A.V. Club head writer and hip-hop specialist Nathan Rabin recently decided to spend a year immersing himself in the canon of country music, a genre he knew little about but was keen to explore. The result: “Nashville Or Bust,” a series of essays about seminal country artists. After one year of country (dated from the column’s introduction on March 3, 2009), Rabin plans to travel south and explore some of country music’s most hallowed landmarks and institutions.
At the risk of outing myself as an adolescent fiend for wussy music made by dopey alt-rock dreamboats, my first real exposure to Gram Parsons came through Evan Dando and The Lemonheads. During my teen years, I’d ride my bike from Rogers Park to Evanston, where I’d spend hours scouring used CD stores for CD singles from The Lemonheads, Morrissey, Blur, Oasis, and The Smiths. With the Lemonheads and as a solo artist, Dando covered Parsons’ “How Much I’ve Lied,” “Brass Buttons,” “$1000 Wedding,” “Sin City,” and “Hot Burrito #1,” and followed in Parsons’ footsteps by covering “Streets Of Baltimore.” It certainly didn’t escape my notice that some of Dando’s best songs had “G. Parsons” credited as songwriter or co-songwriter.
Dando’s Parsons covers should have served as a road map leading my impressionable younger self to The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Parsons’ masterful solo albums, but I ignored the signs. I don’t think the world would have been an iota different had Dando led me to Parsons; I’d just have been a 17-year-old fuckup with slightly better, slightly broader tastes in music. My high-school obsession with Blur similarly should have led me to The Kinks, but it took my college newspaper advisor making me a tape of The Kink Kronikles to open me up to the majesty of Ray Davies.
My musical education is full of those kinds of dead ends, what-ifs, epiphanies missed, and roads not taken. Parsons himself was a road sign leading to The Louvin Brothers, Merle Haggard, George Jones, and every other honky-tonker and shit-kicker who paved the way for a poor little rich boy to lose and find himself deep in the soil of American music.
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By the time Parsons got around to recording his first solo album, 1973’s GP, he had evolved beyond the boyish reverence of his early work. The man-child who sounded so callow singing “Folsom Prison Blues” on International Submarine Band’s Safe At Home now sang with an assurance and authority beyond his years. After leaving The Flying Burrito Brothers, Parsons lacked a band or a producer. He tried to get Merle Haggard to produce his first solo album, but after a promising initial meeting in which the two antithetical-yet-complementary iconoclasts spent hours playing with Haggard’s toy trains, the beloved ex-con opted out, reportedly too distraught over a recent divorce to throw himself into the project.
Parsons ended up co-producing the album with buddy Rick Grech. When it came time to recruit sidemen for GP, Parsons was rich enough to say, “Hey, you know who has a good band? Elvis fucking Presley. I’ll get them to back me. If the label doesn’t want to pay for it, I’ll just pay for them out of pocket.” So Parsons dipped deep into Presley’s TCB Band (short for “Takin’ Care of Business”), recruiting James Burton to play electric guitar, Ronnie Tutt to drum, and Glen D. Hardin to play piano and organ and lead the band. The rich, they are not like you and me.
But it was Parsons’ ex-bandmates in The Flying Burrito Brothers who led him to his most important collaborator. They’d seen what they deemed “a chick singer” (ah, the ’70s) who might be a good fit for Parsons. She was a breathtakingly beautiful young woman named Emmylou Harris who instantly clicked with Parsons. The angelic purity of her voice perfectly complemented Parsons’ ragged edges and squirmy vulnerability. It’s hard not to wax hyperbolic about Parsons and Harris’ chemistry, for they really did seem like a once-in-a-lifetime pairing of musical soulmates. It is a goddamned crime that Harris and Parsons aren’t still singing together, aging gracefully, gazing adoringly at each other as they harmonize in perfect sync, and touring the world making people happy with their music.
With GP, Parsons found the harmony and perfection in art that eluded him in life. He may have been falling apart outside the studio, but inside it, everything was coming together brilliantly. He finally had the right band, the right producer, the right engineer (Hugh Davies, who worked extensively with Haggard) and the right duet partner. Yes, everything was finally coming up Milhouse for Parsons, creatively speaking. Of course death had to be looming greedily on the horizon. Nothing could go right for Parsons without also going horribly wrong.
When asked by a DJ whether they felt like part of the “progressive country” movement, Harris quipped that they actually played “regressive country.” Harris was kidding on the square. She and Parsons felt more of a bond with the religious zealots in The Louvin Brothers and crew-cutted old George Jones than with people who just happened to wear their hair long, smoke pot, and play country-rock. GP fused the abstract Americana and gothic poetry of Bob Dylan with the honky-tonk heartbreak of classic country on standout tracks like “Kiss The Children,” a song with a free and easy groove that belies lyrics that grow progressively darker until Parsons is lamenting, with disconcerting tenderness, “So don’t play this crazy game with me no longer / ’cause I won’t be able to resist my rage / and the gun that’s hanging on the kitchen wall, dear / is like the road sign pointing straight to Satan’s cage.”
I’ve always found the concept of song lyrics as poetry to be pretentious horseshit, primarily on account of my well-known hatred of poetry (and puppies, and rainbows, and sunshine, and everything else good and pure in God’s own U.S.A.), but “Kiss The Children” is certainly worthy of being praised/condemned as poetry.
