Examining the Music That Made Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Offspring

On the back cover blurb of Twenty Thousand Roads, David N. Meyer’s biography of Gram Parsons, it reads:

“As a singer and songwriter, Gram Parsons stood at the nexus of countless musical crossroads, and he sold his soul to the devil at every one.”

The second half of that sentence contextualizes the demons that ruled and ultimately ruined Gram’s career. However, the more important sentiment to take from it is that in his short time as a musician and songwriter, Gram Parsons played a significant and massively underappreciated role in fusing together styles of American music like few other artists ever have.

His unrelenting enthusiasm for country music drove The Byrds to record what many consider most the first important country-rock album. His Southern roots and love for gospel and R&B infused a colorful blend of sounds into The Flying Burrito Brothers’ masterful debut record. His two lone solo efforts featured Elvis Presley’s backing band, combining honky-tonk, rock ‘n’ roll, blues and country to form transcendent works of roots music and have since become a blueprint for countless artists and songwriters following in Parsons’ footsteps.

His peers and closest collaborators included Keith Richards and The Rolling Stones, Clarence White, Neil Young, the Eagles, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Delaney & Bonnie and Leon Russell, among many others. In spite of his immense lack of success while he was alive, Gram’s musical family tree stretched far and wide, sprouting infinite branches in the years and decades after his death.

As with any forward-thinking musician or songwriter, Gram’s taste was informed by a myriad of distinct styles of music, ranging from Nashville’s classic country to the electric Bakersfield Sound to the folk language of Greenwich Village. Just as he blazed trails for the alt-country bands and singer-songwriters of the future, his sound is indebted to the pioneers that came before him.

In Meyer’s excellent biography, he includes a section at the end of the book titled “Recommended Listening,” in which he lists out essential recordings of Gram’s most important contemporaries and other relevant genre-adjacent works. The artists and albums are categorized into Roots, Soul, Gram’s L.A., Contemporaries, Outlaw Country and Aftermath. Prior to writing out the albums in each section, Meyer lists 12 definitive projects which he dubs the “Top Twelve” – twelve records that exerted a broad musical influence on Gram and reveal the most about his musical passions. Essentially, they are a primer for Cosmic American Music. The Top Twelve are as follows:

  1. The Louvin Brothers – Satan Is Real
  2. Ray Charles – Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music
  3. The Rolling Stones – Exile on Main St.
  4. Wynn Stewart – Wynn Stewart’s Greatest Hits
  5. George Jones – The Essential George Jones
  6. Various Artists – The Anthology of American Folk Music
  7. Buck Owens – Buck Owens’ Greatest Hits Vols. I and II
  8. The Sir Douglas Quintet – Mendocino
  9. Gene Clark – Flying High
  10. Lefty Frizzell – Lefty’s 20 Golden Hits
  11. Elvis Presley – Elvis Presley
  12. Chuck Berry – The Great Twenty-Eight

It is important to note that a chunk of Meyer’s selections are compilations spanning multiple albums and entire careers. This was done specifically with the intention of capturing each artist at their very best and eliminating the filler of bloated LPs and weaker material.

In remembering Gram’s musical legacy, it is vital to understand the essence of the places and the people his sound came from. His passion for each of the artists listed above is clear in his own recordings, and as evident by both Gram’s music and the word of his intimates – few things were as important to him as sharing with others his love for the songs that moved him.

To further examine Gram’s art, we took a look at the music that influenced him most, including many of the artists listed in Meyer’s Top Twelve.

The Spirit of Rock ‘n’ Roll

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Many of the key fixtures in Gram’s musicology can be traced to his formative years as a musician. As a growing teen in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Gram was naturally drawn to the most attractive styles of the time: the verbose poetry of folk music and the burgeoning aura of rock ‘n’ roll. The latter made a particular impression on Gram as a boy.

Gram was one of many Southern gents and gals to become infatuated with the flair and showmanship of Elvis Presley, the first King of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s safe to say Elvis’ swagger helped spark Gram’s never fully realized rockstar aspirations, in both the sense of appearance and behavior. From his show-grabbing antics and ritzy Nudie suits to his drug abuse and self-inflicted demise, Elvis represented many of the same qualities that would factor into creating Gram’s persona.

