A Gram Parsons Primer: Remembering the Grievous Angel 45 Years After His Death

From the moment he dropped out of Harvard and formed his first country band, to the weird and chaotic events surrounding his death at the age of 26, Gram Parsons’ destiny always seemed to be that of a counterculture legend.

Today marks the 45th anniversary of the Grievous Angel’s passing. His legacy as the inventor of country rock has been romanticized to all ends, but he still remains relatively unknown to the masses. Few artists had as significant an influence on the country and folk music of the late 20th century as Parsons. From his time in The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, to his ventures as a solo artist with Emmylou Harris, during a five year span in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Gram Parsons was the man.

His work greatly impacted countless musicians and bands from his era, including country rockers like Poco and the Eagles, mega rock ‘n’ roll acts like Neil Young and The Rolling Stones, artists in other genres, such as Elvis Costello, and even modern acts, like First Aid Kit.

Though he is so closely associated with the birth of a particular sound, it’s widely known that Parsons didn’t like his music being branded under the scope of one genre. His blend of country, rock, blues and soul was refreshing, charming and unique – a style which he famously coined “Cosmic American Music.” Parsons loved the desert, fine women and strong tequila. Although he wasn’t the first cowboy to document the sinful life on record, nobody had done it quite like he had up to that point. His psychedelic mesh of American music has since evolved, but in analyzing his discography today, it’s amazing to see how many bracing ideas were beaming out of the young 20-somethin’ year old during his brief creative peak.

Whether you’re a long time stan or a newcomer to Parsons’ music, his career is one worth reading about over and over, for the lore and for the tunes. Dive into his iconic discography and explore his cosmic journey as an American troubadour below.

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The International Submarine Band and ‘Safe at Home’

Subtle beginnings of something much bigger

From the get-go, Gram Parsons was determined to be a rock star and if he couldn’t become one, at the very least, he would live like one. As a teenager, he had already formed his own band called The Shilos. These early years for Parsons consisted of mostly traditional folk songs, a craft which deep down would always underlie his artistic persona. He set off for Harvard University in 1966, only to drop out before the end of the first semester. Rather than school, Parsons was unsurprisingly interested in music and his aspirations to make it big led to the forming of his first legitimate act, The International Submarine Band.

Convinced they were destined for the big time, Parsons moved himself and his band members to New York to make their first record. Label tensions and the failure to produce a hit single led to Parsons refocusing himself solely on country music, which in turn, disrupted the hopes of the band’s remaining members and their relationships with him. Determined to find success, Parsons gave the band another go with new members and a new deal with LHI Records. Among the new cats was guitarist John Nuese, the man who allegedly introduced Parsons to Merle Haggard and many other country deep cuts in his short time at Harvard.

With conflicting interests and a lack of chemistry, The International Submarine Band disbanded again by early 1968, but not before they would make one full length record, Safe at Home. It didn’t see release until the spring of that year, by which time Parsons had already made way for The Byrds, but in hindsight, the album was a noteworthy precursor to the movement that would undertake California rock over the next several years. At this point, Parsons was starting to find his bearings as a songwriter and had become a full blown country music aficionado. And yet, while he was still learning to flesh his ideas out into full songs, the sound was there, occasionally even showing flashes of brilliance. The ISB’s most well known songs, “Blue Eyes” and “Luxury Liner,” capture Parsons’ melodic talents like lightning in a bottle and uncovered his knack for writing humorsome, existential narratives, which would eventually become a specialty of his.

The Byrds and ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’

Bringing country rock to the masses

Parsons’ move to The Byrds could be viewed as him chasing a bigger paycheck, but he was never out to compromise his music for money (he was already rich, anyways). He simply had his sights set on bigger things and The Byrds were the ideal band for him to get closer to his rock star dreams. As one of the most iconic bands of the 1960s, they helped popularize both folk-rock and psychedelic rock, charting numerous songs over the course of a few year span. When bassist and guitarist Chris Hillman recruited Parsons to join the band, Roger McGuinn, The Byrds’ leader, initially thought they had hired a piano player. It didn’t take long for them to realize their newest member had an abundance of talent and his enthusiasm for country music immediately impacted the direction of their next record.

The Byrds were not new to the flavors of country by any means, as they had experimented with elements of it throughout their first five records (see “Satisfied Mind”). Now with David Crosby out and Parsons in the lineup, on Sweetheart of the Rodeo, they jumped all the way in, merging California and Nashville like no one had ever done before. They took Bob Dylan songs (as they always did) and recreated them into dreamy, pedal steel singalongs (“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and “Nothing Was Delivered”). They turned quiet oldies ballads into honky tonk ditties and banjo guitar jams (“You’re Still On My Mind” and “Pretty Boy Floyd”). The album marked the deepest immersion into country music ever recorded by a rock band, especially a major one.

