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

This post was originally published on September 19, 2018 on the 45th Anniversary of Gram Parsons’ death. This article has since been updated as a part of the Riffs & Rhymes “Week of Gram” series.

From before he dropped out of Harvard and formed his first country band, to the strange, 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 mythologized to all ends, yet still, Gram remains considerably underappreciated by the masses. 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’ artistic foresight was as significant as anybody’s in the Los Angeles scene.

Born into a family of monumental wealth, alcoholism and other dysfunctional qualities, Gram’s upbringing laid the foundation for a life plagued by drug addiction and narcissism. Yet from his pain and exquisite musical taste arose achingly beautiful songs that would expand the worlds of rock and country music in unprecedented ways. Gram’s work greatly impacted countless musicians and bands from his era, including adjacent country-rock acts like Poco and Neil Young, megastars like the Eagles and The Rolling Stones, singers in other genres, such as Elvis Costello, and even modern bands and singer-songwriters like First Aid Kit and Lola Kirke.

Though Gram is so closely associated with the birth of a particular sound, it’s no secret he didn’t like his music being branded under the scope of one genre. His blend of country, rock, blues, gospel and soul was fresh, cutting edge and moving – a style which he famously coined “Cosmic American Music.” On one hand, Parsons was a deeply complicated individual, burdened by many demons on the path to his inevitable self-destruction. On the other, he was a simple and kind, humbly Southern guy – soft spoken and spiritually profound. He loved the desert, fine women and strong tequila. Although he was far from the first cowboy to document a life of sin on record, few others have ever done so with such sincerity. His jambalaya of American music has since evolved greatly, but in revisiting his discography, it’s astounding to see how many bracing ideas were beaming out of the young Georgia boy during his brief creative peak.

Whether you are a long time stan or a newcomer to Gram’s music, his career is one worth reading about over and over, both for the lore and for the tunes. Dive into his iconic catalog and retrace his cosmic journey 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. 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, three-part harmonies and a little rock ‘n’ roll – styles which deep down would always play a role in his artistic makeup. He set off for Harvard University in 1966, only to drop out before the end of his first semester. Rather than school, Gram was unsurprisingly interested in pursuing a music career and he became heavily involved in the local scene around Cambridge, eventually linking up with guitarist John Nuese, bassist Ian Dunlop and drummer Mickey Gauvin. Determined to make a splash, the new quartet officially formed 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. Prior to their relocation, it was Nuese, perhaps the most distinguished player in the “ISB,” who introduced Parsons to the records of Merle Haggard, George Jones and other prominent country figures while in school. In considering Gram’s enduring legacy as a dedicated country music connoisseur, his relationship with Nuese was highly pivotal in regards to the trajectory of his music. Nuese’s influence on Gram’s taste was immense; you could even argue he ignited the fuse that completely recalibrated his entire artistic repertoire. As the ISB, they would soon help forge an entirely new musical dynamic amid the end of an era dominated by folk-rock and psychedelia. Their new mission: to show the world country music was hip too.

While in New York, the ISB tightened up their skill set – they spent the entirety of most days writing, rehearsing and jamming, with some recreational weed usage and acid trips sprinkled in. Despite the band’s promising makeup, they struggled to secure a record deal or produce a hit single. After a while in the city, Gram, easily distracted by anything that seemed more “happening” than whatever he was up to, took an extended vacation to California with friend and actor Brandon deWilde, and became instantly mesmerized by the glam of the West Coast. Upon his return and heavy insistence, the ISB to reluctantly relocated to California in hopes of striking a breakthrough, submersing themselves in the decadence of the Los Angeles rock scene.

The ISB’s arrival in Los Angeles immediately disrupted the band’s synergy. They rarely rehearsed, gigs were hard to come by and the distractions (drugs and women) began to pile up, leading Dunlop and Gauvin to quit and strike out on their own. Still, Gram was determined to find success, and with Nuese, pieced together various country session players, including Earl Ball, Jay Dee Maness and Chris Ethridge, to make an album on a new deal with LHI Records, the imprint of famed cowboy singer-songwriter Lee Hazlewood.

The International Submarine Band disbanded for good by early 1968, but their mark on Los Angeles, however small at the time, was important. During the late ’60s, there weren’t many musicians playing country music in Los Angeles, let alone long-haired hippies who smoked pot. Though it wasn’t commercially or critically successful, their lone album, Safe at Home, helped break some of those barriers. By now, Gram was beginning to find his bearings as a songwriter and had full committed himself to preserving country music’s truest traditions while advocating for its coolness to younger crowds.

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. “Blue Eyes” and “Luxury Liner,” two Gram originals, capture his melodic talents like lightning in a bottle and tease the sorrow-filled narratives that would eventually become his trademark.

The Byrds and ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’

Bringing country rock to the masses

Gram’s move to The Byrds lined up with his yearning desire for the spotlight. Though the ISB was perfectly in tune with Gram’s artistic ambitions, he had always envisioned obtaining a bigger platform for his art and The Byrds were the ideal band for him to achieve it. 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 span of a few years. When bassist Chris Hillman recruited Parsons to fill in with 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 sideman was loaded with talent. Gram’s enthusiasm for country music would immediately impact the direction of their next record.

The Byrds were not completely new to the flavors of country (Hillman’s primary instrument was the mandolin), and had dabbled with elements of it on previous recordings (see “Satisfied Mind”). With David Crosby out and Gram now in, they jumped in headfirst, merging California and Nashville in ways previously unseen, on their sixth studio album Sweetheart of the Rodeo. This time around, their traditional Bob Dylan covers were recreated into dreamy, pedal steel singalongs (“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and “Nothing Was Delivered”). Quiet oldies ballads were turned 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.