On GP, love is primarily a destructive force, an eviscerating flame that threatens to consume all those it touches (“We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes In The Morning”), leads good country men to lose their women to the tawdry, neon-lit Sodom and Gomorrah that is the Baltimore (a cover of Tompall & the Glaser brothers’ “Streets Of Baltimore”), and can reduce a grown man to tears with the mere mention of a name (a cover of George Jones’ “That’s All It Took.”).
No song better epitomizes GP’s crisp, homey intimacy than the soul-baring self-laceration of “How Much I’ve Lied,” an emotional reckoning where Parsons takes a long, hard look in the mirror and comes to terms with the damage he’s left in his wake. My only real problem with GP and its even more masterful follow-up, Grievous Angel, is that Parsons is borderline hopeless when he attempts boogie-woogie rave-ups like “Big Mouth Blues,” “Cry One More Time,” and Grievous Angel’s “I Can’t Dance.”
I also could have done without Grievous Angel’s fake live medley of The Louvin Brothers’ “Cash On The Barrelhead” and Parsons’ own “Hickory Wind.” It’s not bad, but on an album where almost half the nine songs are play-at-my-funeral, put-on-every-mix-tape-I-ever-make, memorize-the-lyrics-and-have-them-tattooed-on-my-forehead brilliant, it feels like a bit of a throwaway. The first of Grievous Angel’s masterpieces is “Return Of The Grievous Angel,” a sprawling, epic story-song adapted from a Thomas Brown poem that uses a huge, kaleidoscopic canvas to paint a surreal cowboy Western with a moral that cuts to the very heart of country: the lure of the open road, and the soul-nurturing sustenance of home and the love of a good woman.
“Brass Buttons” floats beatifically between memory and dream. Here and elsewhere, Parsons attains perfection; every word, every note is perfectly in place. And where “Brass Buttons” is exquisitely melancholy, a jazzy shuffle through the subterranean realm of heartache, “$1000 Wedding” is inconceivably, slit-your-wrists, sadder-even-than-George Jones tragic.
Parsons sings of a wedding where the bride never arrives. It’s unclear whether she died or simply went MIA; what Parsons leaves out is as resonant and important as what he leaves in. He creates and sustains a funereal mood of almost unbearable sadness.
In Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad Of Gram Parsons And His Cosmic American Music, David Meyer writes about how the funeral for Clarence White, a beloved contemporary of Parsons’ cut down at 29 while packing gear from a concert, illustrated Parsons’ loathsome self-destructiveness and emotional genius. Parsons had the bad form to show up inebriated and stoned at the funeral of a man killed by a drunk driver.
The funeral was a dreary Catholic affair in which the priest never bothered even mentioning White’s name. Just when it seemed like the moment was lost, Parsons led the assembled crowd of musicians in a sing-along of “Farther Along,” a traditional gospel song White had arranged for the Byrds album of the same name. Through a thick fog of alcohol and drugs, Parsons intuitively understood the mourners’ need for release and catharsis, and he plugged into his deep knowledge and reverence for our country’s musical past to pick out the perfect song.
It’s Parsons in a nutshell. He’s simultaneously the hero and the villain, the asshole who showed up at the funeral drunk and high, and the deeply sensitive soul who transformed a dreary, impersonal funeral into something passionate, personal, and transcendent. Parsons went on to pay tribute to his late friend in the last song he ever wrote, “In My Hour Of Darkness.”
“In My Hour Of Darkness” was written in honor of three of Parsons’ fallen friends: White; Brandon De Wilde, a child actor best known for his Oscar-nominated turn in Shane; and a drug buddy named Sid Kaiser. What makes “In My Hour Of Darkness” so haunting is that Parsons seems to be mourning himself as well. In the gospel uplift of the choruses, Parsons and Harris are pushing through grief and despair to the transcendence at the core of so much of Parsons’ beloved Cosmic American Music. It’s not so much the words Parsons is singing as the passion he brings to them that gives the song its devastating elegiac power. Reading about Parsons’ death while listening to “In My Hour Of Darkness” I started to tear up during my morning commute to the office. It has that kind of visceral impact, especially within the context of White’s funeral and Parsons’ own imminent demise.
Parsons’ death was a tragedy, but what happened to his body afterward devolved into morbid slapstick comedy. Parsons’ buddy Phil Kaufman (no, not that Phil Kaufman, the other one) decided to keep a promise to Parsons to scatter his ashes at his beloved Joshua Tree by stealing Parsons’ corpse, taking it into the desert while drunk and high, and setting it ablaze in the world’s most half-assed semi-cremation. Needless to say, this is not how Parsons’ stepfather, Bob Parsons, wanted his stepson’s body treated. (This incident, which quickly became a crucial component of Parsons’ legend, later became the basis for Grand Theft Parsons, a terrible lowbrow comedy with a great Michael Shannon performance.)
It was a singularly tacky, wacky footnote to a gloriously sad life, but I prefer to remember the music Parsons made while he was alive, not the zany shenanigans of his curious afterlife. So I will give Parsons the last word in the form of lyrics about Clarence White that, as others have noted, could easily be about Parsons himself:
“Another young man safely strummed his silver-stringed guitar
And he played to people everywhere
Some say he was a star
But he was just a country boy
His simple songs confessed
And the music he had in him, so very few possessed.”
Up Next on Nashville or Bust:
Merle Haggard Week 2
Tom T. Hall
The Louvin Brothers