Among other early rock inspirations, Chuck Berry’s explosive guitar-first approach revolutionized the consensus and feeling towards rock and roll as an artistic enterprise. Before Berry, the joining of country and blues music, though widely accepted and celebrated, was moving at a slow pace. Berry’s electrifying guitar style was rooted in the blues, yet accelerated the advancement of rock as an art form incredibly. His suggestive love songs and provocative nature were miles ahead of the curve, and following his lead, song lyrics would never be the same. Berry set a rhythm of American music for the youth, of which Gram was an impressionable member.

Other notable rockabilly acts that would exert a great influence on Gram, included the cool and clever Carl Perkins and eccentric Jerry Lee Lewis. Together, these forefathers of rock and roll tapped into a brand new energy in music and struck like lightning when it came to captivating the minds of young aspiring artists. They showed the dream could be a reality.

Folk Language and Building the Perfect Poet

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The rowdy rockabilly vibes of Elvis and Chuck Berry are visible on Gram’s attempts at crafting his own versions of boogie rock anthems (see “Big Mouth Blues” and “I Can’t Dance”), but arguably even more informative in Gram’s early years were heavy doses of traditional and modern folk music.

Gram’s first groups were molded in the same style as folk revivalists like The Kingston Trio, The Weavers and The Journeymen, featuring multi-part harmonies on vocals and guitar. These bands played tried and true folk melodies, yet they were also able to turn sentimental expression into sentimental entertainment. Early GP ensembles The Like, The Village Vanguards and The Shilos opted for a similar model, though at the time, their repertoire mainly consisted of covers and amateur original songs. The aspects of this phase and style in Gram’s career would prove to be technical more than anything.

Acts like the Kingston Trio were notorious for being tightly rehearsed and the intricacies of their music translated into beautifully layered songs with multiple pieces. Gram’s attention to detail dove off a cliff as soon as he got into drugs, but his early attempts as imitating top of the line folk-pop bands formed a base understanding of how small details could impact a song in a major way. Take the violin to piano counterpoint on songs off of Grievous Angel or even Gram’s infinite desire to have a singing partner to harmonize with, or at times, multiple singing partners (see “Cry One More Time” and “In My Hour of Darkness”). There is a connecting line between Gram’s expectation for excellence from the rough yet fine-tuned skill sets of the folk world to his country fusion.

On the other side of the folk spectrum, the rich poetry of Greenwich Village also played a key role in shaping Gram’s approach to song and phrasing – something especially heard on his posthumous compilation Another Side of This Life, which solely consists of Gram’s vocals over an acoustic guitar. After spending the summer prior to his senior year of high school living and playing to audiences in New York, Gram had experienced the same happening scene that birthed poets like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Fred Neil. Though he would go on to fully devote himself to country music in the future, the ethos of the solitary folk singer permeated Gram’s lyrical prowess throughout the rest of his years.

Through the roots of folk music, Gram would learn to tap into the metaphysical with his writing, implementing hidden meaning and universal mythology without compromising melody, sincerity or the earnestness that made his songs feel true. He perfected the art of allowing emotions to flow naturally and convincingly through each and every word, a skill only acquired through study and understanding.

Down-Home Roots: The Soul of the South

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“Sometimes all you can do is sing gospel music.” The faint, achy manner in which those words leave Gram’s mouth during his Live 1973 album, recorded on a WILR-FM radio broadcast while touring GP, are a telling sign into the depths of Gram’s tormented heart. Raised in the south where hospitality and church etiquette were instilled in him from a young age, Gram always maintained a gentleman’s touch in the way he crafted his songs.

Much in the same way Gram adored traditional folk and country vocalists, he was highly fond of classic soul singers like Otis Redding and William Bell and resonated with their ability to manifest deeply endearing love songs. The R&B/soul influence on Gram was evident through his entire recording life. He made it a point to mingle soul standards with country staples, further reinforcing his Cosmic American Music proclamation. At Gram’s insistence, Bell’s classic hit “You Don’t Miss Your Water” found its way onto The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo. An even more tender rendition of the track was recorded by Fred Neil, featuring Gram playing piano and singing background vocals.

