Top 20 Gram Parsons Songs

For his tragically short career, Gram Parsons churned out a bounty of memorable songs. From his early beginnings as a folk singer to his final days a polished country poet, his pen and ear for the perfect tune were constantly working in conjunction to reach for something special.

Gram’s taste in emotive songs made for genre-defying covers, unbelievably compelling co-writes, and tear-jerking solo performances that have all stood the test of time. He was unafraid to cross regional and aesthetic boundaries in order to obtain the sound he wanted. As a result, Gram’s discography is loaded with gems that exemplify each of his major influences and individual ability.

To commemorate Gram and his profound artistic output, I present a list of his Top 20 songs.

Honorable Mentions: One Hundred Years From Now, Wheels, Wild Horses, The New Soft Shoe, Brass Buttons

20. $1000 Wedding

Album: Grievous Angel

Grievous Angel is the more polished and well-produced project of Gram’s two solo records and “$1000 Wedding” is a shining example of the cosmic beauty underlying Gram’s mature singer-songwriter stylings. A narrative odyssey that depicts a rueful wedding day and the disaster that followed, “Wedding” offers a glimpse of the complex and painfully gorgeous compositions that likely would have inhabited Gram’s future records had his career not been so brief.

19. Big Mouth Blues

Album: GP

Gram was not known for his rockers, but if “Big Mouth Blues” has any say, it’s a shame we didn’t get this version of GP more often. Fat-bottomed saxophone, a racing steel guitar lead, and honky-tonk piano lead the way in this rowdy jukebox-style country-rocker.

18. Christine’s Tune (Devil In Disguise)

Album: The Gilded Palace of Sin

The intro cut to The Flying Burrito Brothers’ seminal debut album, “Christine’s Tune” is a highway country jam infused with rock ‘n’ roll sensibilities and the slick steel work of “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow. Co-written by Gram and Chris Hillman, the song pokes fun at the prudish ways of Christine Hinton, a member of The GTOs and David Crosby’s then girlfriend. Tragically she passed away in a car accident in late 1969, hence the subsequent title change.

17. Blue Eyes

Album: Safe at Home

For all its amateurish qualities, The International Submarine Band’s lone album was, in many ways, remarkable and ahead of its time. Like Gram’s subsequent band projects, his original songs shone the brightest, with “Blue Eyes” being a playful commentary on young adult romance in the style of Buck Owens. It’s melodies like the chorus on this song that make it seem reasonable Gram could have someday written a pop hit.

16. Ooh Las Vegas

Album: Grievous Angel

Gram’s most explicit and entertaining nod to living like an unabashed degenerate is littered with clever and comical punchlines: “The queen of spades is a friend of mine / The queen of hearts is a bitch / Someday when I clean out my mind, I’ll find out which is which.” One of Gram’s most classic tunes and a prime display of Al Perkins’ pedal steel wizardry.

15. She

Album: GP

Even at its most shaky, Gram’s voice always had presence. “She” takes a stab at pop balladry and melds it with a serene backdrop under the “Delta sun.” The language captures the simple pleasures of Southern life with profound beauty and exuberance. The delicacy in Gram’s delivery was perfectly exemplified in a cover of the song by The Pretenders and Emmylou Harris for 1999’s Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons.

14. Hot Burrito #2

Album: The Gilded Palace of Sin

Few songs in Gram’s catalog are as heart-wrenching as “Hot Burrito #1” but “Hot Burrito #2” is equally affecting. On this track, however, Gram’s gutting performance is backed by The Flying Burrito Brother’s raucous gospel-infused fuzz. Blaring organs and distorted pedal steel ramp up the musical engine behind GP’s disoriented love affair, a feeling which culminates in Gram’s yearning “Jesus Christ!” at the end of each instrumental build up.

13. Luxury Liner

Album: Safe at Home

“Luxury Liner” is perhaps the earliest incarnation of Gram’s take on the high and distraught emptiness that bestowed his most gripping performances. The version that appeared on The ISB’s debut is A1 hillbilly rock. It’s also proved to be among his most enduring songs; Emmylou Harris has regularly performed the song with The Hot Band and also featured the track on her fourth studio album of the same name.

12. Do You Know How It Feels

Album: The Gilded Palace of Sin

Chris Hillman is a great singer and his duets with Gram are nothing short of stellar. He also deserves major props for being willing to tolerate Gram’s ego and superior vocal chops in order for the group dynamic to flourish most easily, “Do You Know How It Feels” serving as a prime example. When it comes to singing the sad stuff, Hillman let Gram take the reigns and served the tune best by harmonizing it to perfection. Here, Gram ponders on the weight of crushing sadness and indefinite solitude, posing the simple question, “Do you know how it feels to be lonesome?” with Hank Williams-esque poignancy.

11. Hot Burrito #1

Album: The Gilded Palace of Sin

Revered by many of Gram’s collaborators and fans as one of his best vocals and writing credits, “Hot Burrito #1” became the heart-tugger that made GP die-hards out of Elvis Costello and many other aspiring songwriters, not to mention countless bar-scene groupies hanging around L.A.’s country clubs. As Keith Richards once said about Gram, “That motherfucker could make chicks cry.” Example A: “Hot Burrito #1.”