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The significance of Sweetheart of the Rodeo and its impact can mostly be attributed to the relevancy of The Byrds, but the sound of the album is largely in thanks to Parsons’ influence. Amid the many great songs on Sweetheart, his originals stand out as some of the most memorable. The imagery and sense of place evoked on the southern ballad, “Hickory Wind,” is among the most heartfelt and pretty writing of his career and it’s no wonder it remains one of his most signature tunes. It’s a shame that legal battles with his old label prevented his vocals from appearing as the lead on many tracks, but in a way, it adds to the lore of the album and Parsons’ artistic ascension.

Parsons short stint with The Byrds saw him make the jump from being a traditional and fairly well-versed folk singer to that of a compelling songwriter and visionary. Though seemingly still very young and relatively unexposed to the vices that would eventually lead to his demise, the characters in Parsons’ songs showed shades of a lonely, tormented soul, something that would appear extremely prevalent on his future records, especially with the Burritos. “I pray every night for death to come,” he cries on “Life in Prison.”

Before the year was over, Parsons was out of The Byrds, but his impact would be felt for years to come.

The Flying Burrito Brothers and ‘The Gilded Palace of Sin’

The album that changed everything

After leaving The Byrds at the end of 1968, Parsons recruited his former bandmate Chris Hillman to follow suit and join him on a new project, which infamously became The Flying Burrito Brothers. They added a bass player in Chris Etheridge, who was a part of the Submarine Band’s second wave, and “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow on steel guitar. Together they set off to create one of 1969’s most important records.

The Gilded Palace of Sin arrived in February to massive critical acclaim, although the album generated little to no buzz on a commercial scale. Similar to The Velvet Underground’s iconic debut just two years prior, the Burritos’ first album hardly sold any copies, but the reaction it created among other musicians was monumental. Many artists cited the album as having a tremendous impact on them, including Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, the Eagles and many others.

The draw of the band revolved around Parsons’ aura and the group’s unique musical talents. They played an elevated blend of country and rock that was unprecedented at the time, simultaneously, still identifying with country music’s most traditional and iconic tropes: loneliness, sinful living and desperation. The album took everything The Byrds did on Sweetheart of the Rodeo and amplified it times ten, advancing both the sophistication and the quality of the sound. Songs like the racing “Christine’s Tune” and the hooligan anthem “My Uncle” took the pace and instrumental heaviness of rock ‘n’ roll to the wild west. Slower cuts like “Sin City” and “Wheels” embody the spirit of alienated cowboys and a morally decrepit society.

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While the Burritos were deeply tied to country music’s roots, they had a few qualities that made them unique in an entirely different way. Just as they fused the worlds of country and rock, they also bridged the gap between the psychedelic drug culture of the hippie era with the modern wave of southern gospel and R&B. Parsons, a Georgia boy raised in the church, was always a fan of covering soul songs, but he didn’t just redo them, he transformed them into countrified ballads. Gilded Palace features a pair of Dan Penn originals. The more impressive of the two, “Dark of End of the Street” presents each band member operating at peak performance, from the chugging bass and drums, to Sneaky Pete’s anthemic steel guitar, to Parsons’ chilling vocal lead, it is a masterpiece of desert psychedelia grounded in the foundations and grace of Southern soul.

With The Gilded Palace of Sin, Parsons fulfilled the prophecy he established a few years earlier, taking the idea of country rock to soaring new heights. He was no longer writing pretty folk tunes. Together, he and Hillman were penning apocalyptic country songs of desolation and existential crisis, singing them over exquisite instrumentation. Even the record’s most endearing love songs, “Hot Burrito #1” and “Hot Burrito #2,” possess a touch of darkness and misery. The Burritos’ debut is undisputedly the seminal record of country rock. It features four highly skilled musicians rolling on all cylinders, with Parsons and Hillman leading the charge. They shared an artistic vision that was ahead of their time and while Parsons ended up the more revered artist, independently speaking, it’s hard to believe this record would have happened with only one of them involved.

Ironically, this would prove to be the downfall of the Burritos’ second LP, Burrito Deluxe. By this point, Parsons had become disinterested in the band, mainly due to his partying habits and a toxic relationship with Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones. The two friends were extremely influential on each other, bonding over their love for music and a fondness for getting high.