The most grand realization of Gram’s connection to soul music came on The Flying Burrito Brothers’ magnum opus, The Gilded Palace of Sin, on which Gram and co. transformed two soul standards into countrified ballads for all time. “Do Right Woman,” originally recorded by Aretha Franklin, is as pure a soul song as there could exist, an exemplary thesis on morality and love, perfected by the Queen of Soul herself. “Dark End of the Street,” first recorded by Mississippi’s James Carr, became another standout on Palace. Carr’s voice, capable professing heart-wrenching emotion, was said to have “soul so deep, you’ll never get to the bottom.”

Traditional Southern music seeped its way into Gram’s recordings by way of instrumental flavor as well. Burrito Brothers’ bassist Chris Ethridge was an R&B player at heart and his signature chugging tone helped solidify the band’s sound within the soul of country music. A major reference point for this style, Ray Charles Modern Sounds In Country & Western Music was a hallmark example of the magic that could arise when soul and country collided. After fulfilling contractual obligations with his previous label and gaining full creative control of his next album, Charles elected to record an entire LP of country standards, including Hank Williams’ “Hey, Good Lookin'” and Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” Modern Sounds helped bring country to a pop audience and was a prominent source of inspiration for The International Submarine Band and the Burritos.

To add depth to Gram’s gospel and soul influences, it’s worth noting his songs were nearly always coated in the contrasting textures of loud organs and delicate pianos. They were the instruments he had the most sufficient skills on as a player, and when his drug-addled mind hampered his abilities, he went and found the best possible man to get the job done. Glen D. Hardin’s key work on GP is especially serene, “A Song For You” and “Streets of Baltimore” serving as two highlights.

Gram’s willingness to incorporate such highly regarded soul standards into his country repertoire spoke to his affinity for truth and honesty. He dug the cheating songs, the heartbreak songs and the love songs. Simultaneously, he brought these classic styles of black music to a bigger audience by chain reaction. Country-rock contemporaries like Linda Ronstadt and Jerry Lee Lewis would take these songs and deliver them to the mainstream, shedding light on their brilliance with the rest of popular music.

As sinister as his life became, religion always permeated Gram’s work too. In fact, the worse he was, the more spiritually in tune he seemed. His quest to find meaning beyond his mortal self comes back to where it all began, at home in Waycross, Georgia.

Country Music & The Cold Cold Truth

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Gram’s music drew inspiration from infinite sounds and styles from all over America, but above all, it was country music that made him completely rededicate himself as an artist. In the same way Gram had a major influence on both the songwriting and the music of subsequent generations, his roots in country can be traced deeply into the various worlds of singing, composing and mythology.

As a vocalist, it’s pretty easy to draw comparisons between Gram and other classic country figures. There were many great early folk and country songwriters who made a name penning emotive songs about the trials of real life, but few could write a compelling tune like Lefty Frizzell. His poignant style of singing and writing led to him creating seminal songs like “The Long Black Veil.” His ability to draw out various syllables in each word allowed him to smoothen out his sound and appeal to mainstream audiences without losing popularity among the honky-tonk crowd. Frizzell and his sorrowful songs are among the earliest incarnations of the sad yearning that fueled Gram’s most dejected output.

Ultimately, the stars of 1950s and 1960s had the largest effect on Gram’s singing style. He shares bits of the same conversational delivery as Merle Haggard and the simple, small town poetry of Loretta Lynn, but no singular voice had a more lasting impact on Gram, than the iconic George Jones. Regarded as one of country’s most expressive singers and one of its foremost madmen, Jones channeled his pain to record countless hit singles that rank among the genre’s most heartbreaking ballads. His depressive states of self-loathing, chronicled through his engulfing smooth croon, were among the most direct and powerful influences on Gram’s singing.

