the supporting tour for the album, Parsons’s assembled band the Fallen Angels included Harris, and she remarked about his talent:
“Gram was really together. He was amazing on stage – an amazing presence and totally focused. We just sang and sang and sang. When we weren’t on stage we were just always working up something new. I was learning all these country songs. I was like a religious convert. I couldn’t get enough.”
GP was a smash with critics but failed to impact the Billboard charts. Tangible success again eluded Parsons. In Rolling Stone’s original review of both GP and the follow-up, Grievous Angel, writer Bud Scoppa holds Parsons in great reverence: “He may not be old or tough enough to be a Haggard or a Cash, but he gets another kind of worldliness, a quieter kind of strength out of his singing. That amazing voice, with its warring qualities of sweetness and dissipation, makes for a stunning emotional experience… To borrow loosely from one of his lyrics, boy, but he sure can sing.”
After initial sessions with Emmylou Harris for Grievous Angel, Parsons escaped to Joshua Tree National Park. A source of frequent fascination, Joshua Tree served as a sanctuary of sorts for the young addict. At 26 years old, Parsons fell asleep in his motel room while under the influence of a powerful mix of alcohol and morphine. He never woke up. In true Gram Parsons fashion, his passing was overlooked in the public eye when folk singer Jim Croce died in a plane crash just a day later.
Gram Parsons's influence shines in the careers of collaborators like Emmylou Harris as well as successors who carried his genre-busting spirit of experimentation, but also in the accessibility that his invented genre of music affords to people of varying tastes. Parsons deserves entry into BOTH the Rock & Roll and Country Music Hall of Fame, full stop. If the country rock and Cosmic American Music legacy of Gram Parsons allows people to realize that country sounds can escape the shadow of Right Wing politicking and nauseating pop similarity, then we’ve all won.
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