From before he dropped out of Harvard and formed his first country band, to the weird, unsettling 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 a country rock pioneer has been romanticized to all ends, but he still remains relatively unknown to the masses. Few artists had as significant an influence on late 20th century country and folk music as Parsons. From his time in The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, to his endeavors as a solo artist with Emmylou Harris, during a short span in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Gram Parsons’ voice was as important as anybody in the Los Angeles rock scene.
His work greatly impacted countless musicians and bands from his era, including country rockers like Poco and the Eagles, world famous acts like Neil Young and The Rolling Stones, singers in other genres, such as Elvis Costello, and even modern names like First Aid Kit and Lola Kirke.
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, gospel and soul was refreshing, charming and unique – a style which he famously coined “Cosmic American Music.” On one hand, Parsons was a deeply complicated individual with self-destructive habits, burdened by many demons. On the other, he was a simple and kind, humbly Southern boy – soft spoken and yet spiritually profound. He loved the desert, fine women and strong tequila. And although he wasn’t the first cowboy to document the sinful life on record, few others had done it so sincerely up to that point. His quietly psychedelic mesh of American music has since evolved greatly, 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, both for the lore and for the tunes. Dive into his iconic discography and explore his cosmic journey as an American troubadour below.
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. If he couldn’t become one, at the very least, he would live like one. As a teen, 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 pursuing a music career and he became heavily involved in the local folk scene around Cambridge. His aspirations to make it big led to the forming of his first legitimate group, 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. Among the players in ISB was guitarist John Nuese, who introduced Parsons to Merle Haggard, George Jones and other prominent country figures while in school. In considering Parsons’ enduring legacy as a country music connoisseur, his relationship with Nuese is viewed as highly pivotal in regards to the trajectory of his music. Nuese undeniably had a great influence on Parsons’ tastes; you could even argue he ignited the fuse that completely recalibrated his entire artistic repertoire. As the ISB, they would soon help create an entirely new musical dynamic during an era dominated by psychedelia. Their new mission: to show the world country music was hip too.
Label tensions and the failure to produce a hit single caused the ISB to relocate to California, submersing themselves in the decadence of the Los Angeles rock ‘n’ roll scene, a move which ended up disrupting the hopes of the band’s remaining members and their relationships with Parsons. Still, Parsons was determined to find success, and gave the group another go with new personnel and a new deal on LHI Records, the imprint of famed 1950s singer-songwriter Lee Hazlewood.
In light of conflicting interests between band members and Parsons’ persistent individuality, The International Submarine Band disbanded for good by early 1968, but not before they would make one full length record, Safe at Home. It didn’t see release until spring of that year, by which time Parsons had already made way for The Byrds, but in hindsight, the album is a commendable and worthwhile 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 fully dedicated to preserving and expanding the tropes of traditional country music. Even while he was still learning to flesh his ideas out into fully-realized compositions, the sound on Safe at Home was unique for its time and the songs show 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 compelling existential narratives rooted in sinfulness and heartbreak, a style that would eventually become his trademark.
The Byrds and ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’
Bringing country rock to the masses
Parsons’ move to The Byrds lined up with his yearning desire for the spotlight and instantly gained him more visibility. Though musically the ISB was in tune with Parsons’ artistic ambitions, 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 groups of the 1960s, The Byrds helped popularize both folk-rock and psychedelic rock, charting numerous songs over the course of a few year span. When bassist Chris Hillman recruited Parsons to join the band, Byrds leader Roger McGuinn initially thought they had hired a piano player. It didn’t take long for them to realize their newest member was loaded with 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, as they had experimented with elements of it throughout their first five records (see “Satisfied Mind”). With David Crosby out and Parsons in, they jumped all the way in, merging California and Nashville like no one had ever done before on their sixth studio album Sweetheart of the Rodeo. 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 one with major commercial viability.
The significance of Sweetheart of the Rodeo can be partially attributed to the relevancy of The Byrds, but the sound of the album is largely indebted to Parsons’ influence. Amid the many great songs on Sweetheart, his originals stand out as the most memorable. The imagery and sense of place evoked on the southern ballad, “Hickory Wind,” is among the most heartfelt and scenic writing of his career – a track that has rightfully remained his signature tune over time. Unfortunately, Roger McGuinn’s ego prevented Parsons’ vocals from appearing as the lead on many tracks, but the outtakes featuring Gram on lead have since reappeared on the Legacy Edition of Sweetheart, further demonstrating just how impactful he was to the recording of the album. His versions of The Louvin Brothers’ gospel-country classic “The Christian Life,” as well as William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water” are earnest and sincere, performed with a demeanor McGuinn was unable to achieve.
Parsons’ short stint with The Byrds saw him make the jump from being a traditional and 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, Parsons’ songs began to elicit shades of a lonely, tormented soul – something that would appear extremely prevalent on future recordings. His harrowing delivery on likes like “I pray every night for death to come” (“Life in Prison”) still prompts intense dolor.
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 near 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 had previously recorded with the ISB in their second wave, and “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow on pedal steel. 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 arsenal. They played an elevated blend of country and rock that was unprecedented at the time, simultaneously identifying both with traditional country aesthetics and hippie moral code. The album took everything The Byrds did on Sweetheart of the Rodeo and amplified it times ten, advancing both the sophistication and the authenticity of the sound. Songs like the racing diss-track “Christine’s Tune” and the anti-war-hooligan anthem “My Uncle” express the free-spirited sentiments of ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll and fuse it with the honky-tonk medleys of the Bakersfield sound. Slower cuts like “Sin City” and “Wheels” embody the spirit of alienated cowboys and a morally decrepit society.
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 blurred the line between country and rock music, 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-Florida boy brought up in the church, was always a big fan of soul music. In covering the likes of William Bell and Aretha Franklin, he was not only paying homage, but ultimately transforming rhythm and blues love songs into countrified ballads. His covers of this style rank among the most potent performances of his career and remain a true stroke of genius for the time which they were created. 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 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
GP’s solo works and lasting legacy
By this point, Parsons’ alcohol and drug intake was taking a serious toll on 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 around Richards and company during the sessions for Exile On Main Street. Eventually, Gram pulled himself together enough to start 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 of the next few decades.
Gram’s first album, titled GP, arrived in 1973 and asserted himself 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,” Tom Glaser’s “Streets of Baltimore” and the George Jones shuffle “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 melody and the astounding ability to convey grief in the form of beautiful songs. His skills as a band leader were strong too, updating the stylings of The Byrds and the Burritos to form a polished sound that did the drunk boogie (“Big Mouth Blues”) as well as the heart-wrenching ballad (“She”).
Harris and the rest of Parsons’ new band, The Fallen Angels, set out to wreak havoc on America, embarking on an extensive tour 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 album, 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.
Now with a strong backing band and a little momentum on his side, Parsons set his sights on album number two. Featuring Harris and the same backing musicians as the previous LP, 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 with grace and stoicism, gently lending his experience and philosophy to the country-rock audience at large.
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.