Equally as important, duos like The Louvin Brothers and The Everly Brothers offer a gold mine for anyone hoping to draw profound emotion from harmony. Where the Louvins hold an extra special place in Gram’s book of musicology is in their tales of tragedy and hard fate. They toed the line between heaven and hell their whole careers, confronting their own demons the only way they were capable of and the same way Gram did, through song and prayer. Their most famous album, Satan Is Real, became a blueprint for Gram’s urban nightmares and features some of the most hauntingly beautiful harmony singing ever laid to wax.

While Gram has much in common with other demonic men of country music like Jones and The Louvins, it’s impossible to tell his story without saluting influential female vocalists like Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette, two show-stopping country singers with indisputable voices, the latter of which was Jones third wife and most notable duet partner. Parton, who on her own would become one country’s most important singer-songwriters, had gotten her break singing duets with Porter Wagoner. Though her solo output is of incredible quality, her duets with Wagoner are equally as enduring. Jones and Wynette’s collaborations would have an even greater impact on Gram and his future singing partner Emmylou Harris. The real-life pain and misery injected into Jones and Wynette’s work was unbearably real, and though Gram and Emmylou were never romantically involved like their two heroes, their duets did justice to the emotional turmoil that existed in their songs.

Musically, Gram took after a couple primary forms of country music styles. He was equally devoted to creating moving songs with sparse, rural, gospel-inflicted arrangements (see “Sin City”) and pretty yet big-sounding compositions (see “The New Soft Shoe” and “$1000 Wedding). Out of all places, the Western U.S. had enormous input in shaping his full band sound.

The lively, cadenced sound of Buck Owens straddled the border between country music and rock music well before The Flying Burrito Brothers were adorned the originators of the country-rock sub-genre. The Bakersfield Sound, of which Buck Owens and his Buckaroos, led by great guitarist and fiddler Don Rich, became the leaders of, was characterized by an uptempo electric sound built for honky-tonks and Top 40 charts alike. The Burrito Bro’s “My Uncle” (penned by Gram and Chris Hillman) and “Ooh Las Vegas” are explicit nods to Owens’ fiery and infectious brand of country – “Close Up the Honky Tonks,” an Owens original, was a regular in Burrito and Gram set lists.

Like Owens, Waylon Jennings and his raucous band of musicians (dubbed the Waylors), were known for wild live shows and became honky-tonk staples in Texas, Arizona and all over the south, even as Jennings struggled to gain acceptance from Nashville. Acts like Owens and Jennings were country down to the bone, but they embraced rock and roll sensibilities in a way Gram sought out to do with each of his groups. Their bands also featured the very best musicians, a philosophy Gram adopted throughout his career – especially on his solo works – in spite of his own shortcomings. Tom Brumley (Owens) and Ralph Mooney (Jennings) were regarded as two pedal steel virtuosos – fast and brilliant players, who both became stalwarts of the Bakersfield Sound.

The lore surrounding Gram as a legend in country music has even more to do with his surreal life than it does with his brand of music. He was born into a rich, dysfunctional family, lost both parents to the bottle before he graduated high school, and developed his own deathly drug habits before dying at a young age. He was notoriously ill-fated in all facets of life. When tracing Gram’s path of doom and self-destruction, there is a long line of predecessors who like he, threw away their potential with both hands, most notably the great Hank Williams. Touted the “Hillbilly Shakespeare” for his eloquent redneck poetry, Williams’ high and lonesome melodies still stand in a league of their own.

In some ways, the ideology of being a “legend” is the most interesting and often conflicting part of Gram’s legacy. Like Williams, Gram’s early death and mythological exit from earth have been romanticized to all ends. The sad reality of Gram’s tragic story is that his life was one of wasted talent, potential drowned in excess, kindness shaded by inner demons. However, unlike many legendary artists who died too soon, the darkness within Gram’s soul was directly connected to his greatness. His pain was real. His songs were from the heart. His music bled truth. Nothing is more country than that.

Gram’s undying love for country music existed in both an emotional and a spiritual capacity. He gravitated towards the champions of emotional honesty. He empathized with the most troubled of souls in their darkest moments. When it came to country, he sought to serve the music, first and foremost. And arguably no one ever did so as lovingly as he.

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