10. Streets of Baltimore

Album: GP

As great of a writer as Gram was, he had an excellent ear for picking traditional songs to reinvent with the help of his supremely talented studio band. On this Tompall Glaser cover, Glen D. Hardin and Al Perkins shine, painting a shimmery and lively atmosphere for Gram to slide in with his conversational sing-talking. The jokey blue collar sentiments illuminate Gram’s ability to deliver simple country songs with great sincerity.

9. Sin City

Album: The Gilded Palace of Sin

The lyrics on “Sin City,” which trod along to a morbidly-paced shuffle, achieve both a vague yet crushing poetic dissonance and a spot on capture of the sin-ridden dreamland that was 1960s Los Angeles. Of all the tunes Gram and Chris Hillman penned for The Gilded Palace of Sin, this song is the dagger that won over Dylan, The Stones, and countless others. As writers and singers, Gram and Hillman had their own niches where they each thrived. Together on Palace, they were a force.

8. Kiss the Children

Album: GP

An essential deep cut off GP written by Gram’s dear friend and collaborator Ric Grech, “Kiss the Children” is paced by James Burton’s warbly guitar licks and a soft shuffle beat. Its true brilliance lies in its harrowing lyrics, amplified by Gram’s near-hopeless vocals. Sang with utter emotional despair, the sentiment is sealed by an all male backing chorus on key lines in each verse, turning the song from a remorseful country lullaby to a spiritual crescendo of God-fearing agony.

7. Love Hurts

Album: Grievous Angel

“Love Hurts” is arguably the most touching song on Grievous Angel, which is no small feat. It is inarguably the most iconic and celebrated duet between Gram and Emmylou Harris. It’s also the lone song of his that you are likely to find on more than one Spotify playlist, for the simple reason that the performance is nothing short of perfection. They took a classic duet and made it their own, a love song for all time.

6. How Much I’ve Lied

Album: GP

“How Much I’ve Lied” is, as Gram’s biographer David N. Meyer put it, “Gram’s most revealing self-portrait.” Line by line, Gram undresses his soul en route to a state of complete misery, pouring out one bleak confession after another. “Blue, so blue / My love still burns for you / But I know that I’ll only make you cry.” The song’s underlying theme of despising one’s own demons but not being able to change epitomizes the sad truth of Gram’s ill-fated demise.

5. In My Hour of Darkness

Album: Grievous Angel

A simple yet powerful tune Gram penned for a trio of his fallen comrades. As the closer on Grievous Angel, “In My Hour of Darkness” fully embodies the spiritual nature of Gram’s lore. Dedicated to his friends Brandon deWilde, Clarence White, and Sid Kaiser, the song turns into gospel-esque singalong, featuring gorgeous pianos that counterpoint the pastoral fiddle arrangements. Eerily, Gram passed before Grievous Angel saw release, and as the final track on his last album, “Darkness” became a haunting and moving eulogy to himself.

4. A Song For You

Album: GP

Out of Gram’s many great love songs, this takes the cake as his most tender and beautiful creation. The gentle organ backdrop, tear-inducing strokes of Byron Berline’s fiddle paired with a faint waning steel guitar and minimal yet subtly psychedelic percussion makes for one of the most harmonious full band compositions in his catalog. Emmylou’s background vocals sound especially angelic behind Gram’s amorous disposition.

3. Hickory Wind

Album: Sweetheart of the Rodeo

It’s a bit ironic to consider Gram has a signature song, given his minimal output and lack of success while he was alive, but there is little debate among Gram supporters that “Hickory Wind” is that tune. A scenic Southern ballad infused with Lloyd Green’s wry pedal steel, Gram’s nostalgic glance at his youth evokes the high and lonesome melancholy perfected by so many classic country crooners. It’s a masterpiece through and through. It’s all the more fitting Gram went off script to play it when The Byrds appeared on The Grand Ole Opry in 1968.

2. Dark End of the Street

Album: The Gilded Palace of Sin

The Gilded Palace of Sin remains Gram’s truest realization of his Cosmic American dream and “Dark End of the Street” personifies Gram’s vision of seamlessly blending genres through a country lens. From Sneaky Pete’s anthemic and alien steel work to the stoned piano accents and Chris Ethridge’s chugging bassline, the track is an aching masterpiece of cosmic desert soul music, meanwhile easily ranking among Gram’s most captivating vocal performances.

1. Return of the Grievous Angel

Album: Grievous Angel

The title-referencing track from Gram’s final studio album stamps an exclamation point on all the qualities that made his brand of country music so vibrant. The exquisite instrumentation backing Gram and Emmylou’s stoic harmonies, seemingly coming from all directions, the unshakable vocal melodies and refrains that yielded many of Gram’s most memorable phrases, it’s all there. The definitive Gram Parsons anthem and a timeless song for cosmic cowboys far and wide.

Featured image by Robert Altman (Getty)

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