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The significance of Sweetheart of the Rodeo only in part to to the relevancy of The Byrds; the sound of the album is largely indebted to Gram’s influence and ambition. Amid the many great songs on Sweetheart, his originals stand out. 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 become his signature tune.

The band recorded each song with lead vocals from both Gram and McGuinn. Refusing to relinquish control of his band to a kid who was initially supposed to be a hired musician, McGuinn faded Gram’s vocals into the background on a number of tracks and opted to use his own takes as the lead on the majority of the songs. 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 level of sincerity that McGuinn was unable to achieve.

Gram’s short stint with The Byrds saw him make the jump from being a well-versed folk and country singer to that of a compelling songwriter and visionary. Though still young in age and not completely yet exposed to the vices that would eventually lead to his demise, Gram’s songs began to elicit shades of a lonely, tormented soul – something that would appear extremely prevalent on his future recordings. His cold, helpless delivery on lines like “I pray every night for death to come,” from The Byrds’ cover of Merle Haggard’s “Life in Prison,” prompts intense dolor.

Before the year was over, Gram was out of The Byrds, but the ripple effects of his tenure with the band 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, Gram 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 Los Angeles, 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 heavily around Gram’s 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 military draft-ditching 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 – a testament to the drug-addled haze that ruled over Los Angeles and its Hollywood libertines.

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While the Burritos were deeply invested in traditional country music, they possessed a other qualities that truly placed them in their own lane. Just as they blurred the line between country and rock music, they also bridged the gap between the psychedelic culture and early signs of post-hippie depression with the modern wave of Southern gospel and R&B.

Gram, a Georgia boy raised in the church, was always a big fan of soul music. In covering artists like William Bell and Aretha Franklin, he was not only paying homage, but ultimately transforming R&B love songs into countrified ballads. His covers in 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. Most notably, “Dark of End of the Street” presents each band member operating at peak performance, from Etheridge’s chugging bass, to Sneaky Pete’s anthemic steel guitar, to Gram’s chilling vocal lead, it is a masterpiece of desert psychedelia grounded in the grace of Southern soul.

With The Gilded Palace of Sin, Gram fulfilled the prophecy he established a few years earlier, taking the idea of Cosmic American Music to soaring new heights. Together, he and Hillman were penning apocalyptic country songs of despair and existential crisis, performing them over exquisite instrumentation unlike anything else being recorded in Los Angeles at the time. Even the record’s most endearing love songs, “Hot Burrito #1” and “Hot Burrito #2,” are blessed with a touch of darkness and misery.

The Burritos’ debut is undisputedly the seminal record of country rock. It features four highly skilled music minds rolling on all cylinders, with Gram and Hillman leading the charge. They shared an artistic vision truly ahead of their time and while Gram ended up the more revered artist individually, 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, Gram had become disinterested in the band, or anything for that matter, much in thanks to his increasingly disastrous partying habits and an intimate albeit toxic relationship with Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones. The two friends would end up being extremely influential on each other, with Gram introducing Richards to the magic of country music and Richards reshaping Gram’s perception of fame and rock ‘n’ roll glamour. It’s easy to imagine their shared love for getting high played a major role in developing their friendship. In light of Gram’s continued laziness and reckless behavior, Hillman became fed up and fired him from the band.

Burrito Deluxe was by no means a complete failure, and still features its fair share of highlights, including “Image of Me,” “Farther Along” and the first recorded version of “Wild Horses,” a song the Stones would popularize in the coming years. Looking back, Deluxe has a handful of great moments, but with Gram’s drug use spiraling rapidly and the group dynamic lacking any synergy, 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, Gram’s alcohol and drug intake was taking a serious toll on his well being. Between 1970 and 1972, he continued to struggle with substance abuse, in particular heroin, 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 being introduced to a young folk singer by the name of Emmylou Harris. At the recommendation of Chris Hillman, with whom Gram had somewhat repaired his relationship with, he wasted little time in bringing her along to assist him in recording his solo debut, a move that would not only help define Gram’s next two records, but also launch the career of Harris, who would go on to become one of the most accomplished female artists in country music history.

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, Gram’s 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 wild casino boogie (“Big Mouth Blues”) as well as the pretty pop ballad (“She”).

Harris and the rest of Gram’s 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. Gram’s songs were as soulful as ever, a quality characterized by his shaky, ailing voice. It was clear, however, that the passion was there. This was also evident on his live album, Live 1973, an album recorded at a live radio show on the tour for GP that didn’t see release until nearly a decade later. Not only is it noteworthy for containing the majority of Gram’s limited supply of live recordings – the singing is exquisite. Together, he and Emmylou were a match made in heaven, and their harmonies still sound sublime to this day.

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Now with both a strong studio crew, touring band and a little momentum on his side, Gram set his sights on album number two. Featuring Harris and the same players as his previous LP, Grievous Angel was an alt-country classic before it even arrived. It was the most polished and well-produced record of Gram’s career, encapsulating his talents as a future 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 reach an angelic tier of beauty, especially on Boudleaux Bryant’s “Love Hurts.” He also showed a new level of maturity and poise, dwelling on his mother’s fatal alcoholism on “Brass Buttons” and reflecting on a would-be marriage gone wrong on “$1000 Wedding.” Though many solemn narratives still underscored Gram’s 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 Gram overdosing on alcohol and morphine on September 19, 1973.

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 Gram’s death, sufficed by it being arguably 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 foreshadowing eulogy – 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 decisions and blessing his peers with his rare, once in a lifetime gifts.

During his musical journey, Gram Parsons assumed many different personas: the lonesome cowboy stuck in a state of despair; the Southern gospel devotee; the tormented soul singer who embellished himself in the excesses of rock star living; 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 Gram’s escapades, his mission was to convey truth and to spread country music the only way he knew how, from the heart.

His ear and output 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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