Burrito Deluxe was by no means a complete failure, as it still featured fun, rocking tunes like “Farther Along” and “If You Gotta Go,” as well as the first recorded version of “Wild Horses,” a song the Stones would popularize in the coming years. Looking back, Deluxe has many great moments, but at the time, with Parsons’ drug use and personal problems spiraling rapidly, the band never regained the edge that initially made them so bold. When all was said and done, the Burritos still had a unique place in music history, quietly being one of the most influential bands of their time.

‘GP’, ‘Grievous Angel’and Emmylou Harris

Solo works and Parsons’ lasting legacy

By this point, Parsons’ alcohol intake was seriously affecting his physical health and music career. Between 1970 and 1972, he continued to struggle with substance abuse, failing to record a solo project while living in Europe and hanging with Richards. He eventually pulled himself together and began working towards a new album on Reprise, but not before discovering a young singer by the name of Emmylou Harris. He wasted little time in bringing her along to assist him in finishing his solo debut, a move that would not only help define Parsons’ next two records, but also launch the career of Harris, who would go on to become one of country music’s most successful female artists over the next few decades.

Parsons’ first album, titled GP, arrived in 1973 and reasserted him as one of the era’s most gifted songwriters. It featured admirable covers, including Joyce Allsup’s “We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes in the Morning” and George Jones’ “That’s All It Took.” In spite of his poor physical state, Parsons’ pen remained sharp as a nail, showing he still had an uncanny knack for crafting infectious melodies. His skills as a band leader were strong too, updating the stylings of The Byrds and the Burritos to form a polished sound that could do drunk boogies (“Big Mouth Blues”) as well as it could do heartbreaking ballads (“She”).

Harris and the rest of Parsons’ new band, The Fallen Angels, set out to wreak havoc on America, embarking on a heavy touring schedule that blistered its way through rock clubs and honky tonks all over the country. It seemed like Parsons had regained the faith and love of rock and country music, even though he still sounded like he needed help. His songs were as soulful as ever, a quality characterized by his ailing voice, which can especially be heard on his live record, Live 1973, an album recorded on the tour for GP that didn’t see release until nearly a decade later. Some may argue this added a rough and genuine touch to his songs; he sounded like a wounded veteran, an old soul on his last leg – which in many ways he was, as at this point his final days were approaching.

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Now with a strong backing band and a little momentum on his side, Parsons set his sights on album number two. Once again featuring Harris on duets and The Fallen Angels behind him – though with a few new members – Grievous Angel was an alt-country classic before it even arrived. It was the most polished and well-produced record of Parsons’ career, encapsulating his talents as a country icon with eloquently written and performed songs. He sounded more fully realized than ever, delivering each take in a stoic and comfortable tone, gently lending his experience and philosophy to his attentive audience.

Accompanied by the piano, acoustics and steel guitar, his duets with Harris achieved angelic potential, most notably on “Love Hurts.” He also showed a new level of maturity and poise, recalling his mother’s fatal alcoholism on “Brass Buttons” and a would-be marriage gone wrong on “$1000 Wedding.” Though many dark emotions and insecure moods still underlied Parsons’ music, it appeared he had regained some sort of well being – his voice sounded stronger and there was evidently less suffering present in his songs. Unfortunately, he didn’t live to see the album’s release, when a celebratory trip to Joshua Tree ended with Parsons overdosing on alcohol and morphine, exactly 45 years ago today.

Released four months after his passing, Grievous Angel quickly became a counterculture favorite and has since been heralded a classic. It’s an album of triumph and tragedy, cursed by Parsons’ death, sufficed by it being his best work. “Return of the Grievous Angel” and “In My Hour of Darkness” remain two of his most touching songs, the latter eerily appearing to be written about himself – a final goodbye to a lone ranger who spent his life walking the line between divine and secular worlds, bearing the consequences of self-destructive choices and blessing his peers with his rare, once in a lifetime gifts.

During his musical journey, Gram Parsons embraced many different attitudes: the lonesome cowboy stuck in a state of despair, the church boy who sang gospel, the tormented soul singer who embellished in the excesses of a rock star lifestyle, and the prodigy who started a movement that changed the landscape of California rock in the 1970s. However, one thing never changed. In all of Parsons’ escapades, he was a man humble in his ways, simply trying to make sense of his life and surroundings.

His ear for country music inspired a wave of both innovators and imitators, and his poetry painted pictures of both love and loss. He didn’t just start the country rock movement, he ignited it. 50 years later, America is better for it.

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